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How has Dortmund Progressed and Regressed Since their 2019 Title Failure? Part 1

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We look at coaching, recruitment, and team deficiencies that have kept Dortmund from repeating their legitimate title push.

FBL-EUR-C1-DORTMUND-MONACO Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images

The 2018/19 Bundesliga season was one of tremendous heartbreak for Dortmund players and fans. Riding the energy of a new coach, a new striker, and a prodigious young talent in Jadon Sancho, Borussia Dortmund charged to the top of the Bundesliga table and maintained their title tilt until a late slip in Bavaria. An injury to Marco Reus had seen the squad stumble, and sensing blood in the water, Bayern Munich rushed in for the kill. Another season went red, and fans were left only with the hope that having come this close, the team must be on the verge of something truly great.

Not so much.

In this three-part series, we will look at what has gone right and wrong since the 2018/19 season, focusing specifically on management decisions at the board and coaching level, as well as player recruitment and sales. Through this exercise, we will look for commonalities that can explain why, with potentially the strongest squad Die Schwarzgelben have fielded since 2012, they are at risk of failing to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

NOTE: “Players out” will describe players who left the summer before the season began so we can evaluate how well they were replaced. Transfer data is taken from Transfermarkt.

2018/19

Notable Players Out:

Michy Batshuayi, Andriy Yarmolenko, Mikel Merino, Gonzalo Castro, Nuri Sahin, Shinji Kagawa, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Roman Weidenfeller (retired), Felix Passlack (loan), Andre Schurrle (loan)

Notable Recruits:

Lucien Favre, Abdou Diallo, Thomas Delaney, Axel Witsel, Leonardo Balerdi (January), Marius Wolf, Marwin Hitz, Paco Alcacer (loan), Achraf Hakimi (loan)

Following the disastrous 2017/18 season, where Dortmund only squeaked out a fourth place finish, spirits were lifted by the arrival of new faces and a new coach. The BVB board made some exceptional signings in Abdou Diallo and Axel Witsel, and new coach Lucien Favre had success raising the team morale. The late addition of Paco Alcacer raised some eyebrows, but he would provide competition for Maximilian Philipp, who had been earmarked at the central striker for the season. Achraf Hakimi was seen as a raw prospect to compete at fullback, and Michael Zorc and Hans Watzke will still be kicking themselves for failing to insert a buyout clause in Hakimi’s contract three years ago.

The position of central striker was still in flux, however, as Alcacer had not seen consistent minutes for Barcelona in years, and his transfer screamed of a panic buy. Still, Axel Witsel was a massive coup as a capped Belgian international and an experienced player who had been courted by Europe’s top sides before his move to the Chinese Super League. Thomas Delaney also promised midfield grit that had been tremendously lacking since the days of Sebastian Kehl, Nuri Sahin, and Sven Bender.

When looking at like-for-like replacement, the promise of this season’s recruitment begins to fall apart. I will be using tables like the following throughout this discussion.

Replacement Comparison

Departures Suggested Replacement
Departures Suggested Replacement
Michy Batshuayi Paco Alcacer
Andriy Yarmolenko ?
Mikel Merino ?
Gonzalo Castro Axel Witsel
Nuri Sahin Thomas Delaney
Shinji Kagawa ?
Roman Weidenfeller Marwin Hitz
Felix Passlack Achraf Hakimi
Andre Schurrle Marius Wolf
Sokratis Papas... Abdou Diallo
Departures Suggested Replacement

It can be seen that despite some quality additions to the squad, three departures were left without a replacement. This is a trend that will continue to reveal itself in coming seasons. It must be considered that some of these players are replaced by players already in the squad; Jacob Bruun Larsen’s growth made him an apt replacement for the departing Andriy Yarmolenko. Not every departure needs to be replaced by a transfer, but a departing player should have an alternative of similar expected quality. I am coining the term expected quality to refer to the contribution of a player to the squad, relative to the average ability of that squad. Yarmolenko’s expected quality was that of a first team winger who could play regularly in the starting 11 at a high level (too bad we did not get that), while Mikel Merino’s expected quality was that of a prospect bench warmer who could look to break through to the first team.

Going into the 18/19 season, Larsen’s expected quality was similar to Yarmolenko’s, so the board did not sign another player to contest the position. A player like Shinji Kagawa’s expected quality had declined, so the board saw fit to unload his wages. This left Mario Gotze and Maximilian Philipp eating up whatever minutes were left after Marco Reus.

Borussia Dortmund v Bayer 04 Leverkusen - Bundesliga Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

Nonetheless, four midfielders left, and two arrived. Two wingers left, one arrived. Though the players coming in and out had varying expected qualities, the squad thinned going into the 18/19 season, and the depth of the squad quickly proved that some players did not have as high of an expected quality as the board may have thought.

As the team moved into the winterpause, Bayern were struggling and the squad had reveled in their new coach’s tactics. They charged into the second half of the season with the same fire, until Marco Reus hobbled off against Werder Bremen in the DFB Pokal... and the wheels came off. Without Reus, then Akanji, then Zagadou, Dortmund would fail to win five of their next six games. A lack of depth showed that Mario Gotze did not have the quality to fill in for Reus, and that a back line which had not inspired confidence all season looked increasingly shaky with Julian Weigl stepping into the firing line. Paco Alcacer’s joker goals as a substitute dried up, and the team was slapped aside by Tottenham in the UCL. Bayern, meanwhile, began to creep back up the table.

When boiled down, Dortmund did not have the squad depth or the defensive integrity to weather one month without Manuel Akanji and Marco Reus. While players like Omer Toprak, Mario Gotze, and Maximilian Philipp were able to step in, Dortmund’s transfers in the coming seasons will show that these players were moved on because they did not have title-winning credentials. And so, for another year, Dortmund fell to the Bavarian tidal wave which, despite some rough moments, still landed ashore for its next title.

FC Augsburg v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

It could be argued, as some of my friends have, that Dortmund were over-performing in the 18/19 season. Players like Paco Alcacer and Marco Reus blasted some of their previous season highs out of the water. It is telling that Alcacer has failed to score more than five goals in every season since his 18 goals in the 18/19 season. This is not to say that Paco Alcacer is a bad striker, but that the thrill of the title push was bringing the absolute best out of those players most invested in it. Something about the 18/19 squad felt committed to the cause. They were hungry for a title, rallying behind a captain they knew deserved it. This team, despite its deficiencies, was in line with its coach, its goal, and its unity. The mentality and the coach was all there, but the squad, in terms of both quantity and quality, was just a little too young here, a little too thin there, and ultimately, the title slipped away.

So what did the board do to ensure they did not slip up again next year? Read on in part two for a look at the 2019/20 season response.