After three consecutive DFB-Pokal Final defeats, Saturday afternoon would hum a different tune for Borussia Dortmund. At long last, it was a tune of triumph. Yet off in the distance, starting faint but going stronger and more distressing, another tune could be heard. One of uncertainty, and perhaps inevitability.
We don’t know where Thomas Tuchel will be next season, but it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that he’ll be staying with Dortmund. According to the man himself, though, Tuchel would like to stay. But that’s another matter entirely, of course. We don’t know where superstar striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will be, but come on—it’s not going to be Dortmund. Which is fine, in a manner of speaking. Dortmund have gotten used to and become well-equipped to handling superstar departures in the not-so-distant past.
On the other hand, when does that start to become a problem? Sure they boast one of the youngest, most exciting sides across all of Europe, but that’s not going to be enough forever. After losing Mats Hummels, their defense predictably suffered. Sokratis Papastathopoulos stepped up and cemented himself as their best defender, but could only do so much. The replacements weren’t up to par and in the end BVB conceded 40 Bundesliga goals, the most among the top-four. Plus Sokratis is hinting at moving on, citing that he wants to win a title:
“I want to play until I’m 33 or 34… There is something I have been missing. If you are young, you have a lot of time to get something. But I’m no longer young, I’ve got a lot of time for myself – and I really want to win a title.”
That’s often the endgame, isn’t it? I’d say Sokratis has done more than enough over the past couple seasons to deserve such a move, too. As he said, he’s no longer young—relatively speaking. Sokratis will turn 29 in just under two weeks. Defenders can play into their mid-30s, as he intends to, but there’s no guarantee his skills won’t diminish before that. If ever there were a time for him to chase a title, it’s now.
And once again, it’s difficult to see Dortmund winning the Bundesliga next season. Or the season after that. Look at RB Leipzig. This was their first top-flight campaign, and with a squad full of young but potentially great talents, even they secured a better finish than Dortmund. For a little while, they were even sort of close to Bayern. Their defense was the biggest stumbling block (39 goals conceded) but their away form (8 wins, 5 draws, 4 losses) is what ultimately separated them from Dortmund (5 wins, 6 draws, 6 losses).
Elsewhere on the pitch, losing Henrikh Mkhitaryan didn’t prove to be too costly. Christian Pulisic progressed; Ousmane Dembélé—what a bargain that was—was sensational. Julian Weigl, 21, had another great season in central midfield. 17-year-old Swedish striker Alexander Isak is perhaps the most exciting and intriguing talent among Dortmund’s collection of players and he hasn’t even played for them yet. They’re even adding 21-year-old midfielder Mahmoud Dahoud to the mix. It’s never-ending.
This doesn’t even touch on 19-year-old Turkish winger Emre More, who made just a total of 12 Bundesliga appearances (7 as a sub) this season. Fortunately for his development, a loan spell could be in the works.
In short, there is a tremendous amount of potential among this young core. In regards to Weigl, Dembélé, Pulisic and Dahoud, we’ve already seen what they can do. The trick will be holding onto these kids for a little while longer. But, Dortmund’s main focus this summer should be on reinforcing their defense. Bayer Leverkusen’s Ömer Toprak, who turns 28 in July, will surely help. Still, if Sokratis decides to leave, then what? Then Dortmund are right back where they started last season. This time, they should splurge on a ready-made defender.
Oh, and Marco Reus. Poor, poor Marco Reus. Winning the DFB-Pokal final on Saturday provided the winger with his first major title, though it came at a cost. Reportedly, the 27-year-old is set to miss six months with cruciate ligament damage (again). When he plays, he’s still wonderful. That’s just it, though: He cannot stay healthy for long periods of time and continues to have ridiculously bad injury luck. Fortunately for Dortmund, depth amongst wingers isn’t their issue.
So while it’s a positive that he’ll likely remain at the club for at least another season, injuries are destroying his career. For a man who turns 28 at the end of the month, the days of his big-money move away—which was once thought to be inevitable—are dwindling. Reus was once a staple of this club, and while he still maintains that presence with every appearance, said appearances are becoming fewer and fewer. When will Dortmund’s (or his) patience run out?
Going forward, it’s all about taking that next step. It’s about building off this trophy. And, it’s about mounting a legitimate title challenge. They have the money, that much is clear. They’ll make plenty more off of Aubameyang, too. It’s just a matter of whether or not spending big on someone who isn’t an exciting, young talent is in their philosophy. If they want to have any realistic chance at capturing a Bundesliga title, it will probably have to be.
But possibly losing your manager, superstar striker and best defender all in the same window isn’t ideal for any club. And while Dortmund have experienced (and have almost become used to) these types of trials before, they can’t allow that reality to become their normal. They cannot allow themselves to be in a perpetual state of almost. Otherwise, you fear that many more will ultimately leave them behind.