Over the last several seasons, Dortmund supporters have gotten used to seeing their favourite players depart the club. The rapid inflation of the transfer market has served to supercharge the club’s model, as more and more clubs are willing to buy talent young. Players that might have spent 2 or more seasons in the Westphalian superstar finishing school at Dortmund are now accelerating their career paths and moving to even bigger clubs earlier in their development. The process has been quite a lucrative one for Dortmund, as they have raised massive amounts of money from the sale of players, but it has also lead to a decline in the cohesiveness of the team on the pitch.
Through it all, however, there are still some players that have remained with the club through all of the changes. Some were here for the glory days of Juergen Klopp’s tenure as manager, left, and later came back, like Shinji Kagawa and Nuri Sahin. Marco Reus has famously been a long serving member of the Dortmund squad, having moved over from Borussia Monchengladbach as a young player. Apart from Roman Weidenfeller, who has held on long past his best years as an emergency deputy in goal, the only outfield players to have maintained a long, uninterrupted stay at the club are long-serving fullbacks Marcel Schmelzer and Lukasz Piszczek. Both have long held down starting positions in the team’s backline, but now the question must be asked: is it time to move on from both of them?
Marcel Schmelzer has been club captain since the summer of 2016, following Mats Hummers departure to Munich. Like his Polish counterpart, Schmelzer has long been known for his massive work rate and two-way game. He has been a rock at the club since joining as a youth in 2005 and has been with the senior team since 2008. While at times inconsistent, Schmelzer has been a constant presence at the club since he joined, and he has been an integral member of the side since the 2010/11 campaign. However, it has been since the 2011/12 season since Schmelzer had his best campaign, and his tackles per 90 have almost halved since that time, from over 3 to a paltry 1.8 this season. He is still winning 2 interceptions per 90 minutes, as well as holding at or around his career average in passing accuracy and aerial duels, but it is in the eye test that Schmelzer has slipped in recent seasons.
While still an energetic presence, Schmelzer is no longer the stand out performer he once was. Age has slowed him a step or two, and when both he and Piszczek are on the pitch, they have a tendency of getting caught to high up the pitch when the other team breaks quickly. At 32, Piszczek is further along in the ageing process than his captain and teammate, but he has also begun to evolve his game to cope with his physical decline. While never known for his defensive contribution, the Polish international has increased his presence in the air in recent seasons, while his normally more persistent attacking presence down the right flank has declined with his pace. Though he has still bagged 4 assists this season, his days of being one of the most dynamic right backs in Europe are coming to an end.
Both players have undoubtedly been loyal servants of the club since they joined in the last decade. However, the club have begun to show interest in a succession plan for the pair, as the signings of Raphael Guerreiro, Felix Passlack and Jeremy Toljan have all been made with an eye toward providing cover for the veterans. However, all three players present question marks of their own when it comes to replacing Schmelzer and Piszczek for good, as Guerreiro is likely a better midfielder than defender, Passlack is a brilliant little player, but perhaps far too small to be an effective Bundesliga fullback, and Jeremy Toljan has not been as impressive as the club had hoped when they signed him.
With the club likely to address fullback position further this summer, Germany is luckily not short on options. Augsburg’s Philipp Max has been a revelation this season at left back, potting a goal and 12 assists on the year patrolling the left flank. His defensive contributions are roughly in line with Schmelzer’s, but he offers a tantalising skill set going forward, including one of the sweetest left feet in Germany. On the right, Hertha Berlin’s Mitchell Weiser or RB Leipzig’s Lukas Klostermann are both high energy younger players that have experience as starters in the Bundesliga already. All 3 players profile as Dortmund-type fullbacks, capable of bombing forward with the galavanting attack and covering immense amounts of ground tracking back to defend. Dortmund has a rich tradition of energy and determination at the fullback position, and any of these players would be steals for die Borussen.
Given all of the squad turnover the last several seasons, it is easy to see the value of loyal servants to the club like Schmelzer and Piszczek have been. However, their glory years under Juergen Klopp are increasingly in the rear view mirror, and while Piszczek is still an important member of the Polish national team, Schmelzer continues to be excluded from Joachim Loew’s Germany set up, despite their being competition for the left back role since Philip Lahm’s retirement. It is time for the club to honour the service of these two Dortmund greats, and prepare to pass the torch to a new generation of talent.
Manuel Akanji and Dan-Axel Zagadou point to a bright future at centre back for the club, and Dortmund would do well this summer to give them youthful and exuberant partners flanking them on either side. This would give a young a talented unit the time to grow and mature into a battle-hardened group, ready to take the fight once again to the Bavarians’ doorstep. Schmelzer and Piszczek will rightly receive a warm send off from the fans once they do finally leave, but certainly they are still good enough to stick around and make the transition a gradual one. Every year puts more and more distance between the current team and the one that took their ebullient brand of football to the biggest stages in Europe under Juergen Klopp, and as it pertains to the two longest continuously serving outfield players, perhaps that divide grows the much more in the summer. All in the name of progress.