Since Jürgen Klopp joined Borussia Dortmund in 2008 the club have made a clear decision to change their recruitment policy. In comparison to the excesses of the late 1990s where players were signed for large sums of money, the club started to sign younger players and develop talent from inside their academy.
Fast forward to 2011 and BVB picked up their first league title since 1996, a year later the league and cup double. The formula therefore seemed to work. However, during the 2016/2017 season, Dortmund placed what many thought was an overemphasis on youth. At one stage of the season the club set a new record for the youngest starting team in their history with an average age of just 22.9 years. But with results not up to scratch and relationships within the club strained, Thomas Tuchel was shown the door and now the project finds itself at a crossroads. Can the club continue to move forward under their new coach and what are the challenges that await him?
Much of the focus going into the season will be on the new man in charge – Peter Bosz. He made a name for himself last season by taking a youthful Ajax side, with an average age of just 22.8, to the Europa League final. He therefore seems to fit the philosophy of the club, but question marks remain. His only experience so far with German football was a six month stay as a player with Hansa Rostock who were, albeit, in the Bundesliga at the time. His managerial experience has been almost exclusively in the Netherlands however, meaning a more significant adjustment process will be necessary in comparison to the club’s last two coaches. The fact that the BVB board also tried to hire two other coaches ahead of Bosz, and the two-year contract he has been offered, suggest that he may be just an interim solution unless he brings immediate success.
The question of what constitutes success and what is more broadly expected of the position of head coach is a topic which ultimately proved to be Thomas Tuchel’s undoing. For a club which has become accustomed to challenging for the title, finishing a distant third while winning the German Cup was apparently unacceptable. Factors such as the bombing of the team coach at a crucial stage of the season and the increased level of competition in the league were not taken into account. Ultimately when it comes to most seasons in the Bundesliga, clubs have to compare themselves with juggernauts Bayern Munich, and frequently come off poorly. More importantly, according to the board at least, the decision to sack Tuchel came as a result of a poor relationship between chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke, sporting director Michael Zorc and the head coach. Tuchel wanted more autonomy in decisions regarding player recruitment and tactics which was a discussion topic under Klopp. Bosz will know he must toe the line in that respect if he wants to see out his contract at the club.
The composition of the squad which awaits Bosz appears to be the main reason the Dutchman was brought into the club. The average age of the first team squad overall is exactly 25. But some of the top performers from last season would still qualify for their nation’s under 21 side. Christian Pulisic emerged as a potential star and will hope to continue increasing his game time in the coming season after finding the net three times and providing 6 goals in just 15 starts. Julian Weigl also enjoyed a very successful season establishing himself as the team’s regista in midfield. But principal among the young stars in the squad is Ousmane Dembele who has become one of the most highly sought-after players in the league. The Frenchman ended the season as the third top assist creator in the league with 13, and added six goals in the league. While those figures are impressive for a player who was 19 at the start of the season, they belie his true value to the team. His freedom to dribble at the opposition saw him create two chances per game and have almost 2 shots per game at goal, meaning his threat was constant. However now the winger is on the radar of many of Europe’s bigger teams, the club will have a challenge of keeping hold of yet another star for the best years of their career.
Ten of Dembele’s assists were provided for eventual league top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The Gabonese striker is heavily rumoured to be leaving the club which could potentially present a significant challenge for the new coach. No other player managed to make it into double figures last season, for scoring and striking options in the squad were very limited whenever Aubameyang was unavailable. A further problem Bosz will be confronted with is the lack of a leader figure within the squad. Tuchel was criticised for threatening to remove the captaincy from Marcel Schmelzer mid-season, which made sense considering his starting spot will come under threat from an ever-improving Raphael Guerreiro. The only reason Schmelzer was allowed to keep the armband was the lack of any realistic replacement.
The situation with the club’s captain therefore may mirror that of the club coach. Bosz will want to prove as quickly as possible that he was not simply hired due to a lack of alternatives and that he is not simply a placeholder while the board decide on the long-term plan for the club. But in a league which is ever increasing in quality the new coach will have to hit the ground running to prove his doubters wrong. Although there are a lot of exciting young players in the squad, deficiencies remain too, which Bosz will have to rectify so the club once again finds itself in what could be viewed as transition season as project Dortmund moves into its next phase.