Can Bundesliga’s perennial runners-up topple Bayern Munich?

DORTMUND, Germany — “I looked on these new prodigies with what I can only call ‘anticipatory nostalgia,’ as I prepared to say goodbye to them even in the act of saying hello. They did look dashing.” When the celebrated baseball writer Roger Angell penned those words in the 1970s, he was talking about the San Francisco Giants and their propensity for developing the best young prospects in baseball and then trading them away to prosper elsewhere. There’s no evidence that Angell was much of a soccer fan, but he inadvertently came up with just about the best way of describing the 2020s version of Borussia Dortmund.

After overpaying for veterans in the name of European contention in the early-2000s, BVB found itself on the verge of bankruptcy. They avoided administration by ditching salary, selling the naming rights to their storied home stadium and, at one point, taking a loan from Bayern Munich. They finished between sixth and 13th in the Bundesliga every year from 2004-09, but new manager Jurgen Klopp, hired in 2009, not only oversaw a rise back to the top of the table, but did it with a ridiculously young squad. They won the league in 2010-11 with an 18-year-old Mario Gotze, an ultra-young back line (Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic and Marcel Schmelzer were all 21 or 22), 21-year-old defensive midfielders Sven Bender and Nuri Sahin and 21-year-old attacker Shinji Kagawa. They gave primary attacking duties to 22-year-old Robert Lewandowski in 2011-12 and did it all over again.

The template was set: BVB would make itself both financially secure and successful by becoming what amounted to be the best developmental club in the world. They would play attractive soccer, transfer their young superstars for huge fees, add the next round of young talent with the proceeds and keep right on winning.

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This is the “Bundesliga way,” of course, but Borussia Dortmund has been particularly good at it. Even after Klopp left in 2015, Dortmund became the home of the most consistently bright and exciting young talent in soccer. Christian Pulisic broke into the first team at age 17 in 2015-16, and in 2016-17, Ousmane Dembele (19), Jadon Sancho (17) and Dan-Axel Zagadou (18) joined him.

Achraf Hakimi (19) came aboard via loan in 2018-19, Erling Haaland (19) and Gio Reyna (17) introduced themselves in 2019-20, and then Jude Bellingham (17) moved over from England in 2020-21. The 2022-23 squad might have roles for attackers Youssoufa Moukoko (17), Ansgar Knauff (20), Jayden Braaf (19) and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens (17) and full-back Tom Rothe (17), while Reyna and Bellingham are still only 19.

Despite growing pains, BVB has finished at least fourth in the Bundesliga every year since 2015, and reached the Champions League quarterfinals twice as well. But the curse of becoming a great developmental club is that richer clubs are always ready to pounce, to the extent that it’s almost assumed that once younger players begin to prosper, they will leave. Dembele left for Barcelona in 2017, Pulisic for Chelsea in 2019, Sancho for Manchester United in 2021, Haaland for Manchester City in 2022, and so on. Barring a surprise, BVB will have Bellingham for the 2022-23 season, but that’s probably it. If Reyna can stay healthy and dominant for an extended period of time, transfer rumors will begin almost instantaneously.

As a result, Borussia Dortmund is constantly about the 13th-best team in Europe — since 2011, they have averaged a year-end ranking of 13.1 in the EloFootball.com ratings — and always feels about a year away from being something more. They’re always good and always on the verge of a major breakthrough, but they never break through. They haven’t won the Bundesliga since 2012 and haven’t made it past the Champions League quarters since 2013 ,when they lost to Bayern in the final.

There is no alternative, though. New sporting director Sebastian Kehl and new manager Edin Terzic are both products of the Klopp era and have been with the club a long time — they know no other way. Besides, what’s the alternative: overpaying for aging veterans? With the moves the club has made this offseason, and the one player they could get back from injury, this could be a particularly fun and exciting version of the prototypical fun and exciting Dortmund team this coming season. We’ll see if it’s enough to rise beyond 13th.


