Bundesliga: Are Dortmund once again capable of challenging Bayern?


49 of 53, 78 of 102 and 82–no, those are not my tips for the Powerball jackpot; they are Borussia Dortmund’s numbers for the 2015/16 season. BVB scored a league-best 82 goals, and earned 78 points out of a possible 102, a number that would have won them the Bundesliga in 49 of the past 53 seasons, if it weren’t for Bayern Munich, a team that put up point totals of 91, 90, 79 and 88 in their last four consecutive title-winning campaigns. This might not be the last time I will mention Bayern in an article that is de facto regarding Borussia Dortmund.  The two clubs are not only forever intertwined since Bayern bailed Dortmund out in the early 2000s (despite BVB CEO Hans Joachim Watzke ridiculously claiming otherwise), but to use a hackneyed comparison, only make sense in the context of their rivalry, a la Barcelona and Real Madrid. The parallels between the two clubs are certainly not lost on the marketing teams, as their matches have rather uncreatively been dubbed “der Klassiker”. Yet, the comparison doesn’t actually work all that well, due to the differences in size and money.

The Deloitte Football Money League shows that although in the last 4-5 years, the rejuvenated BVB are closing the gap on Bayern, the Bavarians are still roughly 1.7 times bigger, which is also reflected in their current squad value in millions of Euros when compared to Dortmund’s–575 to 323. My colleague Anas Ali Molla pondered the question “Why does Bayern beat Dortmund in the transfer market?”, to which the all too simplistic answer is mathematical: 326 million spent on incoming transfers in the last 5 years for Bayern, or an average of 65 per year–compared to 5 years and 176 or 35 million per year for Dortmund.

Until this summer that is! Dortmund are flipping the script on Bayern, as the Yellow and Blacks have already spent 114 million Euros–more than any other club and 1.55 times as much as Bayern’s 73 million. In this article we’ll examine where they had the money come from. who they spent the money on, whether those signings were good value and if that 114 million brought them closer to Bayern and the Bundesliga title.

Where did all the money come from?

First and foremost, Dortmund have absolutely crushed the sales side of the ledger in this summer’s market: 107 million Euros for three world-class players in Mats Hummels (€38m to Bayern), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (€42m to Manchester United) and Ilkay Gündogan (€27m to Manchester City) is a great haul, when one considers the following factors: all three had contracts set to expire in 2017, meaning that they could have departed for free at the end of the 2016/17 season, leaving BVB in the lurch; Hummels and Miki are turning 28 in December and January respectively, which as Michael Caley noted is the last peak year for (attacking) players–yes, I know Hummels is a defender; Gündogan is only 25 years old, but has missed over 133 games in his career, including a major spinal injury that sidelined him for 400 days in 13/14  and is currently recovering from a knee injury that he suffered in May.

Essentially, BVB banked 107 million for three players that were already leaving–Hummels has been linked with rejoining Bayern for years, Mkhitaryan is on the Mino Raiola plan of switching squads every three years and Gündogan was kept out of a few matches with mysterious injuries, thanks to his father expressing his desire to leave Dortmund. For a detailed account of the player’s tumultuous history, read this piece by Dennis Liedschulte.

In addition, Dortmund have the most numerous and loyal fans, with 80,000+ regularly showing up at the Westfalenstadion (now called Signal Iduna Park) and only 84 of the 55,000 season ticket holders failed to renew for next year. Forbes ranks them as the 11th richest club in the world, with revenues up to 281 million euros in 2015/16, a big jump from the 199 million from two years ago (see the Deloitte table above). Statista.com has different numbers, but even if we take the 2009/10 numbers of 100 million and the 233 million euros in 2014/15, it’s still a quantum leap!

Summer signings – Details on each player

While it’s not always a requirement to spend the money a club makes immediately, and the downsides of spending foolishly  and on the wrong players can be enormous. Dortmund have elected to ignore the warnings and go on a summer spending spree. Let us take a closer look at just what nearly 114 million euros got them this summer. 

