With Aubameyang now gone, Dortmund in search of peace and quiet
DORTMUND, Germany -- For Borussia Dortmund coach Peter Stoger, the beginning of February -- and with that the closure of the pesky January transfer window -- must have been music to his ears.
"I am just happy the window's closed now," he told his news conference on Thursday ahead of Friday's Bundesliga game against his former club Cologne. "I am delighted those discussions have ended. And I like the decision we've made. You just don't know if there would have been any calm if we'd made a different decision."
Calmness seems to be the highest good at the Adi-Preissler-Allee after the club had to endure the drama of a want-away player for the second time in five months. After Ousmane Dembele forced a move to Barcelona in the summer by not turning up to training for a week, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finally got his wish to leave Dortmund on Wednesday, completing a £56 million move to Arsenal.
The 28-year-old Gabon international had poisoned the well by skipping a team meeting, showing little motivation in training and creating scenes off the field -- like going to a soccer hall in a Dembele shirt while the team had a league match -- among other incidents. His actions angered teammates to the extent that the club saw the peace within the dressing room at risk.
Aubameyang fully unveiled his lack of scruples in a farewell message to the Dortmund fans on Wednesday, posting on Instagram: "Maybe it wasn't the best way to go about it but everyone knows Auba is crazy - and yes, I'm a crazy boy, hahahaha! I've made a mistake but never in bad faith."
Leaving teammates and the club hanging in a tricky situation in which the qualification for Champions League is all but on the line to push through your own agenda is, however, very much an act of bad faith.
Hence, Stoger said on Thursday with relief: "We are now focused on all guys being clear in their understanding of what we want to achieve in the next weeks and months. The quality is still there to reach our goals, even after Auba's exit. Thus, I think it's good thing when we finally have peace in our house."
Though even with all transfer sagas out of the way, peace and calmness remain a pipe dream at the Westfalenstadion. Too loud were the hostile whistles by the Dortmund fans directed at their own team in Saturday's 2-2 draw against Freiburg.
The Black and Yellows salvaged a point in stoppage time on the back of an overall worrisome performance, which did not leave the impression of a team that is ready to go to the limit and beyond for all three points. That impression was mostly fueled by the lack of ideas to beat an extremely defensive-minded Freiburg team that was allowed to grab two easy goals, albeit Nils Petersen's wonderful strike from 40 metres out was somewhat fluky.
On Friday, Dortmund will hope to return to winning ways against last-placed Cologne after three draws in the first three games of 2018 saw the club plummet to sixth place in the table.
It is a juicy confrontation in which Stoger meets his former club, where he was the most successful coach in more than two decades. Since Stoger took over at Dortmund, the Billy Goats have outperformed the Ruhr Side. Stefan Ruthenbeck managed to revamp Cologne's hopes to stay in the league by grabbing three wins and a draw in the past four games.
"It's not an ordinary game for me. I was too long in Cologne and felt too much at home there for it to be. But right now my focus is entirely on how to win the game and to regain some peace after turbulent weeks with three points," Stoger said warily of a difficult game.
As the game is still coming too soon for the long-term injured Marco Reus to make his comeback, the hopes for the turnaround are also pinned on Michy Batshuayi. The 24-year-old Belgium from Chelsea, who the club brought in as Aubameyang's stop-gap replacement, is supposed to bring fresh air to a stale BVB attack.
"Michy is a hardworking striker that is lethal in the box. He is a good finisher. He did not receive too much playing time [at Chelsea] but his numbers were decent in the time he played. I'm convinced that he fits our idea and system," Stoger said about the athletic centre-forward.
It remains to be seen if Batshuayi will be able to boast the same output as Aubameyang but he can add new attributes to Dortmund's offence. With his physique, the young Belgium can pose as target man up front, a trait that the Gabon international lacks.
Aubameyang also quickly went AWOL in tight defensive blocks, as he struggles to create something for himself with only 23 percent successful dribbles. Batshuayi, meanwhile, wins 57 percent of his one-on-ones, which could become a factor on Friday.
The Belgium international, who is looking to secure his ticket to this summer's World Cup could immediately bring "peace and quiet" at the heel of turbulent weeks in Dortmund by leading his side to the first win of the year.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.