Aubameyang's antics risk alienating fans and Dortmund's season
It was the beginning of August 2017 when Borussia Dortmund's stadium announcer Norbert Dickel interviewed Michael Zorc, the team's sporting director in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland, where then-coach Peter Bosz had applied the finishing touches before the start of the season.
In the interview, Zorc came across as optimistic about the upcoming season, thinking that they had signed the right man for the job to succeed Thomas Tuchel and bring calm back to a club that had been caught in turbulence.
At that point, the Black and Yellows had -- for once -- retained integral parts of their squad during the summer transfer window and brought in five new players to increase the team's quality and depth.
Asked whether this season would be a "transitional year" because of the new coach, Zorc calmly and confidently replied: "Our season objectives are well-defined. It doesn't have to do anything with a transitional year when we say that we want to qualify directly for the Champions League, go as far as possible in the German Cup, and survive the group stages in the Champions League. Those are the same objectives we gave out in previous years. I don't see why we would call this a transitional year."
After all, Dortmund had just won the German Cup, had finished third in the Bundesliga, and were anticipating to improve from there. The decision to keep key striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had just been sorted a few days earlier.
"We discussed with [Aubameyang] that we will keep the transfer window open for him until a certain time and that we're ready to be in talks until then," Zorc told Sky at the end of July." We did that, but a transfer never materialised. There are no agreements, nor is there a transfer this winter in the making. We are planning with him and that refers to the entire season."
BVB banked on their star striker to help a young attacking line, featuring Christian Pulisic and Ousmane Dembele, take the next step.
But now, in mid-January, Borussia Dortmund look like a club that have been chewed up and spat out again. Zorc's optimistic summer vibes have faded as the club are in a transitional year after all.
Bosz was let go after going 13 games without a win; Peter Stoger given a six-month deal to try to get the club to qualify for the Champions League again. That task, however, has become increasingly harder over the last half year.
It started as soon as Aug. 3, when Neymar joined PSG from Barcelona in a record €222 million deal. A good chunk of that money was soon used to turn Ousmane Dembele's head. The 20-year-old reverted to unprofessional behaviour to force a €105m move from Dortmund to Barcelona.
The next prominent exit at the Westfalenstadion came when Sven Mislintat, the head of scouting, left to join Arsenal in November. The 45-year-old's move may prove to be a double whammy with Arsenal focusing on Aubameyang to replace Alexis Sanchez.
Now, it looks like unprofessional antics are once again forcing Dortmund's hand. Aubameyang's absence from a squad meeting this week which focused, ironically, on team spirit -- a move that led to a one-game suspension -- also further hollowed out BVB's marketing claim of "Echte Liebe" (true love).
No matter how this transfer saga turns out, the Westphalians will once again end up with the short end of the stick. Either they will lose the second-most prolific goal scorer in Bundesliga history when measured by minutes per goal -- or they will have to deal with a moody striker whose behaviour is toxic to the dressing room.
It is hardly surprising that Zorc sent some passive-aggressive remarks toward Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger on Thursday, as the team traveled to Germany's capital for Friday's match against Hertha Berlin. The 68-year-old had briefly talked about Aubemyang's character to answer a journalist's question.
"We think it's disrespectful to comment on other clubs' players," Zorc said. "There is no contact on our part with Arsenal. We assume, Arsene Wenger certainly has enough to deal with performances of his own players currently."
While Zorc had a valid point -- with Arsenal eight points off fourth-place in the Premier League -- his comments gave more insight into the state of affairs at Dortmund.
Aubameyang's attempt to force his way out of the club with questionable behaviour -- the second player to do so in the past few months -- is not only a distraction from BVB's Friday night match but also another invitation for fans to grow more cynical. Sporting woes aside, if fans are becoming more detached and disenfranchised, it is a much bigger worry altogether for Dortmund.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.