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Play Your Kids: Ousmane Dembèlè and the Dortmund Appeal

Reports have surfaced that Ousmane Dembèlè, one of the most sought-after prospects in Europe, may have only cost Dortmund relative pennies, while many clubs with far larger pocketbooks were circling. How did Dortmund do it?

Ousmane Dembèlè is already the crown jewel of Dortmund's offseason thus far, and the summer hasn't even technically started yet. The young Frenchman notched 12 goals and 5 assists in Ligue 1 with Rennes, and only just turned 19 last Sunday. A rumor as to how much Dembèlè actually cost Dortmund, then, didn't make a whole lot of sense, but would be absolutely stunning if true.

That number would be absolute robbery. The possible add-on figure will be dependent on how much Dembèlè plays and scores, and if he does well 15 million Euros seems a much more appropriate figure, but even still, I have to doubt those numbers. Manchester United bought Anthony Martial, at almost the same exact age, after he scored less goals in more appearances for Monaco. They paid 50 million Euros for him. Real Madrid bought James Rodriguez a year earlier for 75 million from Monaco after scoring 11 goals, leading the league in assists, and having an impressive World Cup. Dembèlè may turn out to be as successful as these other former stars in Ligue 1, or he may not. But his stat line with Rennes is at least comparable with the both of them. So how did Dortmund get to Dembèlè?

Dortmund have never spent more than 30 million in a transfer fee for a player (Henrikh Mkhitaryan was bought for 27.5 million, the club record). That would have been well-eclipsed by what Rennes was rumored to want for the starlet, and what other clubs were reportedly willing to pay for him: tenuously or not, such clubs as Barcelona, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal were linked to him at one point or another, and all have a history of splashing serious cash to get who they want. But it seems clear from the start that Dembèlè wanted a move to Borussia Dortmund, and a move to Dortmund is what he got, higher transfer fees and ritzier price tags be damned.

In interviews following his signing, Dembèlè gave several reasons for choosing Dortmund. The fans and club infrastructure are absolutely world class, and French-born Gabonese forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Dembèlè has represented France at the youth level internationally, but is also eligible to play for Mali) notched an assist in assuring him Dortmund was the right club for him, but this quote, I think, sums up Dortmund's highest appeal to Dembèlè and players like him (via The Mirror):

The coach was very important for me because I liked what he has planned for the team. I like that this includes young players...He told me that if I work hard, I'll get to play. He was very convincing and contributed to my decision.

Simply put, Dortmund play their kids. This is not to say that no other club in Europe does this. Anthony Martial and James Rodriguez both jumped into the starting XI at Manchester United and Real Madrid. But for every youth success story, there seems to be tens more  young players being bought high, only for their development to stall out on loan or buried in the depth chart (see: Chelsea FC). Even Barcelona, once the poster-child for incorporating youth into a successful first team, has succumbed to a buying market for increasingly older players: seven of their top twenty oldest lineups in history have occurred in the last two seasons of play.

Dortmund's lineups under Thomas Tuchel (and Jurgen Klopp before him, both former coaches at Mainz 05 and colleagues) fly in the face of this trend. Tuchel has been absolutely fearless in trusting young professionals to carry their weight in high pressure situations. Christian Pulisic and Felix Passlack are the most obvious examples of this trust, two seventeen year olds from Dortmund's academy that logged serious minutes with the first team this year to much fanfare. But four more members of the first team under the age of 25 have seen the field for Dortmund in league and Cup play this year as well (Matthias Ginter, Julian Weigl, Erik Durm, and Moritz Leitner), while only three players at or above the age of 30 are even in the squad at all (Adrian Ramos, Lukas Pizszcek, and Roman Weidenfeller). Dortmund don't just buy and develop young players; they actually play them, too.

Ousmane Dembèlè probably will end up costing Dortmund more than 15 million Euros. But the fact that that number is even in the conversation is a testament to one of Dortmund's biggest strengths and source of appeal. BVB has demonstrated again and against over the past six seasons their ability to fully incorporate young players into a squad, give them the opportunity to play if they work hard, and still stay competitive in one of the world's top leagues. Dembèlè's choice is one of both competitiveness and opportunity, and win or lose in the Pokal final on Saturday, Dortmund will keep that appeal. Youth is not a liability at Westfalenstadion; it's their biggest strength.