Disclaimer: The following opinion piece was written prior to the news of Niklas Süle’s move to Borussia Dortmund breaking on Monday. Keep that in mind as you read.
Fourteen months ago, a 5-1 home thrashing by an inferior Stuttgart side was the death knell for Lucien Favre as Dortmund manager. That BVB side managed to pull itself together and lift the DfB-Pokal for the fifth time in its history. But roughly nine months after captain Marco Reus lifted the cup in Berlin, Dortmund find themselves back in the doldrums after a 5-2 home shellacking by a thoroughly deserving Leverkusen side.
Yes, Erling Haaland, Emre Can, and Mats Hummels were all missing due to injury, but a defeat of this magnitude cannot be blamed on injuries, no matter how major. Leverkusen, who are probably the only other Bundesliga side except for Bayern that could match Dortmund in terms of personnel, simply pushed Dortmund around and pressed them into oblivion. Silly mistakes and sloppy play doomed BVB once again, as it has on multiple occasions this season.
While all is not lost for Dortmund (even with the drubbing, they sit second in the table, 5 points ahead of Leverkusen, with a double digit gap down to 5th so they’ll likely still finish top 4 and qualify for next season’s Champions League), this author feels that once the summer hits it is time to blow this side up and start over.
A Familiar Problem
It has become painfully obvious that this side are not going to compete for the Bundesliga title. On paper, one could argue that this side has the talent to keep pace with Bayern, but given the injury history and increasing age of key players, added to the questionable personnel choices and lack of depth at key positions in the squad, the reality is this side doesn’t have a shot.
The players seem to realize this, and coupled with the fact that they’ve already lost the chance to repeat as Pokal winners, thanks to a dreadful performance against 2. Bundesliga side St Pauli, there’s not really a lot for them to play for at the moment, in terms of silverware. While the Europa League will be interesting, it comes at the expense of a UCL group stage exit, from a group that in theory they should’ve had little trouble advancing from.
It’s arguably Dortmund’s lowest point since 2017-18. And there are some interesting parallels between this season and that one.
That season, of course, was the infamous Peter-led campaign that featured a group stage exit from the Champions League (admittedly, Spurs were a great side then and Real Madrid ended up winning the whole thing), a Round of 16 exit from the cup, and a top 4 finish that only happened because Leverkusen Leverkusen’d on Matchday 34 and let BVB back into fourth place.
Dortmund were a mess defensively. Formidable center-half Sokratis Papastathopoulos was disinterested, summer arrivals Ömer Toprak and Jeremy Toljan battled injuries and subpar play respectively, and long-time starters Łukasz Piszczek and Marcel Schmelzer looked like shells of their former selves.
Central midfield wasn’t much better.
After Thomas Tuchel enraged the supporters by not featuring long-time favorite Nuri Şahin in the squad for the cup final the previous May (what is it with Dortmund and seasons after winning the cup?), Şahin began the next campaign as a starter. However, it took perhaps 3 matches for everyone to realize that Tuchel might’ve been right to leave the Turkish midfielder out, because Şahin was awful. All the minutes and injuries he’d accumulated over the years had caught up to him and he just couldn’t do the job anymore. It was ultimately his last season in Dortmund.
An aging Gonzalo Castro didn’t help matters and summer signing Mahmoud Dahoud was so inconsistent he only made 11 league starts the whole season. The central midfield overall was mediocre at best and exacerbated Dortmund’s defensive issues.
It was clearly time for a reset and that’s what Sporting Director Michael Zorc and new manager Favre did in the summer of 2018.
With the help of new arrivals like Axel Witsel, Abdou Diallo, Achraf Hakimi, and Paco Alcácer, a younger, if inexperienced 2018-19 Dortmund squad surprised everyone by taking the title fight all the way to the final matchday. That season’s success spurred BVB to further upgrade the squad in the hopes of ultimately catching Bayern. Hence, the subsequent arrivals of the likes of Thorgan Hazard, Julian Brandt, and the aforementioned Haaland, Can, and Hummels over the course of the next two seasons.
But Dortmund never could quite catch Bayern and a Bundesliga table remained out of reach. Favre lost the players and was duly cached after the Stuttgart debacle, but the squad has not changed all that much since January 2020.
Part of that is due to COVID-19. The pandemic has hurt Dortmund’s pocketbook and while the club is still stable financially, their ability to upgrade the squad has been hurt by the pandemic’s financial impact.
More importantly however, is Dortmund’s lack of success in the transfer market since 2019 which has seen a predominantly young side filled with up-and-comers transition into an aging side with limited depth that seems to lose interest from match to match.
Sure, guys like Haaland and Jude Bellingham have been great signings, but these are the exception; young guys looking to take the next step in their careers before ultimately moving on to bigger clubs.
Look at the center-back position, again. In 2018-19, Dortmund’s depth chart at center-half was Manuel Akanji, Abdou Diallo, Dan-Axel Zagadou, and Toprak, with an occasional Weigl appearance if necessary. The only one of those 5 over the age of 23 was Toprak and he was “just” 29.
Then in the summer of 2019, BVB effectively swapped the 23-year old Diallo for the 30-year old returning Hummels. The hope was that Hummels’ experience would help put BVB over the top, but that didn’t happen.
