Youth on their side
Major transfers threatened to derail their summer, but Borussia Dortmund have emerged in great shape
This summer, the Borussia Dortmund corridors of power were no place for the fainthearted, the semi-detached or the amateurish. From the moment the Schwarz
Gelben lifted the German Cup in late May until the end of the transfer window on August 31, CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and director of sport Michael Zorc never had a moment’s peace as they were forced to come up with answers to a host of thorny personnel issues. In short, they were multi-tasking firefighters.
So many big decisions for the pair to resolve in such a short space of time. Who to appoint as coach after sacking Thomas Tuchel? What tactics to employ to keep star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang out of the clutches of his many suitors? How best to clean up the mess caused by Barcelona’s bid for attacking whizz-kid Ousmane Dembele
“Others buy world stars. We make them” Hans-Joachim Watzke, Borussia Dortmund’s CEO
and the latter’s strike action to force the transfer through?
It says much for the nerve, principles and ingenuity of Watzke and Zorc that they have emerged from all the tumult with their reputations very much intact. New coach Peter Bosz, formerly at the Ajax helm, has already struck a positive chord with the players. The decision to only put Aubameyang in the shop window for a few weeks in the close season was
undoubtedly a key factor in retaining him. And top dollar was extracted from the Dembele sale, holding out until Barca met their demands of 104million plus 42m of add-ons.
Of course, the Ruhr kingpins will miss Dembele. Last season, his first at the club following a 15m move from French side Rennes, he was often their in-house game-changer, scoring 10 goals in all competitions and creating another 21. However, once he had downed tools, there was simply no way back. At just 20, he still has it all to prove, and to ease the pain Dortmund made a substantial profit – thought to be in the region of 65m after Rennes took their cut.
Watzke summed up the Dortmund approach to buying and selling in a recent interview with Sport-Bild magazine, saying: “Others buy world stars. We make them. The growth in transfer fees is insane, though not immoral. It’s the market which dictates.”
Although in rude financial health – they recently posted a record turnover of 405.7m for 2016-17, up almost eight per cent – BVB are well aware of their balance-sheet limitations. Compared to the likes of Bayern Munich, the great and the good of the Premier League, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Paris SaintGermain, they are very much a secondtier European power.
Mindful of their place in the food chain, the Dortmunder believe they have no choice but to recruit smarter, hence their obsession with fledgling talent. It’s a relatively easy sell too, with a sumptuous range of goodies on offer; from the club’s faith in youth and Champions League action, to Bundesliga prominence and the chance to play for a club whose Westfalenstadion home ranks among the most atmospheric in Europe.
“Our primary aim is not to have the rawest squad at the top end of the European game,” said Zorc earlier this year. “But we do realise that we cannot simply go out and buy ready-made stars.
“We also have to develop talent. We have shown that we are willing to give youngsters a chance to play at the highest level.”
A perfect example of that philosophy is teenage American winger Christian Pulisic. After excelling in the club’s youth ranks, he was only 17 when handed his senior debut in January 2016. Just 18 months later, he is now a player they cannot do without, a package of
outstanding skill, speed and instincts on the right flank.
Of their seven signings in the latest transfer window, five were aged 23 or younger. All were wanted elsewhere, but all were desperate to sign up for the Dortmund elite development programme.
Zorc and chief scout Sven Mislintat can only be commended for the excellent crop of new arrivals this summer.
Freiburg’s Maximilian Philipp has settled in extremely well on the wing; turbo-charged former Hoffenheim right-back Jeremy Toljan was arguably Germany’s best player as they won the European Under-21 title this summer; teen wide-man Jadon Sancho, prised away from Manchester City, is a genuine rough diamond; Mahmoud Dahoud was a box-to-box marvel at Borussia Monchengladbach; while France under-18 skipper Dan-Axel Zagadou can play anywhere in defence and joined on a free from Paris Saint-Germain.
