Revisiting the Highs and Lows of Borussia Dortmund in 2016

Lars Pollmann@@LarsPollmannFeatured ColumnistDecember 31, 2016

Revisiting the Highs and Lows of Borussia Dortmund in 2016

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    2016 was a remarkable year in the 107-year history of Borussia Dortmund, albeit not necessarily for all the right reasons.

    More than anything, it was marked by heartbreaking defeats and a never-before-seen exodus of star players in the summer transfer window. Of course, there were still plenty of great moments for fans, too, with superb performances from a team that remains easy to root for even for neutral supporters.

    Even though it did not quite reach the levels of a rollercoaster 2015, when legendary head coach Jurgen Klopp waved goodbye to the Westfalenstadion after seven incredible years, there rarely was a dull moment in the 12 months of 2016.

    Join Bleacher Report in revisiting the most poignant moments of the year over the following pages. We will look at the most significant developments for the Black and Yellows in chronological order.

    Click "Begin Slideshow" to start the walk down memory lane.

High: Professional Debuts for Christian Pulisic, Felix Passlack

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    Stefan Matzke - sampics/Getty Images

    Dortmund did not make any signings in 2016's January transfer window, but the squad still received welcome additions. The Ruhr side promoted Christian Pulisic and Felix Passlack, both 17 years old at the time, to the senior team for the winter training camp in Dubai, and the youngsters have not looked back since.

    Pulisic has been especially impressive, setting a number of records both in the Bundesliga and for the United States senior national team. Among other things, he became the youngest foreigner to score in the German top flight with his first goal against Hamburger SV in April, per ESPN FC's Stephan Uersfeld.

    The attacking midfielder/winger has fought his way into the regular rotation, appearing in 30 matches since his debut against FC Ingolstadt on January 30. With four goals and six assists, he has been fairly productive—a testament to his impressive decision-making in the final third.

    Because he is just another member of the squad, it is easy to forget how young he still is. Having turned 18 in September, Pulisic's comet-like rise has been nothing short of sensational.

    Passlack has found playing time a bit harder to come by, debuting against SV Darmstadt 98 in March. He has appeared in 14 matches since, most of which came at right-back.

    The Germany youth international has somewhat curiously been left out of the squad for the most part in the later stages of the calendar year after a strong start to the campaign. His last appearance in the Bundesliga came early in November.

    Still, he has showed the future belongs to him and should turn into a full-time starter for Dortmund before too long.

Low: Stunning Collapse Against Liverpool in the Europa League

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    Jon Super/Associated Press

    Dortmund meeting Liverpool in the Europa League quarter-finals in April hardly came as a surprise. Fate would not have it any other way—the Black and Yellows were destined to face Klopp's new love.

    A tight 1-1 in the home fixture was hardly a great result, but it seemed to be insignificant as Dortmund shot out of the blocks to what should have been a secure two-goal lead after just nine minutes of play at Anfield thanks to Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

    The game should have been over then or, at the latest, when Marco Reus restored the comfortable two-goal cushion in the 57th minute. What then transpired, however, will live in infamy for both fanbases, albeit for much different reasons.

    Liverpool scored three goals in 24 minutes, with a characteristic Philippe Coutinho banger and two set-piece goals dooming the Black and Yellows. The Reds left it late with Dejan Lovren's winner coming in stoppage time, but, really, everyone knew it was coming the moment Mamadou Sakho made it 3-3 with 12 minutes of regulation to go.

    "Everybody here believed in the lucky punch," head coach Thomas Tuchel said in his post-match press conference, "and we unfortunately gave it away."

    Dortmund, who were widely considered the best team in the competition until the night on Merseyside, let the occasion get to them in both legs. Klopp's return to the Westfalenstadion in the first leg almost paralysed them, while the rowdy Anfield crowd did their part in Liverpool's unlikely comeback.

    The circumstances of these stunning 90 minutes of football made this one of the most bitterly disappointing defeats in recent club history and, arguably, the most poignant memory of 2016.

