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Ham Mpanga writes about Borusia Dortmund’s next generation of players, and the potential pitfalls awaiting them.
The day is the 23rd January 2017. An exciting youngster has signed for Borussia Dortmund (a line which we’ve become accustomed to). 17 year old Alexander Isak joins the German club after turning down a host of European superpowers including Real Madrid and being rejected by a player is something Florentino Perez will take to the soul. Isak made a name for himself with enticing performances for AIK in Sweden. Possessing a soft first-touch and a lethal eye for goal, he has drawn comparisons to former Sweden international striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic with the big man also giving reportedly giving the youngster his seal of approval. Isak now joins a host of hot prospects at Dortmund including Emre Mor, Ousmane Dembele, Mikel Merino, Julian Weigl, Christian Pulisic and Raphael Guerreiro in addition to the homegrown talents of Erik Durm, Matthias Ginter and Felix Passlack. It is clear to see the transfer stratergy of manager Thomas Tuchel, sporting director Michael Zorc and CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke is aimed towards the club’s long-term security. When all of these players were asked why they signed, all their answers were along the lines, ‘I can grow here.’ Good decision making is a hallmark of an intelligent player and a lot of intelligent players form an intelligent team.
When Martin Odegaard was the latest craze, many offered their words of advice as to where the youngster should head to. Many suggested he should sign for clubs recognised for prioritising development such as Benfica, Ajax or Dortmund whilst some saw England as the best place for him to grow with many saying he could better himself at Southampton, Liverpool or Manchester United; with the youngster given secret tours of Melwood and Carrington respectively. The young Norwegian was ultimately attracted by the bright lights of the Bernabeu instead. Now on loan at Herenveen until the end of the 2017-18 season, the player was quoted as saying, “I have to play to develop myself and those [games are] more likely to [be at] Heerenveen.” This proves that big moves aren’t always the best moves, granted, his future may still lie at Madrid but with James Rodriguez, Marcos Asensio and Isco ahead of him mixed with Madrid’s nature of signing more big names, Odegaard may find it hard to become a starter & a scenario like this is a huge bullet dodged by the likes of Dembele, Isak and Mor thus far.
When asked about developing young players, Arsene Wenger replied, “You build a player like you build a house. You start with the foundations.” And this can be applied to Dortmund’s youthful stars, Ousmane Dembele has shone in the Champions League thus far & Julian Weigl has long been admired universally for his ability to slow down or speed up the tempo whenever he sees fit. Teams have become so wary of Weigl’s quality that they set up tactically to stifle him & have pressed him relentlessly this season; which has worked to good effect causing his coach to search frantically for new ideas to free his deep-lying conductor. One player Tuchel may have to sharpen is the young Ousmane Dembele. The 19 year old Frenchman arrived on a free in the summer from his previous club Rennes & was praised for his pace, dribbling and trickery. He was also involved in a funny yet insightful post-match interview back in France where he was asked which foot he was and replied saying, “I’m better on my left foot but I take penalties on my right foot because I shoot better with it.” This attitude & open mindedness displays how talented he already is and that there is still more to come. This season he has become an integral part of Dortmund’s attack, averaging more than double the amount of successful take-ons a game (3.47) than vice-captain Marco Reus (1.25) and star striker Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang (0.67) and has more assists a game (0.42) than Reus (0.37) and Aubameyang (0.06). Although it seems as if Dembele is the key man out of the three, Dembele is behind the other two in goals scored per game, with Aubameyang leading with 0.97 goals per game, Reus next with 0.25 and Dembele last with 0.21. The French playmaker is also significantly behind when it comes to his shot accuracy per game (41%) compared to Aubameyang’s vastly superior 64% and Reus’ 50%. If Tuchel can mould Dembele into a less rash and more lethal attacker, there will be no limit to how far he can go.
A second player who has a bright future at the club is the young Julian Weigl. Weigl has already cemented himself as Dortmund’s prime regista, tasked with winning the ball between the lines and redistributing it effectively. This efficiency is displayed by the fact that his 18.16m average pass range is unmatched by any other Borussia Dortmund midfielder this season and that his 90% pass accuracy is 7% higher than Mario Gotze and Gonzalo Castro. These are promising signs from Weigl but perhaps a slightly improved goal contribution would help him become a more complete player. Having just one career goal for Dortmund and never registering an assist thus far, there’s no doubt that even 5 goals or assists a season would help his club’s goal tally and his own person achievements.
