As the Winterpause fast approaches, the site that is Borussia Dortmund sitting atop the Bundesliga table comes with pure adulation. Pinching yourself to wake up from an alternate reality would only serve as a fruitless gesture; this is no false alarm. The effect that veteran Swiss manager Lucien Favre has had on Die Schwarzgelben has perhaps outshone all expectations. Dortmund are – without question – the best side in the country in the run-up to the mid-season break.
Fourteen matches into the campaign, fourteen unbeaten. With three fixtures until the well-earned break – Werder Bremen, Fortuna Düsseldorf, and a crunch-tie against Borussia Mönchengladbach – Dortmund have the chance to go unbeaten at the halfway mark for the first time in their Bundesliga history (beginning in 1963). Favre has already set one record this season as well, becoming the first Dortmund manager to go unbeaten in their first thirteen matches on the touchline. It has all gone to plan for the former Gladbach headmaster, and surprisingly, without the heavy influence of Christian Pulisic.
Since bursting onto the scene during the Rückrunde in 2015-16, the Pennsylvania-native has grown into one of the most highly-touted young players in world football. A full international for the United States, Pulisic’s development over the last two seasons was immeasurable. Dortmund’s success this season with him no longer a first-choice option is not a telling indictment of the player, but rather the growth that has shown under Favre. The question of whether Dortmund needs the American boy wonder now comes to the fore.
Pulisic vs Sancho and the Dane
After becoming the undisputed first-choice option in the right-sided attacking birth last season, many would not have comprehended the current scenario for Pulisic. The emergence of Jadon Sancho and Jacob Bruun Larsen now represents a critical moment in the young American’s career.
“Of course, we have certain solutions that we train. But when you have such ‘street footballers’ like Jadon and Jacob, then it’s really fun. We can be happy that we have such players” – Marco Reus
In the same vein as Pulisic, Sancho took Dortmund by storm in his first year at the club. He would make the most of the chances afforded to him, to the tune of one goal and four assists in twelve appearances in 2017-18. If not for a ligament injury disrupting his run of form in the second half of the season, the Westfalenstadion would perhaps have bore witness to what we have seen this season, but sooner.
It can certainly be argued – easily – that Sancho now holds claim to the title of the most gifted youngster in the Ruhr valley; some say in the Bundesliga. Having been used as a super-sub in the first six Bundesliga matches of the campaign, his performances were such that he is now first-choice in the position once reserved for Pulisic, starting Dortmund’s last eight league matches on the spin.
If it can be considered as a damning indictment that Sancho is ahead of Pulisic in the pecking order, the numbers behind it certainly stand to back it up. At current, Sancho’s return of five goals and six assists in fourteen league appearances outstrips Pulisic’s total return over the entirety of the 2017-18 campaign. A deeper look into some of the data only further reinforces the notion that Sancho has – rather quickly – become far more influential to the first-team.
With the stark reality that Sancho is reliably now the best option on the right for Dortmund, additional salt being poured in the wound comes from Danish youth international Jacob Bruun Larsen. The former Lyngby Boldklub academy player arrived in the Ruhr valley in 2015 (the same as Pulisic) with all the expectations of a wunderkind.
Though some are surprised that it took him this long to crack the first-team set-up, having obliterated the competition with the U19s to the tune of 31 goals and 26 assists in 49 A-Junioren Bundesliga West appearances. A poor loan spell with Stuttgart last season – where he only made four appearances – led some to question whether if his future remained with Dortmund or elsewhere. His appearances this season have certainly seemed to shed some light on that very discussion.
After passing fit for duty in mid-September, Bruun Larsen appeared in eleven of the possible twelve matches; starting ten of them on the left-side of Dortmund’s attack. With the shifting of Marco Reus centrally as either a centre-forward or more of a number 10, in conjunction with Paco Alcácer’s brilliant performances since coming to the club, the big Danish winger has nailed down the left-wing vacancy with all-around strong performances.
Having broken into the team on the left side of the pitch, comparisons between Bruun Larsen and Reus have already been levied. Parallels have been drawn in their strength on the ball, eye for goal, and deceptive pace. Bruun Larsen himself agrees, once stating “from my first days here in Dortmund, I have looked a bit more at him, watched him, to see how he handles himself on the pitch.”
