Like every football team around the world, Borussia Dortmund used the summer of 2020 to asses the aftermath of a season marred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ghost games, long breaks, and quarantines meant that finances had been ravaged and players who may have once been financially attainable were no longer on the market for some organizations. Many BVB fans felt their hearts sink when Inter Milan signed fan favorite Achraf Hakimi from Real Madrid, only weeks after he had returned from his loan with Borussia Dortmund. In another world Dortmund would likely have stumped up the necessary cash to bring the Moroccan back to the Westfalenstadion, but the funds were not available, and the board opted to bring in long-term target Thomas Meunier instead.
Part two of this series showed that in the 2019/20 season, a lack of depth at center back, an over-reliance on individual brilliance, and a mentality problem undermined Dortmund’s attempt to finish the season at the summit. Despite the pandemic, the BVB board managed to complete some smart transfers to prepare the team for the season, opting to proceed with Lucien Favre. They also managed to fend off the relentless approach of Manchester United to prise away Jadon Sancho, and by keeping him in the team, many believed the squad was too good to fail.
But somehow, they have. Sort of.
Notable Players Out
Mario Götze, Leonardo Balerdi (loan), Achraf Hakimi (end of loan)
Thomas Meunier, Jude Bellingham, Reinier (loan)
The new season began on June 25th, 2020 with the signing of Thomas Meunier. Seen as a solid coup for Dortmund, the highly experienced Belgian international came to link up with his compatriots Axel Witsel and Thorgan Hazard, and did so on a free transfer. Instead of paying 40 million euros for an unfinished talent in Hakimi, the board had opted for an established talent with pedigree.
July 20th marked the arrival of Jude Bellingham as the most expensive 17 year-old player in history. Dortmund compounded the woes of Ed Woodward at Manchester United by not only denying them Jadon Sancho, but poaching one of their other top targets.
|Achraf Hakimi||Thomas Meunier|
From the replacement table, we can see that the only player left without a replacement, astonishingly, was Leonardo Balerdi, a depth option at center back who rarely saw the field in the previous season. It made sense to want to move him on, but Dortmund had been seriously thin at this position in the past. The expectation that Emre Can, a midfielder, and Lukasz Piszczek, an aging full back, would provide the depth at this position was optimistic and frankly, a bit naive. The team had needed a quality rotational option at center back for several seasons, now more than ever, as they headed into the fall playing three at the back. With Dan-Axel Zagadou still recovering from injury, the board gave Lucien Favre the singular option of playing a player out of position in his formation and Favre, being stubborn, kicked off the season with exactly that.
Though Dortmund had success in the first game of the season, they were immediately pegged back by Augsburg, and as the Hindrunde wore on, Dortmund crept closer to Lucien Favre’s inevitable sacking.
A combination of factors contributed to BVB dropping points, with deficiencies seen across the field. At the back, Dortmund’s defenders began to lose faith in Favre’s system of ball progression out from the back, and they became more and more vulnerable to set pieces. The lack of confidence on balls into the box led to general disarray along the back line. Speaking of the back line, a certain Belgian summer recruit failed to inspire confidence at right back, and paired with a shaky Manuel Akanji, the two combined for some serious communication mishaps. The defense was not helped by an inconsistent goalkeeper. The up-and-down Roman Burki was definitely down to begin the season, eventually losing his place to Marwin Hitz under Edin Terzic. In midfield, Jadon Sancho was called deeper to aid in ball progression. The mercurial winger prefers to dance around the box making incisive passes and silky dribbles, so when he was forced to bring the ball forward from deeper positions, his goal and assist contributions declined. Additionally, despite the closure of the transfer window, the Red Devils continued to swirl around the young winger’s head and it took time for him to get his feet back on the ground. In attack, Dortmund’s forwards had gone from creative attackers to Haaland providers, and when the towering Norwegian eventually picked up an injury, the goals stopped flowing.
As we know, Lucien Favre’s days were numbered from matchday one and a combination of bad luck and bad timing finally saw the Swiss tactician sacked. Despite his departure, Dortmund continued to tumble into fifth, where they have remained to this point. Lucien Favre lasted 18 matches in all competitions, but at the same point in Terzic’s tenure, things did not look all that much better.
Favre Vs. Terzic: 18 Games
Edin Terzic provided a formation change and an energy boost, but the damage to Dortmund’s season continued throughout the first few months of his tenure. Late in January, Dortmund fans were left to question whether the board was right to appoint the young assistant manager. In a season where Leipzig and Bayern have dropped so few points, Die Schwarzgelben were going to need to be on their game from the get-go, and they simply were not.
There is plenty more that could be discussed about the 2020/21 season, but this investigation is to determine how we got here.
Let’s begin by summing up the expected replacement tables, and look for patterns.