High: Ending Season as Best 2nd-Placed Team Ever, with Club-Record Goal Tally

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    VI-Images/Getty Images

    Even though it may sound like a backhanded compliment, Dortmund deserved praise for a magnificent 2015/16 Bundesliga campaign they finished with the highest points total—78a runner-up team has ever managed.

    With that, they were just three points behind their club-record tally from the 2011/12 season, a record Dortmund easily could have bested if not for a few disappointing results towards the end of the campaign when they had little to play for.

    As Stefan Buczko noted for ESPN FC, Dortmund's 78 points would have been enough to win the title "46 out of 53 times," so it is hard to blame the Ruhr side for coming in second behind Bayern Munich, who were in a league of their own under Pep Guardiola.

    More impressive than their results was the style with which Tuchel's side played their first campaign under new management. His "men were outstanding through most of the season, scoring goals for fun with attacking football of the highest level," as Raphael Honigstein wrote for ESPN FC.

    A club-record 82 goals in the league can attest to that.

Low: Losing 4th Consecutive Final in DFB-Pokal Defeat at the Hands of Bayern

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    As if the shocking night at Anfield was not enough heartbreak for one calendar year, Dortmund also lost the DFB-Pokal final against Bayern in agonising fashion.

    Keeping the favourites at bay for most of the 120 minutes of open play, thanks in large part to the heroics of Sven Bender and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Dortmund entered the lottery that is a penalty shootout in high spirits.

    Bender played no fewer than four positions during the chess match between Tuchel and Guardiola, while Sokratis was arguably the best player on the pitch, throwing himself into every shot and tackle as if he wanted to win the match by himself.

    They exemplified Dortmund's mentality against Bayern and deserved so much better than to miss the two decisive penalties. Alas, that is what happened—partly because players like Mkhitaryan, the team's player of the season, did not step up to the plate.

    Of course, Bayern were deserved winners on the balance of play, but that does not make another final defeat easier to cope with. The Black and Yellows must almost feel jinxed by now, seeing as they have experienced every disappointment in these four consecutive losses in the biggest matches of the season.

    They conceded late goals in the Champions League final in 2013 and the cup final in 2014, showed a poor performance against VfL Wolfsburg in Klopp's last match for the club and then lost here on penalties.

Low: Losing Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan

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    THOMAS KIENZLE/Getty Images

    A big reason for the strong first season under Tuchel was the fact that, in 2015, Dortmund managed to hold on to all their star players despite the disappointing end to Klopp's tenure at the Westfalenstadion. 

    It is almost cruel that one year later, after a terrific campaign, three key players departed in the same transfer window.

    Mats Hummels was the team captain, one of the faces of Dortmund's resurgence under Klopp and, not least, a world-class centre-back capable of dominating play from his deep position on the pitch. His defection to Bayern was the biggest loss the Black and Yellows could suffer on an emotional level.

    "By handing in his captain's armband of the German vice-champions, the leader of BVB's rebellion against Bayern's monopoly is waving the white flag," Buczko pointedly opined for ESPN FC.

    Gundogan, meanwhile, despite missing a number of matches with various injuries, including a dislocated knee that finished his season early and cost him an appearance at Euro 2016 with Germany, was one of the most important players in Tuchel's system, pulling the strings as the masterful conductor of most attacking moves.

    As this writer argued in an earlier piece, Dortmund miss Gundogan dearly after failing to properly replace him following a move to Manchester City in the summer.

    Elsewhere, Mkhitaryan was on fire throughout the 2015/16 season, ending up with a whopping 23 goals and 32 assists in 51 matches, per Transfermarkt.com. The Armenian and Tuchel were a match made in football heaven, as he alluded to in an interview with Bleacher Report in February.

    "When Tuchel came, we started to play a different kind of football," he said. "We try to keep the ball more, we try to pass it more and play very offensive football."

    Dortmund did well to sell all their stars for high fees, but one has to wonder how much better they would be if even only one of them had resisted the siren calls and stayed put.

