A stunned Jadon Sancho said he had “no words” after Borussia Dortmund’s second half collapse at Wembley saw them lose 3-0 to Tottenham in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 clash. But if the 18-year-old Englishman continues his German studies, he’ll soon come across the perfect idiom to sum up what happened to the Bundesliga leaders on Wednesday night: Lehrgeld.
Lehrgeld is historical term which describes the fees which apprentices had to pay their masters in consideration for being allowed to learn their trade. There are many different reasons for Dortmund’s demolition but when it really comes down to it, they were made to pay for their inexperience at Wembley. Immaterial damage to their confidence and status aside, the cost of their (probable) failure to advance to the quarterfinals is considerable: roughly €10m in lost prize money and assorted benefits.
Five points clear at the top of the Bundesliga, they can afford it. But only if this was really “one of those things that happen in football,” as BVB manager Lucien Favre said coldly at the postmatch news conference. A professorial type, he didn’t see the point in criticising his players for their various shortcomings; the point, he said, was “to work on the mistakes and to correct them.”
The 61-year-old didn’t use the “L word” but implied that his team’s increasingly bad wobble in recent weeks — 10 goals conceded in four games without a win — should be seen as par for the course for a young and inexperienced side.
Maybe, that’s all it is. The Dortmund team of Jurgen Klopp, who won their first big trophy in 2010-11, were repeatedly embarrassed in the UEFA Cup that season; unable to make their pressing game work against technical opposition and naive at the back. The following campaign, they didn’t fare much better in the Champions League, crashing out in a similar fashion in the group stages. The blow was softened by a domestic double, however, and in 2012-13, BVB came of age in Europe at last, getting within inches of lifting the European Cup at Wembley before losing 2-1 to Bayern after Arjen Robben’s late winner.
Favre’s team have already shown how good they can be when all their main players are available. The 4-0 destruction of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid in the group stages should be seen as a more reliable indicator of their true quality than the somewhat embarrassing capitulation after half-time in London.
But a back four consisting of their fifth choice centre-back (Omer Toprak), a teenage defender who hadn’t kicked a ball in nearly two months (Dan-Axel Zagadou), a 22-year-old centre-back uncomfortable on the left (Abdou Diallo), and an attack-minded right-back (20-year-old Achraf Hakimi) whose two lapses of concentration put the visitors on course for elimination, was ultimately not good enough to keep Mauricio Pochettino’s dogged, street-smart side at bay.
If injuries and growing pains were really the main causes for the loss, Favre’s rather relaxed demeanour is understandable. Both should only be temporary concerns. “I’m not worried,” he said. However, those in charge of the club will sleep a little less soundly, by contrast. They have only just begun to start negotiations to extend the manager’s contract but must have been a little unnerved to see him fail to respond to the challenge posed by Pochettino’s small tactical tweak in the second half. The Argentinian got his side to play 30 metres higher up the pitch, putting pressure on the Dortmund’s build-up play. And it paid dividends immediately.
Favre, on the other hand, only stood and watched as his team lost their sense of rhythm on the ball and were completely unable to exploit the space behind the home side’s back three. By the time he made his substitutions to bring on fresh pace in the 88th minute, the tie was effectively over thanks to two goals in the final 10 minutes. A team badly in need of guidance didn’t get it.
It’s doubtful whether Favre will ever develop the temperament for fiery touchline antics like Klopp — his currencies are ideas, not emotions — but his passivity on an increasingly chaotic night only brought Dortmund’s confusion into sharper relief.
Neither Favre or his team are quite the finished article yet. But if everyone stays calm, draws the right conclusions and the injury crisis abates, the Lehrgeld which Dortmund were forced to spend this week might still turn out to be a good investment.