In the same way that flight has evolved independently three times throughout history, the unique lineages of two European giants display a convergence upon a central dogma of youth; a convergence that will finally meet inside the Signal Iduna Park on Wednesday evening, when Borussia Dortmund clash with AS Monaco.
In morphology, analogous traits arise when different species live in similar ways and/or a similar environment, and so face the same environmental factors. When occupying such ecological niches, these same constraints often lead to recurrent solutions. However loosely, this can almost certainly be applied to the microcosm of European football, a fierce world packed with the most stringent of selection pressures; each meticulously drawn battle line met willingly with a multitude of antidotal adaptations, on and off the field.
It is therefore unsurprising then that despite their independent, and previously separate, existences in the German Bundesliga and French Ligue 1, Dortmund and Monaco have converged on a refreshingly youthful ideology to enact a power shift amongst Europe’s elite. Both teams currently occupy the highest echelons of their domestic game, but they have not done exclusively, and periods of success have always been intertwined with relative hardship, too.
After a disappointing 13th place finish in the 2007/08 Bundesliga under Thomas Doll, Borussia Dortmund turned to Jürgen Klopp, who had resigned from his role at Mainz 05 after failing to secure promotion, ending a 19-year romance with the club. It was a new dawn for both parties, and Klopp was able to revolutionise the club, accruing the first silverware since an ageing 2001/02 Bundesliga triumph. Dortmund won back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2010/11 and 2011/12, in doing so amassing the greatest points tally ever seen at the time, with 25 league wins in 34 games, and also setting a record 28-match unbeaten streak, before recording the first ever domestic double in their history with an emphatic 5-2 victory over Champions League finalists Bayern Munich.
There was an assertion of genuine dominance in the German game, but its relevance here is the startling ease of which Munich were able to strip it so freely the following season, foisting their own authority and bettering the records that the Yellow Submarine had set so staggeringly only the season before. Bayern won the 2012/13 Bundesliga by 25 points, with a goal difference +80, and also beat Dortmund in the Champions League Final, before beginning to embark upon a friendless approach of signing Dortmund’s star attractions, leaving BVB impotent to the burgeoning chasm between the two sides. Revealing a grizzly ruthless edge, and flexing unrivalled financial muscle, Bayern have repeatedly raided Dortmund over a four-year period, unveiling the marquee signings of Mario Gotze, Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels, and they have reigned supreme domestically for the consecutive seasons encompassing them.
For Dortmund, their rival’s success coincided with a marked decline in results in the 2014/15 season, as new signings struggled to adapt to Klopp’s workings. On the 4th February 2015, Dortmund lost 1-0 to FC Augsburg in front of 80,667 fans at the Westfalenstadion, and sank to the foot of the Bundesliga table. The aftermath of the match produced the iconic scenes of goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller and captain Mats Hummels climbing the fencing separating the players from the Yellow Wall at the stadium, and visibly distraught, attempting to placate the frustrated swathes of fans at length following an 11th league loss of the season.
Dortmund managed to recover, and ultimately finished the season in 7th place, but the damage had been done – a vulnerability exposed – and Jurgen Klopp announced in April that he had requested the release of his contract. Citing his announcement some two months prior to the conclusion of the Bundesliga, Klopp magnanimously proclaimed “I chose this time to announce it because in the last few years some player decisions were made late and there was no time to react.” It exposed the necessity to implement a more sustainable model for future success at the club; the catalyst for a blueprint containing an inherent contingency plan for the almost now inevitable future departures of players of the same ilk as Mario Gotze, Shinji Kagawa, Mats Hummels, Robert Lewandowski, Henrik Mkhitayrin, Nuri Sahin and Ilkay Gundogan; those that came before.
Thomas Tuchel was appointed as manager for the start of the 2015/16 season, in a curious coincidence, too, after leaving his position with Mainz 05, and he brought with him a vision that echoed the sentiments of his predecessor Klopp precisely. Over the previous few years, Dortmund had inadvertently adopted the status as a feeder club; the sale of Robert Lewandowski four years after his arrival from Lech Poznan as a relative unknown acting as an embodiment of the stasis of Dortmund’s rank at a level below the superpowers in the European packing order; insurmountable despite their recent achievements.
Dortmund could not compete with Europe’s elite for the finest players in the game (even when their own), and as a result each successful season as a team was becoming dogged by the high profile departures of individuals. To sell your best players each season, and subsequently continue to improve performances on the field, is immeasurably difficult. In the Premier League, Southampton have mastered the art, bettering their finishing position for three consecutive seasons despite mass exodus in each, but they will eventually reach a ceiling, and there is a dangerous degree of insecurity attached to the incessant replacement of first-team players year-on-year. Dortmund could not afford to reach a ceiling, they needed to be challenging on all fronts, and therefore the strategy had to change.