Young stars and future building blocks

  • Mikel Merino is a 20-year-old CM who came over from Osasuna back in February, on a five year deal, costing Dortmund 3.75 million Euros. The young Spaniard is a technically gifted player, with a penchant for playing deep balls from the center with his preferred left foot. At 1.88m he is also very strong in the air, having won 72% of his aerial duels in the Segunda Division, where he was also an integral part of Osasuna gaining promotion to the Primera Division. In the four playoff matches, Merino scored three goals and led his team to La Liga. Capable of playing as a pure CDM, Thomas Tuchel should look to pair him as a CM next to Julian Weigl, the club’s revelation from last season. These two could form a partnership in the years to come, but it might take Merino a year or two to get used to the speed of the Bundesliga. His highlights can be seen here:

  • Emre Mor is another mega talent, who just turned 19 on July 24th. The Turkish playmaker, who grew up in Denmark only exploded onto the scene with basically 13 appearances in the league, earning him cult status among soccer hipsters and a call -up to the Turkey Euro 2016 squad. Despite his 5 ft 5 inch height and slight build, he played 11 times as a center forward, but his natural position will probably be right winger, where he looked pretty lively in limited minutes for a hapless Turkish side in France. He cost €7 million, and will probably compete with American youngster Christian Pulisic for some backup wing minutes, and starting positions in the Champions League and Cup games. Here are his highlights:

  • Raphael Guerreiro is certainly no stranger to fans of soccer after his monstrous Euro performance for Portugal. The 22-year-old left back was born and raised in France, and has dual citizenship, but chose to represent Portugal at the international level. He was already having an excellent Euros, so capping off his performance with six interceptions and some tireless running in the final versus France was just a very cruel cherry on the top, when one considers the limitations of Patrice Evra for Les Bleus. Guerreiro is a left back/midfielder hybrid blessed with blistering speed and great vision, not to mention over 80% passing accuracy for his career. Unlike Merino and Mor, he is experienced at 22, having already played three full seasons in Ligue 1. In fact, Guerreiro racked up 10 goals and 5 assists in his last two seasons for Lorient, when the club finished 8th and 15th respectively. His biggest weakness might be his lack of size, at just 5 ft 6 and 155 lbs, Guerreiro might not be the most rugged of defenders. His quickness often helps him out, however, as he’s averaged around 2.5 interceptions in his career so far. He would be an ideal replacement for 29-year-old LB Marcel Schmelzer in a couple of years, but playing as the LWB/LM in a 3-5-2, 5-3-2 system is also an option that Thomas Tuchel will surely explore.
  • Ousmane Dembele is probably the biggest name on this list, as the recently turned 19-year-old has taken over Ligue 1 this season at Rennes, to the tune of 12 goals in under 2000 minutes (less than 22 games, for those who struggle with math). The French winger is seemingly on a rampage, and reminds us a little bit of the young Cristiano Ronaldo, who cared mostly about embarrassing defenders in his first couple seasons at Manchester United. The unquestionable star of the preseason so far, Dembele has been destroying teams with his pace, touch and shooting, as Marcos Rojo (RIP) and Manchester United found out in China:

Cheer up Marcos, you will not be the last victim of the Dembele broken ankles mixtape! If Dembele doesn’t start for Thomas Tuchel in place of the usually injured Marco Reus, or the usually lousy André Schürrle, I might lose it…

Cost Effective Reclamation projects

  • Sebastian Rode is turning 26 in October, but is yet to play 100 Bundesliga games. Rode waited a year to make his move from Eintracht Frankfurt to Bayern after his great 2012/13 season, when the central midfielder averaged 3.3 tackles, 2.5 interceptions, with a shot and a key pass per game and 85% passing accuracy, signing for the champs for free in July of 2014. Since then, he has hardly played, 1600 minutes across all competitions is essentially nothing, despite the fact that Rode’s attacking numbers actually improved at FCB. At his best, he is an industrious no-nonsense CM, who can actually get forward and play like a box to box midfielder, something that Dortmund are now lacking with Gündogan choosing Manchester City. At €12 million, he is certainly worth a shot for BVB, even if he can only be a squad player who can give you 20-25 games across all competitions.

