In what has been a pretty tame January transfer window—unless Manchester United discarding spare parts gets you excited—Borussia Dortmund made perhaps the biggest splash today when they signed 17-year-old Swedish phenom Alexander Isak, along with extending the contract of the world’s future best player, Christian Pulisic, through 2020. At the moment Dortmund are a step behind the world’s elite teams, but they also probably have the single most exciting collection of young talent anywhere.
In the recent past, Dortmund won Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012, and also made it to the Champions League final in 2013. Despite this success, they couldn’t hold off Bayern Munich’s deeper pockets forever, especially when Bayern raided them for stars Mario Götze (who has since returned), Robert Lewandowski, and Mats Hummels. After taking the team to the very pinnacle of German and European soccer, something seemed to break during manager Jürgen Klopp’s final year in Dortmund, leading him to resign in 2015.
New manager Thomas Tuchel has things back on track, mostly. Dortmund regained their birthright—second place in the Bundesliga—in their first post-Klopp season last year, and currently sit in fourth. On top of that, they’ve advanced to the Champions League knockout rounds despite a hellish spate of injuries to start the campaign. Regardless of their present circumstances, though, what Dortmund are building isn’t about this or next year (though they’ll probably be pretty good); it’s about the next decade. There are a smattering of famous teen stars in academies around the world, but Borussia Dortmund are unmatched when it comes to the number of legit wonderkids who are already raring to go.
Due to the aforementioned injury problems, during the early part of the year Dortmund relied heavily on teens Ousmane Dembélé, Christian Pulisic, Emre Mor, and Felix Passlack, with them all appearing in a couple of games together.
The most outrageously talented of the group is 19-year-old Frenchmen Ousmane Dembélé, who is in the ever-popular wide forward mold—though to claim he does anything to any “mold” other than smash it with his startling array of talents would be a disservice to the kid. Dembélé was signed this summer from Ligue 1 club Rennes, as Dortmund beat back interest from literally every top club in the world. And for good reason; the guy is already an absolute freak.
Dembélé’s dribbling is Neymar-esque, his combination of physical speed and power in his lanky frame call to mind that short window in Cristiano Ronaldo’s career right as he was transitioning between quick and exciting though wasteful winger to one of the most terrifying goal-baggers in history, and his eye for the lethal pass is already beyond his years. He has everything. For chrissake, the kid is so outrageously gifted that he doesn’t even know which foot of his is strongest:
In 16 Bundesliga games—he’s gone the full 90 in just six of them—Dembélé has four goals and six assists, pairing magnificently with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up top to form a hellaciously speedy front line. He is, right now, a very good Champions League-quality player, and an established starter for his club. And there’s nowhere for him to go but up.
If you know anything about anything (“anything” here being the somewhat esoteric world of prospecting/reckessly speculating on the U.S.’s emerging soccer talent), then you already know about 18-year-old American wonderteen Christian Pulisic. He is probably a central attacking midfielder longterm, but in keeping a depleted frontline afloat he’s filled just about every attacking role this season with aplomb. He’s looked right at home in any situation, be it on the wing or in front of goal, with the ball at his feet or making supporting runs and movements, and has already set a number of Bundesliga youngest-ever records in his still nascent career. He’s also a locked-on starter for the USMNT, and out of the Bundesliga’s winter break was given the start over World Cup-winner Götze in a 2-1 win over Werder Bremen.
Turkish winger Emre Mor, 19, was signed this summer from Denmark’s FC Nordsjælland. He forced his way into Turkey’s plans at Euro 2016, where he became the third youngest player to ever assist in the tournament. He was used frequently as an impact substitute during Dortmund’s injury crisis, as his pace and trickery are perfect for attacking tired defenses, but he’s played less as starters returned, and is now mildly injured.
Felix Passlack is a homegrown talent. Coming up through the academy, the 18-year-old was mostly played as a winger, but Tuchel seems to see him as the heir apparent to 31-year-old Łukasz Piszczek at right back instead. He’s played well there in spot starts throughout the year, and is consistently at the very least included in the game day squads as a regular member of the first team.
There is also 20-year-old Mikel Merino, who was signed from Osasuna in Spain’s Segunda División. He has struggled to break into the squad, and ostensibly a midfielder, he has only started two games at center back. There are now rumblings of unhappiness. Nevertheless, Dortmund continue to think highly of his future prospects, and Football Manager agrees, which is about all the evidence you need that he remains a stud-in-the-making.
And of course, there is Isak. He scored 10 goals for AIK in the Swedish Allsvenskan last season, in the process becoming the league’s second-youngest goalscorer ever. When he scored in an international friendly against the Ivory Coast earlier this month, he became Sweden’s youngest-ever goalscorer, and is of course garnering comparisons to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, especially since Isak is 6'3" and still growing. The reported €10 million Dortmund paid AIK for his services—a transfer Dortmund were able to seal even with global powerhouse Real Madrid begging Isak to sign with them—breaks the Swedish transfer record previously held by ... Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Not all of these talents will develop into world class players. But they’re not just wildly talented prospects; most of them are already proving themselves every day in the Bundesliga. Not only that, but that so many of the world’s most coveted prospects see Dortmund as the perfect home to grow and develop and thrive speaks volumes for the work the club is doing, and reveals a sustainable avenue for this relatively small (in contrast with Bayern Munich and the rest of Europe’s elite) club to continue to fight for trophies in the future. Couple these inchoate talents with relative youngsters like Julian Weigl (himself arguably Dortmund’s brightest gem), Matthias Ginter, Raphaël Guerreiro, Götze, and Marc Bartra—and only a handful of key players on the wrong side of 30—and you have a team that is poised to compete for Bundesliga and Champions League titles for years to come.