"The work we've put in and the groundbreaking decisions we made years ago are starting to bear fruit for us," said Borussia Dortmund Youth Coordinator Lars Ricken as he reflected on the outstanding results that have seen the BVB Youth Academy become one of the most notable and revered youth setups in Europe.
"Our main aim is to develop talented youngsters into professionals while at the same time achieving as much sporting success as possible with our teams," said former Champions League final goalscorer Ricken in an interview about the club's latest generation of young talent, ahead of the start of the Junior Bundesliga on Sunday.
Borussia's teams set the standard in German youth football again last season. The U19s successfully defended their Bundesliga title despite suffering numerous setbacks, the U17s were unlucky to lose against Bremen in the semi-final of the German Championship and the U15s ended their Regionalliga campaign unbeaten and 25 points ahead of their rivals. What's the secret to your success?
"It was a fantastic year. I don't know if there's ever been one like it. On the one hand our youth teams were very successful, while on the other hand it makes us proud that in Christian Pulisic, Felix Passlack, Dzenis Burnic and Jakob Bruun Larsen, four lads from the U19s have featured for the first team in competitive matches. The work we've put in and the groundbreaking decisions we made years ago are starting to bear fruit for us. Decisions like the one to build a new Youth Centre for 22 players or to invest considerably in personnel. Our head coach and some of our co-coaches are in full-time employment with BVB. And in Matthias Röben, we have perhaps the best social education specialist in the Bundesliga."
There has been a clear movement of players move from the U19s to the first-team. It appears as if you have set new priorities when it comes to the youth teams...
"That's right. There's been a re-evaluation of our philosophy. Previously, the best U19 players moved up into the U23s and the U17 players were simultaneously promoted to the U19s. That was not conducive to the individual development of the players, and the success of the teams suffered as a result of this rotation too. Our objective is to develop and educate the players individually, but at the same time we want to put together strong teams as well. So nowadays the lads play exclusively for the teams of their age group. That has contributed to our sporting success too."
Qualifying for the Final Round the goal
The A and B Junior Bundesliga campaigns kick off on Sunday. What objectives have you set the two teams for the season?
"The main objective of a Youth Academy is to help talented youngsters make it as a professional. But we want to achieve as much sporting success as possible with our U17s and U19s too. Our objective is to qualify for the Final Round of the German Championship. However, we shouldn't forget that at U19 level, the players also have the DFB Cup, internationals and – what is even more demanding – at least six matches in the UEFA Youth League to contend with. Schalke, Gladbach, Leverkusen, Bochum and Köln won't be playing in the latter competition. But they are our biggest rivals in the Bundesliga.
The exceptionally talented '98 year group have bade farewell to the U19s and moved onto senior football. How can the coaches make up for such a loss?
"It was an outstanding year group, no question. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that five players from the '99 year group started the final against Bayern Munich too, while three came on from the bench. And these lads had previously played the B-Junior final against Leverkusen in 2016. I believe that we'll also be able to put together a very good and powerful team with the lads from the '99 and 2000 year groups.
In Christian Pulisic, Felix Passlack, Jakob Bruun Larsen and Dzenis Burnic – as well as Orel Mangala, who recently joined VfB Stuttgart – the Youth Academy has recently prepared five talented youngsters for professional football...
"And let's not forget Janni Serra, who suffered a serious cruciate ligament injury and is now undergoing training – including matches with the U23s – to get him back to the outstanding level he was at before. Strikers like him are coveted across Germany. We'll give him the time he needs to get back to his previous performance level."
Players with excellent development potential
Are there other talented youngsters in the U17 and U19 squads who might tread a similar path? Niki Beste recently seized the chance he was given to show what he can do, having not always made the most of the opportunities he had last season...
"It's normal at that age for talented youngsters to have their ups and downs, but he was on the up again by the end of the regular season and performed brilliantly in the Final Round. Niki's example shows how positively the lads react when they get a taste of first-team action. They sense that they don't have too much further to go. At the recent RUHR Cup, Niki had a whole different aura and self-confidence about him compared to pre-season. I think it was cool in the friendly against Erfurt that he was brave enough to take a free-kick that a lot of the established professionals would have probably liked to take – and he scored a beautiful goal from it. The lad is full of potential, level-headed and goal-oriented. We will continue to manage him carefully. What is important is that the head coach and the fans know who he is now."
Luca Kilian, the grandson of former BVB player Amand Theis, has also taken giant strides forward. What do you make of his chances?
"His sporting qualities aside, he is also a role-model for every player at Borussia Dortmund when it comes to his attitude and mentality. After 70 minutes of the final against Bayern, he was lying on the floor with cramp. And yet he got back up and continued playing, and even scored from the penalty spot. Luca told me afterwards: I'm not going to let the team down just because I have cramp. He's finishing off his Abitur at school at the moment. He's a really positive guy and an exciting player for the future – quick and strong in the tackle. We still need to work on a few points, but he is getting better with each passing week and each passing month."
"We have to constantly continue developing"
The U17s have strengthened their ranks with Manuel Pherai, a very interesting youngsters from AZ Alkmaar. What makes him so interesting for BVB?
"We're very proud that he opted to join us because he was wanted by a whole host of top clubs. The lad visited us together with his mother, met the people in charge, saw the training ground and got to know our philosophy. And as soon as he was on his way back, he said: I want to go to Dortmund. Players who really want to join Borussia, immediately develop a passion for the club and don't flirt with other offers are the kind we need here. Manuel is one of the most talented youngsters in Europe. Whether as a number 10 or a number 8, he is incredibly gifted technically. Not only that, he is also a team player and an open guy who immediately slotted in perfectly in the Youth Centre and in the team."
Christian Flüthmann was set to take over the "Match Analysis" department for youth football. But now he has followed coach Daniel Farke to Norwich. Who will now fill this very important position?
"We're currently doing a sort of casting and will then fill the vacancy. We can't just do a rush job and appoint someone, we need to find the best solution for the medium and long term. We want to become even more professional with our video analysis so that we can support the coaches even more effectively when it comes to match preparation and feedback."
Our rivals are not standing idly by. Other Bundesliga clubs, and in particular the English, are really strengthening their ranks at youth level. FC Bayern are about to launch their EUR 70-million Youth Academy. How do BVB react to all this?
"It is really quite remarkable how much money teams are investing in order to expand or optimise their youth setups. The competition is growing and growing. And that's why we need to continually develop and improve too. Players who have come through the ranks with us – like Christian Pulisic, Felix Passlack, Marcel Schmelzer, Mario Götze, Marco Reus and Nuri Sahin, who now enjoy almost legendary status among the fans – are a pivotal component of Borussia Dortmund's identity. We must, and will, continue to work passionately on helping talented youngsters to reach professional football."
Lars Ricken was talking to Wilfried Wittke