Is Borussia Dortmund a Title Contender or Just a Shop Window?

They are the last team to win the Bundesliga not named Bayern Munich. They have been the runner up in the league to Bayern three of the last four seasons. They are Bayern’s opponents in the game known as ‘Der Klassiker.’ They are also not the Bavarian giants biggest threat to unseat them as they chase an unprecedented 5th straight league title this season. They are Borussia Dortmund.

Through ten games this season, the unbiased observer would have to come to this conclusion. With a little bit more of a discerning eye it is also evident that at the very least Dortmund are in a transitional period and at most may have shifted their priorities from chasing titles to chasing transfer fees since the departure of manager Jürgen Klopp.

After a great 2nd half of the season in 2015/16, Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel spent a club record amount on transfers in the summer. The additions of Mario Götze, Andre Schürrle, Marc Bartra, and several others seemed to indicate that BVB were preparing for another run at the top spot in the Bundesliga.

That is not how it has played out for the black and yellow thus far. Through ten games they are already six points adrift of Bayern at the top of the table and nothing consistent in their play so far indicates they will be able to stick with their Bavarian rivals this season.

Schürrle and Bartra have not been able to stay on the field and Götze has failed to influence games in the way he had in his first stint with BVB. More harmful to BVB’s hopes of contending is that star Marco Reus has also not seen the field in this campaign due to injury.

With Tuchel unable to rely on his additions and the exodus from Dortmund that accompanied the spending spree in the summer of 2016, the Dortmund manager has had to reach onto his bench and into the considerable youth talent that he has at his disposal.

Dortmund has at times resembled a U-23 side this season, culminating in a matchup against Hertha Berlin where the average age of Tuchel’s starting XI was just over 22-years-old.

Playing a more youthful lineup has many advantages, but youngsters like the ones that have graced the field for BVB this season often lack one quality necessary for a serious title challenge. That quality is, in a word, consistency.

That lack of consistency is best displayed in the fact that even though Dortmund are the leading scorers in the Bundesliga, they also have been shutout three times in 10 league matches.

This has nearly  moved BVB out of the title race at an early juncture in the season and forced them into a role that really is not altogether foreign to them. Instead of contenders,  they instead are serving as a shop window for their young talent.

Recent history has shown that Dortmund have played the role of a selling club, but usually not at the cost of competitiveness. This past summer, Dortmund gave away arguably their most influential players from the past handful of seasons. They were able to keep talismanic striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang but Henrik Mkhitaryan, Ilkay Gündogan and captain Mats Hummels all left at hefty premiums. Additionally, long-time goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller, who defended BvB’s goal during their recent title seasons,  was relegated to a backup role in favor of the much younger Roman Burki.

In all, Dortmund sold over €110 million worth of players while bringing in nearly the same amount in incoming transfers in this past transfer window. More telling is the average age of their departures of over 25-years-of-age compared to their signings who were, like Tuchel’s lineup against Hertha, at an average age of just over 22.

This comes after his first summer in which he sold €42 million worth of players and only brought in €20 million in new signings.

The practice of unloading known quantities in favor of young prospects is, again, not entirely foreign to Dortmund. Klopp’s BVB sold Robert Lewandowski and Mario Götze after the two were instrumental in the 10/11 and 11/12 Bundesliga winning sides and the team that met Bayern in the 12/13 Champion’s League final. They were replaced by younger talent, but the core of Dortmund stood firm. That core has evaporated under Tuchel.

This season’s Dortmund has seen turnover that exceeds all in recent memory and has them looking up the table at clubs they are not used to seeing ahead of them. Hertha Berlin, RB Leipzig, FC Köln, and Hoffenheim have all emerged thanks to strong organization and a great mix of youth and experience at influential positions.

Both of those characteristics are traits that this Dortmund team lack. The turnover has led to a lack of cohesion, especially in the back and although players like Götze and Aubameyang have lengthyand impressive resumes, neither have ever been called  upon to be leaders.

BVB are still able to generate great performances and are perhaps more capable than any of the aforementioned clubs of beating Bayern in a single game, but a title challenge over the length of a Bundesliga season appears at this point to be beyond them due to these factors.

Although the youth is what has propelled them, it is the talent of young prospects like American Christian Pulisic that will likely continue the trend at BVB. Pulisic, for example, is already linked with several other clubs who have deeper pockets than the Borusians and will likely not see his prime in yellow and black. Likewise, Aubameyang has already openly talked about joining Real Madrid and returning to France with PSG in the future.

This interest from giants around Europe will only continue if Tuchel is required to continue showcasing his young phenoms every matchday and given their production it will be hard to drop them from his lineup even if Götze, Schürrle and other veterans begin to fire.

It will be increasingly difficult for Tuchel to keep BVB in title contention this season –and win titles in years to come–  if turnover continues to become the norm at the Westfalen.  

After all, though they have been able to go stride for stride with Bayern in recent history on the pitch, BVB does not have the financial might to compete with Bayern’s seemingly endless wealth. Dortmund need the transfer fees earned by selling a Mkhitaryan, or before that a Lewandowski, to continue to compete. This leads to the Catch-22 of relying on youngsters who will in the current football market leave for greener pastures sooner rather than later.

As for ‘Der Klassiker’, there is no doubt it will be a great game, but it will not be the influential title deciding game that it will be billed as. Dortmund just don’t have the horses to stick with the mighty Bayern Munich in the long run and it is possible that it may be some time before they do again.

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A tight knit family from the small Bavarian village of Kirchzell sparked an interest in the Bundesliga and German culture, even though Chris was born half a world away in New Jersey. A video producer and editor by profession, I talk soccer all day and decided to write it down. @ChrisBrase22

1 Comment

  1. Some good points in this article, however Dortmund never sold Lewandowski; he played out his contact and went for free to Bayern München.

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