High: Signing Ousmane Dembele, Raphael Guerreiro and Mario Gotze

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    Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press

    Dortmund's decision-makers tried to replace their three key departures with numbers, signing no fewer than eight players in return. While results have varied thus far, as we detailed in an earlier piece, there is no denying that they hit the bullseye with a few of their transfers.

    First and foremost, Ousmane Dembele has taken the club by storm with electric displays especially towards the end of 2016. The Bundesliga player of the month in December, per the league on Twitter, the 19-year-old Frenchman has incredible tools and is improving at a rapid pace.

    Already, he is one of the team's best and most important attacking players and looks like a potential global superstar in the not-so-distant future.

    Raphael Guerreiro has been equally impressive when available, surprising in a central-midfield role after spending most of his career at FC Lorient in Ligue 1 at left-back and being arguably the best full-back at Euro 2016 in the summer. He thoroughly deserved his inclusion in the official UEFA team of the Euros.

    It is no coincidence that Dortmund looked much better with the 23-year-old in the team, as they have won only five of the 13 matches he has missed with various muscle problems in the first half of the current campaign.

    Finally, Mario Gotze does not receive the recognition his high level of play would dictate, as the public has yet to catch on to the fact that he plays an entirely different role than he did during his first stint with the club until leaving for Bavaria in 2013.

    He is more of a strategist, playing in deeper zones on the pitch, and his emphatic defensive contributions have made a difference for the Black and Yellows.

    His return to Dortmund, where he was public enemy No. 1 after defecting to Bayern at the height of the Klopp era, has gone smoother than expected in terms of the fans' reactions, and with his performances getting better and better as the season went on, there is every expectation he will be one of the most important BVB players down the stretch in 2017.

Low: Maddening Inconsistency in the First Half of the Season

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    Francisco Seco/Associated Press

    Following the involuntary rebuild in the summer transfer window, a few bumps and bruises were expected especially early on in the current campaign. However, few will have predicted just how inconsistent Dortmund would be.

    A run of three wins and 17 goals against Legia Warsaw, Darmstadt and Wolfsburg in a span of seven days in September, as well as a well-deserved 1-0 win over Bayern in November, showed they are capable of the extraordinary.

    Defeats at RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt, as well as a number of disappointing draws, however, showed they are also capable of looking extremely ordinary.

    The Ruhr side is still on the search for a collective identity on and off the pitch, as to be expected after so many changes in the summer. Still, there is too much quality in the squad to accept spending the winter break in sixth place, a whopping 12 points behind Bayern and nine behind Leipzig.

    More than anything, the team's inability to defend with focus, concentration and intensity for 90 minutes at a time has been inexplicable. Even without Hummels, they really ought to be better than what they have put on the pitch in some of the 25 matches across all competitions during the first half of the season.

High: Winning Their Champions League Group in Impressive Fashion

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    Francisco Seco/Associated Press

    While Group F was hardly a group of death thanks to the presence of Legia and Sporting CP, Dortmund still deserve a lot of praise for coming out on top. With perennial favourites Real Madrid in the group, few will have given them much of a fighting chance to advance to the knockout stage as the first-placed team.

    They deserved to do so, however, thanks to their dispatching of Legia and Sporting and two comebacks against Los Blancos. In total, they trailed for 105 of the 180 minutes of the two matchups with Real but came away with two late 2-2 draws that were enough to top the group.

    Thanks to 14 goals in two spectacular matches against Legia—the 8-4 in the second meeting was without question the wackiest game of the year and, generally, in recent memory—Dortmund also set a new record.

    Their 21 goals in the group stage marked the most a team has ever scored, per ESPN FC, edging Real, FC Barcelona and Manchester United in this regard. Perhaps even more impressively, an incredible 14 players scored for Dortmund in these six matches.

    Thanks to their deserved group win and a bit of luck in the draw for the round of 16, the Ruhr side will face Benfica in February and March. They will enter the matchup as distinct favourites, even though the Portuguese champions will not be pushovers, as this writer previewed in an earlier piece.

                              

    What was your BVB moment of the year? Share your thoughts in the comments or on social media.

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