  • Marc Bartra is arguably a much bigger name, due to his time at Barcelona, which much like Rode was spent on the bench. The Spanish centre-back, once thought of as the next great La Masia product to replace Carlos Puyol (who incidentally is his agent), is turning 26 in January and has played just 55 La Liga games and 3800 minutes. As far as his strengths, Bartra is a tremendous passer of the ball at 89%, and should be a nice replacement for Mats Hummels as the ball playing CB for Dortmund. The troubling sign is that for a player coming into his peak, neither Luis Enrique, nor Tata Martino, nor Pep Guardiola trusted him enough to partner him with Gerard Pique in the center of the defence, opting for the likes of veterans like Mathieu, Vermaelen or even a makeshift CB in Javier Mascherano. Of course, no one can forget the famous “Mozgov moment” in which Gareth Bale literally ran circles around him in the Copa del Rey final.

While that was a trying moment for Bartra, paying 8 million and seeing if he can rejuvenate his career in a new league is a decent gamble by Dortmund.

Pricey gambles on failed stars

  • Speaking of gambles, Dortmund have wasted little time in shelling out a combined €56 million on two star players. Mario Götze is still only 24, but much like a child actor and LeBron James he has had a long and storied career. It is so extensive, it really reads like an obituary: highlights include bursting onto the scene with BVB and winning the Bundesliga back to back in 2010/11 and 2011/12. In the following year, Götze scored 10 goals and 9 assists, that earned him a €37 million transfer to Bayern. Three more German titles and a game winning goal in the World Cup final against Argentina followed. 56 caps and 17 goals for Germany to go along with 44 goals and 49 assists in 156 Bundesliga appearances. Yet, it has far been from a gravy train for the prodigal son, who many in Dortmund consider to be a traitor.

Bayern fans think of him as a failure, and while he did managed to score 10 and 9 goals in his first two seasons, Pep Guardiola essentially chose to ignore him when it came to the starting XI, leading to him receiving just 957 Bundesliga minutes last season. Sure, he missed some time with injuries, but especially in the spring of 2016, Guardiola essentially slapped him with the DNP-CD (did not play – coach’s decision). Respected soccer analysts from the Goalimpact website, Ted Knutson, the founder of Statsbomb, still rate him highly, not far off the world-class player that he once was. So, €26 million could be a reasonable number, especially in light of the fact that his Transfermarkt value was around 35 million.

  • The signing of André Schürrle at 30 million euros is much less defensible, and certainly not worthy of all the hype it has gotten. Yes, Schürrle is a world champion, a player with experience at Chelsea, Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, but he is a classic example of what my friend Brandon Shaver has called “media good”.

Allow me to explain.

The conventional wisdom and scouting report on him was that Schürrle “may not be Mario Gotze, Thomas Muller, or Marco Reus but he has the same abilities. He may not be playing for the biggest German club in the Bundesliga, but he has the capability of getting there. Andre Schurrle possesses pace, acceleration, and is a terror on the left side of the pitch.” and Daily Mirror said that: “One of the biggest strengths of the Leverkusen man is his intelligence on the pitch. He can play as the man leading the line, but is at his best when played just behind that man. His pace, and intelligent movement allow him to get into good positions, and drag opposition defenders out of position.”  

Here are 5 fun facts that should bust this myth:

1. Schürrle was scoreless last season until January 24th, until he managed score 5 goals against Hannover and Stuttgart, two teams that got relegated. His other 4 goals which gave him 9 for the season came against Eintracht – who needed the playoffs to stay in the league–and versus Darmstadt. He scored a great goal vs. Mainz at 1:12 here, and can thank his new teammate Sven Bender for his awful positioning.

2. He was ranked 195th out of 214 players, and 83rd of 88 midfielders by the German Bundesliga Bible, aka Kicker. 

3. He managed just 4 goals in 1000 combined EPL and Bundesliga minutes last year. 

4. He is down in every offensive category per 90 minutes (meaning people cannot pull the “but he hardly played card”), from shots, passes, key passes, and is dribbling 50% less, while also getting worse at losing the ball. For further explanation, see this tweet by @Fussballradars:

5. He is simply not good enough to replace Marco Reus. The often injured 27-year-old, who is now the face of the club is just a much better player than Schürrle. For fun, with the help of the Squawka comparison matrix, I compared their last season, and their best season–2012/13–using the per 90 metrics.

