It’s been another summer of major overhaul at the Westfalenstadion. Borussia Dortmund Captain Mats Hummels made the all too familiar journey to Bavaria, İlkay Gündoğan joined Pep’s project in Manchester and player of the year, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, switched the yellow and black for the red half of Manchester. Just like that, the BVB side that had regained its swagger with scintillating football had lost three of its biggest stars.
With Jakub Błaszczykowski sealing a move to Wolfsburg – it’s going to take me some time to get over it –it has been four out, eight in this summer. Replacing three players who are among the elite in their position is no easy task, nothing is impossible but it sure comes close. Well, even putting my yellow and black bias aside, I can’t remember such impressive transfer business from a club that faced such a steep challenge.
Loss is a familiar feeling in North Rhine-Westphalia. In Michael Zorc and Hans-Joachim Watzke, Dortmund’s management team, however, BvB supporters trust, and with the duo’s track record, it’s for good reason. With many of Europe’s sides still in a state of transfer flux, Watzke shut the door on any more activity last month saying: “As things stand, there will be no more new arrivals before the end of the transfer window.”
Thomas Tuchel knows that to make the perfect dish he needs to add the right ingredients, he needs to get the blend right; he’s done just that. He’s put together a concoction of Europe’s brightest talents and top flight experience. Now Tuchel has overcome the problem that was simmering away last season of a lack of squad depth. The likes of Erik Durm, Matthias Ginter and Gonzalo Castro were regularly rotated but in many areas the squad looked light. This summer Tuchel certainly lives by the expression, ‘variety is the spice of life’.
The former Mainz boss now has a wealth of options, the problem – a luxury one at that – is narrowing it down. BVB interchanged between the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 last season with the three at the back experiment also working perfectly against Bayern Munich in the draw at home. With starlets to integrate and regular mainstays to keep content there will be much chopping and changing, so here are the line-ups we may see from Die Schwarzgelben this coming term.
The ‘Usual’ Starting Eleven
A lot can change in a season but this is the regular line-up I expect from BVB. With all the new additions, players will rightly feel disgruntled but this competition for places could hoist BVB up to the next level.
The defensive spine of Roman Bürki, Marc Bartra and Sokratis is likely set in stone but picking the starting full-backs is probably the greatest challenge for Tuchel. Raph Guerreiro made the team of the tournament at Euro 2016 and Lukasz Piszczek enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance last season so that is the probable pairing, even with Marcel Schmelzer and Matthias Ginter (all of his goals and assists came from right-back) flourishing out wide under Tuchel.
With ‘Mkhi’ gone the case can certainly be made that Julian Weigl is the most important player in this BVB side – I’ll certainly be one pushing it. His rise to stardom was unprecedented as he made the seamless transformation to Bundesliga football – no player aged 22 or under completed more passes than Weigl (2342) in Europe’s top five leagues. Replacing Gündoğan, one of the most combative and dynamic midfielders in Europe is no mean feat, but in Gonzalo Castro they have a player built in a similar mould. Even with limited minutes – the former Bayer 04 midfielder started just 16 league games – Castro accrued seven assists. While Shinji Kagawa or Sebastian Rode, who has impressed greatly in pre-season, may fill the role Castro is as close as Tuchel will come in finding a Gündoğan replacement.
Going forward is where it really gets interesting. A front four of Mario Götze, André Schürrle, Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, with Ousmane Dembele, Emre Mor and Christian Pulisic on the bench: I think I need a lie down. Aubameyang was the only one to fulfil his potential last season yet the starting quartet combined for 49 Bundesliga goals in 2015/16. It has the makings of one of the most exciting, fearsome frontlines in European football; can August 27th and the visit of Mainz please just hurry up.
The ‘European’ Starting Eleven
Tuchel faces an unfamiliar task this season: Champions League football. It is a different beat entirely. Dortmund will likely return to having less of the ball in more of a Jurgen Klopp-esque fashion, rather than the possession based game developed under Tuchel.
It is in this situation – and potentially in tougher league ties – where the former Mainz boss may revert to a double pivot in midfield; the likely beneficiary will be new kid on the block, Sebastian Rode. The €12m arrival from Bayern enjoyed a torpid time in Bavaria – just 1268 Bundesliga minutes in two seasons epitomizes this – but his tenacity and energy in midfield could be invaluable to BVB. In his finest season for Eintracht Frankfurt, 2012/13, Rode ranked 9th in tackles (108) and 17th in interceptions (82) in the Bundesliga and his all-action midfield displays were topped off by strong passing numbers – only seven players completed more passes than Rode (1734) in that season.
A Rode-Weigl partnership would give Tuchel and Dortmund steel in front of the defence and give greater freedom to the attacking quartet. If they are receiving less of the ball a counter-attacking system will work perfectly with fast transitions on the break using the pace of the full-backs and Aubameyang in the channels.
The ‘Pokal’ Starting Eleven
BvB have reached the finals of the DFB Pokal tournament in four of the last five seasons, and with the luxury of greater squad depth and the return of the Champions League football, rotation will be more important this season. While this is an extreme look at things, this is a ‘second’ side that BVB could field this season.
Roman Weidenfeller may be at the ripe old age of 36 but he is still a more than adequate backup to Roman Bürki. One of the club’s cult heroes after 14 years in Dortmund, Weidenfeller’s experience will be invaluable to a squad that now has a youthful feel.
The centre-back one that on the surface looks unconventional to say the least. However, 19 of Sven Bender’s league appearances last season came from the heart of defence and while he may not have made the Javier Mascherano transformation just yet, he did look impressive. Ginter’s time at Dortmund can be summed up by the expression, jack of all trades, master of none. He has played all over under both Tuchel and Klopp but he made his name at Freiburg at centre-back and some continuity in his position may finally allow Ginter to thrive. Felix Passlack is still yet to find his position under Tuchel but his start last season came from left-back and on the opposite flank Durm is, in my humble opinion, one of Dortmund’s more underrated players. He rarely has a consistent run in the side but his versatility is invaluable to BVB, especially in changing systems.
Nuri Sahin will be an important player this season but it is hard to see him being a regular starting XI player. Beside him, Mikel Merino, is an interesting prospect. He has been used at centre-back in pre-season but made his name at Osasuna in an advanced role. How Tuchel will choose to use him is currently anyone’s guess but it will, in his first season, likely be sparingly.
Excuse me for repetition, but it is the attackers in this Dortmund side that have me purring. Christian Pulisic, Emre Mor and Ousmane Dembele are three of Europe’s brightest prospects and they’re all in black and yellow. It will likely be rare when we see the three together but when we do, boy it’ll be exciting. And let’s not forget Adrian Ramos. A move to China looked on the cards but the Colombian seems to be sticking around and is more than capable to fill in when necessary.
Things will change. Injury, form, the promotion of youth — there will be a lot of variables for Tuchel and Dortmund. However, with the added depth from the summer spending the BVB boss has a wealth of talent at his hand and what he makes of it this season will take BvB and its supporters on a fascinating journey.
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