Deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Dust ourselves down and go again. This was the plan for Borussia Dortmund after a fragile, inconsistent and often traumatic twelve months which involved parting ways with two head coaches and – more seriously – suffering an attack on the team bus in April before their Champions League quarter-final with Monaco.
Influential head scout Sven Mislintat departed for Arsenal, still affected by being marginalised under former coach Thomas Tuchel, while the mess created by second coach, Peter Bosz, is still being swept up by his replacement Peter Stoger.
The last thing on their minds just two weeks into the new year was having to deal with more drama. But that’s exactly what they got, courtesy of star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Making their post-winter break return to Bundesliga action against Wolfsburg, the Schwarzgelben teamsheet had a freshness to it. Teenagers Alexander Isak and Jadon Sancho were included in the starting XI for the first time in the league, and to their credit, made their respective presences felt, each hitting the woodwork in a frustrating goalless draw. More telling however was Aubameyang’s latest exclusion for “disciplinary reasons” – the third time it has happened in the last 12 months.
On the last occasion, before November’s game in Stuttgart, you could feel the frustration emanating from those upstairs, but Watzke’s willingness to resolve the matter with minimal fuss was clear. He even spoke about the Gabonese forward being part of the ‘Dortmund family’, which to an extent is true. Aubameyang and those closest to him are happy in Gelsenkirchen.
This time though, the feeling is that bridges have been burned. “There’s a point where you can’t tolerate it anymore,” sporting director Michael Zorc said after the game. “I don’t know what’s going on in his head.” Stoger also explained that Aubameyang had missed an important team meeting on Saturday that involved the whole squad, even those with injuries, and dismissed his explanation. “He said he forgot, but we all know that’s not the case.”
It feels now as if Aubameyang’s future at the club is untenable. They would have been happy to sell him on last summer, but the right buyer was never found with Chinese Super League interest from Guangzhou Evergrande stopped in its tracks by the government’s new tax law on clubs bringing in high-profile foreigners.
Beyond that, there has been a surprisingly small market out there for such a consistent goalscorer. Perhaps it is because his game is heavily based on pace, and the fact that he is now 28 means this would be his last big contract, requiring significant investment in terms of transfer fee and wages. Statistically his numbers are still strong with 21 goals in 23 appearances, but overall his assists, key pass and pass completion rates are all down from the previous season – not to mention his attitude and temperament which have come into disrepute of late.
Despite the untidiness of the situation, maybe January is the best time to make a deal happen. With Arsenal set to lose Alexis Sanchez, going for Aubameyang – who was originally identified by Mislintat for Dortmund while playing for Saint-Etienne – would certainly take some heat off Arsene Wenger and the board. Dortmund as well could move on, focusing on the talented players at their disposal who are completely committed to the cause.
The irony of Sunday’s fall-out is that Aubameyang had started the day as victim, with Kicker’s chief writer Karlheinz Wild criticising him on the magazine’s TV channel, describing what he called an “Affenzirkus” – ‘monkey circus’ – around the player. The 28-year-old, understandably, complained on Instagram and his father made a post on Sunday night saying that the journalist “wants to bring us back to Hitler’s time”. Wild has since apologised through Kicker for his choice of words.
Dortmund will move on, as they always do, and will have a contingency plan up their sleeve as much as Isak and Sancho show promise. The departures of Robert Lewandowski, Mario Gotze and Henrikh Mkhitaryan slowed down their progress, but even with the emergence of RB Leipzig they are still the second-best team in Germany. A look into the future can already be seen with Manuel Akanji coming in from Basel, and hopefully, in time, they and Aubameyang will remember each other fondly. Many happy moments have been shared but this relationship has finally run its course.