When Borussia Dortmund took their leave of London following May's crushing Champions League final defeat to Bayern Munich at Wembley, coach Juergen Klopp promised they would return a renewed force. “We are building a new team, a pressing machine,” he warned. Last night, on their return to the English capital, Dortmund suggested they are delivering on that promise.
In what was largely an evenly contested battle between two similar teams – in terms of style and ethos if not, in recent seasons, achievement – Dortmund's relentless work without the ball proved crucial in unsettling a previously rampant Arsenal side and coming away with a 2-1 win which leaves this Champions League group on a knife-edge. Arsenal, Dortmund and Napoli all have six points with three games remaining.
Dortmund, of course, are well known for their high-energy approach under Klopp – what has become known as his 'gegenpressing' has helped the club to two Bundesliga titles, a German Cup win and a Champions League final in the five years spent under the control of their charismatic coach. At Emirates Stadium it was in evidence once more, Dortmund taking the lead after 16 minutes when pressing hard from the front.
Aaron Ramsey was the victim of Marco Reus's tigerish pursuit of the ball 20 yards from goal, the midfielder having the ball nicked off his toes before Robert Lewandowski deployed his muscles and worked the ball to Henrik Mkhitaryan, who slid the ball past Wojciech Szczesny.
Dortmund's level dipped in the second half as Arsenal took a firmer grasp of the game, the Germans happy to invite Arsenal on them and counter rather than press from the front at such a pace, yet their phenomenal work-rate was evident in the fact they collectively covered 11km more than Arsenal across the 90 minutes. It was a level of intensity that, ultimately, Arsenal could just not match. And Dortmund knew just when to apply it.
Their second goal also sprung from some determined work from the front. Lewandowski helped wrestle the ball off Per Mertesacker to start a counter-attack that initially left Arsenal horribly exposed. Though most of the home defence regrouped as Dortmund channeled their attack down the right wing, still Bacary Sagna was nowhere to be seen as Lewandowski continued his run into the box and met a cross from Kevin Grosskreutz with a first-time finish near the back post. It was a goal borne of effort and application as much as technique.
Dortmund did not practice the kind of perpetual pressing that Barcelona have at times in recent years – when the Catalans' energy levels have been barely believable over 90 minutes. Significantly, they allowed Arsenal to come on to them for much of the second half. Yet at the end of an encounter that failed to deliver the performance art many were expecting, it was Dortmund, ostensibly protecting a lead, who were relentless in their pressure, pinning Arsenal back to their own corner flags just when they needed the freedom of the pitch.
A somewhat chastened Arsene Wenger said the Germans represented the most daunting test his side have faced this season. Asked whether Dortmund were a step above, Wenger replied: “Physically yes. Technically we have met some teams... (but) physically they are stronger than any other team we have faced. It was a game of high intensity physically, but there were few chances. Dortmund were well organised to stop us from playing and we were not as good as we can be offensively. Some of our players were not as fresh physically as they have been recently.”
Despite their improved second-half showing, with Santi Cazorla threatening to add to Olivier Giroud's close-range smash with a lovely effort against the woodwork, this was an under-par Arsenal performance. Understandably so, given they were facing unarguably one of Europe's finest sides, who beat Real Madrid twice last season. Dortmund sought to deny Arsenal space and then proved clinical on the counter. It was a classic away performance in the Champions League.
In truth it was also a tiny bit disappointing as a spectacle. We had been promised a compelling competition between two sides wedded to the concept of attractive football. Two brilliant teams, both in form, borne of similar philosophies. Both run by managers who see the huge money spent by their rivals as a moral affront. Where Wenger has decried financial doping, Klopp has sought in the past year to compare Bayern Munich's aggressive transfer policy – which saw them land Mario Goetze from Dortmund last summer – to China's industrial practices or the Machiavellian machinations of a James Bond villain. Both men are possessed of a moral certitude, which is reflected in the way their teams play.
They now are locked together on points too. Group F is painfully tight, and Arsenal have already played home twice to Napoli and Dortmund's once. Wenger's record of reaching the knockout stages for 13 years in succession looks in jeopardy, and their unbeaten run has not extended to 13 games. Ascendant optimism has been punctured. As Wenger himself said: "[It is] tight and difficult for us, but possible."
This was a night to re-calibrate Arsenal's expectations, in Europe at least. On Wenger's birthday, his side were given a lesson in pressing, in discipline and in organisation from one of Europe's most accomplished and effective sides. Klopp, ready and willing as ever with a soundbite for a British audience he may come to know far more intimately in a few years, felt sheepish for ruining the party. "I'm sorry about this, really," he said through a wry grin. "It's a problem of the date. I have a birthday in June and there are no football matches."
Coming just a month after that loss to Bayern Munich, a beaten Klopp, unencumbered by the demands of week-to-week football, presumably spent his birthday this year plotting how best to deliver on his promise of an improved Dortmund. Tuesday night suggested this pressing concern might just be realised.