Neutral observers must be baffled by the constant unrest surrounding Borussia Dortmund. Sure, the club isn’t performing to the standards of last season, but they also lost three of the biggest contributors to that team. Still, the club finished above Real Madrid in their UEFA Champions League group, is still in the DFB-Pokal, and Champions League qualification spots are well in reach. So where does the unrest around and, if reports are to be trusted, inside the club come from?
It’s speculative whether or not there are two camps within the club (Watzke and Tuchel) but many fans seem to think so. In this article we’ll take a closer look why people may feel that way and what seems to be going wrong between chief executive and head coach.
Throughout the season, Tuchel was eager to point out how risky Dortmund’s transfer policy in the summer was. In the season-opening press conferences he called the campaign “a new start“ and the transfer policy a “risky course, although risk can be rewarded.“
Watzke, on the other hand, made sure to point out this strategy was “without any alternative.“
Since then, Tuchel has harshly criticized his team after a loss to Eintracht Frankfurt and said numerous times, after dropping points as favourites, how this “might be who we (BVB) are this season“, adding “maybe we have to understand that internally as well.“
Tuchel was criticized by a few media outlets for his public criticism. BVB then issued a short statement saying the coach should be able to criticize his team. Although this seemed like an attempt to back Tuchel, it was perceived as being half-heartedly and coming too late by many.
Tuchel’s calls for patience and understanding how this is going to be a tough season were answered by Watzke’s statement that “our goal has to be to finish third.” A reasonable aim. Only the manner in which it was said seemed very different to how communication went when Jürgen Klopp was Borussia’s head coach.
Watzke added they would “have to wait how the season develops and see in the summer whether working with Tuchel for longer than three years would make sense.“ A quote that doesn’t exactly make for stable working conditions for a head coach.
The most recent example of bad communication came on the back of a transfer. When Alexander Isak was signed this winter the German tabloid “Sport Bild“ claimed Tuchel only knew about the transfer last second.
The next day Tuchel felt obligated to reply and had an unusual and spontaneous press conference after a training session. He clumsily confirmed the story while saying that it’s the usual procedure. Still, admitting how he hardly knew a player who was now supposedly the second striker in the squad, was weird to many people.
More than anything, the fact that Tuchel felt the need to reply to a tabloid article speaks for itself. This leads us to the next field of conflict.
Partisan media reports
If there really wasn’t anything unusual about that transfer, how did it become a story? Most probably it’s just a tabloid trying to sell papers and generate clicks, but one-sided media reports surrounding BVB have been a constant over the last few months.
On the one hand there are Kicker, Ruhr Nachrichten and Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Freddie Röckenhaus, who are regularly criticizing Tuchel without putting any attention towards Zorc’s transfers or Watzke’s rhetoric.
On the other hand there are Christof Kneer, Cathrin Gilbert and, partly, Sport Bild, who have been very critical of Watzke while more or less ignoring Tuchel’s flaws.
Naturally some fans feel like the authors represent whichever side they’re closer to or get their information from — seemingly only getting one side of the story every time.
As a result there are articles saying it was Tuchel’s idea to postpone contract talks until after the season, supported by an interview Tuchel gave saying he is a “bad negotiating partner during the season.“ At the same time other reports suggest Tuchel would’ve been happy to enter contract talks in the winter, because he feels his work is far from done.
For the readers it’s impossible to tell which version is correct and either side can be discredited by pointing out how they twist facts or leave out quotes to fit their narrative.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, there are the transfers this summer.
In an interview with Raphael Honigstein, Tuchel told his side of the story. He raves about the idea of adding a player like Ousmane Dembélé to a squad including Mats Hummels, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Ilkay Gündogan.
But it wasn’t to be. Months after Watzke promised not all of them would leave, they did exactly that. Now Dembélé is the go-to player for Dortmund rather than one of many.
Tuchel’s disappointment is almost tangible, the 43-year-old saying “it felt like, hey, why? We had it. We had it already. Why did we do this? Why did we let this happen? We were on our way, had our own style, and it was successful.“ He adds that it was a process for him to learn he had to let go and make the best out of a new situation.
It’s highly speculative whether Tuchel thought the club could’ve done better at convincing their three key players to stay, but reports almost unanimously agree there were major disagreements about the summer transfers.
The worst-kept secret was Tuchel’s interest in Ömer Toprak. Even when Hummels hadn’t yet decided where he would play the next season, the name Toprak was making rounds in Dortmund, as an addition to the squad whether or not Hummels was going to leave.
In the end a transfer reportedly fell through because Dortmund weren’t willing to pay € 25 million and only offered 22. Toprak is now joining Dortmund a summer later and, ironically, it seems uncertain whether he’ll even get to work with Tuchel.
Other confirmed targets were Oliver Torres (by Zorc in the winter break of 2015/16) and Karim Bellarabi (by Tuchel himself).
Tuchel said he wanted a German-speaking winger who has the ability to defend the flank for 90 minutes while keeping up a good scoring contribution. Many reports say Bellarabi was the top priority on the list. Tuchel’s mentioning Bellarabi by name after they had signed Schürrle supports that theory.
It’s unsure whether Torres was still a target in the summer and why a transfer never materialized, but it highlights the wish for a true No. 8 to replace Gündogan. Other players reportedly on the list were Mahmoud Dahoud and Mateo Kovacic. In the end Dortmund re-signed Mario Götze, neither a true No. 8 nor Tuchel’s favorite choice if reports are to be believed.
Of course, it’s not unusual for a coach or club not to get their top targets every time and Tuchel most probably agreed to all those transfers in the end. But still, missing out on two or three top priorities, just after losing three cornerstones of the team, isn’t a good look.
Seen individually, most of the mentioned problems seem minor. Contrasting statements by club officials and coaches in interviews happen, articles will always be subjective and influenced by their sources and disagreements about transfers are the most normal thing in the world.
However, in Dortmund’s case all of the above (and more) come together and paint a picture of a club that isn’t running like the well-oiled machine it used to be. On and off the field.