Chris Williams –
Only the very naïve would describe Borussia Dortmund’s season as a failure heading into the final stretch of the Bundesliga season. Currently in third place in the Bundesliga, with a Pokal semi-final appearance later tonight, and exiting the Champions League at the quarterfinal stage in the strangest of circumstances, they have had a roller coaster of a season.
Way back in the spring and summer of 2016 the 2015-16 runners up were rocked by a set of departures that would have crippled many other clubs. To lose one of these stalwarts would have been bad enough, but all three?
Matt Hummels, the World Cup winning, three times Meisterschale champion was the first to depart after, agreeing terms to join Bayern München in May of 2016. Hummels had been the centre back to end all centre-backs during his time at Dortmund, his clearances, blocks, and interceptions topped the Bundesliga’s statistics. Only a late-late show by Premier League Liverpool undoubtedly denied him of adding the Europa League to his collection. Hummels decision to return to Bayern could be understood, a product of their academy system it felt right he should return one day—for Dortmund this happened to be a massive loss.
Next to formalise a leave was Ilkay Gündogan, who opted to join Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. The 26-year-old native of Gelsenkirchen had been a rock in Die Schwarzgelben’s midfield. A key enabler of Dortmund’s quick transition, the Pokal and league winner’s absence would be a devastating loss to any side, but his departure signalled two of BVB’s spine would be missing for 2016-17. Suffering a terrible cruciate ligament rupture shortly after arriving at Manchester City was disastrous for Guardiola, Tuchel had lost two players with the same impact in as many weeks.
In late June of 2016 Manchester United confirmed via the English press that they had secured the services of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Dortmund had fought off stiff competition from Liverpool to capture the Armenian from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2013. In his final Bundesliga season with the yellow and blacks, he had 23 goals and 32 assists in 52 games, an unbelievable return from an attacking midfielder, who had adapted to life as a winger. Disappointingly for Mkhitaryan José Mourinho at Manchester United has used him sparingly. Far too attacking for the dourer style of play the Portuguese manager has adopted during his time at Old Trafford, Mkhitaryan found himself sidelined and the subject of transfer rumours.
Thomas Tuchel lost the spine of his team in just eight weeks
In under eight weeks Thomas Tuchel had lost the spine of his team, identifying Ömer Toprak and Mahmoud Dahoud as replacements the young coach was instead delivered with young talent and a smattering of experience. André Schürrle, Mario Götze, and Sebastian Rode came in as the ‘experience’ although all were in their mid-twenties, Ousmane Dembélé, Raphaël Guerreiro, Marc Bartra and Mikel Merino came in as youthful but inexperienced players.
The shift of talent and experience was off the scale. Although Dortmund had recruited well, it was evident that 2016-17 would be a year of bedding in as well as fighting on three fronts. Return to Champions League would be a welcome distraction but Dortmund had identified the Bundesliga and Pokal as the prizes of choice, competing for the top prizes with Bayern would be difficult.
So, it proved—after matchday five Borussia were in second place, but they would soon drop to seventh. As the Bundesliga broke for the winter break, Dortmund found themselves in the sixth place, replaced by RB Leipzig and TSG Hoffenheim as challengers to Bayern’s crown. An exodus of talent on the scale that Tuchel has witnessed during the summer was one that many could not recover. Recover he did though, his young side started to click and with it came a brand of football the Yellow Wall adored. Ousmane Dembélé and Christian Pulisic combined with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to deadly effect. Legia Warsaw, Benfica and Bayer Leverkusen were all to feel the front three’s desolation in quick succession.
However, for all the attacking prowess there were examples of failure, be they a lack of concentration, experience or a plan B. Crucial points were dropped at Ingolstadt, Augsburg, Mainz and Darmstadt—Dortmund could not find a way through at times. Teams had figured out a way to stop their penetration in between the lines by dropping deep, and compacting the space, as well as halt the supply to Aubameyang became the holy trinity of nullifying Tuchel’s Dortmund.
Notwithstanding the loss of talent Dortmund needed a ‘Plan B.’ Ralph Hasenhüttl had taken newly promoted RB Leipzig to the top of the Bundesliga, briefly, while Julian Nagelsmann had rocketed Hoffenheim to the last unbeaten side in Europe’s top five leagues. How had they done this? What had they done differently than this current Dortmund side?
Both Hoffenheim and Leipzig were on fighting on two fronts, Dortmund had a third granted, but crucially both RBL and TSG could go long. Mixing their intricate high pressing game with an ability to switch to a long ball, to a target man, had paid dividends. When teams had employed the holy trinity of stopping Die Schwarzgelben they didn’t have a ‘long’ outlet.
Could Bobby Wood be Dortmund’s Plan B?
Who or what could address that this summer? Should it even need to be addressed? With Dortmund’s young side always hoovering up experience will this even be a factor next season?
In mid-April rumblings in the German media suggested Hamburg’s Bobby Wood as someone who the yellow and blacks had identified as a back-up to Aubameyang. What could Wood bring?
The 24-year-old Hawaiian has been around German football for a considerable time. A graduate of the 1860 München academy he had stints at Erzgebirge Aue and Union Berlin—scoring 17 goals in 30 matches and setting a record for goals scored by an American—before moving to Hamburg in the summer of 2016. His age would mark him out as a Dortmund potential as would his nationality. Dortmund’s popularity in America—a burgeoning territory for the Bundesliga—has sky rocketed since Christian Pulisic has become a yellow and black regular. The ability to push the club forward in this market would make financial sense.
At 180cms Wood is not a traditional beanpole target man, but his ability to make the runs required for a long outlet pass make him a serious option should Dortmund indeed need a ‘Plan B.’ From his Bundesliga debut Wood has shown his ability to play the target man, it took him just under half an hour to register his first goal for Hamburg.
Wood pounced upon a 70-yard-long ball from René Adler, and he dispatched his shot into the Ingolstadt net to significant effect. Once again Wood was to show his target man capability against Schalke, this time from a long ball down the right channel by Nicolai Müller. The US Men’s National Team international running the ball into the box and finishing smartly to sink Die Königsblauen back in the final game of the Hinrunde.
With Wood reportedly having a €12 Million release clause it is not unlikely that he could be available for less than half that figure if Hamburg are relegated this season.
That could make Wood an excellent investment opportunity for Dortmund. In the games against Mainz and Hertha Berlin this Rückrunde Die Schwarzgelben had the clear majority of possession and chances but just couldn’t put the game to bed. Could the arrival of a player like Wood give Tuchel an opportunity to shake his opponents up and take this exceptionally exciting Dortmund side to the next level—the ability to hit you on the counter or with a long ball just when you thought you had nullified them?
Combining coaching with writing Chris’ time is spent covering football from all angles. Having been a regular at Liverpool FC since the late 80s he also has a passion for the Bundesliga and all things German. Contributing to a number of local, national and international publications he is focused on analysis and the stories behind the goals. He can be found somewhere between the Kop and Yellow Wall. Follow Chris Williams on Twitter: @Chris78Williams