They are still teenagers, but Ousmane Dembele and Christian Pulisic are already key pieces for Dortmund.TF-Images/Getty Images
March 8, 2017
On Wednesday, Borussia Dortmund will enter into the biggest match of their season so far, and one which will go a long way toward defining the relative success of their season. There is little margin for error as they receive Benfica for the return leg of their Champions League last-16 tie, backed by the famous Yellow Wall but lacking the safety net of an away goal in hand.
They will not, however, stray too far from their principles. The task of supporting 25-goal Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will most likely fall to a pair of teenagers, the 19-year-old Ousmane Dembele and Christian Pulisic, who is still 18. There are few clubs who would embrace such a strategy for a crucial sellout match to be played in front of 65,000-plus.
Then again, Dortmund are not just any club, and the pair are not just any teenagers. If the club’s commercial department has shaped BVB’s public image around the motto of Echte Liebe (“real love”), drawing heavily on the passion of the Westfalen atmosphere, then the football side of the operation has carved its own, complementary niche of outlook in attracting the brightest young talent from across Europe to create a squad for the future.
In the last two transfer windows alone, Dortmund have signed five players 22 years old and under for transfer fees adding up to an estimated €40 million. Three of the those (the last of which was the January arrival of Swedish sensation Alexander Isak) were teenagers.
At most other top-level clubs, this might be seen as a cynical stockpiling of potential stars of the future to keep them from the clutches of competitors and as future transfer-market collateral. The big difference is that at Dortmund they’re not kept parked on the drive for show. They play.
Let’s look at last summer’s arrivals. Dembele has already become a cornerstone of BVB’s attack. Raphael Guerreiro, a relative veteran at 23, has been held up by a couple of minor injuries, but he is also regarded as important to the first team already and is almost always a starter when fit.
Emre Mor, at 19 and having arrived from Danish football, has already received five starts. The 20-year-old midfielder Mikel Merino, who has made two Bundesliga starts, is regarded as important enough to the immediate future that Dortmund rejected an enquiry from Cologne to take him on loan. It was felt that he is best where he is, continuing to learn the ropes.
Merino’s case is an interesting one. Many other clubs would loan him out to get him game time, experience and—maybe with a view to cashing in if the right offer came up—visibility. Yet BVB believe he is in the perfect place to improve already.
Mikel Merino has stayed at Dortmund to continue his integration into the squad’s methods.TF-Images/Getty Images
Part of that is with an eye to the future, of course. Julian Weigl, a relative veteran at 21 but who signed from 1860 Munich at 19, is surely coveted among a clutch of Europe’s biggest clubs. Even if he signed an extended deal to 2021 before Christmas, as per Bundesliga.com, it could be that one day, Merino may well get the call to replace him.
Stocking up in terms of real depth of talent is the best insurance policy for this sort of future occurrence that Dortmund could have. That opportunity to shine at the top level is important in attracting the best—after they have been spotted by head of scouting Sven Mislintat, who uncovered players including Robert Lewandowski and Shinji Kagawa—but so is the possibility of making that step up to elite level after a while.
This is nothing new with Dortmund, of course, where the perception is just as important as the detail of the reality when it comes to attracting players.
Jurgen Klopp’s successful teams, and their success in grabbing worldwide media attention, clearly enhanced Dortmund’s reputation as a go-to destination—and the image of his teams was an overwhelmingly youthful one. Seven of the starters in the 2013 Champions League final defeat to Bayern Munich were 24 and under, with four more of the same age bracket—led by Nuri Sahin—on the bench.
In the first of Klopp’s two title-winning seasons, 2010-11, his most-used outfield players in the Bundesliga included Mats Hummels (who was 21 when the season began), Kevin Grosskreutz (22), Sahin (22), Sven Bender (19) and Mario Gotze (18).
Germany’s ability to develop players of the highest technical level has risen stratospherically over the last 15 years, as noted in Raphael Honigstein’s book Das Reboot, for one.
At Dortmund, the desire to do so is even more intense, with the use of the pioneering Footbonaut, which arrived in Klopp’s reign. A good example of its use was detailed by Goal.com here last October. It was administered, until recently, by Pulisic’s father Mark, who has just left his job as an academy coach there.
“Kids want change,” said Pulisic senior. “Kids like things to be different.” He might have been talking about the Footbonaut, but that principle is just as applicable to Dortmund as a whole. The opportunity is the carrot at the end of the line, but the attention to detail is what maintains focus on a day-to-day basis.
In the last two years, Tuchel has been integral to those methods. “He is a very special coach, who attaches great importance to tactics,” Gotze said during the club’s training camp this winter, as per ESPN FC. He also noted Tuchel’s intense coaching during the games themselves, which Gotze said was “something I have never seen before.”
Mario Gotze has been impressed by Thomas Tuchel’s intensive work with the club’s youngest players.TF-Images/Getty Images
So even since Gotze’s first BVB spell, things have developed apace. His transfer to Bayern Munich in 2013, and Lewandowski’s later move south, hardened resolve to find a workable alternative strategy, as a reminder that BVB can’t quite compete financially. Getting the talent early makes perfect sense.
Whether Tuchel will be around to preside over it much longer is open to debate, with talks planned on his future with CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke at the end of the season. Tuchel’s relationship with Mislintat has reportedly fizzled to non-existent, according to multiple reports cited by ESPN FC.
The coach has been open that much of the recruitment goes on without him, led by Watzke and sporting director Michael Zorc, on Mislintat’s recommendations. “I found out very late that we signed him,” he said of January’s signing of Isak, per the Mirror. “I was told about the transfer last week and when he was introduced to me,” he continued, though he did add that “the signing made 100 per cent sense for BVB.”
Whether Tuchel stays or goes, that strategy will remain the same. Quite how far it can take them—and how quickly these young players are ready to seize gala occasions by the horns—will become clearer against Benfica. That they have the chance to will surely attract the cream of the next generation, home and abroad.