Will This Be the Last Season of Nuri Sahin, Shinji Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund?

Lars Pollmann@@LarsPollmannFeatured ColumnistOctober 11, 2016

Nuri Sahin, left and Shinji Kagawa  of Borussia Dortmund soccer team celebrate their soccer championship with the trophy  during a parade in Dortmund, Germany Sunday May 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Torsten Silz,Pool)
Torsten Silz/Associated Press

Before the 2016/17 season started for Borussia Dortmund, it was obvious to many that there would be a few cases of hardship within the Black and Yellows' squad.

It comes with the territory of a summer of upheaval that saw the club add no fewer than eight players following the departure of three regular starters in Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, as well as the sales of midfield back-up Moritz Leitner and fan favourite Jakub Blaszczykowski, who had spent the previous year on loan.

The Ruhr side have acquired so much depth that some players would always struggle for playing time, or to even make the bench for any given match. With only 18 spots available in a matchday squad, several highly rated talents or seasoned professionals will be left out in the cold.

At the dawn of the campaign, however, most thought Dortmund's somewhat bloated squad would come at the cost of the team's many promising youngsters, such as 18-year-olds Felix Passlack and Christian Pulisic, or a summer signing like Emre Mor.

So far, those concerns have not been validated. With the exception of 20-year-old midfielder Mikel Merino, who has yet to debut for the club in a competitive match after coming over from Segunda Division side CA Osasuna in the summer, veterans have mostly drawn the short straw.

Head coach Thomas Tuchel was always going to have to disappoint a number of his players this season.
Head coach Thomas Tuchel was always going to have to disappoint a number of his players this season.Michael Probst/Associated Press

Even with Dortmund missing a number of players who will automatically return to the matchday squad on their return from injury, a few experienced members available to head coach Thomas Tuchel have so far played minor parts, if that, to this point.

Marco Reus and Sven Bender have missed all 10 of the club's matches this season, while the Black and Yellows have been without centre-back Marc Bartra and winger Andre Schurrle for stretches as well. Their return to fitness will only complicate things for those who have not played as much football as their standing would usually dictate.

Given the club's youth movement and the rapid development the youngsters are showing, it seems entirely possible that Dortmund will clear out some squad members in the January transfer window or next summer.

Central defender Neven Subotic would not still be at the Westfalenstadion had he not failed a medical at Middlesbrough, per Anthony Vickers of the Evening Gazette. One of the longest-serving players on the team, the Serbian's departure seems merely delayed. 

Full-back Joo Ho Park only joined Dortmund late in the 2015 summer window and appeared in just nine matches, the last of which was played on January 23. The club would likely not put obstacles in the way of the former Mainz 05 men once the transfer window reopens in 2017.

It wouldn't be overly surprising if they were joined on their way out of the door by two high-profile midfielders. Both Nuri Sahin and Shinji Kagawa could well be in their final season at the Westfalenstadion.

Even making the bench has been a challenge for Sahin so far.
Even making the bench has been a challenge for Sahin so far.TF-Images/Getty Images

Alongside Merino and Park, Turkey international Sahin is one of three first-team players who have not played a minute of competitive football to this point, despite being fully fit throughout the start of the campaign.

The 28-year-old only made the matchday squad once, watching his team lose 2-0 at Bayer Leverkusen from the bench in the final game before the October international break.

His perpetual omission from the team may come as a surprise to some, seeing as Sahin had a role on the team after coming back from a lengthy injury absence last season. A trip to Euro 2016 with Turkey may not have brought positive results for his team, but the midfielder probably benefitted from the extra work.

Dortmund's No. 8 looked improved after joining the team in pre-season, seemingly on a better physical level than he had been in years. However, towards the end of the preparations ahead of a long and arduous season, Sahin's performances notably regressed.

Fans who watched his sluggish showing in a friendly match against fourth-tier outfit Hallescher FC will not be overly surprised about the midfielder's lack of playing time.

Sahin is the odd man out with Tuchel opting for a system with Julian Weigl as the lone holding midfielder and two playmaking central midfielders ahead of him. The two did not play well together on a few occasions last season, with both preferring to take up central spaces in front of the back line.

Weigl, 21, is a much better fit for Tuchel's playing style that emphasises retention and circulation of the ball, with Sahin more of a deep-lying playmaker spreading the field with long passes.

Sebastian Rode's versatility means he rivals both Sahin and Kagawa for playing time.
Sebastian Rode's versatility means he rivals both Sahin and Kagawa for playing time.TF-Images/Getty Images

Of course, he could still have a role on the team, but Tuchel naturally prefers the far more versatile Sebastian Rode as a back-up on the bench. The summer signing isn't necessarily a better defensive midfielder, but he brings an energy and dynamism off the bench that Sahin simply can not match.

At 28, Sahin is not only one of the older players on the team—and his role as a leader in the dressing room should not be overlooked—he is also in what should be the prime of his career. In Weigl, Rode and, in the near future, Merino, three younger players block his way to the pitch.

Sahin would probably be better off trying his luck elsewhere. With many injuries taking their toll, he has lost a step or two too many. Dortmund's game has overtaken him.

Kagawa's problems are not related to long-term injuries. Quite simply, it's a performance issue.

The Japan international started the season well, scoring a brace in the DFB-Pokal first-round match against Eintracht Trier, but he has since fallen behind Gonzalo Castro and Rode on the depth chart.

The return of Mario Gotze was already going to eat into his playing time, while Raphael Guerreiro's unexpected turn from full-back to all-action midfielder further clouded the 27-year-old's prospects.

With so many alternatives for Kagawa's position—in Tuchel's 4-1-4-1, he can only play as one of the two central midfielders ahead of Weigl—every inconsistency brings swift punishment in the form of a spot on the bench or even in the stands.

Kagawa needs to find some consistency in his game if he wants to stay at Dortmund beyong this season.
Kagawa needs to find some consistency in his game if he wants to stay at Dortmund beyong this season.TF-Images/Getty Images

Playing in five matches so far, Kagawa has spent a grand total of 45 minutes on the pitch since the end of August. Inconsistency was his big issue last season as well, when a strong finish to the season failed to whitewash an overall underwhelming campaign.

All is not lost, of course.

When in good form, Kagawa can still be a difference-maker. His qualities, namely strong technique, inventive passing and underrated counter-pressing skills, make him a natural fit for Tuchel's preferred playing style.

However, Dortmund do not have to indulge the Japanese's recurring creative breaks, thanks to their depth in numbers at the position. With Gotze slowly but steadily on the way back to his best form, as well Guerreiro and Castro proving their worth this season already, Kagawa will have to make good use of whatever chances will come his way.

A genuine superstar on the ever-growing Asian market, the 27-year-old would likely have a healthy number of suitors should he choose to leave the club. In that sense, the rest of the season could be considered a barometer on Kagawa's willingness to work hard for his place at the Westfalenstadion.


Lars Pollmann also writes for The Yellow Wall. You can follow him on Twitter.


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