OPINION | Is criticism of Borussia Dortmund’s Sebastian Kehl justified?

Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke is known for speaking his mind and at the moment, he appears frustrated.

A rump BVB squad, which includes U23s and U19s, touched down for their good will tour of Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. They notched up a 7-2 win against Lion City Sailors on Thursday and play Johor Southern Tigers on Monday.

Currently sixth and nine points behind Bayern Munich, Watzke expressed to Ruhr24 his frustration: “Of course we want to win the title, but this season the cracks have set in pretty early and not just because of the diagnosis that has beset Sébastien Haller.”

BVB fans want success, but it’s been 10 years since the last title. For this season, Watzke has limited expectations: “The way the team are playing right now, second-place would be a huge achievement, I would even be happy with a Champions League place, but even that right now will be hard for us this season.”

But Watzke is confident he knows what is needed.

Sven Mislintat is not an unknown in Dortmund. In an 11-year career at BVB between 2006 and 2017, the 50-year-old gained a reputation for finding players like Shinji Kagawa, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ousmane Dembele, top performers and earners of substantial transfer fees. At the club, he earned a reputation as one of football’s best scouts.

Mislintat made his mark but in 2017, he walked. A dispute with then coach Thomas Tuchel escalated, the former scout was banned from the training ground. BVB’s loss was Arsenal’s gain.

In 2019, Mislintat took on the role of sporting director at Stuttgart, the signings of Sasa Kalajdžić, Silas Mvumpa, Gregor Kobel and Wataru Endo followed. For the second season, Die Schwaben are in the relegation zone and without a permanent coach. Mislintat’s contract runs out in June and as Stuttgarter Nachrichten report, it’s believed that Mislintat is not in the club’s plans.  

VfB loss could be BVB’s win

Ruhr24 report this week that a potential exit at Stuttgart leaves the door open for Mislintat to return to BVB but this time in a supporting role to sporting director Sebastian Kehl.  

Kehl completed his UEFA A coaching badge following his 2015 retirement. Given the respect he earned as Dortmund’s captain, a position in the club’s hierarchy was always on the cards.

In 2018, Kehl was appointed head of professional football with a view to becoming Michael Zorc’s replacement. Fast forward to summer 2022; Zorc departed and Kehl stepped up.

But what did Kehl inherit?

Watzke called the role as head of professional football an “apprenticeship.” It would be fair to say that the last four years have inspired at times, but the 2021 DFB Pokal is not enough. Peter Bosz, Peter Stöger, Lucien Favre, Edin Terzić, Marco Rose and Terzić again have all coached Dortmund since 2018. Kehl has brought additional stability in the background as head of professional football but the club’s management is an unstable environment on the pitch.

But how has Kehl performed as sporting director? Transfer business under Kehl:

Niklas Süle: The 27-year-old arrived from Bayern Munich on a free transfer. The Rekordmeister wanted to move the 1.95m man on prior to signing Matthijs de Ligt. Neither Thomas Meunier nor Emre Can are a fit at centre-back. Süle is also versatile with the ability to cover at right-back but whether a salary of €15m is justified remains to be seen. He has featured in all but five games.

Nico Schlotterbeck: Very little needs to be said about Nico Schlotterbeck, who joined from Freiburg for €20m. A Germany international, he’s done what was needed of him. The 22-year-old is amongst the best in his position, establishing himself as one of Europe’s young defenders, and deserves his place in BVB’s backline and in Hansi Flick’s Germany squad. Always looking to advance the ball, Schlotterbeck is in the 99th percentile for progressive passes in comparison to other central-defenders across Europe’s top five leagues, per FBRef.

Salih Özcan: A signing from FC Köln at just €5m, he is undoubtedly, with Schlotterbeck, Kehl’s best piece of business. He’s an asset in a defensive-midfield, an area that BVB have struggled in following the departure of Thomas Delaney, and last season under Steffen Baumgart, Özcan developed into one of the Bundesliga’s best ball-winning midfielders. BVB tends to ‘crumble’ in the middle of the park, which puts unmanageable pressure on defence. Despite showing some ‘battle weariness’ in the last four weeks, in the majority of his 22 games across all competitions the Turkey international appears an excellent fit.

Karim Adeyemi: In terms of BVB transfers, €30m puts the recruit from RB Salzburg amongst the top five signings ever. The Germany international made an impression on his debut, scoring at 1860 Munich but then suffered a toe injury and was out for two months. He’s featured in 19 games for BVB and showcased his talent against Sevilla, scoring a beautiful goal, showing a small glimpse of the quality that helped him accumulate 19 goals in 21/22 with RB Salzburg.