Replacement Comparison (2018-2020)
|Michy Batshuayi||Paco Alcacer|
|Christian Pulisic||Thorgan Hazard|
|Maxilian Philipp||Julian Brandt|
|Nuri Sahin||Thomas Delaney|
|Mikel Merino||Jude Bellingham|
|Andre Schurrle||Marius Wolf|
|Gonzalo Castro||Axel Witsel|
|Roman Weidenfeller||Marwin Hitz|
|Abdou Diallo||Mats Hummels|
|Felix Passlack||Mateu Morey|
|Sokratis Papas...||Abdou Diallo|
|Achraf Hakimi||Thomas Meunier|
|Felix Passlack||Achraf Hakimi|
From this table, we can see that seven departures over the three seasons essentially went without purchased replacement. This, however, does not tell the full story. Players promoted from the youth team have come in to fill some of these spots, to varying degrees of success. Notable promotions from 2018-2020 have included Jacob Bruun Larsen, Gio Reyna, Youssoufa Moukoko, Stefan Tigges, and Ansgar Knauff. Three of these players have only joined the first team since around Christmas, however. Jadon Sancho could also be included in this list, as he broke into the first team in the 2018/19 season.
For some of these players, they were ready to make the jump to the first team; Gio Reyna had a natural integration into the first team during winter training, but was looking to play in a central-attacking role well filled by Julian Brandt and Marco Reus, forcing him out to the wings. Though Reyna operates efficiently here, it is not his preferred area of the pitch. Moukoko was also ready to make the jump, and was the board’s long overdue answer to the departures of Alexander Isak and Paco Alcacer. But at 16, he was hardly a ready-made back up striker. Injuries forced the integration of Stefan Tigges and Ansgar Knauff, who have quickly been swept to the side now that more senior players have returned.
Dortmund have looked to plug gaps due to player sales with academy products, but the success of this tactic is questionable. Overplaying Gio Reyna on the wings wore out his good form and led to a long spell on the bench. Jacob Bruun Larsen, a few years ago, was eventually bullied out of the starting eleven by players in better form. Glaringly, none of the academy products Dortmund have promoted have been center backs. While the team cannot dictate the players who succeed in their youth academy, the lack of promising young defenders has not helped the thin back line.
How about the older guys? While Dortmund are often criticized for sanctioning the sale of younger players, thereby weakening their base, the team has also made efforts to bring veterans into the mix. The best examples of these purchases are Axel Witsel, Thomas Delaney, Emre Can, Mats Hummels, Thorgan Hazard, Nico Schulz, and Julian Brandt. Hazard and Brandt are still young, but their league experience sets them apart. Mats Hummels has stabilized a shaky defense to an extent, but was also a part of the disastrous setup in the fall that could not keep out a free kick. Emre Can’s high profile errors in the UCL cost Dortmund a chance at the semifinals. Julian Brandt has been a mess this season, and Thorgan Hazard has mostly sat on the injury table. Thomas Meunier and Nico Schulz never even got started in their Dortmund careers.
At the same time, some of these players have had standout games where they have shown poise and leadership in a youthful team. It is hard to call any of them failures, but when compared to the relatively young and inexperienced 2018/19 squad, they have not lifted the team to greater heights.
We also know that the management has failed to captivate a standout set of players to perform at their highest level. Though Lucien Favre’s first season in the Westfalenstadion was nearly a wild success, his luck ran out by the end of the second. He was criticized for his reluctance to rotate, and as a result, player form dipped, and brought the entire team down. Edin Terzic was thrown into the fire, but his settling period seems to have run after about four months. While the young coach and lifelong Borussen now seems to be getting the best from the players, his time at the helm is nearly up.
So what’s the point?
It’s a problem we as faithful fans of the Black and Yellow know all to well after these past three seasons; there are many places to point the fingers, but the case for each of them can be made. There is no single right answer.
The Dortmund squad features two distinct groups going into the 2021 summer transfer window:
- Veteran players who are committed to the sporting project, within the wage cap, and likely nearing the top of their potential
- Young players with tremendous potential who see the squad as a stepping stone to greater things
The only answer lies in what the future of the club is set to look like. Should Dortmund put their faith in players who repay that faith, but whose expected quality can only match that of the current team? Should Dortmund offer mega-money contracts to their young talent in the hopes of keeping them around, but jeopardize the financial stability of a club which has flirted with disaster in the past? Should Dortmund stay the course, knowing that only a miracle season (or the influence of a new coach) could help their squad overperform like it did in 2018/19?
The beauty and frustration of football fandom is that we cannot know what will happen in the future. It is quite possible that Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho could don new colors this summer, giving the board a massive transfer budget to improve the team. The ideal scenario is that players join the squad who have an equivalent expected quality to the average of the squad, and the potential to eventually increase that average; the goal of every football club is to improve in this way. Dortmund need to focus on bringing in the right mix of talent that will fill out a thin defense, provide consistency up front, and agree with their incoming manager. The beginning of a new era is coming with Sebastian Kehl taking over the sporting helm from Michael Zorc, who has spent more than 20 years in the position. It will be the decisions Kehl makes early in his tenure that define the Dortmund sporting direction for years to come.
I hope you enjoyed this series. Comment down below with which direction YOU think Dortmund should go this summer and beyond.