Jude Bellingham’s arrival at Borussia Dortmund proves the club is one of the best places to go for young players ready to take the next step.
It was that history that won him over, the history that has become Borussia Dortmund’s modern-era business model. Buy young and cheap, develop and, hopefully, sell for a big profit is an approach that works for many. In the Bundesliga, Borussia Mönchengladbach have been following the same approach with smaller fees for a while thanks to the shrewd efforts of sporting director Max Eberl. This approach wins games, but it has not won many teams of late titles.
And challenging for the title is the expectation with which Dortmund have to contend. During last season’s exciting title race, it was telling that Gladbach and RB Leipzig, two teams with the aim of finishing in the top four, were seen as possible bringers of change. Dortmund, whether they like it or not, will always be seen as the team hunting Bayern.
They are the last team to win the Bundesliga other than Bayern, boast a host of international players in their current squad, scored a club record number of goals last season (84) and, when filled, have one of the most intimidating and impressive stadiums in Europe. Dortmund are the obvious candidates. Only last season, though, did club boss Hans-Joachim Watzke and sporting director Michael Zorc publicly state winning the title was the goal.
Why, then, has the club spent the €23 million ($26 million) on a teenager that is unlikely to help them win now?
Short and long term plans
Dortmund are caught between their business model and expectation. Signing a 17-year-old with, as Zorc said, “astonishing quality with and without the ball,” is the classic modern era Dortmund move. And should Bellingham eventually turn into one of the best midfielders in Europe, then Dortmund will round it off by enjoying some of his best early years before turning a profit on the midfielder.
Perhaps Bellingham can quickly become a key player. Given the fee, the expectation is certainly there for him to do so, but to place such a burden on the teenager so soon could do more harm than good. Furthermore, while different people and players, it is worth noting that Jadon Sancho needed a season before he started to look anything like the player he currently is.
Jadon Sancho needed time to develop, but does he also see Dortmund as a step rather than the big move?
Dortmund are buying for the long term while also having to contend in the short term. After all, while Bellingham develops, Dortmund have a title to try and win.
With Bayern Munich reaching levels of ruthlessness under Hansi Flick not seen since Pep Guardiola was in charge, and Leroy Sane arriving, that challenge is admittedly much harder for Dortmund. It is not one remedied by simply signing more experienced players either, as the recent acquisitions of Axel Witsel and Emre Can, two strong midfielders who have won titles, shows. What needs to change is how Borussia Dortmund are viewed, which in turn is linked to player retention.
As the departure of Achraf Hakimi, one of the club’s best players last season, and the constant speculation around Sancho proves, Dortmund are a stepping-stone club. Not quite in Europe’s elite but equally clear of the chasing pack, Dortmund is a place where young players can play in the first team, taste the Champions League, and face Bayern Munich. This the club where you get better, experience the amazing atmosphere of the Yellow Wall and play exciting football. It is not the club where you win.
Win now, or wait until later?
There is nothing wrong with that, especially not when you are as good at developing players as Dortmund are. Except, of course, if you want to be a club that wins titles.
Clearly, Dortmund now want to do that. But, at least in the Bundesliga, clubs cannot be both developer and winner. After all, while Bayern Munich were winning title after title, it was only until this season with the emergence of Joshua Zirkzee and Alphonso Davies that players made it through the academy and reserve teams and members of the first-team squad.
If Dortmund want to win, they must change the modern perception of the club, from one that players use to one that players choose. Part of making that change is making sure that players like Bellingham don’t just see the development in the likes of Christian Pulisic, Jadon Sancho and Ousmane Dembele and think: “Look what it did for their careers.”
The club need to change Bellingham’s expectations about what a move to Dortmund means. In doing so, perhaps he can help change their expectations, too.
His transfer to Barcelona from Borussia Dortmund remains the most expensive ever involving a Bundesliga club. Dortmund received €105 million (€118 million) plus further add-ons. Not bad for then 20-year-old, but Dembele hasn’t quite made his mark in Spain yet.
Having secured one French World Cup winner in Benjamin Pavard, Bayern Munich snapped up another early on in 2019. Defender Lucas Hernandez joined the record Bundesliga champions for the start of the 2019/20 season for a hefty €80 million. The fee makes him both Bayern and the Bundesliga’s most expensive signing.
The 2015-16 Bundesliga season started with a transfer supernova as well. Wolfsburg’s talented playmaker left for Manchester City for a reported €74 million. At the time, no German team had ever earned that much from a player sale. He’s now regarded as one of the Premier League’s best players.
Keita signed with RB Leipzig from Salzburg for €15million, but he only wound up playing two seasons in Germany. Why? Because Liverpool snapped him up ahead of the 2017-18 season for a reported total of €70 million. That’s a pretty good profit for the Red Bull machine.
The Germany striker was in heavy demand, with Bayern Munich and Liverpool thought to be his most likely destinations for some time. But Premier League club Chelsea swooped in late to make Werner the most expensive German player of all time, with a fee thought to be €53 million. He has been the main man for RB Leipzig since their promotion to the top flight and leaves a big hole.
He’s rumoured to be Bayern Munich’s primary target in 2020 but the winger has already been involved in one of the Bundesliga’s biggest moves when he moved from Schalke to Manchester City in 2016. The fee for the Germany player was reported to be just north of €50million.
Switzerland international Granit Xhaka was a nice little earner for Borussia Mönchengladbach in the summer of 2017. Having moved to Gladbach from Basel for around €8.5 million in 2012, the Foals sold him on to Arsenal for a reported €45 million. He’s had a mixed time in London.
Having joined Wolfsburg from Schalke a year earlier, in the summer of 2016, Julian Draxler decided he didn’t want to play there either. He went through the motions for the first half of the season. In January 2017 he got his wish – a move to PSG worth a reported €40 million. It looks to have been a losing proposition for Wolfsburg, as they are thought to have paid €43 million for him.
Are those euro signs in Borussia Dortmund chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke’s eyes? Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who had joined the Ruhr club from Shakhtar Donetsk for €27.5 million in 2013, moved on to Manchester United for a reported €42 million euros in the summer of 2016. He’s since switched to Arsenal and is currently on loan at Roma.
Bayern Munich broke their own transfer record with the €41.5 million purchase of French midfielder Corentin Tolisso from Lyon in June 2017, making him, at the time, the most expensive player ever to be brought into the Bundesliga.
For a short time, Brazilian Roberto Firmino held the record for the biggest sale of a Bundesliga player. In the summer of 2015, Liverpool paid Hoffenheim €41 million for his services. With a Champions League in the bag and a Premier League title almost certain to follow, they’ve got their money’s worth.
Bayern Munich splashed €40 million to acquire Javi Martinez from Athletic Bilbao, but it turned out to be money well spent. Martinez helped the Bavarians win multiple Bundesliga titles, the first of which came as part of a European treble.