Let’s Face It, Borussia Dortmund Is Europe’s Version of SC Freiburg

Borussia Dortmund’s current club identity was inadvertently summarized by U.S. football writing giant Grant Wahl, in a piece about BVB’s sporting director, Michael Zorc, excerpted from Wahl’s newest book Masters of Modern Soccer: “No director of football in Europe has done better than Zorc when it comes to identifying young talent, buying at a low price, and selling for a high price.” A clause later, of course, Wahl continues: “[A]ll while keeping Dortmund in a position to spend most of the past decade competing to win European soccer’s most prestigious club trophies.” Luckily for Dortmund, both these things mostly have been true this past decade: buying and selling young players for profit, while achieving relative European success, peaking with the 2013 Champions League final in London and tapering off in recent years.

Wahl echoes what’s become the standard view that Dortmund is successful because the club has followed this “young talent” transfer strategy as its method of staying relatively competitive against Europe’s biggest clubs and retaining its status as Germany’s #2 club. In this account, Dortmund succeeds because the club has become known as Europe’s premier club for developing young talent. Thanks to fantastic scouting, these youngsters are brought in just before they start hitting their peak transfer market value. After a couple years worth of seasoning, the starlets are sold for considerable profit, and the money is reinvested into the next batch of transfers. It’s a cycle.

Young Talent, Young Assets

The evidence for this cycle’s success is impressive. Wahl cites the transfers of Shinji Kagawa (€350,000 paid for vs. €16 million received back),  Mats Hummels (€4.2 million paid for vs. €35 million received back), Ilkay Gündogan (€5.5 million paid for vs. €27 million received back), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (€13 million paid vs. €55 million received back), and most famously Ousmane Dembélé (€15 paid for vs. €105 million received back). Pure profit for BVB in all five cases.

Other BVB transfers gesture toward this strategy: Robert Lewandowski (€4.8 million paid for vs. €80 million current market value), Raphaël Guerreiro (€12 paid for), Christian Pulisic (free), Julian Weigl (€2.5 million paid for), Jadon Sancho (€7.84 million paid for), Dan-Axel Zagadou (free), Manuel Akanji (€21.5 million paid for), Alexander Isak (€8.6 paid for), and Sergio Gómez (€3 million paid for). Aside from Lewandowski, I mention these specific players because, presumably, the assumption behind their signings is that each player listed will probably transfer away from BVB at some point. And hopefully for a massive profit. Notably, aside from Weigl, these players are all “foreign” with little binding them to Germany or BVB, and surely all of them have eyes on bigger clubs and bigger money elsewhere. Clearly, BVB seemingly purchased these players with the plan to resell each one of them.

The case of Lewandowski is a odd exception though, since he transferred to Bayern on a “free”; however, even in Lewa’s case, the presumption was always that he would transfer elsewhere as he transformed into a superstar. Of course, BVB decided to let him leave for free in exchange for keeping him and his goal-scoring around in Champion League play that final Lewa season. Naturally, a deep Champions League campaign (BVB advanced to the quarter-finals that season) and repeated qualification for the Champions League is profit, so BVB indirectly profited from Lewa’s “free” transfer in this sense, even if the club earned nothing from a transfer fee.

Regardless, the transfers I just listed indicate that BVB is in the players-as-assets game, which is the club’s business model. And, it seems, the club’s operating philosophy. Indeed, Wahl implies as much in his article: “Zorc knows better than anyone that Dortmund has to focus on finding value for talent, recognizing that its players are assets and an important part of the club’s revenue equation.” Exactly. Instead of the massive TV deals, foreign investors and gaudy sponsorships that engorge the revenue streams of your Man Uniteds, Man Citys, Chelseas, PSGs, Real Madrids, and Barcelonas, BVB uses actual players as the club’s chief revenue source.

Currently, this strategy defines BVB’s philosophy off the pitch. And everyone knows it. It’s no wonder that gaudy starlets like Dembélé, Zagadou, Akanji, Pulisic, et al. all transferred to BVB and why someone like Mishy Batshuyai did during his loan year at the club. By now, BVB is recognized as the club to transfer to if you are a starlet with a Bugatti-strewn future.

BVB is Europe’s SCF

However, I find this philosophy to be problematic. Basically, Dortmund has become Europe’s version of SC Freiburg. In the Bundesliga, SCF is known as the most prominent “selling club,” since its philosophy is predicated precisely on the kind of young talent nurturing that I just attributed to BVB. Freiburg is too small to exist by any other means within Germany’s top flight. And mostly, this strategy has worked brilliantly in keeping SCF in the top flight with only a brief 2.Bundesliga relegation in recent seasons.

Moreover, Freiburg’s list of talent the club has sold in past seasons is long: Papiss Demba Cissé, Ömer Toprak, Danny Williams, Daniel Caligiuri, Cédric Makiadi, Max Kruse, Jan Rosenthal, Johannes Flum, Matthias Ginter, Oliver Baumann, Admir Mehmedi, Vladimir Darida, Roman Bürki, Oliver Sorg, Stefan Mitrovic, Maximilian Philipp, Vincenzo Grifo, Marc-Oliver Kempf, and Karim Guédé. In the past five season, about two Bundesliga-level of starting lineups have transferred out of Freiburg.

