International breaks are a war of attrition. What do you mean I have to watch an England B team struggle to a draw against North Macedonia? Please, no. The international break is the perfect time to just think about football, instead of watching it. Thinking about it has to be better than watching 90% of international teams. So here we are, I’ve been thinking about the mess Dortmund recently made of the summer transfer window.
The dust has more or less settled on a really disappointing summer transfer window, and a lackluster start to the Bundesliga season, for Borussia Dortmund. Despite the fact that BVB seem to be playing themselves into something resembling decent form, there is still a nagging feeling that the club have taken a small step back, while their competitors have all improved. Plenty of ink has been spilled on who is to blame for the failure to build on Dortmund’s success last season, to put themselves in a position to give Bayern Munich real competition in the title race, but I think there is a wider problem that hasn’t received quite as much attention. BVB’s approach to squad planning rarely seems to go beyond immediate needs, and this short-term thinking leaves them with too many holes to compete far too often.
Squad-Building as an Exercise in Plastering Over the Cracks
This summer’s transfer window is a perfect example of the issue.
- Haller —> Fullkrug
- Guerreiro —> Bensebaini
- Bellingham —> Sabitzer/Nmecha
Each of these moves is designed to resolve a problem that BVB have right now. But Dortmund have issues coming over the horizon in the very near future. Mats Hummels is a key part of the team at his ripe old age, playing a ton of minutes this season, and arguably being not just Dortmund’s best defender but possibly their best player so far this season. They are going to need to replace him very soon, and they had the opportunity to bring in the replacement this summer, with Armel Bella-Kotchap, before the problem becomes critical. Elsewhere, Dortmund have also failed to find a replacement for Marco Reus’s contributions in the final third (Brandt may be his nominal replacement, but I think the way they go about creating offense differs significantly, and BVB still lack that more direct link-up play in and around the penalty area that Reus offers), and it feels like they are missing a piece of the puzzle in midfield, and a little more quality at full back.
I think it would be entirely unreasonable to expect Dortmund to fill all these holes in just one summer. That would be a lot to ask of most superclubs, let alone a club that is just a level below that. However, most of these needs were predictable. Dortmund should have been thinking about depth across the backline for the last few transfer windows, and Bellingham’s replacement should have been lined up before he left. As to Marco Reus’s replacement, well I think they should have spent a lot more time trying to find that guy over the last five years.
I will concede that the problem looks worse right now than it has in recent seasons. The issue is compounded by what feels like a bad transfer window in isolation, let alone in the wider context. But I think the issue has been there for some time now. Look through Dortmund’s transfer business over the last five years and you can see that the club are more often shopping around for immediate needs, or replacements for players that have just left the club. I am hard-pressed to identify many moves that were designed to address problems before they arise.
The Kids are
Alright Necessary but Not Sufficient
One area where I think Borussia Dortmund have generally done a good job of building for future seasons is with their strategy of targeting young players that will be ready for significant minutes in the near future. I think this aspect of their recruitment strategy has been excellent, and it has clearly paid dividends, both on the pitch and with the fees Dortmund receive in return when they are sold. But the youth recruitment is not sufficient for building a squad that can compete for trophies in multiple competitions.
First, there is a ton of uncertainty involved in bringing in talented kids that are not quite ready yet. Some of them just won’t manage to make the step required to give them significant minutes in yellow and black. If the kids that do make the grade act as the cherry on top of an already very good cake, that’s fine. But you’ve got to raise the floor when you’re dealing with so much uncertainty, and Dortmund simply haven’t done a good job on that front.
Second, most of the youth recruitment has focused less on addressing squad needs, and more on grabbing the talent that is there. That’s the correct approach, but it comes back to the point that this aspect of Dortmund’s recruitment strategy has to serve as the sprinkle of cilantro and raw onion on top of the delicious, well-balanced, reliable squad-planning taco. No one can dictate the type of talent that will come through academies around the world, and a team like BVB don’t quite get their pick of the talent that makes the grade, so the kids that Dortmund bring in are, by necessity, the best players that are available at that time.
Finally, where Dortmund’s youth recruitment really falls down, however, is in their failure to plan for futures without their young stars when they have become permanent fixtures in the starting eleven. When any of these kids makes the grade and the superclubs start sniffing around them, it is obvious that they will move on to “bigger things” in the near future, and yet Dortmund never look like they saw it coming. It never felt like Dortmund had a plan for how they were going to live without Sancho, Haaland, or Bellingham, despite knowing it was highly likely they would move on.
Granted, BVB tend to want to spend the incoming funds from selling a young superstar on bringing in a replacement, but I think this is a costly strategy. Finding replacements for key players after they have left a) creates unnecessary risk given that these moves are often completely predictable, and b) puts Dortmund on the backfoot when negotiating, because club’s know how critical their situation is.
Having a plan for how to replace a key player is vital for keeping pace with the Bundesliga’s best, especially given the significant resource disadvantage that Dortmund face against Bayern Munich.
What Does Long-Term Planning Look Like?
In recent seasons, Brighton & Hove Albion have become the darlings of the football media, analytics nerds, and just about any fan that wants to see an underdog upset the richest clubs in the sport. Despite being a little club from a small (though culturally significant) town on the South Coast, Brighton have risen to prominence since their promotion to the Premier League in 2017, breaking their way into the top six last season, and currently sitting in third after an incredible start to the campaign that has seen them claim wins over both Newcastle and Manchester United.
A huge part of Brighton’s success has been their extremely successful recruitment strategy. Brighton have done a fantastic job of bringing players in for modest fees, selling them on for astronomical sums, and replacing them with the next in the Brighton “undiscovered gem” pipeline.
Some of this might sound familiar to you, as Borussia Dortmund fans. BVB have also made a habit of bringing in talented kids and turning them round for huge profits. But where Dortmund differ to Brighton is that this strategy hasn’t spurred them on to the kind of growth that The Seagulls have experienced. You could argue that there are inevitably ceiling effects on something like this, and I think there is some truth to that. However, I think that a big part of the differences in outcome lie in the two club’s wider approaches to squad planning.
In an interview with FourFourTwo last month, Paul Barber discussed the club’s recruitment strategy.
️ Brighton CEO Paul Barber: "We try to have players through our door before we need them."— Transfer News Live (@DeadlineDayLive) September 26, 2023
"In an ideal world, you don’t want to be targeting a player right after you’ve sold one in his position, because everybody knows you’ve got money!"
"A lot of work goes into that… pic.twitter.com/00N7ydqUL1
Brighton are not the only team that thinks this way either. I think the teams that we typically think of as “well-run” are those that plan both for the immediate needs and for the future, and all the clubs that we laugh about being messy idiots are those that take the very short-term path!
What Needs to Change?
Well, the answer to this question seems pretty obvious - the club needs to shift it’s focus beyond trying to paper over the cracks that appear each summer, to building a squad that can compete for titles. This is a delicate balance. The club needs to be able to ensure they are always in the top four, otherwise they risk losing a significant source of income in the Champions League qualification. But they need to think more long-term than they have done in recent seasons. We know that players will leave, and as fans we could easily predict which ones those will probably be in the near future, so the club should be capable of planning around who will and will not need replacing and which positions will need addressing in the next few seasons.
We know that Dortmund are going to go into every season at a significant disadvantage against Bayern Munich. Their best hope of overcoming them is to be smart. Their squad planning in recent years has not been particularly smart. That needs to change.