Patenting Youth Development

In a meeting room in Borussia Dortmund’s training center, about seven miles from the Signal Iduna Park, Otto Addo, BVB youth coach and scout — and, on the side, interim coach of Ghana’s national team — talked about one of the forgotten aspects of working 17-year-olds into your squad: education!

“Tom [Rothe] is very down-to-earth,” he said. “School is important for us and for his parents as well, and he’s still going to school one more year. We have to take the right solutions for him to start in the preseason, but then when school starts again, we’ll have to see how we do it. Surely, it depends also on his performances and we’ll take the right actions, but every player is different.”

Rothe made the best possible first impression late last season, playing 94 minutes in two matches and scoring a set-piece goal against Wolfsburg in April. He looked composed and physically impressive, and when we see that as fans or writers, we assume a quick and linear progression to the first team. Actual development, of course, is much more complex. You have to make sure that young prospects are challenged, but not too challenged; you want them to be successful, but also trained to handle setbacks.

“We are looking individually at each and every player’s development,” Addo said. “For us, it’s very important that our players have challenges. If you are more in the environment where you’re challenged, you also develop more. If we see fewer challenges, we try our best to promote them to the next age group. But we have to look that somebody’s not over-challenged. It’s a hard, hard, hard spot because you can also destroy a lot of things.”

There’s also the matter of sitting on the bench. Even if a teenager makes the first team, he might not be playing as much as he wants.

“It’s quite normal if you are maybe 17, 18, and you are with the first team, and you’re not playing,” Addo said. “It’s a normal thing. This is what we try to explain to them. It’s very good that everybody is very ambitious to play and maybe not satisfied [that] he’s not playing, so it’s a good thing, good mindset. But sometimes we have to calm the players down.”

This tightrope walk happens at every major and medium-sized club in Europe. Everyone is developing youth players in the name of supplementing future senior squads. So what stands out about BVB? “At the end of the day, I think it’s obviously the chance the players get to play,” Addo answered. “It’s also good scouting: we have very good scouts around to make good predictions about players, about their development. There is a lot of talent out there, the whole world, and I think in all, Borussia Dortmund has a good eye to develop these kinds of talents.”

BVB’s ability to develop teenagers has naturally opened up their opportunities to recruit more elite teenage players. Haaland chose Dortmund for his finishing-school stint over Manchester United and others, while Bellingham chose BVB in part because of the great experience his countryman, Sancho, was enjoying. A lot of the club’s best prospects come to town when they are around 15 or 16, but they’re brought up to speed very quickly (school be damned) and when they’re ready, they’re ready. Moukoko, for instance, made his debut one day after his 16th birthday. He scored his first goal for the senior team at 16 years and 28 days old.

“This year we have a big opportunity because a lot of players will be going to the World Cup,” Otto said, “so we’ll have a whole month where a lot of young players will work with the first team. We are looking and thinking about the players who can make it to the first team and adapt as far as possible.”

How will they know who’s ready? “We’re looking for the players who have the right solutions,” Addo said. “It’s not always the one who’s physically strong and doing everything good because of his physical advantage. It’s more about defensive position, about timing — when he’s trying to intercept the ball, for example. It’s about offensive position, about body position, about scanning, about runs, about reading the game.

“This is what we’re looking for. It’s more about the idea of the pass than the actual pass.”

The 19-year-olds in charge of Borussia Dortmund’s fate

Understanding that you can’t usually get all the leadership you need from teenagers — a fact of life in sports and, well, virtually anything else — BVB has long attempted to build squads that have a mixture of young stars and veteran leaders. Young as it was, the 2011-12 squad still gave major minutes to 30-year-old goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller and 31-year-old defensive midfielder Sebastian Kehl, and in recent seasons they’ve leaned heavily on leaders like captain Marco Reus (now 33), Hummels (33), Axel Witsel (33), Thomas Meunier (30) and others. Witsel has since left for Atletico Madrid, but the other three could still play major roles.