Of course, Christian Streich alone deserves nearly all the credit for improving these players and guiding batch after batch of them through SCF’s system. (Need proof? This topic has been covered extensively at the Fanatic!) Streich’s crew even has reached Europa League a couple times—a stunning achievement for a club of SCF’s size.

However, SCF’s successful Bundesliga run under Streich hasn’t been without its problems. Given that the club’s philosophy is build on selling young players for profit, SCF’s Bundesliga existence is cyclical and contingent to say the least: one season the club challenges for the Europa League under its latest crop of starlets, the next season it’s seemingly staving off relegation, while waiting for the next batch of starlets to develop.

In fact, a successful Freiburg season gets everyone else in the league excited, because it means the next batch of Freiburg talent is about to hit the transfer market. (Look, I’m pointing a finger at myself here, as Dortmund has bagged three SCFers in previous seasons.) Conversely, news of young players signing with Freiburg or being called up to the senior squad is good news, given the club’s track record in developing talent. If you’re like me, you try to file away the names of these players, knowing that at least a couple of them will be on the transfer market soon.

Meanwhile, Freiburg supporters must continually relearn their club’s roster, and hope not to get too attached to whoever the next young starlet turns out to be. Because the only constants at SCF are Christian Streich and the boom-bust cycles.

Given SCF’s “natural” limits, because of the club’s small size and market, the best these supporters can ever hope for is an occasional Europa League flame out and that the next inevitable relegation slide will be overcome quickly.

Which brings me back to Borussia Dortmund.

Life as Europe’s SCF

The parallels between SCF and BVB are pretty clear; it’s just that the former club’s ambitions are confined to the Bundesliga, while the latter club’s ambitions are played out in the European theater. Both clubs are sellers. Both clubs are nurturers of young talent. (Both clubs are babysitters!) Both clubs make the mouths of everyone else water. And both clubs baldy operate with the players-as-assets business model. Oh, and both clubs will always run up against the limits of this philosophy.

However, in the case of BVB, being Europe’s version of SC Freiburg is not without its benefits. First, Dortmund’s visibility across Europe, and globally, has certainly increased thanks to the big name starlets who, before they wore the yellow and black in recent seasons, were endless speculated about on online transfer market rumor sites, discussion forums, and social media. Once these players made Startelf appearances at Dortmund, millions of football followers watched and read about them, spinning endless transfer market rumor about these starlets next destinations. Of course, BVB has benefited from this exposure, since more people know the club’s name and appreciate its brand of football. Second, BVB clearly fulfilled a need in the European football ecosystem, providing roster spots for talent not yet ready for the very best clubs. And yes, these young players definitely helped BVB both in the Bundesliga and in European play. So win-win, right? Finally, young talent is talent, which means us BVB supporters have been treated to some lovely bits of skill, excitement, and jaw-dropping wonder in recent seasons. That is, the quality of the football has been pretty damn good.

As good as these benefits are, the drawbacks clearly point to limitations of the player-as-assets business strategy. First, the strategy is a clear concession of Dortmund’s place in the European pecking order (or hell, the Bundesliga pecking order). It sends the signal that Dortmund is “merely” a selling club. In this regard, the philosophy is a status admission. And not a good one, because a selling club” cannot compete for the top tier in Europe or even for Germany’s #1 spot. To be fair, neither Zorc nor Watzke would disagree with this claim. In fact, they’ve acknowledged as much and have stated that BVB isn’t a top tier club. Fair enough. However, I’m troubled by my club directly signalling this 2nd/3rd/4th tier status (or whatever you want to call it ) to us supporters and everyone else. Football is in the business of selling dreams, if it’s a business at all. Second, to use the babysitting metaphor, BVB has had some unruly “kids” in recent seasons—e.g. Dembélé’s shocking petulance or Aubameyang’s cringe-worthy, junior varsity-level antics come immediately to mind—as these players forced their transfers out of BVB in disrespectful and untimely fashion. This sort of behavior is a risk you run when dealing with young stars, who know their dream club and dream contract is just around the corner. Despite whatever toothless warning the likes of Watzke give current and future starlets, the starlets hold all the cards in this asymmetrical game of poker. Finally, what’s the endgame for Dortmund with this strategy? (The same question could be posed to SC Freiburg.) Simply selling off young talent cannot be an end in itself. Teleologically, this players-as-assets strategy needs to lead somewhere—to the next phase, next goal, whatever. Currently, the endgame is unclear with no obvious next steps in sight, especially in light of the recent coaching carousel, impending squad clean-out, and general soul searching that BVB is in the throes of right now.

What’s the Solution?

Sorry, I actually don’t have any answers here. I’m just a writer, Bundesliga partisan, and lover of BVB. Furthermore, I’m not going to pretend to know what new club philosophy BVB should embrace, or even what should be done with the tattered squad this summer. However, I do want to remind readers that Dortmund wasn’t always played under this philosophy (even as recently as during Jürgen Klopp’s tenure), nor was it inevitable that BVB would become Europe’s version of SC Freiburg.

