Dortmund lack usual bounce, 'spirit of optimism' ahead of new season
DORTMUND, Germany -- It was an odd moment altogether when Borussia Dortmund unveiled their new sleeve sponsor at a news conference ahead of the German Super Cup two weeks ago.
One could not deny a certain level of awkwardness as BVB CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and Jurgen Keller (executive director of sales and marketing for German car manufacturers Opel) tried to highlight the positive similarities between a football club and a car brand.
When Watzke, a man who loves to talk about numbers -- especially when it comes to comparing his club's turnover to Bayern Munich's and other super-rich clubs -- was asked about the financial value of the sponsorship deal he had landed, he responded: "You know I prefer to talk about feelings rather than about numbers." Awkward indeed.
But let's talk about feelings. Dortmund kick off their Bundesliga campaign in Wolfsburg on Saturday afternoon with Thomas Tuchel's successor, Peter Bosz, on the sideline. One feeling that is mostly missing: Aufbruchsstimmung. The word has different meanings in German but in the context of a league start it describes the spirit of optimism at the beginning of a season.
The euphoria over Dortmund's cup win in May did not last very long with Tuchel being removed from the helm just days after the party. The club hinted at insurmountable differences between the team and coaching staff without ever being transparent enough for supporters to fully grasp the decision to fire Tuchel. Watzke described the month-long unrest that came after the Tuchel situation as one of the roughest periods since he took over at Dortmund in 2005, adding that he and everyone else are looking forward to a more peaceful time.
Although the Dutch coach said during Thursday's news conference ahead of the Wolfsburg match that there is calm within the team and among the board, there is a lot of unease surrounding the club heading into the first match instead of the Aufbruchsstimmung that a clean slate usually promises for a variety of reasons.
For more than a week, the headlines have been dominated by Ousmane Dembele's ill-advised decision to skip training sessions without a leave of absence and break off all contact with teammates and club officials in order to force a move to Barcelona. The 20-year-old won't help his injury-stricken team on Saturday in Wolfsburg and thus has been condemned by teammates Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Gonzalo Castro, who have made clear that they do not approve of Dembele's unprofessional behaviour.
It's the sort of drama Dortmund doesn't need at the moment and the question of how the French international will reintegrate into the team in case his transfer does not materialise and how BVB fans will react still lingers. And will the club find a suitable replacement if Dembele, whose individual skill is crucial for Dortmund to reach their goals, makes the move?
The Dembele situation massively adds to the uncertainty that surrounds the club going into the first league match on a sporting level. The transition under Bosz has been visible but is far from being complete, as Sokratis revealed in an interview with Kicker: "We are not at 100 percent. We need time to better understand the coach's philosophy," adding: "We have to be prepared for that our game won't fully work as our coach imagines it."
Words that did not exactly hint at Aufbruchsstimmung from within the team but sound like expectation management for what could be a rocky start.
Tactically speaking, the Black and Yellows are yet to find a balance in their extremely aggressive counter-pressing approach to both create and prevent goals. In the preseason friendlies and cup matches leading up to the first Bundesliga matchday, the team lacked the structure for an efficient possession game, while a simple long ball by the opponent was too often, enough to unlock their backline.
The team is still overly-reliant on individual moments by their players, which makes the absence of Dembele even a tougher pill to swallow, as pivots of the team in Marco Reus, Marcel Schmelzer and Julian Weigl are missing due to injury. Also sidelined are Andre Schurrle, Raphael Guerreiro, Emre Mor, and in all likelihood Shinji Kagawa, who only played his first 30 minutes since returning from injury in BVB's first-round cup win over Rielasingen-Arlen.
With Park Joo-ho relegated to the reserve team and 18-year-old Jan-Niklas Beste re-joining the Under-19s on Saturday, BVB have to choose between 19-year-old Felix Passlack and 18-year-old Dan-Axel Zagadou for the left-back position. It will be an obvious weak spot for Wolfsburg to exploit.
The pressure is on the likes of Christian Pulisic to deliver the magic moments. At least the 18-year-old U.S. international has left the impression that he's ready to make another huge step forward in his development this season. With Mario Gotze also being declared match-ready ahead of Saturday, it's not all doom and gloom just yet.
In any case, a positive start is helpful for any team in a new season. But this time it actually is a little bit more important for the Black and Yellows to grab a result on Matchday 1 as it would add some calm after some nervy weeks. It is time for BVB to create some much-needed Aufbruchsstimmung on Saturday or overreaction Monday will rear its ugly head on top of the ongoing Dembele-saga.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.