Throughout his early tenure – a 2nd placed Bundesliga finish – Tuchel was continually faced with the dilemma of the futures of key players Mats Hummels, Henrik Mkhitayrin and Ilkay Gundogan, all of whom were running down their contracts at the club. Of course, he was desperate for the world-class trio to stay, but all three left and Tuchel had recognised that to over-prioritise the negotiation of their futures would have been akin to closing the stable door after the horse had bolted. The decisions had likely already been made, hearts set elsewhere, and the new manager was in the midst of developing his own project.
On the 12th May 2016, just two days after the confirmation of Mats Hummels’ long-expected departure from the club, Dortmund announced the signing of 18-year-old Ousmane Dembélé from Rennes on a five-year deal. He had been voted as the best young player in France after 12 goals in 25 Ligue 1 games and was highly coveted, with the likes of Manchester City and Barcelona keen. In a refreshing statement upon his arrival, Dembélé explained that he had only ever been interested in a move to Dortmund – “I only wanted Dortmund”, the club that he describes “the perfect club for young players,” and it was to be the beginning of an emerging trend. Tuchel would later go on to acquire 18-year-old Turkish international Emre Mor, 22-year-old Raphaël Guerreiro, and 19-year-old Mikel Merino, before perhaps the greatest validation of the exciting direction he was taken the club in. On 12th January 2017, Alexander Isak became Sweden’s youngest ever International goalscorer, breaking a 105-year-old record in finding the net against Slovakia, just four days after he had become the second-youngest debutant ever for his country at the age of 17. Little over a week later, Isak, now one of the most prodigious young talents in the game (as anyone who had been following his development in the Allsvenskan for AIK could testify to), signed for Borussia Dortmund, in the process snubbing a whole host of Champions League teams, including giant Real Madrid at the eleventh hour.
Dortmund have always held a strong reputation for the development of young players within the German domestic structure; Sven Bender was signed as a 19-year-old from 1860 Munich, Matthias Ginter a 20-year-old from SC Freiburg, Erik Durm a 19-year-old from Mainz 05, but now under Tuchel there has been a clear refocus in the ethos of the club. 21-year-old Julian Weigl and 18-year-old Christian Pulisic have developed into key players for the club, Felix Passiack has too been handed opportunities, and Dortmund have created a project as an elite breeding ground, with a sphere of influence that now stretches far-wider than solely the Bundesliga, from France to Sweden, and Spain to Denmark. By allying their fine track record of player development with an exciting young manager like Thomas Tuchel, Dortmund have developed their own niche in the transfer market, and they can now compete with Europe’s finest, and regularly come out on top.
Many expect that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will move on in the summer, and the reality is that despite their impressive victories in the signings of Ousmane Dembele, Aleksander Isak et. Al, Dortmund are no further immune to sale than they were two years ago. The club will still be subject to forced departures, as may well end up being the case with Auba, and there will be players who continue to use Dortmund as a platform, but unlike in the past, the club are now admirably proactive, and not reactive. If Aubameyang stays then that is a huge bonus, but Dortmund are no longer the archetypal selling club. They can now as a club lay genuine claim to possessing some of the finest young talents in the game, and on the stage of the Champions League they are well set to use those talents to defeat the European elite that has so often stripped them of their finest assets.
In 1997 a Matthias Sammer-inspired Dortmund lifted the Champions League. Seven years later, in 2004, AS Monaco reached the pinnacle of European Football. In the Quarter-finals of the Champions League they defeated a Real Madrid side containing the Galacticos of Zidane, Figo, and Ronaldo, and then in the semi-final they swept Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea aside with dazzling incision. But in the final they were to be outpointed by Porto in a tactical masterclass from Jose Mourinho, and the club would go on to endure 9 consecutive seasons away from the European showpiece. In fact, between 2005 and 2011, neither Borussia Dortmund nor AS Monaco appeared at all in the Champions League, making just three EUFA Cup appearances between them in the period. For Monaco, the demise ultimately culminated in relegation from the top tier of domestic football, the French Ligue 1, in 2011, and the club initially took a highly divergent path from that of Dortmund.
