Just for a second, cast your mind into the future, maybe five years from now, and imagine the kind of players Jadon Sancho and Erling Haaland have become at 25 years old. Pretty good, I reckon. Now imagine what 22-year-olds Gio Reyna and Jude Bellingham look like. Yikes. Now, imagine that those players are still playing together for the same club. My god.
Sancho (20), Haaland (20), Bellingham (17), and Reyna (17) are part of Borussia Dortmund’s young core, combining to create one of the youngest and most exciting attacks in Europe. The reason why the prospect of them staying together for any length of time beyond this season seems fantastical is because of Dortmund’s reputation as a kind of finishing school for elite talent. Their strategy has often been to unearth diamonds, polish them for a season or two, and then sell them to one of the bigger, richer clubs in Europe for a hefty fee. It’s a philosophy that doubles as a business strategy, and it’s served Dortmund well. However, in a season in which everything is up for grabs in European football, is the prospect of this group staying together more realistic?
I often wonder whether Dortmund has a team WhatsApp group. I don’t mean a group chat where Mats Hummels posts a link to his podcast every week, but one exclusively reserved for Dortmund’s young players. Admittedly, I have no idea what elite-level footballers talk about among themselves, but I hope that Haaland, Sancho, Reyna, Bellingham, and 15-year-old Youssoufa Moukoko have a forum where they talk about what they might be able to achieve if they all stick together. They may all have ambitions to one day pull on the shirt of Real Madrid, Barcelona, or one of the top Premier League teams, but perhaps they’ve considered the possibility that maybe Dortmund is the best place for them all to be.
Dortmund perennially operates in Bayern Munich’s shadow. The latest example was found in last week’s defeat in the German Supercup, their third Klassiker defeat in a row and their eighth in the last 10. There were positives: Dortmund scored in the Allianz Arena for the first time in almost three years, dragging themselves from a two-goal deficit to equalize before Joshua Kimmich won the game in the closing stages. Despite the distance between the two teams in German football’s hierarchy, don’t mistake Dortmund for a minnow. They have the biggest average attendance in Europe, a legendary stadium, an unrivaled game-day atmosphere, and can even boast a Champions League trophy in its history. Yet it seems inevitable that one of—if not all—of their young stars will move on in the relatively near future. They always do, after all. I can’t help but wonder whether something is different about this season. This latest batch of Dortmund prodigies are progressing to levels that seem way ahead of schedule, even by Dortmund’s standards, and the financial limitations imposed on teams by the pandemic make it more likely that some players—particularly Sancho—will stay put for a bit longer than previously anticipated.
When they’re clicking, this Dortmund side is an absolute delight. What was so striking about their 4-0 win over Freiburg on Saturday was how it felt like Reyna had fully arrived at the level that Haaland and Sancho have already reached. Haaland scored the first and the third goals and Reyna finished with three assists. It was his best performance in a yellow and black shirt: The American teenager dominated almost every aspect of the game, bar putting the ball in the net. He became the first 17-year-old to register three assists in a Bundesliga game since the league began collecting data; he created four additional chances, won 12 ground duels, completed four dribbles, and won four tackles, best of any player in the game in each category.
Reyna’s shown similar glimpses before—most notably against PSG in last season’s Champions League—but Saturday’s performance saw him assume a higher degree of responsibility to ensure his team returned to their winning ways. It also delivered concrete evidence of a brewing chemistry between himself and Haaland. Both of Reyna’s assists for the Norwegian were almost identical: a perfectly weighted pass into the left channel, as Haaland made his now trademarked run beyond a stranded defender. The pair of assists—as well as Haaland’s finishes—were almost a carbon copy of Dortmund’s breakaway third goal against Borussia Mönchengladbach on the opening day of the season.
Dortmund’s strategy of developing young talent and selling it at a premium began in the latter stages of the previous decade. Since winning back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012, before going to the Champions League final in 2013 under Jürgen Klopp, young talents emerged and then left. None of the high-profile departures in the years that followed the Champions League defeat to Bayern were under the age of 25, but they still represented the team’s best players. In the span of five seasons, Dortmund sold Shinji Kagawa, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Nuri Sahin, and Ilkay Gundogan to Premier League and La Liga clubs; bigger stars went to Bayern, including Robert Lewandowski, who departed in 2014 on a free transfer, one year after Mario Götze did the same. Mats Hummels joined them in 2015. Götze and Hummels would return to Dortmund having failed to win a Champions League in Munich; Lewandowski finally got his hands on one this summer. Many players who move on from Dortmund cite the pursuit of silverware—and higher wages—as a primary motivation, but it would be hard to think of a player, barring Lewandowski, whose departure brought them closer to winning something than if they had stayed with Dortmund.
Dortmund’s players are starting to leave at younger ages. After Götze’s departure for Bayern in June 2013, it could be argued that Ousmane Dembélé was the next Dortmund prospect who left well before reaching his prime after his $100 million transfer to Barcelona in 2017. His example should provide a cautionary tale to whoever might be in the hypothetical WhatsApp group—being dazzled by lights supposedly brighter than Dortmund’s does not guarantee success. While injury problems have been a huge factor contributing to Dembélé’s uneven tenure at Barcelona, his stalled progress demonstrates the pressure of undue expectations that come with moving for such a fee before you may actually be ready to deliver.
In Dortmund’s case, Dembélé’s departure was part of a natural progression. He was replaced by Christian Pulisic, who was then replaced by Sancho after Pulisic departed for Chelsea—three players who tend to play in similar positions and whose development benefited from the departure of their predecessor. However, this season, Dortmund do not merely have a potential generational talent on their hands; they have a potential generational squad. In NBA terms, having Reyna, Sancho, Haaland, and Bellingham on the roster is like a franchise making good on a haul of high first-round draft picks in their first or second year. Moukoko is next in line and will be eligible to play for Dortmund’s first team after turning 16 next month. The German U-20 international has scored 134 goals in 86 games at various youth levels for Dortmund and just set a Bundesliga U-19 goalscoring record of 34 goals in 20 matches last season.
And yet, the elephant in the room is that we know the likelihood that they’ll all stay together at Dortmund is slim. Despite being in the top 20 of the most recent Deloitte Money League—ahead of clubs such as Atlético Madrid and Internazionale and just behind Arsenal and Juventus—Dortmund continue to rely on player sales as a major source of income. They fall far behind European heavyweights in commercial and broadcasting revenue and the pandemic adds a further financial strain for a team so reliant on game-day revenues. However, the pandemic has curtailed spending at the richer clubs that generally line up to poach Dortmund’s young talent. They’ve brought in just €5.5 million in player sales during this transfer window. Could this be a sign of a change in approach from CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke? Have the Dortmund hierarchy sensed that with so many European footballing empires showing signs of crumbling, that now may be time for Dortmund to pounce?
Watzke is a curious character, responsible for saving the club from financial ruin, guiding it through the Klopp era, and then expressing a desire to win the league while overseeing the annual high roster turnover. Desire may be the key word here, because at times, since Klopp’s departure in 2015, Watzke has shown signs of being the most tantric CEO in Europe, preferring the thrill of the chase as opposed to the satisfaction of the conqueror.
However, this time it really does feel different as Dortmund have not one, nor two, three, or even four players at their disposal, but the chance to nurture a core group into a starting 11 that could have a genuine chance of challenging on a European level, let alone the Bundesliga. So whatever those boys are chatting about in that hypothetical WhatsApp group, I hope that one of them has had a similar thought, and thrown out a casual, “Lads, why don’t we just, like, stick together for a while?”