To say that Dortmund fans were distraught when Jadon Sancho left for Manchester United is an understatement. An outpouring of support for Sancho followed his departure, with the English prodigy showing the utmost respect and love for BVB during his tenure in North Rhine-Westphalia. The Dortmund boardroom knew this day would come, however, and had the checkbook ready to beat Liverpool and several other European elites to the signature of a 19-goal forward.
Sept. 6 – Donyell Malen scores on his Netherlands debut vs. Germany— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) September 14, 2019
Sept. 14 – Malen scores FIVE vs. Vitesse in the Eredivisie
A week to remember for the 20-year-old pic.twitter.com/SPEpD2o9cG
Fast-forward a year and three months, and many fans are calling for him to be moved on from the club. What happened?
Donyell Malen’s form for Borussia Dortmund has been pretty tragic. He has never seemed comfortable on the pitch, no matter which position he has played. At the beginning of the Marco Rose era, Malen was first deployed as a second striker next to Erling Haaland. The two immediately showed a total lack of chemistry, and neither found the scoresheet in a 2-1 loss to Freiburg. His first appearance on the wing came in the UCL match at Besiktas. Malen was not the worst player on the pitch, completing all his dribbles, but had no shots on goal and only a 57% pass completion rate. He also lost possession a whopping 15 times. He was hooked at the 70th. During his early days at the club, Malen looked out of his element; attempting complicated skill moves and thinking too slowly for his teammates; his Eredivisie exploits showed that they would not transfer to the Bundesliga. Later in the season when Erling Haaland was injured, Malen took center stage, with the chance to prove his goalscoring credentials as the sole center-forward.
But he did not.
In eight Haaland-less games, Malen notched two goals, notably in the final three matches after an initial five-game dry spell. It was looking up for Malen though, with many fans hoping two goals in three games meant the new forward had finally begun to settle into the squad. In the games after Haaland returned, Malen continued to contribute, with goals against Besiktas and Greuther Furth. But that sadly is where the good part of the story ends. Dortmund bombed out of the UCL, and Malen went on to score two more goals in the domestic league for the season, bringing his total to five. As for assists, only three.
This season, we saw the best Malen yet against third-league side 1860 Munich, where he torched the opposition defense so badly that their right back was withdrawn after only twenty minutes of play. Malen notched a goal and an assist that game, and his movement was better than in any game from the season prior. Surely, the Dutch international, named the “winner” of the summer training camp, had finally arrived.
But he had not.
Here at matchday thirteen, Malen has one single assist to his name for seven matches played, and another five in the UCL. That is never going to be good enough. There are arguments that Malen is played out of position, bought from a PSV side that played him as a central striker in a pairing of two. Bear in mind, however, that his scintillating performance against 1860, his best in a Dortmund shirt, came from the left wing. Malen also came through Arsenal’s academy as a left winger and started his PSV career on the wing, so the position is not foreign to him. Additionally, when Marco Rose employed a striker pairing of either Erling Haaland/Donyell Malen or Youssoufa Moukoko/Donyell Malen, the results were a disaster. Okay sure, so what about alone? Yes, Malen has notched most of his goals for BVB as a central striker, in the absence of Erling Haaland. But Edin Terzic’s team selection has made it clear that Malen is not intended as an option for lone-striker, as that role is being kept toasty warm for the return of Sebastien Haller. And it should be.
♂️ Donyell #Malen entwickelt sich immer mehr zum Sorgenkind. Auch im zweiten #BVB-Jahr offenbart der Niederländer Anpassungsprobleme. Steht das Projekt auf der Kippe? (RN+) https://t.co/WaJrtQCRCA (Foto: mago / Moritz Müller) pic.twitter.com/CO7dGRI9BL— Ruhr Nachrichten BVB (@RNBVB) October 21, 2022
A quick scroll through the BVB YouTube channel shows that Malen is almost never selected for PR like Matchday magazine, interviews, or fun games. A twenty-minute pregame build-up video from before the Copenhagen game rarely features Malen, who is training alone, away from the team. At the same time, his teammates work group drills, play with the cameraman, and generally enjoy being part of a team. With a year in the books, these tendencies are likely too engrained to overturn. Sure, when I’m playing poorly I want to keep to myself, but a year of this behavior will have alienated Malen from the team, and it’s hard to see him repairing the damage done.
So where does that leave Malen? Frankly, at the brink. If Malen starts scoring goals, the team will appreciate him, he will enjoy his role and find his way back. The current trend is dangerous, but not hopeless. Otherwise, it is likely time to consider the Dutchman’s future with the club. As a €35 million signing, Malen cannot become one of the Dortmund wingers who slowly rot away as a bench option until their €35 million value turns into 25, 20, 10, then 5. It has happened before, and if the club is not careful, it will happen again. Dortmund cannot afford to take that kind of a loss on a starting player in the middle of what is meant to be a rebuild.
Meanwhile, a struggling Jadon Sancho is toiling away on the bench at Manchester United, his circumstances eerily similar to that of Malen. After watching his countrymen from the couch in the 2022 World Cup, will Sancho pick up the phone to his old employers, hoping to escape his own bad fit? Maybe, and with the form Malen is in, they might already be waiting by the phone.
A deadline needs to be set; hopefully, Malen will be rolling in the goals when it comes, rather than seeking pastures anew. I’m not feeling super optimistic.
Will Malen turn it around at Dortmund? Is it time to consider moving him on? Let me know in the comments.