If there’s a team in world football that badly wants 2017 to end, it’s Borussia Dortmund. The soon-to-be concluded calendar year has been a whirlwind for BVB. Injuries galore – Marco Reus can’t catch a break – calamitous defending and a near-fatal attack on their team bus in April that injured Marc Bartra have contributed to a highly underwhelming year for a team always tipped to be Bayern Munich’s closest ‘challengers.’
The word challengers is, of course, being used loosely, seeing that Dortmund haven’t really been competing with their arch-rivals for the Bundesliga title since last winning the league in 2011/12. Since Dortmund started letting Bayern cherry-pick their best players after they locked horns in the following season’s Champions League final, the DFB Pokal has been the only place Dortmund bettered the Bavarians. In the last five seasons, Dortmund has finished an average of just over 21 points (!) behind FC Hollywood, becoming more of a supporting act to Bayern’s success given all their transfer dealings than playing a strong, contrasting lead role.
This season, however, it looked like things might change given how dominant Dortmund started out. They won six and drew one of their first seven Bundesliga fixtures, not allowing a goal until their sixth match. Meanwhile, Bayern wasn’t quite playing at their dominant best, firing manager Carlo Ancelotti in October and convincing a long-retired Jupp Heynckes, who led Bayern to the treble in that 2012/13 campaign, to come and save them one last time.
Fast-forward two months later, and things have gone right back to status quo. Bayern looks like world-beaters again while Dortmund looked like a team who had the world on its shoulders and couldn’t stay upright. Matter of fact, they fell hard and haven’t gotten up. One win in its last 12 games in all competitions (against third division FC Magdeburg in the DFB Pokal), has contributed to BVB falling outside the top four entirely, going winless in their Champions League group and putting manager Peter Bosz under enormous pressure.
Their second-half capitulation to Schalke 04 in the Revierderby, drawing 4-4 after being up 4-0 an hour into the game, was the tipping point. It exposed a manager who looks out of his depth at Signal Iduna Park. A manager who took Ajax to last season’s Europa League final, but whose Ajax sides looked suspect defensively and had been an unproven quantity outside of his native Holland. He’s fortunate he hasn’t gotten the quick hook like his countrymen, Ronald Koeman and Frank de Boer did in the English Premier League and frankly should have gotten his walking papers following the Schalke debacle.
It’s not all his fault, though. They do boast the league’s joint best attack, with the amazingly talented American teenager, Christian Pulisic, and summer signing Andriy Yarmolenko looking particularly impressive. Despite his 4-3-3 showing real promise on occasion, Bosz’s high line has been ruthlessly exposed domestically and in Europe with Bartra looking unconvincing at times and goalkeeper, Roman Burki, making more mistakes than usual.
And then there are the aforementioned injuries. During their wretched two-month run, Dortmund has lost a reinvigorated Mario Götze as well as Łukasz Piszczek, Gonzalo Castro and Maximilian Phillip to injury. Plus they already have longer-term absentees in Reus, Erik Durm and Sebastian Rode, all out since the end of last season. Add the fact that highly-touted summer signing from Borussia Mönchengladbach, Mahmoud Dahoud, has missed his share of games and made five of his eight league appearances off the bench. The 21-year-old Syria native has shown more than enough in his appearances, as he did for much of his Gladbach tenure, that he deserves to be more of a dependable asset than he’s been so far.
The biggest problem, however, has been their once beloved CEO who has gradually worn out his welcome at the club. Hans-Joachim Watzke will forever have the respect of club and fans alike for rescuing BVB from financial peril in 2005 when he took over. Stabilising their off-field situation while making impactful hires in scouting and bringing Jürgen Klopp on board as manager in 2008 breathed new life into the club. The Klopp era was one of the golden eras of Dortmund’s history as they won two Bundesliga titles, a German Cup and reached the 2012/13 Champions League final under his stewardship. During that time, they unearthed several young gems essential to the sparkling brand of football Dortmund played during that time. Götze, Shinji Kagawa, Nuri Şahin and Robert Lewandowski became household names during the heights of Dortmund’s success and, at some point, all were sold for big profits before returning to Dortmund, bar Lewandowski.
But once the disastrous 2014/15 season came along, when Dortmund was in the relegation zone past the midway point, Dortmund knew they had to change course. In an attempt to recreate that magical era, Watzke hired Thomas Tuchel, another Mainz to Dortmund success story who they hoped would make them title contenders once more.