Bruun Larsen may not have the footballing reputation (or experience) as Pulisic, but his performances this season are comparable to the American international in the same left-wing birth, perhaps adding even more fuel to the discussion.
In fairness, the data does stand as a testament to how tactically versatile Pulisic truly is; something that he should proudly keep in his locker. Capable of playing on either flank or through the middle behind the centre-forward, he is a threat no matter where he slots into the XI. This is one of the most valuable attributes an attacking player can boast, and should Pulisic stay at the club, it will likely be one of the major reasons behind it.
The unfortunate truth for Pulisic, however, is that he has lost the exclusivity of being the best young attacking talent at the club; one who was the unquestioned long-term building block in the wake of Ousmane Dembele’s departure to the Camp Nou.
Not only has Jadon Sancho catapulted himself into the limelight and Jacob Bruun Larsen showing levels of his capability, but Favre utilizing Raphaël Guerreiro – the once highly touted left-back from FC Lorient – adds even more competition for Pulisic. Through all competitions, the Portuguese international has registered four goals and two assists in eight outings on the left. Not a single path for Pulisic comes without considerable opposition.
Dortmund’s Moroccan interest
Questions will continue whether Christian Pulisic will remain at Dortmund long-term, especially given the heavy interest from a handful of Premier League giants. What has been made clear by Hans-Joachim Watzke and Michel Zorc is that his services cannot be purchased for cheap. Any deal involving a move away from the Ruhr will likely involve an Aubameyang-level fee, if not more. The financial compensation received would enable Watzke and Zorc to comfortably target another young player making waves at the club currently; Achraf Hakimi.
Arguably one of Morocco’s biggest standout performers this past summer in France, the versatile Real Madrid full-back has become a vital cog in the Favre wheel early on in his loan spell. With first-team chances sparse at the Bernabeu at current, the loan deal for Hakimi was a perfect opportunity for both parties. His appearances for the club have been such that the Dortmund brass has firmly expressed the desire to make his move permanent.
“We will do the same with Achraf Hakimi [referring to a full deal as they did with Paco Alcácer] – but it will not be easy.” – Hans-Joachim Watzke
With one goal and six assists to his name in fifteen appearances in all competitions, the Madrid-born Moroccan is seen as the ideal replacement for the ageing Lukasz Piszczek; now 33. Though the Polish international stalwart has turned back the clock this campaign, Hakimi (20) signals a player who Dortmund view the future with. To prize him away from Real would take a substantial bid, however. One may assert that the sale of Pulisic could well fund a move for Hakimi in due course.
Unlike the attacking positions in the first-team, Dortmund is far less stocked at full-back. With Piszczek ageing, Marcel Schmelzer (30) right behind him and no longer first-choice, and Jeremy Toljan failing to come good on his potential thus far, a long-term solution at the back seems the far more prudent issue to solve.
Life will go on
Few fans actively want to show Pulisic to the departures gate at DTM, but such is the fee he could command (Watzke and Zorc have suggested a price-tag of €70m) that the option may very well be explored during the summer. Former American international and Fox Soccer pundit Alexi Lalas recently went on record stating that Pulisic should move on from the club, given the number of “bigger” suitors that cast wandering eyes.
A reunion with Jürgen Klopp, the man responsible for bringing him to Dortmund, could well be on the cards as Liverpool – and their large American fanbase – remains a potential destination, as does Chelsea, Manchester United, and Bayern Munich (what talented young player is not on their radar?).
Regardless of what transpires over the coming months, it is undeniable that Christian Pulisic has developed into a fantastic young footballer; and he is far from the finished article. Dortmund can very easily opt to keep him at the club, choosing to utilize his versatility and the depth that he affords the team. What is clear is that Dortmund have options, but one look at the table going into matchday 15 and it is painfully obvious that life can and will go on without him if his departure is not avoided.
There is no doubting the immeasurable potential that Christian Pulisic possesses. The little winger is capable of becoming a giant in the game. All you need do is think back to when the club said its goodbye’s to a certain gifted young Frenchman to know that one player, no matter how talented, does not make the club. The Südtribüne will be there long after he departs, if and when he does.
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