Sébastien Haller: Dortmund’s most expensive ever signing has undergone a successful second operation after his cancer diagnosis and restarted training. Haller was Ajax’s leading scorer in 21/22 with 34 across all competitions. The Ivory Coast international is an unknown entity for BVB. The fans await his first game in Black and Yellow.

Anthony Modeste: A €5m emergency signing to cover for Haller, Modeste has scored two goals in 1,129 minutes and has mostly looked out of place, despite the Frenchman scoring 20 league goals for Köln last season. Modeste provides aerial dominance in the penalty area, averaging 2.97 headers won per 90.

Marcel Lotka: The Poland U21 goalkeeper arrived on a free after protracted negotiations from Hertha Berlin. When filling in for Rune Jarstein, he showed his immense talent, but he is competing with Germany U21 keeper Luca Unbehaun in the BVB’s U23s.

Alexander Meyer: The 31-year-old reserve keeper joined on a free from Jahn Regensburg, he looks competent if unspectacular.

And the players sold?

Manuel Akanji transferred to Manchester City for €17.5m. He’s only played eight games but looks inspired by the move. He had 12 months on his contract and had been unsettled, the fee is fair, but City can sell the Swiss international hence the long contract (until 2027).

Whether €1.5m for Steffen Tigges to FC Köln is a good transfer is not clear. Sadly like most U23s he struggled in the first team. His 12 Bundesliga appearances for Köln this season has resulted in three goals, ironically one against BVB.

Dan-Axel Zagadou struggled with injuries and his contract was not renewed, and BVB’s loss may be Stuttgart’s gain. Axel Witsel left at the end of his contract for Atletico Madrid. Roman Bürki left on a free to St Louis of the MLS. Ansgar Knauff has excelled on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt and is a player that BVB will want back for the wide areas.

The sale of Erling Haaland for €60m, because of a release clause in his contract, saw a disappointing net-return of €35m, but that can be attributed to Michael Zorc.

In addition, the loans of Marin Pongračić and Reinier Jesus ended and rightly so. Marcel Schmelzer’s retirement was expected.

So is Kehl the issue?

Since the departure of Zorc in the summer, the management has been in a state of upheaval. The club is still feeling the effect of the pandemic, is in debt and the team more often than not is misfiring on the pitch. Is Watzke’s frustration a surprise? 

In terms of coaching there has been no stability in the last four years. No coach has been given sufficient time to develop his strategy. The transfers this summer, except for Modeste, have succeeded.  

The backline is stable, Gregor Kobel is outstanding in goal, but BVB are not balanced, they don’t have the right players in defensive-midfield or the right-wing.

BVB also have a problem in attack. After 17 games last season they scored 41 goals, a stark contrast to the 25 they’ve notched up this season. Youssoufa Moukoko (18) has been the bright spark, scoring six of the eight goals that Dortmund’s forwards have scored this season but he’s in the final year of his contract. Donyell Malen is yet to live up to his €30m price tag with just one goal in 1,045 minutes this season but has the backing of Terzić after scoring a brace on BVB’s tour of Asia.

Jude Bellingham has nine goals in 22 games across all competitions this season and Julian Brandt has five in 21 games, the midfield duo alleviating some of the goalscoring pressure on Moukoko.

It’s clear that Kehl has his work cut out, so will he get the budget?

The answer is yes and no. If there is one thing Watzke learned from the 2005 brush with bankruptcy, it’s that BVB must be financially conservatively run. BVB have turned a profit in all but four seasons, two of which were in the pandemic. The answer is Kehl will have to make the money to spend it.

Would Sven Mislintat be an asset?

Markus Pilawa leaving for Bayern left a big hole to fill. But BVB’s strength is talent scouting and development. The trio of Laurent Busser, Eduard Graf and Sebastian Krug, that are now in place could benefit from Mislintat joining, but on the other hand it could result in another clash in terms of decision making. 

One thing is guaranteed, as ever hawks are circling BVB’s talent. A sale, likely to be over €100m, of Jude Bellingham will make the club solvent. Mislintat could be the man to find a replacement.

Watzke confirmed to Ruhr Nachrichten this week that “for now there are no transfer plans for January” which leaves BVB in a quandary and unlikely to be a challenger.

Kehl though has done sound work and under difficult circumstances. Whilst Zorc’s legacy is a big one to follow, Kehl brings stability and vision. If given a budget he can put the club back on track.

GGFN | Ben McFadyean

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