That’s not to say that this reliance on youth is a panacea. Some would argue that Dortmund are stockpiling young guns and, inevitably, a number will fall by the wayside. Last season, for example, Turkish winger Emre Mor and Spanish defensive midfielder Mikel Merino got little game time and had to move on, recently joining Celta Vigo and Newcastle United respectively.
For all the “Boystown” quips, Dortmund also appreciate a veteran as much as anybody. Long-serving fullbacks Lukasz Piszczek and Marcel Schmelzer still have much to offer, while Turkish playmaker Nuri Sahin, on the club’s books for a decade-and-a-half over three spells, is back to his best after a couple of seasons in the shadows.
The quest for established international know-how was evident in their end-ofAugust swoop for Dynamo Kiev winger Andriy Yarmolenko. Dortmund had him in their sights for more than two years and are convinced that his 25m transfer fee represents value for money. He might not have Dembele’s mazy dribbling skills or free-spirited ways, yet he could deliver just as much with his forceful physique, educated left foot and flair on the counter. Yarmolenko has a fine all-round game and, provided he quickly finds his bearings in Germany, he could be exactly what Dortmund need: a powerful and incisive front-line complement to marksman-in chief Aubameyang.
One would-be sticking point is Yarmolenko’s preference for cutting in from the right, while the Dembeleinspired vacancy is on the other side. Someone will have to compromise.
What Dortmund desperately need at the moment is a period of stability. Last season was essentially a catalogue of one emergency segueing into another: ultras shamefully targeting RB Leipzig fans; a bomb attack on the team bus before a Champions League quarter-final against Monaco; Watzke receiving death threats from a hard-right hooligan group; the simmering, sulphurous atmosphere in the camp; the crumbling of Thomas Tuchel’s relationship with board, technical staff and squad.
Even Watzke, a fighter if ever there was one, admits he was close to reaching the end of his tether. “For the first time in my life, my batteries were completely flat,” he revealed in a interview with Bild am Sonntag. “If we’d have lost the German Cup Final, I definitely would have resigned.”
If Watzke’s enthusiasm is flowing once again, he largely attributes his upbeat mood to the relaxed personality of new coach Bosz. Whereas his predecessor Tuchel could be prickly and aloof, the Dutchman is much more of a communicator, prioritising dialogue and collaboration.
In stark contrast to the front-office theatre, Bosz radiated calm and
composure on the pre-season training ground. No wild gesticulating on the touchline. No tones of exasperation. Just thoughtful analysis and advice. The players obviously relish working with him. “He’s a laid-back guy, a real people person and very correct in his attitude to us all,” says Sahin.
Another admirer of Bosz is exDortmund skipper and coach Matthias Sammer, who was most definitely impressed with his low-key reaction to the Dembele hoopla. “As a coach you have to rise above things and in this instance he did very well indeed,” Sammer told Eurosport. “He showed charm and authority. That was tip-top on his part.”
Bosz certainly has a huge task in front of him. Not only does he have a tactical revolution to oversee – a switch to an Ajax-like 4-3-3 – he must assess the strengths, weaknesses and psychological foibles of his players and adjust to a different league. He also has a massively remodelled squad to come to terms with. This summer, Dortmund completed no fewer than 15 transfers: seven in and eight out.
Boasting 30 professionals of excellent quality, Dortmund have arguably improved their strength in depth this term and will be even more of a force when their long-term injury victims – winger Marco Reus, Portuguese utility man Raphael Guerreiro and midfield regulator Julian Weigl – become fully operational again.
The early signs are that Bosz has the
More commonly known as the Westfalenstadion, Dortmund’s home stadium is a cauldron of noise, colour and full-on passion, a place that never fails to send the senses into overdrive.
Germany’s biggest ground, it features the largest standing terrace in the European game: the 24,454-capacity Sudtribune, aka “The Yellow Wall”.
At 79,653, Dortmund had the highest average league attendance of any club in Europe last season, although the capacity is reduced when the Sudtribune is made all-seating for international games.