But possibly, the one with who has to fulfil his potential the most is the boss, Thomas Tuchel. With astute and well revered tactician Pep Guardiola now at Manchester City, he reportedly wanted Tuchel to be his successor at Bayern and with the two sharing the similar idea on juego de posicion it was a no-brainer that Guardiola admired him and felt he would be a good replacement but as we all know with football, you don’t always get what you want (from Dortmund especially) and this is something a juggernaut like Bayern Munich aren’t used to. A fan of his predecessor’s gengenpressing, Tuchel likes his players to be committed to pressing high & being relentless in their approach to reclaim possession as soon as it is lost. His first season at Dortmund saw him get more out of players such as Henrik Mkhitaryan who got 23 goals and 32 assists in 52 games whilst Tuchel also displayed his tactical flexibility by fielding various formations, an aspect of his which has become a trademark. He managed to finish 2nd in his first season with the Die Borussen but this year they’ve seemed to be falling on hard times, with many clubs now sitting back against Dortmund in order to avoid being victims of their viciously effective pressing system. The former Mainz manager has already attracted a lot of interest around Europe, and we all know what happened to the last man who managed Mainz and Dortmund.
The more formulae and solutions he displays, the more people will pay attention to him and the more scrutinized every small error will be, and the less these errors occur the better the manager he’ll appear; which could be bad news for Dortmund. Their squad is talented but still very raw and Thomas Tuchel seems the sensible manager to oversee their progression. In nearly all 11 football positions Dortmund could fill it with a promising player under 23 years old already in their squad. This is a positive but throwing these players into the first team picture early is very dangerous. Burnout is a very damaging thing within sport as a whole and it is crucial Dortmund work to avoid this. It is all well and good for Ousmane Dembele to be a starter for his club aged 19 but how viable will it be for him to be playing 40-45 games for the next 10-15 years at the same level? As much as the Black and Yellows do to promote youth they must equally do their best to protect them.
Sticking together is important here and good communication is a vital building block for the foundations of any relationship. Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and Sporting Director Michael Zorc have already exhibited a good relationship with each other by backing each other up when speaking to the media and making decisions which affect the club but one man who they haven’t always been seen to have the best relationship with is their manager Thomas Tuchel. The issues between the two sides have been ongoing, with many key players being sold behind Tuchel’s back when it was originally promised that they would stay whilst some players have been signed without his knowledge, one key example of this was the sudden signing of Alexander Isak, when asked about the deal Tuchel himself saying he ‘knew very little about the player’ and ‘wasn’t told about the deal until the very late stages’. This exhibits a slight power struggle at Dortmund, something which needs to be solved in order to provide clarity for Tuchel and to a further extent, the fans. And in this day and age, the fans should always be kept in the loop.
On the field however, the players must also stick together for them to ultimately succeed with the club and fulfil their own individual potential. With the one club player fading, players wanting to play abroad and the money from the Chinese League, it seems harder than ever to keep a group of 7/8 good players together for a prolonged time but Dortmund need to do their best to keep their players and manager hungry for more. With the club winning two German Cups in the last 30 years, three Bundesliga titles since the turn of the millennium and just one UEFA Champions League in their history, this is far from good enough for a club that considers itself among Europe’s elite. They are also the most likely club in Germany to break the domestic dominance by Bavarian giants Bayern Munich but they mustn’t let their club become remain the transfer candy shop it appears to be year upon year. Few of Dortmund’s young players have ever tasted major success and achieving it together will make it tastes all the more sweeter. Dortmund must step up from now on and stop clubs from stripping their club bear every summer by taking the club’s shining stars and with the likes of Ousmane Dembele, Julian Weigl already attracting attention, if Dortmund allow them to go they may never be able to shed the ‘selling club’ tag.
In conclusion, Borussia Dortmund’s future seems brighter than ever but they must avoid the same pitfalls that have set back the club time after time. The fans still retain high expectations for this club as always and they may never forgive the men in suits if they let the club be trampled on again.
And to end in the words on the Westfalenstadion faithful,
Allez Borussia Dortmund, Allez!