Gold for the U19s, silver for the U17s – it has been another marvellous season for Borussia Dortmund's oldest youth teams, who ensured the club claimed a Bundesliga title at youth level for the sixth season in succession. Further steps are now being taken to optimise the structures at youth level.
For the 22nd and 23rd times, a Borussia Dortmund youth team reached a German Championship final this summer – a record surpassed only by VfB Stuttgart, who have participated in 29 finals. The Black & Yellows would have become the first club to claim both Bundesliga youth titles in the same season if the U17s had not succumbed to defeat.
In contrast to the U19s, the U17s went into their final against 1. FC Cologne as heavy favourites. The omens were good – the sun was shining, the backdrop impressive and 10,000 fans at a sold-out "Rote Erde" were watching on from the stands. Sebastian Geppert's charges had been unbeaten all season as they dominated the Bundesliga West, finishing the regular season nine (!) points ahead of Cologne, their opponents in the final. They then beat Wolfsburg 4-1 and 2-0 to claim a clear aggregate victory in the semi-finals.
But football is rarely so straightforward – and it ultimately proved to be a tough afternoon from the first whistle for the Black & Yellows, who went into the game on the back of a run of 23 wins and five draws. For the first time all season, they found themselves chasing a two-goal deficit and then missed a penalty before pulling it back to 2-2. Cologne subsequently re-established their lead and, though BVB continued to press, they could not break down a Cologne side who had all 11 men behind the ball and rode their luck at times – with a combination of the woodwork and a goal-line clearance sparing their blushes. "Cologne deserved it," said Youth Coordinator Lars Ricken, who added: "They produced a top performance in an outstanding final. In such finals, it often comes down to you being absolutely clinical in front of goal. Cologne were better than us in that respect." The 42-year-old, who won the Bundesliga as a player at both youth and senior level, was quick to praise the youngsters, however. "Our U17s played a fantastic season and continued their development as a team. They ultimately left the pitch on the losing side, but it's also an experience that they'll learn from. The lads will have another shot at the title next season in the U19s."
But a fortnight before that fateful final – the first defeat suffered by the U17s in any match all season – the U19s finished a difficult campaign by claiming their eighth title in total, and their third since 2016, to give their departing coach Benjamin Hoffmann the perfect send-off. In a way, the match was a microcosm of the past few months. BVB were 3-1 down to cup winners VfB Stuttgart at half-time. "We seemed dead and buried," said Hoffmann. "But then we showed some of the fight that sets us apart." All the decisions in his final game as coach of the U19s were spot on, ultimately determining the outcome of the game. Immanuel Pherai was handed a start in attacking midfield and was one of the standout performers, setting up the equaliser, drawing the foul that saw Stuttgart's Luca Mack sent off in the 53rd minute and then reducing the deficit to 3-2. Another change Hoffmann made at the interval was to bring on Paul Besong. The forward headed home the equaliser to make it 3-3 and then struck a powerful effort from 20 metres to put the Black & Yellows 4-3 ahead. Enrique Pena Zauner added a fifth in injury time to round off the scoring.
Youth Coordinator Lars Ricken paid "a huge compliment to everyone involved" for what has been a year brimming with highlights. He continued: "Both for the U19s and the U17s, the season began in July last year. Now, almost 12 months later, they have got their reward in the form of first and second place finishes respectively. It's the result of hard work, not only within those age categories but below them too, where the long-term philosophy of the staff ensures that we have strong teams at U17 and U19 level."
Even though you didn't manage the youth double that you'd hoped for, give us your take on the season.
It's an outstanding record with six German Championship titles over the past six years. This will never happen in youth football in this form again; it will remain an achievement without parallel because the pool of talent across all youth academies has become extremely rich. You can see that simply from the fact that the other participants in the final round in both age categories consisted of almost completely different clubs. Wolfsburg were the only other club to reach the final round at both U17 and U19 levels.
But that pool of talent has not just suddenly appeared this year. How has Borussia Dortmund managed to get eight teams in total, and at least one every season, to the final every year since 2014 and to pick up six titles?
