Dortmund Bounced Out of Europe… Again
For the second time this season, Borussia Dortmund have crashed out of a European competition, this time at the hands of Austrian side RB Salzburg. Die Borussen missed the opportunity to gain the upper hand in the first leg at the Westfalenstadion, losing 2-1 after Salzburg’s Valon Berisha score 2 quick goals shortly after the second half began to throw Dortmund off the pace. In the second leg, in front of approximately 50,000 less supporters at the Red Bull Arena in Salzburg, Peter Stoeger’s defence held firm but the attack once again floundered, failing to find the scoresheet and crashing out on the same 2-1 aggregate score they left Germany with.
Stoeger’s Fate Determined?
After Peter Stoeger became the second manager this season to oversee the team’s elimination from a European tournament, the questions surrounding his long term future have intensified. In a way, he has done the job he was asked to do, fixing a defence that had declined into an embarrassment under Peter Bosz, but the attack has shown a significant decline in front of goal. In retrospect, the club showed foresight in limiting their contract terms with Stoeger to just 6 months, and there is nothing preventing them from moving on to someone else following the season.
With a recent history of attack minded managers until Stoeger arrived, Dortmund will have to decide if they would like to continue that trend, or perhaps seek a manager capable of balancing the attack and defence with a complimentary set of tactics. The general feeling is that Stoeger was a reaction to the specific struggles of this season’s side, and it is likely not a sign of the direction the club intends to go in long-term. With their current player recruitment model focused heavily towards younger, more cost efficient players, a pragmatic, tactical guru known for setting up a stingy defence could put off some of those young talents. One only has to look at the way tactically astute (if somewhat inflexible) managers like Chelsea’s Antonio Conte and Manchester United’s Jose Mourinho struggle to incorporate their young players into their plans to see how that could become an issue. However, fans shouldn’t be too worried, because club executives Hans-Joachim Watzke and Michael Zorc are known for their progressive hires and ability to find solutions where they may not be immediately apparent to the outside.
Roads To Champions League Just Got Easier
One of the worst parts about dropping down into the Europa League for most teams is the increased strain that Thursday night matches can place on a squad. Being left with 2 and 3 rest days between matches is a test of the depth and durability of starters and backups alike. Due to their inconsistent form and lack of depth at key positions including striker and fullback, Dortmund were largely unable to rotate their squad effectively throughout their participation in Europe this season, and injuries and inconsistent form have hindered their ability to find consistency in both attack and defence.
With their capitulation to RB Salzburg, die Schwarzgelben are free to focus on making sure they qualify for the Champions League next season. The race for second in the Bundesliga is a tight one this season, with rivals Schalke currently in the pole position to be runners up to Bayern Munich with 46 points, followed by Dortmund just 1 off the pace and Leverkusen, Frankfurt and Leipzig all at or above 40. The Gelsenkirchen side have been excellent this year under the young Domenico Tedesco, and they look to be a factor in the race for European places at season’s end. Still, with the Bundesliga now Dortmund’s primary focus, there is time for Stoeger to find his best XI, and get this team back into top gear for the end of the season
Players Part of the “Problem”?
It would be wholly unfair to suggest that a team 1 point out of second place in a league that Bayern Munich calls home and perpetually wins is having a poor season, but it has been 2 seasons since they have played like the unquestioned auxiliary German power to the Bavarian’s dominance. Though they are clearly a talented squad endowed with an incredible stadium and fans, the uncomfortable truth is that there has been an exodus of experience and talent from the team, the touchline and even the back room staff. Players at or near world class status like Henrikh Mhkitaryan, Ousmane Dembele, Sven Bender and Mats Hummels have been replaced with players that possess enormous potential, but thus far have not reached the level of production and cohesion that the team had with those players in the side.
It is possible that the players currently in the side have the ability but just need a manager to extract the best from them, as they did with Tuchel. Having been forced to adjust their identity twice this season under two managers of diametrically opposed philosphy, it has been difficult to get an accurate assessment of some of the recent arrivals, who would have benefitted from a consistent message in their first year with the club. Young players like Mahmoud Dahoud, Dan-Axel Zagadou and Max Philipp have shown enough to warrant excitement for their future with the club, but fans will forever be left wondering how good some of these players could look if Thomas Tuchel had continued on as manager for this season.
Look Ahead at the Summer
Given the 21 point gap between Dortmund and Bayern’s league lead, most fans would prefer to see the club keep most of its young talent this summer and augment the squad with a few shrewd signings. However, two seasons of underachievement and a vision of the future that is currently unclear without a long term manager in place could see some of Europe’s biggest clubs look to poach talent from a team perceived to be vulnerable. Julian Weigl, Christian Pulisic and Raphael Guerreiro could all fetch healthy fees on the transfer market should Dortmund find the offers suitable, but that would leave even more work for the club to do in the summer. They have yet to show whether or not their transfer policy will change following the departure of Head Scout Sven Mislintat last autumn, but if Marco Reus’ new contract is anything to go by, they have no intention of receding back to the rest of the pack.