Being a Borussia Dortmund fan feels like being a small, savvy investor a lot of the time. You’re not flush with cash and you very rarely hit the big score, but you stay competitive and know exactly when to buy and when to sell. It’s long-term success and stability over the brief fireworks of rampant spending in late-stage capitalism. This makes sense: Dortmund found themselves on the brink of financial ruin just over a decade ago, even after a five-season stretch that saw them win the Bundesliga and the Champions League, with another Champions League semifinals finish to boot. Since then, their modus operandi has become well-known in world football: buy them young, train them well, and sell high. With the help of some great coaches, a few loyal players willing to accept a lower wage than other teams might pay them, and a fantastic academy system, Dortmund has turned that formula into a winning one. Or, at least a “finished in second place” one.
All of this has made Ousmane Dembélé’s transfer smell of inevitability. Sure, Dortmund said they wouldn’t sell anyone else this window, but they have a price. This is Dortmund. There’s always a price. That’s how Dortmund works.
More interesting is BVB’s contingency plan, which is another important cog in their buy-train-sell machine. In order to stay competitive, there must be replacements for the burgeoning stars that will be sold. Staying competitive is essential to enticing young talent away from other clubs. Even if a player’s end goal is to get sold to a bigger, better team, they still want some prestige with their move. They still want a chance to win something. The contingency plan aspect is what makes Dortmund’s (alleged) decision to sell Dembélé so intriguing: he’s already at the club, and he’s an American kid.
To put it plainly: Christian Pulisic is not as good of a prospect as Ousmane Dembélé is. And that’s ok. More accurately, he’s a different kind of player compared to Dembélé. Dembélé has Cristiano Ronaldo potential. His speed, his dribbling ability, and his shot power are off the charts for someone at this stage of his career, and a fully-realized Ousmane Dembélé would most likely pull down a couple Ballon d’Ors. Pulisic doesn’t have that same burst or dribbling ability or even shot power. Pulisic knows this. That’s why he doesn’t play the game the same way as Dembélé. Sure, Pulisic loves to take on defenders, but he’s far more likely to cut the ball back and forth a couple times to give himself an inch of space into which he can squeeze a shot or cross than he is to go for the soul-crushing moves Dembele likes to put on defenders. If a fully-realized Dembélé looks like Cristiano Ronaldo, a fully-realized Pulisic looks a bit more like Arjen Robben, or even Thomas Müller: quick and ruthlessly efficient. Neither of those two players have ever sniffed at a World Player of the Year award due to the existence of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. And most importantly, those types of players never sniff a World Player of the Year award, because there is always a Ronaldo or a Messi. There will always be a Ronaldinho, a Zidane, or some other paradigm-shifting talent that rules the world. However, while the Arjen Robbens of the world don’t win those individual prizes, their teams lift plenty of silverware.
Selling Dembélé is more than flipping a prospect for a billion times more than he was worth when he was bought: it’s Dortmund selling important on-field production. He scored 10 goals and racked up a ridiculous 22 assists in all competitions. And while that may seem slightly less impressive when human Energizer bunny Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is your striker, a large part of Aubameyang’s success has been the quality of the midfielders behind him. An overwhelming majority of Aubameyang’s goals are scored from inside the box, high-quality scoring opportunities created by his speed and the players around him that reward that speed. Aubameyang is a great striker, but he’s not a do-it-all kind of player. He needs service. For Dortmund, that service usually comes from the wings. Last season, wing midfielders on the team tallied up 26 assists in league play, while midfielders roaming the center of the field, including Dortmund’s triumvirate of attacking midfielders in Shinji Kagawa, Mario Götze, and Gonzalo Castro, accounted for exactly half of that number. Dembélé lead the way in that regard, tallying 12 in the league for himself.
So, if and when Dortmund sell Ousmane Dembélé, there will be big shoes to fill. The club will have essentially no time to use the influx of cash to land a midfielder of similar quality. Marco Reus is hurt, which is like water being wet for the Signal Iduna faithful. But the fact that Dortmund seem likely to sell is a major vote of confidence for Pulisic, who responded in a big way last weekend against Wolfsburg.
A good performance against Wolfsburg isn’t the end-all of German soccer. They were nearly relegated last season, and were missing their starting two center backs due to injury. But Pulisic quite simply outplayed everyone else on the field, including Maxi Philipp, the winger Dortmund had signed from Freiburg earlier in the summer. In fact, you might struggle to remember much of anything Philipp did during the game, simply because the attack looked so effective on Dortmund’s right side running through Pulisic.
Dortmund will not have a replacement for Ousmane Dembélé. They will have Marco Reus, eventually, and they will have something of a gamble. They’ll gamble their Bundesliga title hopes, always realistic at least at the beginning of the season. They’ll gamble the DFB Pokal trophy they just won. They’ll gamble their Champions League fate, already murky in a Group of Death with Tottenham Hotspur and perennial European opponents Real Madrid. And it seems for all the world like they’ll be betting on themselves and the player they already had to fill the Dembele-sized hole in their midfield. An American teenager will be asked, this season, to help carry a team with title ambitions through some of the best teams in the world.
That’s how Dortmund works.