A long-term naming-rights deal with insurers Signal Iduna has helped to bring financial stability to the club after a brush with near bankruptcy on the eve of the 2006 World Cup, when the stadium hosted six games – including the semifinal in which Italy beat Germany 2-0.
The stadium actually dates back to the previous World Cup held in Germany, in 1974. Before then, Dortmund played at the nearby Stadion Rote Erde, an old-school municipal trackand-field ground which is now used by the club’s reserves.
When Dortmund was preferred to Cologne as a host city for the 1974 World Cup, long-term plans for a home fit for a thriving Bundesliga side could finally be drawn up. The new stadium opened in the spring of 1974 with a match against local rivals Schalke.
Taking its name from its locality – the region of North-Rhine Westphalia – the Westfalenstadion’s original capacity of 54,000 has been gradually increased, mainly thanks to the upper tiers added to the two sideline stands. The hosting of the 2006 World Cup led to further improvements, including five video screens and undersoil heating.
The geographical proximity of Schalke’s AufSchalke Arena in Gelsenkirchen ensures that the local rivalry remains the fiercest in the Bundesliga.
Dortmund is at the heart of the industrial Ruhr Valley region, which is host to one the world’s deepest concentration of club sides.
In addition to Schalke, there are local derbies with Bundesliga sides Cologne, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach, while 2.Bundesliga features Bochum, Duisburg and Fortuna Dusseldorf.
full measure of the job. Beginning the new Bundesliga campaign with two impressive wins – 3-0 at Wolfsburg and 2-0 at home to Hertha Berlin – his side looked organised and solid at the back, full of ideas going forward and generally played with remarkable collective control.
Despite time being tight, the contours of the team’s new identity are already crystallising: the compact shape, the high defensive line, the pressing of the opposition deep in their own half, the superfast transitions, the care in possession. Their pressing game still needs some fine tuning, and their buildup play can lack tempo at times, but on the whole Bosz is making a difference.
With their eyes on the prize of at least a top-two finish in the Bundesliga, Dortmund will be especially dependent on major contributions from luminaries such as ball-playing Catalan central defender Marc Bartra, Sahin or Weigl as the central midfield hub, and the creative industry of Mario Gotze, who after his wasted years at Bayern and a lengthy absence last season with a metabolic condition appears to be in renaissance mode.
And then there is Aubameyang, the top scorer in the Bundesliga last season with 31 goals. Rumoured to be on the verge of a move to China, the Premier League, PSG or Milan, the Gabonese sharpshooter was probably not expecting to still be with BVB. But one thing he does enjoy is putting the ball in the back of the net, and whether it be at Dortmund or elsewhere he will always go flat out for goals. Such is his nature, that of the smiling assassin.
“Aubameyang gives Dortmund 20 per cent extra,” says former club coach Ottmar Hitzfeld. “He is Peter Bosz’s life insurance. He’s Dortmund’s most important player. Other guys can be replaced. Not him.
“He is omnipresent. He can make chances out of impossible situations and doesn’t necessarily rely on team-mates for service. When Watzke insists that Aubameyang is going to stay until the end of this season, that’s a clear signal.
“Dortmund are sending out a challenge to Bayern Munich. They are saying: ‘We are holding onto Aubameyang and will be German champions.’”
Will Hitzfeld be proved right about Dortmund’s title chances? Next spring, we’ll have the answer.
Selfie...Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrates last season’s German Cup success Principles...Hans-Joachim Watzke (left) and Michael Zorc
Passionate... Dortmund fans
New trio...(from left) Dan-Axel Zagadou, Maximilian Philipp and Mahmoud Dahoud
calm...Peter bosz value for money... andriy Yarmolenko
Derby...taking on fierce local rivals Schalke
Naming rights... Signal Iduna have a long-term deal with the club
Good start...Nuri Sahin (out of picture) scores against Hertha Berlin
Renaissance...Mario Gotze (left) takes an ice bath after training