One of the many perks the winter break, a month-long hiatus from competitive football, offers German clubs is the opportunity to self-evaluate processes and decisions.
Of course, this is mostly an internal procedure and thus closed to the public, unless the results of this assessment make a drastic move inevitable, be it a coaching change or the instalment of a new sporting director.
For Borussia Dortmund, the self-evaluation between the end of the first half of the season and the start of the preparations for the rest of the campaign will not call for such poignant decisions. The Black and Yellows return to the training pitch on January 3 and begin their training camp in Marbella, Spain, two days later, per the club's official website.
Still, the club's decision-makers will assess the first months of the season and not be overly impressed with the team's performances. More than anything, a lack of consistency has haunted the Ruhr side, not least because myriad injuries has taken its toll.
The root cause for most of Dortmund's problems, however, can probably be located in the summer transfer window, when the club faced the impossible situation of having to replace three of the team's best and most important players in Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
At the time, the Black and Yellows were widely praised for their reaction to those losses, with Squawka.com going as far as calling them "the undisputed kings of the transfer market."
Dortmund's summer acquisitions held up reasonably well when Bleacher Report graded their performances through the first half of the season, but few would argue that the club could have done even better in the summer.
Their failure to sign a true replacement for Gundogan was noted as a glaring omission by this writer in September, while the last months have shown Dortmund could also have used a new back-up goalkeeper and another centre-back.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but chances are the Ruhr side would have played a stronger first half of the season had they not left themselves vulnerable in those three spots.
With that in mind, here, B/R takes a look at how Dortmund should have spent their money in the summer.
We will look only at players who moved clubs in the transfer window and only consider transfers that would have seemed realistic at the time—no cheating with Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free!
Dortmund spent €109.75 million on transfers in the summer, and to a large degree, that was money well spent. Marc Bartra, Ousmane Dembele, Raphael Guerreiro, Mario Gotze and Emre Mor were good signings for a combined sum of €64 million.
However, their three other signings, Mikel Merino, Sebastian Rode and Andre Schurrle, have so far not paid dividends.
Merino has only played in three matches. Rode looks a rare bad signing, as this writer detailed in an earlier piece, and does not seem to have a natural position within Dortmund's system.
Schurrle, while he has played OK, was too expensive as the club's record signing and always seemed more of a luxury transfer who would not improve Dortmund's starting XI if everyone was available for any given match.
We would argue the €45.75 million Dortmund invested in these three players could have been spent more intelligently in the following positions and on the players mentioned.
Back-Up Goalkeeper: Ron-Robert Zieler, €3.5 million
Dortmund did not identify their second goalkeeper behind regular starter Roman Burki a position of need in the summer, never once being linked in earnest with a new signing for the spot between the sticks.
Thirty-six-year-old veteran Roman Weidenfeller, however, has shown his age since Burki broke his hand against Bayern Munich. Dortmund's long-term No. 1 played well against Real Madrid in the Champions League and won his side a penalty shootout against Union Berlin in the DFB-Pokal earlier in the season, but Father Time has caught up to him, and he has become a liability.
While it is unfair to pin it all on the 2014 FIFA World Cup winner, the fact is he has conceded a whopping 13 goals in seven matches since covering for the injured Burki, failing to keep a single clean sheet while Dortmund won only twice.
With the benefit of hindsight, the club's decision-makers would probably have made an effort to sign a new back-up for the Switzerland international in the summer.
A number of interesting 'keepers switched clubs during the transfer window, but no one presented better value than Ron-Robert Zieler.
The 27-year-old joined Premier League champions Leicester City for €3.5 million thanks to a release clause activated after Hannover 96 were relegated from the Bundesliga, per Michael Richter of German sports magazine Kicker (link in German).
A Germany international with vast experience in the Bundesliga and strong with the ball at his feet, Zieler would have been an ideal fit for Thomas Tuchel's preferred playing style and a real bargain of a transfer.
One of the underrated 'keepers in the German top flight for years, he would arguably have had a better chance of unseating Burki as the first choice at the Westfalenstadion than winning the job in the Foxes' goal from Kasper Schmeichel.
Centre-Back: Aleksandar Dragovic, €18 million
Hummels' departure to Bayern Munich hurt in more ways than one. The fact that the team captain jumped ship to join the biggest domestic rival once again put Dortmund in their place, but he was also difficult to replace on the field.
One of if not the best buildup player from the centre-back position in the world, Hummels' passing qualities were a huge part of Tuchel's system. Finding someone to replicate that and become a leader in Dortmund's defence was impossible.
