Borussia Dortmund's moves in transfer market reflect a shift in club philosophy
Since the end of 2017, there has been as much talk about change at Borussia Dortmund as there would be from a political candidate campaigning to unseat his rival from office.
As performances on the pitch became bleaker, the language out of CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and sporting director Michael Zorc became more radical. First, the team needed "readjustments." That term was quickly adjusted itself to "a sizable overhaul during the summer," and now, ahead of the 2018-19 campaign, the BVB bosses are talking about a "reset" that will require "at least two summer transfer periods to be completed."
A bloated, dysfunctional squad, regretful coaching appointments, off-field drama -- just to name a few problems -- plagued a team that rarely reached its potential in 2017-18.
Watzke and Zorc, meanwhile, have come to the realisation that all of the above were merely symptoms of their own poor decision-making over the years and that a fault confessed is half redressed.
Most significantly, they have added Matthias Sammer as an external advisor to the board to provide another informed perspective and former Dortmund captain Sebastian Kehl as head of the player department. The 38-year-old Kehl will act as an intermediary between Zorc and the team, as the sporting director doesn't have the capacity to be fully in tune with the players while also being involved in an increasingly complex transfer market. Kehl is supposed to reintroduce law and order to an undisciplined team, implement a "culture of performance" and reignite the spark between fans and the players, among other tasks.
The newly formed high council consisting of Watzke, Zorc, Kehl and Sammer found its latest addition in head coach Lucien Favre. The 60-year-old was already the top candidate to succeed Thomas Tuchel in 2017, but French club Nice wasn't ready to release him. In hindsight, it might have been beneficial for Favre to join 12 months later, as dramas surrounding the exits of Ousmane Dembele and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have already played out, and the Swiss-born coach now arrives at a club where the mindset has switched to one of new beginnings.
As Zorc said at Favre's unveiling on Friday, the new coach will be tasked with developing each player and forming a team with "balance."
That new balance is already reflected by Dortmund's moves on the transfer market thus far. Counting Swiss centre-back Manuel Akanji, who joined last winter for €21 million, the Black and Yellow have spent roughly €70 million on two centre-backs and a robust central midfielder while shelling out only €5 million for Eintracht Frankfurt winger Marius Wolf in the attacking department.
The roster lacks a prominent centre-forward, but for a team that shipped 47 goals in 34 league matches last season, prioritising defence above all is the right decision.
BVB were happy to watch centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos seek a new challenge at Arsenal after five years at the Westfalenstadion. The Greece international was a fan favourite for his resolute style, spectacular sliding tackles and pledge of innocence after whacking his opponent to the ground. But the 30-year-old did not emerge as the hoped-for leader in defence since Mats Hummels' departure in 2016, with his flawed decision-making becoming increasingly exposed.
With €28 million summer signing Abdou Diallo (age 22) from Mainz and Akanji (22), Dortmund are looking to form a new stronghold at the heart of the defence that will be the backbone of future success. Both resemble modern centre-backs who can rely as much on their intelligent positioning as on their physicality, and it will be a novelty for BVB to have so many defenders who are strong on the ball at any given moment, as Omer Toprak also excels in that department.
Dortmund are trying to address an ever-growing issue at the fullback position by bringing in Real Madrid's Achraf Hakimi on loan for two seasons. The 19-year-old, who featured for Morocco at the World Cup, can cover both left- and right-back for the aging Marcel Schmelzer (30) and Lukasz Piszczek (33). The club has often struggled when one of the two veterans is sidelined. As Akanji and Diallo are proven at the left-back position, the flanks should be less of a worry for Favre's side.
BVB's conceding technical skill for a stronger mentality is also reflected in their signing of Denmark international Thomas Delaney, who joined for €20 million from Werder Bremen.
Zorc, who has made it a habit in recent years to praise the technical ability and versatility of Dortmund's additions, highlighted Delaney's "strong character" and "desire to win" in the official announcement of the central midfielder, adding: "He will enrich our match with his physical presence."
The Black and Yellow's strategy of shoring up the defence and playing a more industrious style is more in tune with the blue-collar vibe of the city that used to be a home to coal mining, steel and beer brewing. It will be up to Favre to cast it into the right mould.