That said, it’s easy to figure that Dortmund will go as far as Bellingham, and a healthy Reyna can take them this season.

Bellingham’s first two seasons in North Rhine-Westphalia have been a revelation. He played more than 6,400 minutes in all competitions, contributed eight goals and 16 assists (among 73 chances created) — an impressive total for a player assuming a lot of defensive midfield duties — and has won 53% of his duels with nearly six ball recoveries per 90 minutes. Those are ridiculous numbers for someone who had just turned 17 when he arrived, but Addo thinks he’s just scratching the surface.

“He’s playing like he’s 30. It’s unbelievable,” Addo said, “and maybe it sounds funny, but still there’s room to improve. Defensively, he’s doing very, very well. Offensively, we show him a lot of clips where he could have scored a goal, but he’s a brilliant player. Surely he can sometimes be more efficient up front, but for a midfielder to create this amount of chances is very, very huge, so it’s not like we are complaining about it.”

Reyna’s biggest issue, of course, has been staying on the pitch. The young American has managed just 3,713 minutes in three seasons and just 604 minutes in the last 12 months. Hamstring issues knocked him out for a long period of time, and a number of comeback attempts turned out to be false starts. The confidence he showed when he was back on the pitch, both for the U.S. and BVB, was startling — there was no hesitation in his movement, no worry of further injury, and he seemed even better on the ball every time he received it — but he perhaps should have contained himself a bit. Instead, he continuously re-aggravated his issues.

Still, in those 604 club minutes, Reyna scored twice with one assist, had an 82% pass completion rate in the attacking third and a remarkable 21 chances created — an average of 3.1 chances per 90. For comparison, Bayern’s brilliant creators Thomas Muller and Joshua Kimmich each averaged 2.9 per 90 last season. Reyna’s potential is off the charts if his body will cooperate.

“First of all, especially at [Reyna’s] young age, when you’re out of the game, you are hungrier than before because you want to play,” Otto said. “They get experience also through their injuries — what they maybe could have done to avoid it — so they’re getting more professional. That’s good.

“You can’t prevent every injury, but you do as much as possible to prevent yourself from injury — have the right sleep, the right diet, the right workout prior to training. This is what we try to give to them and try to educate them in a way that they don’t need us at the end.”

Terzic has told media that the club will slowly work him back into the squad in the coming weeks and months with the hopes of avoiding further injury issues. The potential for both Bellingham and Reyna is clear, but what might be most impressive is not only their skill but their mastery of particularly hard-to-master areas of the pitch.

When asked about the positions that might be harder for young players to master, Otto’s answer was revealing. “You can’t particularly say, but in general I think central positions are much more difficult to obtain,” he said. “There, you need a lot of experience. The opponent can come from every angle. You need good vision. You need good orientation. It’s much easier if you start at the flanks, on the side, where you know nobody’s behind you because that’s the sideline.

“The psychological aspects of the [central] positions — central defender, [the No.] 6 and 8 positions — it’s very, very difficult. If you think about that, you have to acknowledge what somebody like Reyna is doing when he’s playing in midfield. Or Bellingham.”

The No. 6 position is generally regarded to be a defensive midfielder, the No. 8 a central attacking midfielder. Addo sees the No. 8 as the versatile Reyna’s best home — “he has freedom to collect balls from behind but also make runs in behind or dribbling up front; he gets freedom to show his quality and is not pressed into too many tactical things” — while Bellingham has mastered the No. 6 with surprising quickness.

“You have players that, you show them things [on film] and they don’t really see what you want in that moment,” Addo explained. “It’s not always about having the ball and making the wrong pass or something — it’s about body positioning, run possibilities or positional possibilities. We have players that, when I show them something, especially at the beginning, they don’t know what I mean.” But that’s not a concern with Bellingham. “It’s very surprising that a player at his age already knew, ‘Okay, I should have done this.’ And when you watch the [next] training, you see that, okay, his direction aligns with what he said at the meeting.

