BERLIN — The big-money moves of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ousmane Dembele show that Borussia Dortmund is still struggling to compete at the highest level.
Both players forced their way out after feeling the need to showcase their talents on bigger and better stages.
Aubameyang skipped a team meeting and refused to engage with the club before eventually sealing a 63.75 million euro ($80 million) move to Arsenal on Wednesday, the last day of the transfer window.
Dembele forced his transfer – initially worth 105 million euros ($130 million) but possibly rising to 147 million euros ($180 million) – to Barcelona last year after going on strike.
While Dortmund has made a healthy profit – both players reportedly cost 28 million euros ($35 million) – the repeated sales of its best players underline the notion that the club has regressed since claiming a domestic double in 2012.
Dortmund reached the Champions League final the following year but finished well behind Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga.
The habitual departure of its top players started with Shinji Kagawa joining Manchester United in 2012 and continued with Mario Goetze and Robert Lewandowski leaving in successive years for Bayern.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United), Mats Hummels (Bayern) and Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City) then left in 2016.
Dortmund has turned to young, affordable players to plug the gaps.
That gamble paid off with Dembele, who was signed as a teenager from Rennes, but it can also backfire, illustrated by the team’s collapse after leading the Bundesliga by five points earlier this season.
Dortmund is now 19 points behind Bayern.
The departures also send a signal to the other players. Stand-out United States midfielder Christian Pulisic must be wondering if his ambitions can be matched by the club and Dortmund will be wary of potential suitors.
Marco Reus, currently injured, chose Dortmund over Bayern in 2012 when the team was at the top of its game. He said he was joining because he thought the club could challenge for the Bundesliga title and play regularly in the Champions League.
Dortmund missed out on Champions League qualification in 2015 and exited the competition at the group stage this season after failing to win any games.
The club has also had to contend with other distractions, including a bomb attack on the team bus before the Champions League match against Monaco last April.
Thomas Tuchel’s spell as coach, after replacing Juergen Klopp in 2015, ended last year after a breakdown in his relationship with chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke and sporting director Michael Zorc.
Tuchel singled out some players, such as the Bayern-bound Hummels, for criticism and dropped the popular Nuri Sahin for the German Cup final win over Eintracht Frankfurt last May.
Sven Mislintat left after falling out with Tuchel. The chief scout, who brought Hummels, Aubameyang, Kagawa and Lewandowski to Dortmund, joined Arsenal in November.
“I would probably never have come to the idea to think of other clubs,” Mislintat said.
Watzke said it was his “personal mistake to let Sven be treated that way for one and a half years.”
Mislintat’s departure was followed three weeks later by coach Peter Bosz’s firing after a run of one win in 13 games in all competitions.
Now that the transfer window is closed, Dortmund is hoping for the return of some stability, starting with Friday’s league game at last-place Cologne.
A loss, though, could set alarm bells ringing again. Bosz’s replacement, Peter Stoeger, is returning to his former club and, while he is unbeaten in five league games, Dortmund hasn’t won in three.
Michy Batshuayi, Aubameyang’s replacement, could make his debut after joining on loan from Chelsea for the rest of the season.