Borussia Dortmund is misleading.
All the tropes of a Big Club are there; the 85,000-seat stadium, always full. The world class players. The Champions League runs. The domestic cups. The global fan base. If you were new to the game, there’s nothing blatantly obvious, really, to separate BVB from, say, clubs like Manchester City, Juventus or even Real Madrid.
They are, of course, not like those clubs. Their budget is smaller, their mandate more constricted, their ultimate aims in player acquisition different. They trawl up coveted youth players for pennies, or, in Christian Pulisic’s case, for free. They’re willing to burn time pushing them up through their U19 apparatus in exchange for lower fees. They need to make big sales before they splash for big buys.
And, in the case of Ousmane Dembele, they use their multi-faceted scouting network to pull up transfers for teenagers at a fraction of the cost.
Dembele moved from Rennes in 2016 for $15 million. His latent value according to Transfermarkt more than doubled in the last year, which Dembele spent setting Europe to the torch. But latent value doesn’t mean much in the afterglow of Neymar’s $222 million move to PSG. Barcelona, now flush with cash everyone in the world can see spilling from their coffers, needs a replacement. Or two. And Dembele is on the list.
This week, Barcelona reportedly put in an eyewatering $100 million transfer bid for the 20-year-old Dembele. BVB rejected it and suspended Dembele through the weekend for petulantly missing practice as a result. Although Internet Reports are sure he’s about to go. Whatever’s directly ahead, Dembele is most certainly not long for Dortmund. Either in this window, the next, or the one after that.
BVB stands to make an $85 million profit on Dembele, and that’s if the club’s recent rejection didn’t drive up his price even more. And this is the heart of BVB. It does not – cannot – operate at a loss, and most of its signings necessarily have to be double-edged: one side for the field, the other for the negotiating table. This is why its transfer outlays look like U21 teams so often. It is collecting for a future harvest, because the club can’t survive as it does any other way.
This is relevant when it comes to American wunderkind Christian Pulisic. Of course it is. It’d be naïve to think the club’s hierarchy isn’t watching his increasingly dazzling displays – didn’t see him score in the season-opening German Super Cup – with a glint of hunger. BVB is ecstatic for Pulisic’s ability to bolster the team now. But it knows it needs to release him to the wilderness of modern transfer fees soon. And the reality is this was part of the strategy all along.
With this backdrop, it’s impossible not to see Pulisic’s 2017-18 season as the true beginning of his European audition. And BVB is going to throw him the keys like it never has to see how he reacts.
BVB is already without Marco Reus, who could be out with a cruciate ligament injury for the rest of the year. Mario Gotze is still on the way back from a metabolic disorder and his return date isn’t clear. And now Dembele is seemingly on the ropes with new coach Peter Bosz, who’s been with the team for less than three months and is already facing a small crisis with arguably his most exciting player.
Plainly, BVB needs Pulisic more than it ever has. He’s nearing his 19th birthday, which is prime starting age in Dortmund believe it or not, but he’s also at a position thinned considerably by the ravages of the modern game. Pulisic didn’t play 90 minutes in the Super Cup because Bosz was giving his second teamers a cursory run-out. He played because Bosz needs him.
This brings us round to the notion that Pulisic is on the block. He is not, or at least he is not willingly being put in the shop window. BVB can ill afford the loss of another wide player, especially if Dembele goes, but more importantly for the long term, club brass is likely not convinced Pulisic’s transfer value has hit its peak ripeness. And in this they’d be correct. He’s been a revelation in spurts, but he’s still 18. His value has time to mature, at least over the next couple years.
This, though, is where our current silly season enters the equation.
By my own reckoning, Liverpool is the cash-infused buyer that makes the most sense in regards to Pulisic’s next destination. Jurgen Klopp was in charge at BVB when Pulisic arrived in Germany, and he plainly loves the kid. It’s his style Pulisic was first introduced to in Dortmund, and Pulisic remains comfortable and intimately familiar with it. Liverpool has the cash, and will likely get more whenever Barcelona is given the green light to spring the trap door underneath Coutinho.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, Liverpool came in at $50 or even $60 million with the intention of breaking BVB’s resolve to keep him. This is not as crazy as it may sound, especially considering that nobody has any idea what a reasonable transfer is at the present moment. What happens then, at a club more or less engineered to make players and then flip them for many times their original value? I’m not convinced, wooed by the prestige of the Premier League and the presence of his old favored boss, Pulisic wouldn’t be just as enticed as Dortmund.
This, too, is part of the backdrop. It’s perhaps a bit more distant – and unlikely – than anything else, but it’s certainly there. A denial of that fact is a denial of what BVB is as a club on a fundamental level. Pulisic will be flipped to another club in the next couple years, and it will be for a lot of money. The question is merely when.
The likely scenario, whatever happens to Dembele, is that Pulisic stays for another season, continues ripping apart Europe and has his value seriously appraised by the club when offers stream in next summer. Perhaps then he opts to stay (as I would like to see him do), or he leaps at the money, prestige and lure of more lucrative and internationally renowned shores.
Either way, this season is the hinge point. In seemingly all things, Pulisic is pulling the American soccer public to places it has never been.