Lying bottom of the French Ligue 2 in December 2011, AS Monaco were bought by Russian Billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev; the new owner pledging intensive investment to reviving the club. Monaco were promoted back to Ligue 1 after just two seasons, and at the start of the 2013/14 season they became one of the biggest spending clubs in Europe, laying down over 120 million Euros on the signings of Radamel Falcao from Atletico Madrid, and James Rodriguez and João Moutinho from their 2004 Champions League conquerors Porto. The transfer business induced a raucous reaction, and their financially-driven 3rd place in the subsequent Ligue 1 campaign was a major talking point. The club had joined a cadre of European’s elite – Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain – attaining controversial success as a result of a powerful magnate at the helm.
Yet, just as quickly as Monaco’s policy of signing global superstars had begun, it was curtailed by the implementation in 2014 of EUFA’s Financial Fair Play restrictions, the then novel set of guidelines that today govern the transfer market. The side from the Mediterranean principality were fined 13 million euros, and the punishment was heavily weighted with incentive to comply with a raft of future measures, with 10 million euros conditional with the requirement to reach break-even by 2017. Whilst Manchester City and PSG simply accepted the full financial sanction as a natural outgrowth to their continued spending, Monaco were keen to escape the oppressive penalties.
But the club was completely unsustainable; there was no way that revenue streams, or their 18,523 capacity stadium could facilitate the necessary profit in such a short space of time, and Monaco were beguiled into selling the plethora of stars they had accumulated upon a return to the Champions League Quarter-finals just two years on from languishing bottom of Ligue 2. James Rodriguez left for Real Madrid, Falcao to Manchester United, both after just a sole season, and then the real exodus began the following year, as a quintet of the club’s finest prospects; Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), Layvin Kurzawa (Paris Saint-Germain), Geoffrey Kondogbia (Inter Milan), Anthony Martial (Manchester United), and Lucas Ocampos (Marseille), all departed the Stade Louis II.
Rybolovlev had always harboured ambition to sign the most attainable young talents in Europe, though, and whilst superficially the club looked to be entering a further dark period so soon after leaving a previous one, they were in fact engaging in an exciting new phase in their development. Powerless to the same lure of Europe’s top clubs that saw their stars so sought after, AS Monaco’s club hierarchy have embraced their status as a selling club – but they are now ensuring it turns profit, and they have rather accidentally stumbled on an enviable model for the future running of the club.
The club were successful in their persuasion of head coach Leanardo Jardim to endure the fallout of their prior indulgence, and sustainable reinvestment of a small proportion of transfer funds has given him the reigns of one of the youngest, and most exciting sides in Europe. In the same summer that Rodriguez and Falcao departed, the 19-year-old duo of Bernardo Silva and Tiemoué Bakayoko arrived almost completely unheralded, and in seasons that followed they were then supplemented fantastically with the acqusitions of Thomas Lemar, Kevin N’Doram, Almamy Touré, Jemerson, Benjamin Mendy, Gabriel Boschilla, Jorge, and Djibril Sidibé.
Jardim has created his side around that core of players, plus Fabinho and Kylian Mbappé (both already at the club), placing complete faith in their youthful exuberance, and the team are emphatically delighting their own erstwhile perturbed fans, as well as winning the adoration of droves of foreign support with their aesthetic attacking football. João Moutinho and Falcao remain at the club, serving as relics for the now-bygone era of astronomical sums, but, like Dortmund, AS Monaco is now a project conducive to the development of the World’s finest young players.
There are other sides in Europe whose modern existence are founded upon such refreshing principles, too. Both factions of the Derby della Capitale, Roma and Lazio have headed in that direction in recent seasons, and their recent Coppa Italia clash was lit-up by the presence of Emerson, Leandro Paredes, Felipe Anderson, Baldé Keita, and Sergej Milinković-Savić. Elsewhere, perhaps most notable has been the success of RB Leipzig, who are second, in fact 8 points clear of Dortmund themselves, in the Bundesliga. The side were promoted last season, and whilst there has been intense clamour over their unnatural origins and Red Bull-fuelled commercial structure, their project should in fact be celebrated for its definition of youth. Willi Orban, Marcel Sabitzer, Naby Keita, Timo Werner, Dayot Upamecano, Yussuf Poulsen, Davie Selke and Bernardo are all bright young talents that form the core of the team, and the club’s status as an attractive destination in Europe is evidenced by the coveted signing of 19-year-old Oliver Burke from Nottingham Forest in the Summer.
These unique lineages of Borussia Dortmund and AS Monaco, and Leipzig, Roma, Lazio, are fascinating. They typify convergent evolution, in the recurrent nature of an ideology of youth despite their temporal and spatial separation; their own defining characteristics and their own idiosyncratic histories. Such is the beauty of the two clubs that have converged upon a captivating clash in the Champions League Quarter-finals, and it is apposite that one is now guaranteed a place in the Semi-final of the European blue riband.