Virtually every media outlet in European football relayed the inevitable news last week. It had been coming. Realistically, the previous three seasons have posed as antecedents for this summer. One by one, the dominos had begun to fall over the course of this season. Chelsea, Manchester United, and PSG gradually denounced their intentions to truly pursue the signature of Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham.
God knows it wasn’t for lack of interest, but rather an acceptance of the reality that only Real Madrid and Manchester City possessed the necessary means to rid the English prodigy of black and yellow.
Liverpool were genuinely interested, of course. Yet, for reasons not too dissimilar to the rest, they eventually bowed out in favour of a summer rebuild instead of draining every last club resource possible for one player. It appears that Real Madrid have successfully agreed to personal terms with the Dortmund starlet and subsequently unveiled the final piece of what was a dream crop of young midfield talent before Bellingham was even part of the equation.
It should be noted that there is yet to be an accepted transfer fee between the two clubs. Though, it isn’t Dortmund’s supporters who should feel encouraged by this. It is Manchester City’s. The allure of Pep Guardiola, England, and a reunion with the Premier League’s single season goalscoring record holder, Erling Haaland, is undeniably attractive.
On the assumption that Bellingham does leave, the coming weeks will likely see the volume of Dortmund’s ‘Bellingham replacement’ rumours significantly ramped up, but there is potentially much more in play behind the scenes. The club has developed an uneasy marriage to the identity as a feeding entity to Europe’s elite. Perhaps the best in the business when you examine the list of names and their respective transfer fees.
It’s a fantastic source of recurring cash flow, but it’s also something that club sporting director, Sebastian Kehl is publicly stating must come to an end. At least that’s the logical outcome of a desire to keep the young talent the club develops every passing year. It’s here that the club could very well finally be at a crossroads, with the events of this season acting as the tip of the iceberg.
The question at hand is one which points to the very heart of the philosophical framework of the club as it proceeds into the future. Can the preexisting transfer structure produce a consistent on-field product that enables legitimate title challenges every year? Clearly not.
Can it force Bayern Munich to sustain its eternal impulse for domestic domination? There’s an argument to be made that, even if Edin Terzic does capitalise on the club’s self-proclaimed “once in a life-time chance” and secure this year’s Bundesliga title, the final performance review could be more complex than one would think.
Finally stealing the honours from the Allianz Arena would and should be celebrated. The majority of Europe would indeed bask in its own portion of the glory that would be the end of Bayern’s consecutive title run.
However, it’s extremely difficult to get past the fact that Bayern, experiencing a truly horrendous season in a variety of ways, may still retain the Meisterschale. Seemingly against its own will as it hobbles its way to the finish line of a period that those connected with the club are already desperate to forget. This should be alarming from the perspective of both Dortmund and Bundesliga fans alike.
It’s a season that has required a record-breaking winning streak to start 2023 to even be in the title race at this late stage against the most dysfunctional Bayern side in many years. Is this enough to satisfy supporters? Possibly in the short-term, but many of the issues that surround Dortmund’s annual downfall are still present. Inexplicable lapses, absent leadership, and the impending departure of the club’s best player(s).
Sebastian Kehl should be given credit for honoring his campaign message of change in regard to the desire to see his club’s best talent experience the prime of their careers beneath the steep shadows of the Yellow Wall. Various signings were made last summer and of the desired variety. So, when we circle back to the question of who should replace Jude Bellingham, it invokes more complex thought than at first glance.
Is this truly a squad that is now primed for a run of seasons in which it will continue to improve? Would the much-hyped and purely hypothetical signing of Lorient’s Enzo Le Fee be enough to convince both Kehl and Dortmund’s upper management that this nucleus is fit to execute the plot to land multiple blows to Munich’s empire?
Additionally, as much as it may be difficult for some supporters to even entertain the thought, has Edin Terzic’s ceiling been met in terms of his game management and tactical refinement? The list of games in which Dortmund have stumbled this season point toward a combination of that ineptitude and unforgivable individual error on the part of his senior players.
Meanwhile, the brightest moments, such as the recent demolition of Eintracht Frankfurt, the 4-1 win over Sevilla and Sunday’s 6-0 thrashing of Wolfsburg has demonstrated the dual reality of Terzic’s ability to connect with his players on an emotional level and thereby supply the platform for their individual brilliance. Is a feel-good atmosphere coupled with individual flair on the part of dynamic young prospects enough?
Again, it may prove to be so during a one-off Bavarian nightmare, but it’s foolish to think that the perineal champions won’t be back with a vengeance one way or another come autumn. This isn’t to suggest that Dortmund absolutely have to empty the deck and start over, but it’s important to understand that the sale of Bellingham cannot be merely viewed as an opportunity to snatch up the latest teenager with the sales pitch of immediate European exposure.
I don’t believe that the club’s aspirations for silverware are ensnared by financial restraint. It’s hard to make that case when both Union Berlin and Freiburg, teams with significantly less breathing room in their bank accounts, find themselves just eight points behind Dortmund and in line for UEFA Champions League qualification.
But those clubs have been able to rise to newly found heights due to concrete planning that has developed over multiple years. Careful steps have been taken in order to lay the foundations for something special.
The question that Dortmund now face isn’t about who fills the void of Bellingham. Rather, with a fee that’s potentially in excess of €150m, are the bricks being laid to pave a road toward squad composition that is able to rival Bayern when they’re not impulsively inflicting self-punishment?
Toward a scenario in which the likes of Karim Adeyemi, Youssoufa Moukoko, and Nico Schlotterbeck still wear black and yellow in two years’ time? If not, then there could very well be a restructuring of personnel both on the field and in the technical area as the curtains close on a dramatic end to a thoroughly unique Bundesliga season.
GGFN | Reece Edwards