Newcastle and Dortmund share same glaring hole in their team before Champions League clash

Sandro Tonali is set for a lengthy ban from football (Action Images via Reuters)

Newcastle is twinned with Gelsenkirchen and, as Borussia Dortmund need no reminders, the German city is home to their great rivals, Schalke. They are found in the second division now: as Newcastle can testify from the Mike Ashley years, a vast stadium offers no immunity against relegation. Instead, as Newcastle and Dortmund go head to head in the Champions League tonight, they find themselves twinned in a footballing respect, wrestling with the same problem: how to cope with the loss of a pivotal midfielder.

For Jude Bellingham, read Sandro Tonali, one gone to Real Madrid for a nine-figure sum, the other set for 10 months on the sidelines with a gambling ban. Tonali played in a Champions League semi-final for AC Milan last season. He will not for Newcastle this year, regardless of how far they progress. Wednesday’s game could be his last. “I’m expecting him to be available,” manager Eddie Howe said. If not, his plans may require a late rethink, Tonali’s campaign already curtailed.

Dortmund arrive at St James’ Park with certain advantages in a shared conundrum. They had plenty of time to prepare for Bellingham’s departure: from the moment it became clear Erling Haaland would be their big sale of 2022, it seemed obvious the midfielder would be 2023’s cash cow. They received some €103m, whereas Newcastle paid £55m, the second biggest sum in their history, for Tonali. They will derive precious little benefit from it for the rest of this campaign and if their owners’ coffers are scarcely empty, Financial Fair Play limits their room for manoeuvre. Barring significant sales or a loan with an obligation to buy, there will be no £50m midfielder arriving in January to replace him. “It is too early for meetings to decide that,” said Howe, but his options may be limited.

And Newcastle, who established a reputation as astute planners, were caught by surprise by the Italian Football Federation and the police’s investigations into Tonali. Both Howe and the Tyneside crowd have struck a supportive note, and Tonali’s apparent gambling addiction means he merits sympathy, but they thought they had signed a player who, along with Bruno Guimaraes, was supposed to be a cornerstone of their midfield for 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.

Around half the Bellingham millions went on midfielders. Felix Nmecha, bought from Wolfsburg at 22, is older than the Englishman but still conforms to the Dortmund model, a rising star with potentially big resale value, though his arrival came cloaked in controversy after he shared social media posts that led to accusations of homophobia and transphobia.

Marcel Sabitzer, bought from Bayern Munich at 29, forms part of a growing trend. It may be harsh to say Dortmund take Bayern’s cast-offs or that their strategy is to take players not deemed quite good enough for the champions and thus finish second in the Bundesliga. But if the traffic of players south to Bavaria is more famous, Mats Hummels, Niklas Sule and Sabitzer form an ex-Bayern contingent at the Signal Iduna Park. One criticism may be that it is an acceptance of being second best.

Dortmund’s broader problem might be familiar: whoever they targeted, they were never going to get a replacement of Bellingham’s calibre, and the same could be said when players such as Haaland and Robert Lewandowski left. But now, with Dortmund goalless in the Champions League, thoughts could be cast back a year, when Bellingham scored in each of their first four group games and when he was the biggest factor in their progression to the last 16. They could do with finding such a catalyst in an altogether tougher pool.

Tonali’s Champions League campaign now may be brief but memorable: granted a euphoric reception on his homecoming at San Siro as Newcastle drew 0-0 with AC Milan, he then played in one of St James’ Park’s great European nights, the 4-1 demolition of Paris Saint-Germain. Now Dortmund may be his final outing until the 2024-25 campaign. That may render it unforgettable for the Italian, whatever happens.

His imminent absence will leave Howe, instead of the deluxe upgrade Tonali was supposed to represent and with the exception of Guimaraes, with a midfield who were in a team that was winless at this stage two years ago: he inherited Sean Longstaff, Joelinton and Joe Willock, and did not even pick the Geordie for his first game in charge. Each has improved exponentially in his reign but Newcastle may have to rely on hustle and bustle where they had looked for an injection of class.

His Dortmund counterpart Edin Terzic has not had the luxury of spending £400m in his reign. But when they are side by side in the technical areas at St James’ Park, he may be able to empathise as each wonders what to do when he has a hole at the heart of his side.


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