“This guy’s very fast to correct himself,” Addo continued. “He recognizes what he did wrong, then he has solutions, and the transformation on the pitch is already there. Reyna, Bellingham… they are very, very fast at that.”

The Sancho/Haaland “bounty”

Kehl played about 3,500 combined minutes, mostly as a No. 6, during BVB’s 2011 and 2012 title runs. He served as captain for six of his 13 seasons at Dortmund — “When you think of Dortmund, Sebastian is the first player who comes to mind,” Klopp once said about him — and was hired as a BVB staffer beginning in 2018. When longtime club sporting director Michael Zorc announced he would be retiring after the 2021-22 season, Kehl was an obvious choice for replacing him. And it is easy to be impressed by the moves he has made in his first summer in the role.

Even with Bellingham’s rapid improvement, BVB’s transition defense got ripped to shreds in 2021-22. Bundesliga opponents averaged 0.14 xG per shot attempt, the highest in the league, and 30% of opponent shots were attempted with fewer than two defenders between the ball and goal, fourth-most. With Hummels and Emre Can both battling injury/form issues at the back, Dortmund’s high-powered, high-wire attack became both its biggest asset (2.5 goals scored per match despite sustained injury issues for both Haaland and Reyna) and biggest liability (1.5 goals allowed, ninth in the league). They allowed 10 goals in three Champions League group stage losses and once relegated to the Europa League knockout stages, they were eliminated after allowing six goals over two matches to Rangers.

Combined with Haaland’s departure, then, Kehl was tasked with using the proceeds from Haaland’s and Sancho’s departures to both create a new attacking tandem up front and make desperately needed upgrades in the back. He has done just that, adding forwards Sebastien Haller (Ajax) and Karim Adeyemi (RB Salzburg), defensive midfielder Salih Ozcan (Koln) and central defenders Nico Schlotterbeck (Freiburg) and Niklas Sule (Bayern).

Few forwards are better at creating space and availability, either via movement or physical play, than Haller. The 28-year old scored a combined 32 goals with eight assists in the Eredivisie and Champions League last season. The potential upside of combining him with the 20-year old Adeyemi is obvious. Adeyemi scored 22 goals with six assists in the Austrian Bundesliga and Champions League last season, and while he doesn’t take a high volume of shots, few in Europe have shown more potential in terms of both progressive carries and progressive passes received. He beats defenders with and without the ball, while Haller excels at basically posting up in the box. Throw in Reus, Donyell Malen, Reyna and other youngsters, and that sounds like a strong attacking battery.

Meanwhile, Schlotterbeck was maybe the best defender in the Bundesliga last season. He is capable of both contributing in attack and fulfilling all the typical defensive roles, and is quickly becoming a mainstay in the lineup for the German national team. So is Sule; the 26-year-old is a full-back trapped in the prototypical centre-back’s body — he is 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, but he seems far more comfortable pushing the ball into dangerous areas than preventing opponents from doing the same. With these two and the underrated Ozcan (whose presence could free up Bellingham to attack more), BVB’s potential in transition, both attacking and defending, has grown immensely. And the squad’s depth, from front to back, has improved as well. That becomes doubly true if the aforementioned teenagers force their way into the club’s immediate plans.

Now to the big question: Is all of this enough to close the gap on Bayern in the Bundesliga race? That answer probably depends as much on Bayern as BVB, as the 10-time defending champs haven’t exactly stood still in addressing their own weaknesses this offseason. Dortmund only finished eight points back last season, their closest finish since falling just two points short in 2018-19. They will require more good luck with injuries than they saw last season, and they will of course be dealing with both the constant rumors and “anticipatory nostalgia” of Bellingham’s impending departure. But while we’re used to BVB teams boasting both high upside and attractive play, this squad could be particularly attractive and their best chance yet.