Around the same time, BVB effectively gave away its depth at the position for next to nothing. They let Toprak go, which in and of itself wasn’t a bad decision given his injury history, but he was still a solid rotational piece. And they all but gave away the top center-back prospect in their reserves when they let Amos Pieper go to Bielefeld so they could sign Leonardo Balerdi. Pieper is now starting regularly for Bielefeld and putting up solid numbers, while Balerdi turned out to be a near total bust in black and yellow and has already been sent on to Marseille.
These moves, coupled with Hummels’ increasing age and Zagadou’s injury issues that have dogged him for practically his entire BVB career, ultimately left Dortmund with one functioning center-back at the start of this season: Akanji. That necessitated a late, panic move for center-back depth that resulted in Marin Pongračić, who’s been so bad that he couldn’t even see the field in the Leverkusen fiasco.
Then there’s central midfield, again.
Signing the 29-year old Witsel in 2018 was a stroke of genius and he bossed the midfield for BVB for the following 2 seasons. Then he suffered a major injury last season and now, like Şahin, all the minutes and injuries have caught up and left him a shell of his former self.
Witsel’s arrival, and the simultaneous arrival of the 27-year old Thomas Delaney, effectively knocked 23-year old Weigl, who had been the side’s primary defensive midfielder since 2015, out of the starting XI. They tried to convert him to a center-back, but that didn’t work, and Dortmund eventually sold Weigl to Benfica in the winter of 2021. In his place, Dortmund signed 27-year old Emre Can, who has been inconsistent throughout his stay.
Dortmund had to off-load Delaney this past summer or risk losing him for nothing and while Dahoud still provides the occasional spurt and Bellingham has been everything the side could’ve hoped for, the rest of the central midfield depth, particularly at the 6 spot, has been eviscerated by injury, age, and inconsistency.
If you’re sensing a theme here, where Dortmund swapped youthful depth for aging veterans, you’re not alone. Yet these aren’t the only positions where Dortmund traded youth and potential for age, experience, and ultimately diminishing returns.
Achraf Hakimi played himself out of BVB’s price range and was sold to Inter Milan following his loan spell. In his place, Dortmund signed 29-year old Thomas Meunier, who very quickly made it apparent he was not Hakimi, even if he has improved in his second season.
Similarly, winger Christian Pulisic was sold for big dollars to Chelsea. He was replaced by Thorgan Hazard who, after a solid first season, has since seen his production dry up amidst recurring injuries.
Don’t even get me started on the disaster that has been Nico Schulz. Ugh.
Blow It Up and Rebuild
So it’s time for another reset. And given the financial restrictions placed on the club due to the still lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, some tough decisions will need to be made by new Sporting Director Sebastian Kehl, who will take over for Zorc after this season.
And this author says it’s time to blow it up.
First off, I don’t blame Marco Rose all that much for the squad’s issues this season. Has he done well? Eh. But he’s done the best he can with what was ultimately a flawed squad. I’d be fine with keeping him in place and letting him preside over a rebuilt squad next season.
It seems increasingly doubtful that Haaland will want to stay in Dortmund for another season. Neither he, his father, nor his agent will probably be interested being part of a reset, so it would probably be best to let him move on. He’s the side’s most valuable asset and will undoubtedly fetch a high fee for BVB that they could then reinvest in squad improvements.
The other major asset BVB have is Bellingham. While it would suck to see him leave after just two seasons, Dortmund may need the money he would generate to complete a necessary squad reset. So, he might be on the move as well.
If Jude does decide to stick around for a third season however, BVB might be wise to build around him, as he’s the best player in the squad at this point, apart from Haaland.
Witsel’s contract is up after this season and his Dortmund career will be at an end. Same with guys like Schulz and Roman Burki, if Dortmund can find someone to take their wages. Zagadou is out of contract as well and given his injury history and his seeming inability to take the next step in his development, it wouldn’t be surprising if he was allowed to leave as well.
Hummels likely isn’t going anywhere, mainly because Aki Watzke doesn’t want to see him leave again, but if that’s the case, Hummels should be in line for a wage cut. Same with Can and maybe even somebody like Reus. He’s for sure not going anywhere and if decreasing his salary by $2 million means Dortmund can add to the squad at a key position, by all means do it.
If they want to extend guys like Akanji and Dahoud, who will be out of contract after 2023, fine. Same with Raphaël Guerreiro, although he’s looked more disinterested at times this season than anybody. But if guys like this don’t want to re-sign, let ‘em go. Yes, Akanji’s departure, coupled with a potential Zagadou departure, would leave Dortmund’s center-back depth pitifully thin, but this group isn’t getting the job done as currently constructed.
There are some pieces for Dortmund to build around, namely Bellingham (if he decides to stay), Gregor Kobel, Donyell Malen, and an improved but still flawed Julian Brandt. But the rest of the squad badly needs to be overhauled. Soon.
And not with aging veterans who could theoretically put the side over the top if they would only stay healthy.
Youth has been the key to Dortmund’s biggest successes in the last decade. They’d likely be wise to return to that strategy moving forward.