Ever since the summer of 2016, when Ilkay Gündogan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Mats Hummels each left within weeks of each other, there was a feeling that expectations had been lowered. Instead of replacing these three key players with cemented first-squad players, Watzke and Zorc opted to take a different route: they would buy young stars with the hope that they would turn into world class players, and compliment them with competent but struggling veterans like André Schürrle and Mario Götze.
Slowly but surely, BVB management let this become the status quo. Each time a star left, he would be replaced by someone cheaper and less skilled. Gündogan became Sebastian Rode and Mario Götze. Mkhitaryan became Dembélé. Hummels became Bartra. Fortunately, Borussia Dortmund were good enough that these downgrades went (somewhat) under the radar. Then the summer of 2017 rolled around, and BVB were hit again. The club, in an increasingly questionable decision, fired Thomas Tuchel. Ousmane Dembélé, seeing the departure of the manager he saw integral to his development, decided his time was up too.
For a while, things looked like they’d get better. The signings of Philipp, Dahoud, and Toprak seemed like nice additions, and the club got off to a great start under Peter Bosz, pummeling the Bundesliga’s basement. Then, the wheels came off. Tottenham Hotpsur, a club that Dortmund had swept aside in the Europa League two years ago, demolished BVB at Wembley. Then Real Madrid came along, and smashed BVB just the same. The Bundesliga campaign began to tailspin as well. As Jupp Heynckes replaced Ancelotti and righted the ship in Munich, Peter Bosz lost control of the locker room. After months of struggling, he was sacked, and Stöger arrived. And then, Saturday.
BVB have lost to Bayern Munich in humiliating fashion before. The 2015 5-1 loss at the Allianz was a shock, to be sure. But each time BVB were thrashed by Bayern, I still had the belief that things could have gone better. If Tuchel had gotten the tactics right, if Bürki had played better, then the squad we had might have won it, or at least made it closer.
In Der Massiker, that was not the case. Bayern were so unequivocally better than Dortmund in every fashion. Their midfield cut through Castro, Weigl, and Dahoud like a hot knife through butter. Their defense was a wall that BVB had no answer for, and their attack carved Stöger’s back line apart. From beginning to end, it was clear that BVB had no business challenging Bayern in a single match, let alone in the Bundesliga.
In a way, I think it’s important that Watzke was there to see the results for himself: to hear the Allianz Arena erupt, the stadium announcer doing six separate call-and-responses, to see the product of his club’s lack of ambition with his own eyes. He should have been as embarrassed as the players. I would have been if I were in his shoes.
This is not a hit piece on Watzke. It’s more an argument that the mindset that he has presided over has failed. For the past three years, the club has operated under the assumption that as long as they regularly make the Champions League and fill their squad with average to above-average players, they could keep their heads above water, keep their bottom line in the black, and keep the shareholders happy.
As other clubs begin to pass BVB by, this no longer seems to be the case. Schalke and Leipzig are on the upswing. Dortmund are only three points ahead of Leverkusen in fifth. If BVB fail to make the Champions League, lasting damage could be done. TV revenues would fall, and it would become increasingly hard for Dortmund to attract the star players they so desperately need. In many ways, this could be a wake up call for Watzke and company. While the board has seemed fine with mediocrity as long as revenues stayed high, that could begin to change.
Something has to change, and there are several concrete steps that can be taken. It’s clear that Stöger cannot stay. Nagelsmann would be a nice addition, but it seems unlikely that he would come to Dortmund. The squad needs massive revamping, as at least half of the current first-team players do not belong in one of Europe’s best squads. Most of all, the club needs a change in mindset. When Bayern were struggling under Ancelotti, they fired him almost immediately, and were rewarded with a renaissance under Jupp Heynckes. As much as he seems to hate his rivals to the south, Watzke would do well to learn from moves like this.
There are possibilities for a turnaround. The Dembélé and Aubameyang sales have given BVB the resources to at least make some improvements over the summer. I’m not saying that Watzke needs to miraculously right the ship and turn BVB into a title contender overnight: that would be unreasonable. But take some concrete steps to stop the bleeding, because this status quo cannot continue, or there will be darker times ahead in Dortmund.