The Ruhr side identified Bartra as a possible replacement for his on-the-ball qualities and, before he lost his form from October onwards, the Catalan looked promising in the buildup phase. However, he does not have the gravitas and does not exude the confidence of Hummels.
Dortmund tried to sign another centre-back, reportedly agreeing terms with Bayer Leverkusen's Omer Toprak but failing to find a common ground on a fee with the Rhinelanders, per local paper Kolner Stadt-Anzeiger (link in German).
Per a report from German tabloid Sport Bild (link in German), Turkey international Toprak will join Dortmund next summer, when he can activate a release clause valued at €12 million.
However, the last months have shown the Black and Yellows could well use another centre-back right now and not just next season. Oddly enough, the player who would have fit the club's usual transfer profile best is the one who will take Toprak's place at Leverkusen, Austrian defender Aleksandar Dragovic.
The 25-year-old would have offered the Black and Yellows an intriguing blend of potential growth and impressive experience at a young age for a central defender, having won over 50 caps for Austria and having played in 70 games across various UEFA competitions for Kiev and former clubs Austria Wien and FC Basel ahead of his move to Germany in the summer.
Strong with both feet, good in the air and German-speaking, Dragovic would likely not have had as many problems getting acclimated to the Bundesliga as Bartra, who struggles with "an adjustment process that takes time," as Tuchel said in a press conference earlier in December.
Central Midfielder: Piotr Zielinski, €14 million
Easily the most glaring need in the entire squad, it is hard to comprehend how Dortmund could go into the season without replacing Gundogan with a new natural central midfielder.
His many responsibilities have fallen to Gotze, Guerreiro and Gonzalo Castro, all of whom do not possess the same strategical qualities as the Manchester City midfielder. Gotze and Castro are better when used in a role higher up the pitch, while Guerreiro has done well in the precious few matches he played in the centre.
The Euro 2016 winner has missed half of Dortmund's games through somewhat mysterious muscle ailments, however.
With Rode incapable of helping the team out on the ball—his risk-averse, ultra-conservative passing made him the butt of many jokes on social media platforms after only a few appearances for the Westfalenstadion club—it is clear the Black and Yellows need another creative force in the middle of the park.
RB Salzburg's Naby Keita would have been an awesome fit for Dortmund, but it stands to reason to think he was not on the open market, as he moved to RB Leipzig, or from one Red Bull affiliate to the other.
We thought long and hard about Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who combines passing qualities with a strong physicality and picked up valuable Bundesliga experience at Bayern Munich and on loan for FC Schalke 04 before moving to Southampton in the summer. However, he is more of a box-to-box midfielder, and we were looking for a genuine playmaker.
Piotr Zielinski would have been a strong fit for Dortmund. They were tentatively linked with the Poland international before he moved to SSC Napoli in the summer, per Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia).
B/R's Blair Newman offered a scouting report on the 22-year-old, calling Zielinski "a dynamic central midfielder with a relentless streak," who "is also a highly intelligent player on the ball."
"He shows both good awareness of his own positioning and of how to manipulate the space around him, traits which—along with his pace and directness—make him an effective dribbler," Newman continued.
With Dortmund at times struggling to move the ball into the final third with any kind of conviction or rhythm, having a strong dribbler in the middle of the park would be of tremendous help.
Zielinski is also a creative passer who uses his technique and ingenuity, as in the video below, where he put the ball on a silver platter for Marek Hamsik against Inter Milan:
Despite his relatively slight build, the Pole is also a dedicated runner and defender, contributing in Maurizio Sarri's high-intensity system at the Stadio San Paolo.
An all-action midfielder available for a bargain €14 million, Zielinski and Guerreiro could have compensated for the departure of Gundogan as a tandem, freeing up Gotze to have more of an attacking role.
In Zieler, Dragovic and Zielinski, Dortmund could have had three players to fill their problem spots for relative bargains. They cost their new clubs a combined €35.5 million in the summer, meaning we stayed well below our own budget—allowing us to keep Merino after all or investing in another position.
With the €10 million left in our budget, Dortmund could, for example, have added Timo Werner as a young back-up striker to groom behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, or Serge Gnabry, one of the Bundesliga's best players of the first half of the season, for the left wing vacated by leaving out Schurrle.
Hindsight is 20/20, but do you think our proposed transfer window would have been better than Dortmund's? Leave your thoughts in the comments or on social media.
All transfer information via Transfermarkt.com