What perhaps sets us apart from others is the fact we're relatively open and bold in the way we state that our objective is to compete for top spot. Being ambitious is one of our training goals. That's one of the many reasons why highly talented players want to join BVB. We cannot simulate the level of the professional squad's training sessions and matches, but we want to develop as well as possible to ensure that every lad can reach his full potential.
Two remarkable personnel appointments suggest BVB do not intend to rest on their laurels: Michael Skibbe and Otto Addo will both return to the club ahead of the new season. "That shall ensure the optimisation of the fundamentally important transition phase between the U17 and U23 age categories, in order to guarantee a high level of promotion to the senior set-up," explained sporting director Michael Zorc. Skibbe, 53, will take the place of current U19 coach Benjamin Hoffmann, who will take up a different yet important role within the academy as head of development between U12 and U16 level. Oddo, meanwhile, will be working on the verges of the senior team. The 43-year-old, who previously played for BVB as a forward between 1999 and 2005, will be responsible for promoting talented youngsters to the senior setup, as well as the supervision and additional training of those players.
What will the responsibilities of Otto Addo look like in concrete terms?
It's an extensive job that he will be doing serving as the link between the senior team, the U23s and the oldest youth teams. We're expecting that a more in-depth communication between these three pillars will ensure a higher level of player promotion. At the same time, he will manage the workload of these players optimally because at times they will be playing in several teams, e.g. they might sometimes train with the senior squad, be active in the U23s and the U19s too if we enter the UEFA Youth League, and also be an international player in their age category.
Will he be present at the training sessions in an observational capacity, or will he coach one or two of the players individually as well?
Thanks to a cooperation with local schools, we'll be able to train in the mornings on Wednesday and Thursday. That's something we want to expand, either individually or in small groups. Furthermore, Otto will not only observe the teams in training; he will watch the matches of the U23s, the U19s and U17s and ensure feedback is guaranteed.
Michael Skibbe previously worked in the BVB youth setup between 1989 and 1998. Five A-Youth titles in a row were won during that period, with Skibbe the coach for three of them. It is a feat that remains unique in German youth football to this day. He will take over the U19s on 1 July.
It's an unusual trend, because currently there are many coaches moving from academy to senior level. Michael is going in the opposite direction. We have previously assigned lots of positions internally, but we do not want to close ourselves off to outside influences. I'm delighted that Michael is back again. I myself became a German champion at youth level when he was the Youth Coordinator. With his reputation, his knowledge and his experience, he will show the lads at U19 level what is required at the highest level. In addition, he spent seven years as an international coach – four years in Germany and three in Greece. He has coached eight top-flight clubs. Our youth players will benefit immensely from this treasure trove of experience.
How does one convince a man like Michael Skibbe, who was involved at the 2002 World Cup final, to return to Borussia Dortmund, the club he first joined at the age of 23?
I could sense his enthusiasm for this work from the very first telephone calls we had. He has a huge desire to develop players and finetune them before they make the transition to senior level. Some highly talented lads will be coming through the ranks in the next few years. All our teams from U14 level occupy top spot – they wouldn't be if they didn't have top talents in their ranks.
Despite the huge successes of the youth teams, the number of players who have made it into the senior squad and made the breakthrough is modest. Christian Pulisic and Jakob Bruun Larsen have done so in recent years.
The standard at Borussia Dortmund is high. We want to become German champions again, we're one of the top 10 clubs in Europe. There's huge quality in the senior squad, which means it's not an easy path for a talented young player to navigate. But players are being promoted! Luca Unbehaum, Tobi Raschl and Patrick Osterhage are all coming through – and I see more talented youngsters besides them.
Let's assume that a young player from Argentina – let's call him "Lionel" – or a Portuguese called "Cristiano" comes knocking. Both are 14 years old. What would you tell them?
(Ricken laughs) If you want to become a professional footballer, then welcome to BVB!
Author: Boris Rupert