In Raphael Honigstein’s telling of the story of his Klopp: Bring the Noise, becoming Europe’s premier “selling club” was never the goal when BVB hired Klopp as head coach in 2008 and built a core of young and hungry players around him, which paved the road for the back-to-back titles in 2010-11 and 2011-12. In Klopp, Honigstein interviews Dortmund chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke, who admitted that “[w]e got very lucky with quite a few of the signings,” while Zorc himself admitted to Honigstein that prior to Dortmund’s first of the two titles under Klopp, “[n]o one expected us to have a chance, let alone dominate the league to such an extent.” As Honigstein carefully notes, none of the young signings under Klopp were heralded starlets: Shinji Kagawa, Neven Subotic, Mats Hummels (der Kinderriegel), Sven Bender, Kevin Großkreutz, or the then-unknown Robert Lewandowski. Coupled with BVB youth systems products like “Super Mario” Götze, Nuri Sahin, and Marcel Schmelzer, this young core destroyed the Bundesliga for a couple seasons. Tellingly, the first players to transfer out for bigger money and fame—Sahin and Kagawa—flopped disastrously (at Real Madrid/Liverpool and Manchester United). Clearly, these players transcended their own individual skill sets within Klopp’s now-famed Gegenpressing system of  what Honigstein calls Jagdfußball (“hunting football”). In fact, really only Hummels and Lewandowski have been able to succeed outside of Dortmund after playing their formative seasons under Klopp.

The point I’m trying to make is that in the last decade, Dortmund achieved its biggest successes with a squad that didn’t include gaudy starlets, who were specifically recruited to become fully-developed professionals at BVB. Yes, the peak Klopp squads were stuffed with young players, and yes, Jürgen Klopp was the real catalyst that made everything work, however, Dortmund didn’t need Europe’s top starlets to pull off these successes.

The big starlets came later.

In my understanding of the Dortmund narrative, Marco Reus’ signing from Gladbach was the beginning of a slow creeping toward the club’s current business model and philosophy. Reus was close to the type of starlet that BVB pursues these days, after two sensational seasons with the Foals in an exciting counter-attacking system. In the following seasons, the starlets pattern emerged with the signings of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pierre-Emrick Aubameyang, then really picked up in 2014-15 with the signings of Ciro Immobile, Kevin Kampl, and Mattias Ginter.

Again, I write all this to point out that, previously, Dortmund found success under the banner of a different philosophy, then intentionally shifted into the role of premier talent farm that it currently occupies in the ecosystem of European football. Of course, increasing the revenue stream (presumably for buying bigger and better names) is the justification for pursuing the current philosophy. But I have to wonder if the plan is working, or if it ever has worked. If the European performances of other clubs are any indication, it seems that AS Monaco’s semi-final Champions League finish in 2016-17 is the highest success a club has achieved with this plan. Naturally, Monaco’s talent was absolutely raided last summer, and AS spent this season picking up the pieces. So perhaps another AS Monaco-like run is in the cards for Dortmund, but even if this were to be the case, it will certainly be a flash in the European pan. Surviving off the mercenary skills of starlets seems to be an anathema to stability.

I trust Watzke and Zorc. And I even trust that the current philosophy of being Europe’s version of SC Freiburg is merely a stage to a journey elsewhere. I just wished I knew what the next stage is supposed to be. Or that another stage actually exists.

 

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website, as well as The Short Pass where he covers the USL and other topics. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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3 Comments

  1. Yes, I agree with the previous post. Great article!
    However I am not as worried as the author seems to be that we have put us in a mercenary-selling-talent position that will be hard to get out of. One point that I wish the author would have taken into account is that BVB was a club in depth until very recently and that the management of BVB had promised not to put us in this position again. As of today dortmund should have in excess of 100 million € in the bank and no debts, and that the player salary share has been growing substantially over the last few seasons.
    One other example of a club that has made a similar trip and made it to the very top (probably the best example) is Athletico Madrid. Until the last few seasons the’ve had to sell of their remarkable strikers (beginning with Torres, Falcao, Costa, Aguero, etc) for a considerable profit when these stars wanted to move on. It is in recent times that they have started to be able to keep the megastars like Griezmann and buying back a Costa in form. And this arguably in an even more competitive league.

    With increasing revenue and higher salaries being paid out I believe Zorc will gradually be able to tie down an increasing number of key players into the club (like Reus and Götze) while sprinkling it with the “talented future star players” to sell on further. And I do not believe this change in strategy will scare away the talent to come to BVB in the future.

    In spite of the recent slump (1 or 2 seasons) I have full confidence in the management of BVB and that this has been a hick-up that is inevitable in any club. The path to the top can not always be a straight line.

    Thanks for a good article though. BVB fan from Sweden.

  2. I should somewhat identify myself, (i commented on what a great read this was). I am a Bundersliga Fan from lovely Durham North Carolina, Bayern’s my team

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