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Newcastle and Gelsenkirchen are sister cities, and Dortmund is well aware that their rival team, Schalke, is based there. Both teams are currently in the second division, which serves as a reminder that having a large stadium does not guarantee immunity from relegation. As Newcastle and Dortmund face off in the Champions League tonight, they share a common challenge: dealing with the absence of a key midfielder.
Instead of Jude Bellingham, consider Sandro Tonali – one has moved to Real Madrid for a large sum, while the other will be sidelined for 10 months due to a gambling suspension. Tonali played in a Champions League semi-final for AC Milan last season, but will not have the opportunity to do so for Newcastle this year, no matter how far they advance. Howe, the manager, hopes Tonali will be able to play in Wednesday’s match, but if not, he may need to adjust his plans due to Tonali’s shortened season.
Dortmund is coming to St James’ Park with certain advantages in a shared dilemma. They had ample time to prepare for Bellingham’s departure: as soon as it was clear that Erling Haaland would be their major sale in 2022, it was evident that the midfielder would be their main source of revenue in 2023. They received €103m, while Newcastle paid £55m, the second highest amount in their history, for Tonali. However, they will not reap much benefit from this investment for the rest of the season and due to Financial Fair Play regulations, their ability to make moves is restricted. Unless they make significant sales or secure a loan with a mandatory purchase option, they will not be able to bring in a £50m midfielder in January to replace Bellingham. “It is too early to have discussions about that,” said Howe, but his options may be limited.
Newcastle, known for their strategic planning, were taken aback by the Italian Football Federation and police’s inquiries into Tonali. Despite receiving support from both Howe and the Tyneside fans, Tonali’s reported gambling addiction has garnered sympathy. However, they believed they had acquired a player who, alongside Bruno Guimaraes, would be a key component of their midfield for many years.
Dortmund’s answer to their own void might be deemed typical in several respects. For one, they did not spend all the money they banked: they are no strangers to transfer-market profits and tend to end up in the black roughly every other year. Some of the Bellingham bounty went on Niclas Fullkrug, a striker designed to compensate for the loss of Haaland, albeit one who has had a slow start.
Approximately half of the Bellingham millions were spent on acquiring midfielders. One of these midfielders is Felix Nmecha, who was purchased from Wolfsburg at the age of 22. Despite being older than his English counterparts, Nmecha fits the mold of the Dortmund model as a promising talent with the potential for significant resale value. However, his arrival was met with controversy due to his past social media posts, which sparked accusations of homophobia and transphobia.
Marcel Sabitzer, who was acquired from Bayern Munich at the age of 29, is part of a rising trend. Some may argue that Dortmund is simply taking Bayern’s leftover players or their strategy is to sign players who were not considered good enough for the champions, allowing them to consistently finish second in the Bundesliga. While the movement of players from Dortmund to Bayern is well-known, Mats Hummels, Niklas Sule, and Sabitzer make up a group of former Bayern players now playing at Signal Iduna Park. One potential criticism is that this approach accepts being second best.
Unfortunately, Dortmund faces a common issue: no matter who they tried to acquire, they would not be able to find a player of Bellingham’s level. This was also the case when players like Haaland and Robert Lewandowski left. As Dortmund struggles to score in the Champions League, they may look back to last year when Bellingham scored in all four group games and played a crucial role in their advancement to the last 16. They could use a similar catalyst in their current, more challenging group.
Tonali had a short but impactful run in the Champions League. He received a warm welcome at San Siro when Newcastle tied with AC Milan 0-0, and he also played in the memorable 4-1 victory against Paris Saint-Germain at St James’ Park. However, his next game with Dortmund may be his last until the 2024-25 season. Regardless, it will likely be a significant moment for Tonali to remember.
Instead of the expected deluxe upgrade of Tonali, Howe will be left with the exception of Guimaraes and a midfield that was part of a winless team two years ago. He inherited players like Sean Longstaff, Joelinton, and Joe Willock, but did not even choose to include the Geordie in his first game as manager. While each player has shown improvement under his leadership, Newcastle may now have to rely on energy and physicality rather than the hoped-for injection of skill.
Unfortunately for his counterpart Edin Terzic at Dortmund, he has not had the privilege of having a budget of £400m during his tenure. However, as they stand together in the technical areas at St James’ Park, he may be able to understand the struggle of dealing with a weak spot in the center of his team.