The winter break during that first season gave us a good chance to take stock of our accomplishments during my first few months with the club, and see where we wanted to go. We knew that our main objective that season was to push Bayern all the way to the title, to fight in Europe and the cup, all whilst getting back into the Champions League.
The first thing to contend with was unrest within the camp. Don’t get me wrong, there was no sign of an uprising, and the team were professionals, with a great appreciation for the club, but several prominent players namely Marco Reus, Shinji Kagawa and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang had all come to see me individually with regards to their future. After finishing 7th the previous year under Jurgen Klopp, BVB had qualified for the early stages of the Europa League, which for a team who had been in the Champions league final a few years previous was a huge step down. I personally love the Europa League, but it was obvious that some of our key players would look elsewhere for their Champions League football. I mean, there was no guarantee we would qualify for the competition again, and if the previous season was anything to go by, teams such as Bayer Leverkusen, and Wolfsburg would be strong contenders to qualify.
Marco Reus was the first to approach me. BILD had been reporting that Real Madrid were interested in him, and Marco wanted to make it clear that the feeling was mutual. I appreciated the honesty, but Marco is BVB through and through, and I knew that he would only ever leave for footballing reasons. “Marco,” I said “What do we have to do here, this season for you to stay?” his reply was quick and genuine “I would stay, but only if we can qualify for the Champions League next season.”
I felt that was fair. I also felt we could do it. Similar conversations were had with Pierre and Shinji, who had attracted interest from Atletico and Juventus respectively. The pressure was on. We had to qualify this season, or risk losing key players.
The team itself was strong even before I arrived. They had (as they would admit) drastically underachieved the previous season, and were (at least in my view) a team who really should be pushing for the title on a regular basis. Michael Zorc and co had already moved quickly to strengthen the team before my arrival, with youngster Julian Weigl making his move from 1860 München, Midfielder Gonzalo Castro moving from Bayer Leverkusen, goalkeeper Roman Bürki joining us from SC Freiburg, and Park Joo-Ho, the left back joining from Mainz 05.
After my arrival, Zorc, the scouting team, and I identified 3 players who we felt could make a difference to the side in the coming years. Our first target was the Brazilian youngster Gabriel Barbosa. He’d been impressing regularly for Santos in Brazil, with comparisons to Barcelona’s Neymar Jr. His talent was their for all to see, but I was particularly impressed by his desire during our first meeting with him. We had got wind that the feeling was mutual, and Gabriel was up for a move to Europe, with specific interest in playing in the Bundesliga, which (as his agent told us) he felt was a league with good technical skills. The kid said all the right things during our meeting. His wages were reasonable, he expressed a desire to get into the first team, but was happy to learn, both in terms of footballing ability, and in terms of the language and culture. A £9m bid later, and he was announced to the BVB faithful, holding the #45 shirt.
We had also identified 2 players in Serbia, playing at rivals Partizan and Red Star. Wide forward Andrija Zivkovic would join us for £1.9m from Partizan, coming in to be in and around the first team, whilst Defender Vukasin Jovanovic would sign, and then return to Red Star for the season. Both of these were young and hungry, and would be strong players in our team in the following years (so I felt). I saw Jovanovic as a long term replacement for Neven Subotic, who had not been holding down a regular place in recent seasons. Zivkovic on the other hand would play on our right from the off. He was a player who had a lot to learn, but could do so in our environment, and who I thought would benefit from first team football on a regular basis.
We started our European campaign really early in the season. We were drawn against Swiss side FC Vaduz in the 3rd Round of Qualifying, beating them 3-0 at theirs, and 5-1 at the Westfalenstadion. New signing Gabriel Barbosa made a brilliant first impression, scoring in both legs, and putting on a real performance. His best performance in that first half of the year really did come in the Cup and in Europe. Andrija Zivkovic also debuted with style in those early games, showing himself to be a real star of the future. In the playoffs we were drawn against Molde of Norway, where we were comfortable in our performance, getting through to the group stage.
In our group, we were drawn against Besiktas, Legia Warsaw, and FC Qarabag of Azerbaijan. I’ll be completely honest, I think I underestimated the first few games, playing a completed rotated side at home to Qarabag. A 0-0 draw was the result. Qarabag played at the top of their game, and we didn’t. In my defense, we had the first meeting of the season against Bayern 3 days later down in Munich, and I was determined to not let them have a huge gap above us in the table! As it turned out, I felt I was proven right, as we snatched a 1-1 draw to the Bavaria giants.
After a 2-2 drawn away in Turkey, I did feel that we weren’t taking Europe as seriously as I’d like, and I really drilled into the teams the importance of these matches. It seemed to work, and after some fantastic results, we finished top of the group, drawin Southampton of the Premier League in the first knockout stage.
We were always going to find it hard to keep toe to toe with Bayern, but I was surprised with the quickness to which the team took to my tactics, and the drive to which we played. We opened the season against Leverkusen, away at the Bayer Arena, coming away with a narrow 2-1 victory. I felt this was a good sign of things to come, as Leverkusen pushed us to the very end.
Our new signings Gabriel Barbosa and Andrija Zivkovic found their feet quite well, the latter’s form in the league especially was a revelation. A win against Hertha BSC on match day 2 was followed up by a 2-0 defeat away to Hannover 96 (much to my annoyance). A series of draws after the 1-1 in Munich saw is maintain a position in the top half of the table, but something was a miss. After discussing tacitcs on the coach back from Frankfurt following a 0-0 draw, Andrija suggested that he would welcome a positional change to higher up the pitch. I took it under consideration, and implemented it in the Revierderby, after going 1-0. The young lad was proven right, and from then on our form fantastic. By the winter break we sat in second, only 4 points behind Bayern.
A shout out to youth
Whilst the key players of BVB proved their worth during the first half of the season, it was the youngsters Christian Pulisic, Felix Passlack and Julian Weigl who really impressed. Intelligent beyond their years, and making a crucial impact during the time. Pulisic showed great ability during substitute appearances, and in the Europa, and the Cup games. Weigl and Passlack both made regular appearances, with the former being a crucial member of the team, establishing himself as one of the first names on my team sheet within the first few matches. It was during these first few months that I realised how blessed I was to work with such brilliant talents.
A Cup Run
Matches against Bahlingen, Bochum, and Mainz saw us into the Quarter Finals in the second half of the season, conceding only 1 goal and scoring 10. I wanted to win the cup. The league was going to be tough, and whilst Europe was a priority, I really wanted us to win the DFB-Pokal. A Quarter Final draw against Ingolstadt gave us a good opportunity to get to the semis.
All in all, I was happy with the Hinrunde. A solid break, and a training camp in Spain was how we would prepare for the Rückrunde, and a fight on three fronts. We had little in the way of funds to spend, so we looked forward to the return of Nuri Sahin in midfield, who would hopefully give us a rotation option in those latter stages of the season, when our legs were tired! It would be a long and tough season if we remained in all competitions, but one I was keen to partake in!