Dortmund plot Champions League final shock after adapting to thrive

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All week, and to a small extent, London has turned yellow and black. Stickers on tubular escalators. Scarves tied to lampposts. A padlock with BVB decoration on the banks of the Thames in Westminster. Wide-eyed fans walk through the pubs of Soho and wince at the beer prices. I try to soak up every last bit of fun from the experience before – you know – the actual football starts.

It is largely a moot point whether Borussia Dortmund are the biggest finals outsiders in the modern history of the Champions League. Maybe Internazionale last season, maybe Liverpool in 2005. Either way, given the opposition, their fifth-place finish in the Bundesliga and their charmed passage to the final, few are giving them hope at Wembley on Saturday night.

Related: Jadon Sancho’s redemption arc leads to a shot at glory under the Wembley arch

“I believe we have a chance,” said their CEO, Hans-Joachim Watzke, at Dortmund airport on Friday morning, which, as stirring rallying cries go, is on the milder end of the scale.

And if Real Madrid are only here on business, the equation for Dortmund has always been a little more complex. Since Jürgen Klopp led them to a league and cup double in 2012, they have finished as Bundesliga runners-up seven times and lost nine of 14 cup finals. If Dortmund appear to be enjoying the trip more than most other clubs, it is partly because the destination has so rarely been kind to them.

Their last Champions League final, also at Wembley in 2013, had a similar atmosphere. Even at that moment, their narrow 2-1 defeat to Bayern Munich felt like a high point, the culmination of the project that Klopp had so spectacularly set in motion, and so it proved.

One by one, the jewels of that brilliant team were plucked off. Mario Götze, Mats Hummels and Robert Lewandowski by Bayern; Ilkay Gundogan of Manchester City; the rest through time and decay. Klopp himself lingered, until 2015, exhausted and defeated. Bayern were in the early stages of a run that would eventually end with eleven consecutive Bundesliga titles. And so, in the wake of their rivals, Dortmund recognized the need to build something new.

In the second half of the decade, Dortmund assembled a model that would become the envy of the continent. Teenage talents like Jadon Sancho, Jude Bellingham, Erling Haaland and Christian Pulisic were identified, signed and left with an eye-popping profit. Dortmund could sell themselves to young players as a kind of finishing school: immediate minutes at elite Champions League level. It looked good on the balance sheet. Fans enjoyed exciting, energetic football. Everyone won, as long as they were willing to limit their definition of “winning.”

In the longer term, the Dortmund model had two major flaws. The first was that the club was essentially reimagined as some kind of human clearinghouse, and the footballer himself was a cold draw. Perhaps this was a necessary coping strategy in the shadow of a financially dominant rival. But there is a fine line between adapting to reality and coming to terms with it, and somewhere in between those seven second places came the internal acceptance that Dortmund had become a club concerned with strengthening its position rather than challenging it.

The second problem is that many bigger clubs now fish in Dortmund waters. Chelsea’s latest owners have tried to sign virtually every promising young player in Europe. Rumor has it that Manchester United’s new regime will focus hard on a youth-oriented strategy, with a ban on signing players over the age of 25. “Clubs that are financially stronger than us are now discovering our own path,” says Dortmund sporting director Sebastian Kehl. said in an interview last year.

However, few elite clubs have deployed this strategy more successfully than Dortmund’s opponents at Wembley. Around 2017, the summer in which Paris Saint-Germain transformed the transfer market forever by signing Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, Real Madrid embarked on a concerted strategy to focus on the next generation. The following seasons saw Vinícius Júnior, Rodrygo, Brahim Díaz, Andriy Lunin, Éder Militão and Eduardo Camavinga – the youthful core of their current squad – all arrive at the age of 21 or younger, all for less than £50m.

Obviously, Dortmund has little chance of competing with the above-mentioned clubs in terms of wages, compensation or curses. They can still provide first-team opportunities, and thanks to an extensive network they can still cast their net wider than most players – 16-year-old Ecuadorian midfielder Justin Lerma, their latest signing. There is still plenty of promise in players like Julien Duranville (18), Youssoufa Moukoko and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens (both 19). But chances are that when the next Bellingham or Haaland emerge, Dortmund will not have the resources to sign them. And so they are forced to adapt again.

The squad that brought them to Wembley is relatively old by Dortmund standards. Hummels and Marco Reus are 35. Centre-forward Niclas Füllkrug, who was appointed last summer, is 31, Marcel Sabitzer and Emre Can 30, Sébastien Haller 29. There is currently a concerted effort to sign Stuttgart’s prolific striker Serhou Guirassy, ​​who is 28 is to contract. Meanwhile, their two biggest young stars – Sancho and Ian Maatsen – are on loan from the Premier League. They still play energetic, vertical football. They still value speed on the counter-attack. But this is definitely not the Dortmund of the popular imagination.

The new director, Lars Ricken, has an academic background and yet in a recent interview he outlined Dortmund’s transfer priorities in a more competitive market. “Young, hungry players with market value potential” alongside “a framework of experienced players that young players can lean on,” he explained. “That must be our way.”

Perhaps this is the curse of being a so-called ‘model club’: you have to keep innovating, keep changing, keep pushing for new boundaries. The energetic pressing style pioneered by Klopp becomes standard practice, so you find a new way. Your youth-oriented model is being shamelessly copied by bigger rivals, so you have to move on. Perhaps the next underrated growth area is the 25-30 range, players like Sabitzer and Can who have been through bigger clubs but still have plenty of miles left in the tank.

And there is, of course, a certain irony in the fact that Dortmund have arrived on the eve of their greatest achievement, largely by dismantling the model they have painstakingly put together for a decade. This is a tougher and more flexible team than their predecessors, better able to weather the tough moments, more comfortable spending longer periods without the ball, more explicitly focused on the result rather than the process.

Of course, all this can’t be enough on Saturday night. Madrid’s annual turnover is around twice that of Dortmund, their experience and pedigree unmatched, their sense of destiny unquestionable. And yet, from this seemingly hopeless scenario, a golden opportunity emerges. If you win this final, Dortmund will never again be known as the eternal bridesmaids, the eternal seconds, the archbottlers. Under the arch of Wembley, Dortmund not only have the chance to write history, but also to write themselves a new future.

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