Close, but yet so far. Thomas Tuchel, Borussia Dortmund’s head coach, couldn’t steer the yellow-and-blacks to their first win over Bayern Munich this season in the German Cup final.
Dortmund, who recorded the best second-placed Bundesliga finish in history, were left empty-handed at the end of a tense night in the German capital, with Bayern taking victory on penalties. Tuchel admitted he was to blame for Dortmund’s order of kickers, but this is irrelevant – Dortmund missed key chances at important points in the game.
What’s encouraging for the Dortmund faithful is just how the Ruhrgebiet club have gone toe-to-toe with the Bavarians this season. The gap is minimal. This summer, though, is one of major change and will be the greatest test so far of Tuchel’s tenure at Borussia Dortmund, since he replaced Jürgen Klopp last summer.
“There is still lots of room for improvement. This was my first final with the team. It’s a process,” explained the Dortmund coach in Berlin. “When you go on stage, then you embark with the knowledge in there that can go wrong. This is not really a huge problem: one can lose, that’s the nature of sport. But we will be ready again and will hopefully be back in Berlin.”
Defining moment of the season:
Two of Borussia Dortmund’s strongest league performances of the season came after the winter break. The first game in 2016 – a 3-1 win at Borussia Mönchengladbach – illustrated fast combination play at its finest, with Marco Reus, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Ilkay Gundogan bagging the goals to kickoff the new year.
Given Gladbach’s imperious home record, the yellow-and-blacks romped to victory, playing with speed, brain and flamboyance. From Dortmund’s perspective, the 0-0 draw at home to Bayern Munich was title-defining in perhaps the wrong sense. Yet the level of play, the intensity of both sides and the tactics deployed, made this one of the best goalless games in recent memory.
A special mention is deserving for Dortmund’s 5-1 aggregate win over Tottenham in the UEFA Europa League this season. While some will blame Spurs – who finished third in the Premier League – for not giving the competition much respect, but the manner Tuchel’s side dispatched of the North London club was ruthlessly efficient.
Player of the Season:
Subject of intensified interest from Chelsea, Mkhitaryan is engaged in a tug-of-war with Borussia Dortmund’s senior management. His agent, Mino Raiola, has actively touted him to the continent’s super-clubs, with the aim of attracting financially-lucrative offers and raising the market price for the former Shakhtar Donestk ace.
It’s believed, however, that Mkhitaryan wants to stay at Dortmund. His confidence is booming under Tuchel, the Armenian playing undoubtedly the best football of his career. With 32 assists and 23 goals in 53 matches in all competitions, the attacking-midfielder’s contribution has been paramount to Dortmund’s record second-placed finish in the league.
Despite Mkhitaryan’s wonderful appreciation for the ball, there appears to be something unglamorous about the 27-year-old – why does he continue to be overlooked as one of European football’s best forwards?
Perhaps Dortmund’s lack of Champions League football is to blame. Next season, the German side will return to Europe’s premier club competition and the Armenian will look to stamp his style on the competition for the first time in his career. Previous attempts haven’t dazzled, but under Tuchel, Dortmund could be on to something special next season.
Elsewhere, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has excelled under Thomas Tuchel, scoring 25 league goals. Julian Weigl has proven to be a sensational coup from 1860 Munich, plucked out of relative obscurity to earning a spot in Joachim Löw’s squad for the European Championships. Gonzalo Castro has strongly put a claim for Gundogan’s position, while Marcel Schmelzer delivered his best season yet in a yellow shirt.
The loss of Mats Hummels this summer is a crushing blow to Borussia Dortmund’s ambitions of challenging Bayern. Ilkay Gundogan – who is injured for the next few months – will probably head to England in a deal worth 25 million euros. This is perhaps the greatest dent in Dortmund’s armour since the club restored itself to the summit of German football.
Both Hummels and Gundogan are unique in modern football. Finding a left-footed, passing centre-back with vast experience will be almost impossible for the yellow-and-blacks. Similarly, acquiring a midfielder with the same ball control under pressure, the ability to penetrate between the lines, will be tough.
But Zorc and CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke have stomached this before. They will have been well-prepared for the departure of both players. Losing Mkhitaryan would be catastrophic, but tying down Tuchel for the long-term should convince the Armenian to stay put. Ousmane Dembele, one of Europe’s hottest talents, picked Dortmund, while there is enough in the kitty to sign another couple of quality players.
The circumstances mean Tuchel will need to probably rejig his team, and he’ll have pre-season to make that happen. If the club can make even half the progress next season as this year, Dortmund will be in a strong position come this time next May.