When Jurgen Klopp announced that he would be stepping down as coach of Borussia Dortmund in April 2015, both Dortmund fans and followers who watch the Bundesliga giants closely started speculating who would replace him and whether his replacement would be able to hit the heights which the hugely popular Klopp achieved during his time at the club.
Linked with some of the highest profile coaches in Europe, Dortmund decided to look within the Bundesliga and hired relative unknown German coach Thomas Tuchel, a bright, ambitious manager who steered Bundesliga minnows Mainz to a top half finish and Europa League qualification during his time as coach of the club, something they had never managed before. During the press conference in which Tuchel was unveiled, the new coach underlined his ambitions for BVB, stating “I’m really happy to be here at Borussia Dortmund as head coach,” “I wanted to train a top Bundesliga club, with big tradition, that can challenge for German honors. That’s possible here.”
From the very beginning, Tuchel was going for the League title.
One of his first signings as Dortmund coach was young German midfielder Julian Weigl, who had impressed for second division club 1860 Munich in the season before. This signing set the tone for how Tuchel wanted his Dortmund side to look like – young, immensely talented, full of energy, tactically aware and hungry for silverware.
Heading in to the season, Dortmund went into the new Bundesliga season with the same target as every other year under Klopp; catch Bayern – or at least challenge them for the title. Football fans in Germany have almost relied on Dortmund in the past decade or so to put pressure on Bayern and to turn the tables of absolute dominance which the Bavarians are now so used to in the league (Bayern have won 6 of the last 10 Bundesliga titles), and this season was no different, new coach or not.
Fast forward to the end of the season and there was a familiar look to the League table – Bayern roared home, finishing 10 points clear of Tuchel’s Dortmund, accruing a record-breaking 88 points from 34 games in the process. Guardiola’s men were just too strong, too dominant, too experienced for anyone else to put up a credible challenge.
In other competitions, Dortmund were runners up to Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the DFB Pokal (the equivalent of the FA Cup in England) and were defeated by Liverpool in the quarter-finals of the Europa League, despite leading for the majority of the second leg at Anfield.
Despite the disappointment of missing out to Bayern in both the Bundesliga and the DFB Pokal final, there was a sense of optimism moving forward under the new coach. At times, Dortmund were excellent – the quick, direct passing, mixed with the pace and quick tempo they played at was brilliant to watch and seemed to get the best out of their star men, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (who finished the season with 39 goals in all competitions) in particular attracting interest from Europe’s biggest clubs. The challenge for Tuchel now was trying to hold on to his best players, building on the squad and the positive start he had made as manager at one of the biggest clubs in the country. With Guardiola leaving Bayern and Italian legend Carlo Ancelotti replacing him, many speculated that the Bavarians would go through somewhat of a transition and this was Dortmund’s best chance of winning the league in recent history. The pressure had been cranked up on Tuchel heading in to his second season.
The summer transfer window opened and every Dortmund fan’s biggest fear was confirmed when Captain and star defender Mats Hummels confirmed he wanted to leave the club, with Bayern Munich snapping him up for an unconfirmed fee on a 5-year deal (both clubs agreed to stay “silent” regarding how much the defender cost). As if this wasn’t a big enough blow, midfield playmaker Ilkay Gundogan – who was so important in BVB’s run to the Champions League final in 2013 – left the club to join Guardiola’s revolution at Manchester City. To top off the departures – many people’s player of the year for Dortmund – the hugely talented Armenian winger Henrikh Mkhitaryan – left to join Manchester United after it was clear he wasn’t going to be signing a new contract at the Signal Iduna Park. However, the summer wasn’t all bad – with Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang choosing to stay with the club despite talk of big-money moves. Replacing Hummels, Gundogan and Mkhitaryan would be tough, but Tuchel was armed with a hefty transfer budget and sought to replace the three immediately. He bought in several players over the summer, with highly rated youngsters Ousmane Dembele and Emre Mor joining the club, beating off competition from other European giants to secure the transfers. Barcelona defender Marc Bartra joined to take Hummels spot and Sebastian Rode joined from Bayern to replace Gundogan.
With the gaps plugged in the squad, Tuchel was ready to lead Dortmund in to a second season in which they were expected to challenge for the title.
Unfortunately, whilst they have qualified for the Semi-Finals of the DFB Pokal (where they’ll play Bayern at the Allianz Arena) and the quarter-finals of the Champions League (where they’ll play Monaco over two legs) this season, the league campaign has not gone to plan so far. At the time of writing, Dortmund sit third, three points behind second placed RB Leipzig and a whopping 16 points behind Bayern, who look set to win their fifth consecutive Bundesliga title with ease. When analysing the season up to now, it is clear to see where Dortmund’s troubles have come this season – their away form. Whilst they have yet to be beaten this season at the Signal Iduna Park, all five of their defeats in the league have come away from home – including losses against the leagues weaker sides such as bottom placed Darmstadt.
The club’s form in the league up to now has seen boss Tuchel come under fire by some segments of the fanbase and media this season. Whilst some say he has been unlucky with injuries – Reus, Gotze and others have been out for lengthy spells – others say his tactical naivety and squad selections (his over reliance on the younger players in the squad) have punished him this season. The reliance on youth is certainly something which has been spoken about at length – regardless of the talent and potential they posess, Pulisic, Mor, Weigl, Dembele, Merino and Passlack are all players who have played a considerable amount of matches for the first team this season, yet are all aged 23 years old or under. At some points in this campaign, the youngsters have shone, but at other points in the season, the more experienced and “savvy” Bundesliga sides have found a way to combat it.
So, where do Dortmund and Tuchel go from here and how do they challenge Bayern and Europe’s big boys moving forward? With talk of Aubameyang definitely moving away from the club in the summer for a fee expected to be worth way more than £70m, the club will have considerable resources to rebuild again. But how many times can the club afford to lose their star players and rebuild? Over the past few years, we have seen Hummels, Gotze, Lewandowski, Mkhitaryan and others leave the club in the summer transfer window, leaving a huge gap in the squad which needs to be filled. If the club are to really challenge Bayern in the next few years, they must try to stem the flow of their key players leaving the club. Losing Hummels, Mkhitaryan and Gundogan all in the same summer last year was a huge blow for the ambitions of the club and Tuchel himself moving forward – when you look at some of the below-par performances which Bayern were putting in at the beginning of the season under their new boss Ancelotti, you can’t help but feel that a settled, experienced Dortmund squad could’ve pushed them very close this year. Tuchel will be aware of this and will be hoping that Watzke (Dortmund CEO) and Zorc (Director of Football) will also understand the importance of this and remedy the issues which may occur in the summer as soon as they arise.
A lot also depends on Tuchel. With talk of him being on Arsenal’s managerial shortlist, should Wenger go, there are doubts as to whether he will be at club next season to continue with the “project” he started. Whilst there is no doubt that he is a fantastic coach, with a preference to promote youth and play attacking, quick paced football, he is entering a period in his Borussia Dortmund managerial career where he needs to start winning trophies sooner rather than later if he is to be seen as a capable successor to the great Jurgen Klopp.