Borussia Dortmund has emerged in the last decade as the standout destination for developing young talents.
Whether it’s manufacturing their own stars like Mario Gotze or polishing up rough diamonds like Robert Lewandowski, Dortmund’s reputation for excellence speaks for itself.
The club’s economic reality dictates that they are unable to attract ready-made stars to the club at excessive prices. They remain outside the top 10 teams in the Deloitte Money League, which is based on revenue.
They could have big stars at Dortmund but only if they made them in-house. So it has proven, with the production line rolling off the likes of Lewandowski, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mats Hummels and Ilkay Gundogan, who have all shone at Signal Iduna Park before going on on to excel elsewhere.
When players like Hummels or Nuri Sahin leave, it’s imperative that Dortmund have performers capable of filling their roles. It is a delicate balance to maintain coherence on the balance sheet and structure on the field but Dortmund have been managing that situation well.
Their current crop is being eyed jealously by Europe’s biggest clubs with Julian Weigl – in particular – attracting great attention.
At 21, he is in his second season with the first team and leads the way in midfield, where Sahin and Gundogan have departed the scene.
Felix Passlack and Raphael Guerreiro are taking up the defensive responsibility, while up front Christian Pulisic and Ousmane Dembele are fulfilling their destinies week by week.
But that’s not all; also on the books are Scandinavians Emre Mor and Alexander Isak, who will take the step-up to consistency sooner rather than later.
Pulisic, Isak and Passlack take up three of the top eight places in Goal's NxGn - a list ranking the world's 50 most promising players born from 1998 onwards.
The reasons for Dortmund’s success in training young players for the elite level are varied but could be said to start with the appointment of Sven Mislintat in 2007.
A recent fall-out with first-team coach Thomas Tuchel has led to a change of role for the one-time chief scout who now goes by the title of Head of Professional Football, with Markus Pilawa taking up the chief scout role. They clashed over Mislintat’s refusal to support the signing of Tuchel’s No. 1 transfer target last summer – Atletico Madrid’s Oliver Torres.
The fact that Tuchel did not get his way demonstrates the clear structure at Dortmund when it comes to identifying and signing players.
Tuchel admitted in January that he only found out that the club were signing the Swedish forward Isak very late in the deal and that much of the groundwork had already been laid through the work of Mislintat and CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke.
Mislintat was responsible for overseeing the scouting missions which brought Lewandowski from Lech Poznan in Poland, Shinji Kagawa from Cerezo Osaka in Japan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Saint-Etienne. He is still heavily involved in scouting and recruitment.
Key to attracting talent to the club is a clear pathway to the top. Players like Hummels, Lewandowski and Gundogan all left Dortmund for bigger and better things after being given the platform to perform at a young age in the first team under Jurgen Klopp.
The same can be said for Pulisic and Passlack – as well as Dembele – who are all seeing plenty of first-team football this season. With Aubameyang leading the line, the support roles have gone largely to the American teenager and his French counterpart
What happens off the field is just as important as what goes into the process on it.
Dortmund take great care to ensure the welfare of potential young signings, with Dembele crediting the attention shown to him by the club long before he signed there as a key to choosing them instead of Barcelona.
Isak, too, is reported to have turned down Real Madrid in order to sign a contract to 2021 with the Yellow and Blacks. At 17, his time in the first team will come a lot sooner than it would at the Santiago Bernabeu.
The club is also willing to offer a helping hand to new players and their families to settle in the area. Pulisic, for example, was brought over from Pennsylvania along with his father Mark in 2015. Pulisic senior was given a job with the club, overseeing the unique “Footbonaut” department.
This facility is a jewel in Dortmund’s crown and it offers young players many more touches of the ball than standard match practice. Pulisic Sr has just recently left his role at BVB while his son continues on the route to the top.
While Tuchel is tipped to leave the club this summer – with still 18 months on his contract – the methodologies that have turned up superstar after superstar will remain intact.