A Like For Like Replacement? Is Dortmund’s Final Summer Signing Their New Dembele?

A Like For Like Replacement? Is Dortmund’s Final Summer Signing Their New Dembele?

This just in: Michael Zorc and Hans-Joachim Watzke are seriously good at their jobs. As the summer transfer window was winding down in the month of August, it appeared that the club were finally done with their transfer business. The last two seasons have seen an incredible amount of turnover at Dortmund, with a focus on youth bringing the club some of the most talented players available, but always at a good value. If this year’s market quickly spiralled out of control with exorbitant fees paid for average players, the trend mostly passed over die Schwarzgelben. So when news broke in the dying hours of the transfer window that Dortmund would be signing Andriy Yarmolenko from Dynamo Kyiv, the reactions were mixed.

For many, the Ukrainian League is far from must-watch football. The Eastern European country has had high-profile players in the past move to big leagues (the most famous being Andriy Shevchenko around the turn of the millennium), but for the most part, its players are largely unknown throughout the rest of Europe. To some, it seemed as though Watzke and Zorc had just gotten bored at the end of the window and decided to buy themselves yet another attacker, just for fun. However, the price (€25 million) told a much different story. Unlike many recent Dortmund targets, Yarmolenko came to the club in his prime. At 27, he had spent the better part of the last two seasons absolutely destroying the competition in Ukraine.

It was his age and prolific last few years that ironically had some concerned about his arrival in one of Europe’s major leagues. In the football world, there is a certain expectation of progression, especially for the very best players in their respective countries, in which they are encouraged to move up to a more challenging league as their skills progress. Players of all nationalities make sacrifices from young ages, often leaving their families and home countries behind to pursue their career. Yarmolenko on the other hand, despite being linked with a move abroad (the thought was that it was likely to be England before Dortmund came calling this summer) had stayed in his native Ukraine, even after arguably outgrowing its talent level a few years ago. His apparent reluctance to leave his homeland before now had given some a cause for concern that he would perhaps have trouble adjusting.

In his first appearance for Dortmund, these fears looked justified. The early returns were far from impressive, and for a 27-year-old player not blessed with years to adapt, this was concerning. He came on for 11 minutes in a 0-0 draw against Freiburg without making much of an impression. In fact, Yarmolenko didn’t flash until Dortmund’s Champions League clash with Tottenham on September 13, when he scored the type of goal that many knew he could: a blazing, curving strike from outside the box into the top corner. His performance would lead to his insertion into the lineup for back to back Bundesliga matches against Koln and Hamburg, collecting 3 assists in the process.

His performance in the last couple of weeks has led to some calling him not only the team’s replacement for the departed Ousmane Dembele, but also as a like for like switch for the young Frenchman. Despite his apparent ability to collect both goals and assists for his side, the similarities between he and Dembele end there. Perhaps the most talented player ever to don the famous yellow strip, Dembele was a whirlwind talent, sweeping into town in the summer of 2016, immediately shining in a preseason match with Barcelona, and then going on to become the club’s most important attacker outside of goal machine Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. As a 19 year old, Dembele did more to replace the contributions of Henrikh Mkhitaryian, who had himself left for Manchester United that summer, than many would have thought possible.

Yarmolenko is a different sort of player to Dembele. The young Frenchman is a sublime dribbler with incredible quickness to go along with his pace. He is very much in the mould of an effective and flashy wide player, similar to PSG’s new star man Neymar. Yarmolenko is a much more physical player. His fiery temperament has led to clashes with one of his international teammates in the past, and it shows on the pitch. For a goal-scoring winger, Yarmolenko is exceptionally strong. He combines this strength and laser-guided left foot with a loping, elegant stride that carries him effortlessly past defenders. He is as determined without the ball as he is with it, showing high work rate on defence as well as in attack. He looks to be a perfect fit for Peter Bosz, whose high-tempo Dutch system favours active forwards in a high press.

In some ways, Yarmolenko is what Andre Schurrle was supposed to be last season for Dortmund: an experienced attacker with a rocket shot and really good pace. However, Schurrle has been unable to convince since joining last summer, instead joining countryman Marco Reus on the sidelines as extremely talented but fragile absentees for large chunks of the season. Reus’ health and Schurrle’s disappointment are likely the reason why the club decided to pull the trigger on signing yet another wide attacker to close out the transfer window.

Reus, in particular, has never been able to add strength and bulk to his skinny frame, leaving him unable to deal with the physical rigours of a full season. Dortmund’s favourite son is becoming a tragic figure, shining among the world’s best when he returns to action only to be cut down again by injury just as he is returning to his best form. One has only to look at Andriy Yarmolenko to see why this is not likely to be a problem for him.

So far this season, Andriy Yarmolenko has done a great job endearing himself to the Yellow Wall. He has already shown that he has the pace, power, technique and awareness to compete on a weekly basis in the Bundesliga and in the Champions League. Initially thought by many (myself included) to be a luxury purchase without an obvious role, Yarmolenko may turn out to be Watzke and Zorc’s most important signing for the 2017/18 campaign. His presence will undoubtedly soften the blow that Dembele’s departure inflicted on Dortmund’s title hopes, but is he a like for like replacement for the Frenchman? Only if you’ve never watched either of them play.