Bayern Munich have always signed the best young players in Germany. It’s in their DNA. They wait for a player to prove themselves elsewhere in the Bundesliga then move in to both strengthen themselves and weaken their rivals. Sometimes it works out (Michael Ballack, Manuel Neuer) and others it doesn’t (Lukas Podolski). It has been a fact accepted by the majority in Germany for a long time that this is just the way things are. Which is why it was so important that Dortmund signed Marco Reus last season and Bayern signed Mario Gotze at the end of this one.
Coming back from the Champions League final defeat and losing their Bundesliga title would have been difficult enough with him. Without Gotze you sense challenging Bayern may well be impossible. This is no slight on Dortmund, on current form Bayern look far and away Europe’s best club. Even before they signed Gotze their squad looked stronger than anyone else on the continent. Away from Gotze’s importance to Dortmund on the pitch (more of which later) the transfer has highlighted what we already knew, that Bayern are playing in a different league to the remainder of the Bundesliga. Their operating budget is twice that of Dortmund’s. Over the last three years they have spent £116 million net to Dortmund’s £2 million. Bayern lost a Champions League final, finished second in the league and in response spent £40 million on a single player (Javi Martinez). Even if they wanted to it would seem that Dortmund couldn’t follow suit.
That they can’t compete financially is obvious. Where Dortmund may have thought they had the edge is in the extraordinary team spirit Jurgen Klopp has been able to engineer. Their back to back Bundesliga titles were won on the back of a small squad completely buying into the ethos of the club they represented. They would press and run with a desire that at times bordered on superhuman because they had to. The problem now is that Bayern seem to have recognised that this desire is now required to win titles. Dortmund should be flattered, they have provoked Bayern into new standards, possibly higher than we’ll ever see again. Dortmund set a points record of 81 in 2011-12. This season Bayern beat it with three games left and finished on 91. They had the fewest defeats ever, most home wins, most away wins, highest winning margin, biggest goal difference. Just going on the stats it’s hard to see how Dortmund can hope to compete next year.
Klopp’s Dortmund have lost players before. When Nuri Sahin left after their first title to go to Real Madrid they welcomed Shinji Kagawa back from injury and won the league the season after. When Kagawa left to join Man Utd they signed Marco Reus (despite interest from Bayern) and slotted him into their system with no problems. The difference this year is Gotze’s choice of destination. At 20 he symbolised everything about what they wanted to be about. Young, German, athletic, hard working, technically gifted, his almost telepathic relationship with Reus will now only be witnessed for the national team. Gotze was the jewel in their crown, a player they’d nurtured through all their financial difficulties all the way back through to being champions again. That this transfer may constitute a sea change will be felt all the more if as expected Robert Lewandowski manages to force through his own move to Bayern. The worry then is that the much coveted Hummels, Reus, Subotic and Gundogan will be the next out the door.
There has undoubtedly also been interest in Klopp. After the CL final he brushed away any speculation and has called Dortmund, “The most interesting football project in the world.” He also was keen to shrug away any ill feeling over the Gotze transfer, promising that any departures would leave his team stronger. That he will get his chance to manage with bigger budgets and exposure elsewhere is certain. Luckily for Dortmund it seems he is in no rush to get there.
There is cautious optimism amongst the gloom. Over the last few seasons games between the two clubs have been extremely tight. Dortmund are unbeaten in the league against Bayern for three years. They may have finished second in the Bundesliga last year but they did so comfortably. None of the other contenders look as well placed as they do to challenge. Hamburg are still looking for a period of stability (and could well face bids for Son amongst others), Bremen and Wolfsburg are struggling to get a decent team together, Leverkusen will be trying to cope without Andre Schurrle and Schalke are Schalke (even with the boost of keeping hold of Draxler). Looking past Dortmund the ABB brigade (Anyone But Bayern) will find little to put their faith in. Dortmund will be confident of being Bayern’s main challengers next season and far beyond. The problem is that for the foreseeable future in the Bundesliga there looks to be Bayern Munich and then everyone else. This could be the ultimate consequence of Financial Fair Play. The Bundesliga forcing clubs to run within their budgets leaves Bayern able to compete on a different level because of their superior commercial power. One super-club a country could become the norm.
As ever it will depend on who Dortmund target to replace the players they’ll lose. Last season it was extraordinary that they got as far as they did with such a small squad. With their best team out, man for man they aren’t too far away from Bayern, the problem is Bayern’s second team is almost as good as their first. Dortmund are excellent when at their best, average when they’re not. Last season they concentrated on the League at the expense of Europe, this season was the opposite. With a squad that small there’s little option. They appear to be targeting players that are technically gifted, young and industrious enough to fit into Klopp’s plans. The signing of the strong defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos from Bremen is a good start. Missing out on Draxler and De Bruyne shows their intentions further up the pitch. The player marked to most directly replace Gotze seems to be Christian Eriksen. After an apprenticeship spent at Ajax he should be ready to move up the gears on a bigger stage (winning the league and recently adding more goals to his game can’t hurt either). Time will tell whether he can fulfil his potential.
Their sensible plan of gradual growth within their means is commendable but it’s difficult to see how they can challenge on more than one front unless they increase their squad size considerably. On a game by game basis they should still be able to compete. Over the course of a season however they may find finishing above Bayern beyond them. On current form it’s tough to think of a club that wouldn’t.
From their recent history on the verge of bankruptcy Dortmund have come an extraordinarily long way in a short space of time. They may just find that staying there is even harder.