I was at my local a few weeks ago when I overheard a man with an English accent right next to me. I politely waited for a break in his conversation before rudely asking “I couldn’t help but notice your accent, where are you from?”
“Wales,” he said.
“Oh, so you’re a Liverpool supporter, then?” I replied announcing clearly that I am an Anglophile.
He is a Liverpool supporter and we talked about him coming to America and what he likes about living here compared to England. “Pretty much everything” was his response; great job, beautiful wife, and he even loves my city. That last bit I can’t figure out if it’s an endorsement of Tacoma or if it’s an indictment of Wales.
Then I asked the question I was dying to ask: “any chance Liverpool will beat Borussia Dortmund?” Before he could answer, the guy next to him – who is a local football hipster and known loud mouth – answered as loud as he could, “Borussia is going to destroy Liverpool!” Typical loud American, right?
It took me a minute to tell the football hipster that I didn’t want to hear his answer, I wanted the Liverpool fan’s answer. And eventually he gave it, “It’s going to be a tough match but if there is any manager in the world who knows Borussia’s weaknesses it’s Klopp, I think they’ll edge it.”
Later that night I created a poll for my twitter followers, I asked who they thought would win the match, 90% said Borussia Dortmund.
Dortmund are the team that have what many fans of the former big clubs crave: they have a hip young manager in Thomas Tuchel, they have a star playmaker in Henrikh Mkhitaryan, they have the Rolls Royce of second strikers in Marco Reus, and they have a forward who is so hot right now he just goes by “Auba” among the interneteratti.
Just three years ago, this same Borussia Dortmund were also all the rage. The difference is that then they were managed by the rock star coach Jurgen Klopp and reached the Champions League final with defensive midfielder Ilkay Gündoğan, attacking midfielder Mario Götze, forward Marco Reus, and center forward Robert Lewandowski. They lost the final, despite playing their self described “heavy metal football”, to Bayern Munich who then in subsequent seasons poached away Götze and Lewandowski.
After losing two of their best players, Borussia struggled to regain their old form, teams started getting hip to their style, and eventually Klopp left Borussia for Liverpool: the club that was the it club 36 years ago and has been trying to put together a reunion tour ever since.
And in the first 9 minutes the hipster club showed why they are more popular than ironic trucker caps. Pressing Liverpool all over the pitch, Dortmund forced turnovers in midfield and then cut Liverpool’s defense to shreds with incisive passes. To be fair to Liverpool, most of their problems lay with their center back, Sakho, who struggled to stay in good defensive positions and looked ungainly when he had the ball.
For the first goal, Liverpool’s Coutinho turned the ball over and Borussia caught the entire Liverpool side napping. With no one defending in midfield Kagawa (himself a former hipster prodigy who left Borussia for Man U, only to return) drove forward, passed to Castro, and Castro spotted Aubameyang wide open. Castro played a little chip to Auba on the left, Sakho played both Auba and Mkhitaryan onside, and Auba fired a volley at Mignolet. The Liverpool keeper parried the shot but Mkhitaryan was first to the rebound on the right as Sakho spun in circles like that cartoon Tasmanian Devil.
The Dortmund second came just a few minutes later. Liverpool’s Firmino was dispossessed but Liverpool had better balance and Marco Reus had to dribble into three Liverpool defenders before releasing the ball. But Reus is such a rock star, the original Dortmund rock star, that he was able to spot Sakho again playing Aubameyang onside. This time with acres of space, Reus slipped an inch perfect pass on the inside of Sakho, Auba ran around him, collected the ball, and finished high into the roof of the net.
The score was 2-0 to Dortmund and since the match was being played in Liverpool, with the away goal rule in effect, Liverpool would have to score
four three if they were going to go through to the next round. It seemed an impossible task.
After Dortmund scored the second goal a friend messaged me “do you think Arsenal should just buy all of Borussia Dortmund?” to which I replied “Only if we get their fans too.”
There were signs of Dortmund weakness, however.
Time and again, the Borussia right back, Piszczek, kept drifting inside and leaving space on the far post. Meanwhile, no one on Dortmund was picking up Coutinho and whenever Piszczek did pick up a player, Coutinho seemed to have a free role slightly deeper. Liverpool noticed this problem and tried to pick out players on the left side of their attack but the crossing was poor and often too long or too far inside. With Liverpool unable to get the ball in to dangerous places in the Dortmund defense, the teams went in to half time with Dortmund comfortably in charge.
In the second half, Klopp turned Liverpool’s amps up to 11. The normally sedate Anfield crowd were politely quiet when Klopp stood on the sideline, and like Pete Townsend, did a single windmill guitar chord and electrified the crowd.
Klopp must have pointed out the problem because in the 48th minute, Emre Can found Origi between Piszczek and Sokratis and Divock Origi, who is often maligned by English fans, slotted home with a decent little finish.
Dortmund struck back. Reus was played clean through and, one-v-one with Mignolet, slotted into the far corner easily.
The score was 3-1 to Borussia and seemingly out of reach but the aggregate was 4-2 and
ever since Dortmund had gone up 2-0 in the match, Liverpool needed 3 more to advance. So, in a weird way it was a meaningless goal from Dortmund.
It should have put the match out of reach. They could have shut up shop. They should have shut up shop. But they didn’t or maybe they couldn’t.
Since Klopp arrived at Liverpool he has been working on their build-up play in midfield. Liverpool’s second goal on the night showed how his team have been working on intricate passing and movement in midfield to pull the opposition out of position. And sure enough, Milner, who was derided as too old for clubs like Arsenal and Liverpool before the season started, created a small pocket of space for Coutinho who dribbled right and fired in a long range shot that curled out of the keeper’s reach.
Borussia were tight now. This was their game to lose. But they still had to concede two goals. Which is (SPOILER ALERT) what they did.
The third Liverpool goal was from a corner. Completely shambolic defending by Borussia’s right side. Still, the corner was so poor the the ball bounced inches from Mkhitaryan, who didn’t even pretend to defend, and straight to Sakho, who bundled the ball home.
And the fourth was coming. Borussia Dortmund are a beautiful football club but they look lost on defense (the same could be said of Liverpool). All they needed to do was play the basics for the last few minutes, and they would have survived Klopp and the Kop’s aural blast.
As soon as Milner collected the ball, I looked at Borussia’s right side. The Liverpool players were queued up like planes landing at Heathrow and the Dortmund players seemed to be cowering. Milner stood the ball up and Lovren nodded home the easiest and probably most meaningful goal of his career.
I’ve called them hipsters throughout this piece but that style – which values being first to like something, surface over meaning, and the ironic over the iconic – doesn’t apply to either team. The reality is that these are two of the biggest teams in Europe who played one of the most electrifying matches in UEFA Cup history last night. And it was as much fun to watch as that one time when I saw Dave Grohl’s band Dain Bramage play at my High School.