It may seem far-fetched to say that Jadon Sancho and Erling Haaland are part of Borussia Dortmund’s older guard at the age of 20, but going by the names in Lucien Favre’s squad this summer, they are very much that.
You’ve probably already heard of some of the up-and-coming starlets: Real Madrid loanee Reinier Jesus is 18, Gio Reyna and Jude Bellingham are both 17, while Yousouffa Moukoko is still just 15. Other names may not be quite so familiar – yet: Immanuel Pherai is 19 and Ansgar Knauff is 18.
So what? Plenty of clubs allow promising youngsters to train and play with the first team, especially during pre-season when there is less pressure to get results.
Watch: Bellingham's first day at Borussia Dortmund
As true as that is, no other club has quite the same unerring ability to produce, scout and develop them into fully fledged senior professionals.
Examples are not hard to find. Nuri Sahin was 16 when he made his Bundesliga debut for BVB, Mario Götze was 17. More recently Christian Pulisic and Sancho became global superstars after making their maiden top-flight outings at 17, while Reyna showed in 2019/20 that he too is very much at home at the elite level.
All of which means that when Dortmund push a teenager into the first team pool, it is not to make up the numbers.
"We only consider bringing in youngsters from abroad when we're 100 per cent sure that the player has the potential to play for the first team," said Dortmund’s youth academy director, Lars Ricken. That is no snazzy soundbite for the club’s marketing brochure; BVB are true to their word.
Watch: Reyna ready to seize his chance at BVB
By giving young players a chance, Dortmund’s academy has become the gift that keeps on giving, attracting more and more young players, both German and foreign, to the Signal Iduna Park.
“The primary motivation behind his decision were the prospects on the pitch we were able to offer him,” said sporting director Michael Zorc after beating several leading European clubs to Bellingham’s signature over the summer.
Said and done. Bellingham started in Dortmund’s pre-season friendlies against Altach and Bochum, and came off the bench to score against Austria Vienna – before also finding the net on his debut for the England U21s in early September.
A gifted central midfielder – although he is also able to play in a variety of attacking positions – Bellingham enjoyed a breakthrough 2019/20 season at boyhood club Birmingham City, making his debut just days after turning 16.
Watch: Highlights of Dortmund's 11-2 win over Vienna
Now, after Zorc confirmed that the English teenager is “an immediate reinforcement for our first-team squad”, Bellingham will compete with experienced internationals Axel Witsel, Emre Can and Thomas Delaney for a berth in the Dortmund side.
If that sounds like a daunting prospect spare a thought for Moukoko, who hadn’t even been born by the time teammate Lukas Piszczek had made his professional debut. Still just 15, Moukoko has been tearing up goalscoring records across every youth category, netting 128 times in 86 outings for the club’s U17s and U19s.
So highly is he regarded that teammate Haaland recently said Moukoko is “much better” than he was at the same age, while even Lionel Messi sent him a birthday present last year. Not only that, but the forward has been given the number 18 shirt in the first team squad for this season, and could make his first outing for the senior pros when he turns 16 in November.
There could already be a familiar face out on the pitch to guide him when that happens, as former U19 teammate Reyna is now very much a part of the first-team reckoning. The attacking midfielder made his Bundesliga bow on Matchday 18 against Augsburg, the first of 15 league games to date.
Dubbed “the American dream” by Haaland, Reyna has scored in the DFB Cup, provided an assist in the UEFA Champions League and is set to become a full USA international sooner rather than later.
“He’ll get a chance in our next international match, that’s very clear,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter told Bild in early September. “Reyna has a fantastic mentality. He’s still a teenager but plays like an old hand. At BVB he now has a great chance of starting a great career.”
The same can be said for Reinier, Pherai and Knauff. The former two operate in a similar position to Reyna in central attacking midfield. Reinier got two goals and one assist in three games for Real Madrid’s reserves after joining from Flamengo in January this year, but showed enough in those outings to persuade BVB to take him on a two-year loan deal, eventually making his first appearance for the team in the recent 2-1 friendly win over Sparta Rotterdam.
Pherai, meanwhile, has seen his star rise during pre-season. The Netherlands U19 international scored three goals – only Reyna netted more with four over the summer – after hitting the target against Austria Vienna, Paderborn and Sparta. And after being included in Dortmund’s Bundesliga squads for the last four matchdays of 2019/20, albeit as an unused substitute, his opportunity in competitive action appears to be only a matter of time.
Knauff has done his chances no harm either. “He’s a very talented young attacker who’s got good pace and is a good dribbler,” Zorc told kicker of the Germany youth international in August. “He’ll be involved in first-team training and then we’ll see where we are. We’ll have to see how he does now at a higher level.”
As the right winger played in three pre-season fixtures and scored twice, it’s safe to say he held his own. Incidentally, his brace in a 5-1 friendly win over Duisburg took the total of Dortmund’s 26 summer goals scored by players aged 20 or under to 14 - or 54 per cent.
From central midfielders to attacking playmakers, wingers and forwards, Dortmund not only have a variety of young players for various positions at their disposal, but they are actively bedding them in. So if you think BVB are already good, just wait and see what’s to come…