Are Borussia Dortmund Turning into the New Arsenal?

Clark WhitneyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 28, 2014

Dortmund's Robert Lewandowski of Poland is unhappy after missing to score during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and FC Augsburg in Dortmund,  Germany, Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Martin Meissner/Associated Press

Arsenal have until recently been an enigma in European football. While other Premier League giants like Manchester United and Chelsea have engaged heavily in deficit spending, the Gunners have made a profit every year since 2002.

Their youth academy has led the way in England, giving rise to stars like Jack Wilshere and Ashley Cole, and the club has done well to sign burgeoning talents like Cesc Fabregas at a young age.

But for all that Arsenal have done well, the club's reputation has in many circles—at least in part—become negative. The departures of Cole and Robin van Persie, among others, to direct rivals has given Arsenal a spineless image.

The North London side are, perhaps inexplicably due to their financial might, widely considered a "selling club," known for pragmatism in a modern football scene that is anything but pragmatic. As "righteous" as they may be, it's been more than eight years and eight months since Arsenal last won a trophy.

The good news for Gooners is that there may now be another club that will take a similarly unflattering reputation: Borussia Dortmund.

Like Arsenal, there is much to be said for Dortmund doing the "right" thing. After joining the European trend in risky, deficit spending and narrowly avoiding bankruptcy in 2004, BVB were in shambles. But they soon changed course following Hans-Joachim Watzke's appointment as CEO in 2005.

Their finances finally under some semblance of control, Dortmund experienced exponential growth in prominence later in the noughties following the signing of Jurgen Klopp from then-2. Bundesliga side Mainz in 2008.

Klopp and his scouts did brilliantly well to pick out young players from Bundesliga academies, long before they became stars. The coach brought a young Neven Subotic from Mainz and managed to sign Mats Hummels, Sven Bender and Marcel Schmelzer (all of whom were European Champions at youth level) for a fraction of the cost that Bundesliga financial giants Bayern Munich spent on, for example, a 30-year-old Luca Toni.

The forced sale of Goetze to Bayern was crippling to BVB's image.
The forced sale of Goetze to Bayern was crippling to BVB's image.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

With limited expectations and only two competitions with which to be concerned, Dortmund flourished. Under Klopp they finished sixth and fifth, respectively, in their first two seasons. A year later, the aforementioned signings along with academy graduates Nuri Sahin, Mario Goetze, and a previously unheard-of midfielder from the Japanese second division named Shinji Kagawa took the Bundesliga by storm. Dortmund shocked German football, claiming the title in 2011. A year later, they won the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal, shattering many club and league records along the way.

Yet almost inevitably, things have since turned south for Dortmund. They finished second in the Bundesliga last season, but 25 points behind Bayern. And now they stand third, 14 points behind the leaders. Critically, they have lost a key figure every year since they won the title: First Sahin left, then Kagawa and Mario Goetze.

This July, Robert Lewandowski will also leave, joining Goetze at BVB's main source of domestic competition, Bayern. And the future of Ilkay Gundogan remains in the air: Should he opt not to extend his contract, the summer of 2014 could be the first time that BVB lose two key figures in one transfer window.

As with Arsenal, Dortmund's successes have made their players attractive items in the transfer market while their modest wage structure has left the club vulnerable to "bigger fish."

In hindsight, BVB's run to the 2013 Champions League final now appears to be more of a last-gasp attempt at greatness than a stepping stone towards future success—not entirely different from Arsenal's appearance in the 2006 final.

The good news for Dortmund is that if they take the right steps, in the long term they may become a big and competitive club. They have plenty of untapped potential in marketing and are already hugely successful financially. BVB's revenue ranked 11th in the world according to the 2014 Deloitte Football Money League report, and their profit is rivaled by few, Arsenal among them.

And the club's academy, which among others in recent years produced Goetze, Sahin and Marco Reus, is ever-improving: In the West region of the Bundesliga youth leagues, BVB rank fourth  at under-19 level and first among the under-17s.

Ozil's signing was a symbol that marked a turning point for Arsenal.
Ozil's signing was a symbol that marked a turning point for Arsenal.Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Although the Arsenal comparison may be rather foreboding, Dortmund can also find hope in the example of the Gunners' recent history. Despite the club's reputation, as Financial Fair Play comes into effect, Arsene Wenger's side is well-positioned for the future.

The AFC academy is the envy of England and years of financial prudence allowed the club to sign Mesut Ozil last summer for a record €50 million. Arsenal are now on course to win the Premier League for the first time in a decade.

Over the course of the next few years, BVB will in all likelihood struggle to reach the heights of the last few seasons: Bayern are too strong and too deep to challenge in the Bundesliga, and Champions League winners are made not from teams that are constantly replacing key players, but rather those that have galvanized a footballing identity with consistency over the span of several years. Player sales and a perhaps inevitable trophy drought will make Dortmund become the Bundesliga's Arsenal.

But just as Arsenal have at long last begun to realize their potential, so can Dortmund. A few years ago, AFC were well behind Manchester United in terms of footballing results; now they are decidedly ahead. Should they maintain their financial success, continue to compete in the Champions League and rebuild their team once more, BVB have every chance of becoming title contenders once more in every competition.


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