The result: Reus convincingly wins in all but two of the 18 categories!

The pro Schürrle arguments seem to revolve around Thomas Tuchel, who was his coach at Mainz, being able to work some magic with Schürrle. The Bundesliga coach of the season, who beat Pep Guardiola handily to win the award, was recently asked about the fit in a press conference, which was transcribed on reddit:

How convinced are you (of Schürrle) and could perhaps go deeper into it since you know him from your time in Mainz?

Tuchel : “We lost Miki and there are few players on the wing, like Miki, like Karim Bellarabi and Schürrle who have a great gift to their talent. These are attack-minded players which have a big quota(rate) in all clubs in which they played. They can play a lot of minutes, they have the physical prerequisite to defend hard, to defend intense and they have something very special. They don’t have an ego in their play style, but still have a high goal rate and goal involvement rate. And when you defend behind Miki, when you defend behind Karim Bellarabi, when you defend behind Andre Schürrle you’re feeling better. Because they have the ability to defend hard on the wing and to be a hardworking and intense team player but still at the same time apply all their talent to do the crucial things upfront. You need modest (walking-) paths(runs) against the ball, with the ball and that’s why we need Andre urgently, because we have that great loss on the wing and he(Schürrle) embodies that kind of player and there aren’t many of them. That’s why we urgently made an effort (to sign him) and that has little to do with the fact that he already played for me. The profile was clear: the tempo intensity, the intensity against the ball every 3 days and to press on a very, very high level. That is something that gives you defensive stability and that’s why we chose to stay in that profile and to stay German.”

While Tuchel has to say those things and bring up a few solid things about Schürrle’s strengths, the stats shown prior to it defeat the argument and it’s at best a curious decision to spend 30 million euros on a player who has the reputation of a known quantity, but rates as an average Bundesliga attacker at best.

Are Dortmund closer to Bayern after the summer than before?

It has been a wonderfully eventful summer for Borussia Dortmund fans, and the emotions have run the gamut, from abject despair (losing Reus to injury, selling the Hummels, Miki, Gündo trio) to hope (signing all those youngsters) to optimism (witnessing Rode’s preseason and Guerreiro for Portugal) and outright swagger (Dembele running wild on MU, Götze returning).

The projected starting lineup could look something like this:

Putting aside Neven Subotic being out until January, Dortmund could field this potent B squad that still leaves the very capable Christian Pulisic, Gonzalo Castro, Moritz Leitner and Nuri Sahin quartet on the bench!

So, it’s quite clear that the depth issue which has plagued BVB last year–it’s nice to be able to play 17-year-old Pulisic in derbies, but he probably shouldn’t be the first solution to a problem–has been resolved. It will certainly come in handy in competitions like the Champions League, which Dortmund will have to take more seriously than the Europa League. €58 million on four youngsters (Mor, Merino, Dembele, Guerreiro) and two cheap reclamation projects (Bartra, Rode) and €56m on two big name players looking to redeem themselves (Götze, Schürrle) have put Dortmund back in the thick of things. However, the loss of three world-class players at key positions (CB, CM, CAM) will take its toll on Dortmund, given that none of the replacements (Bartra, Rode, Merino, Götze, Schürrle) are a sure-thing. So, in the next 1-2 years Dortmund are definitely worse off than they were last year, but regarding their future, they might have put themselves in a better spot overall. Last but not least, the summer transfer window is far from closed, with Mario Gomez and Moussa Sissoko being the latest big name players to be linked to BVB. One thing is certain: Dortmund have certainly been grabbing the headline and stealing them even from Bayern…

Finally, the feasibility of catching Bayern is always going to be a hotly-contested issue, and my quick take is that BVB, despite its miracle season last year, were still a step behind. I personally would have waited before splurging on Götze and Schürrle, since in my opinion, Dortmund would have been good enough to battle Leverkusen for second anyway. And I certainly do not see a scenario in which they are on level terms with Bayern quite yet.

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