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Dortmund Model: What is it, why do our new owners want it, & how can Sunderland benefit from it?

Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven recalled in the recent Roker Rapport Podcast that they’d like to follow the ‘Dortmund Model’, but what exactly could this mean, and what is the model itself?

Borussia Dortmund’s Strobelallee Training Centre, one of the most technologically advanced sporting centres in the world.

In our most recent episode of the Roker Rapport Podcast, Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven were asked by our very own Connor Bromley whether the pair have considered the following rebuilding models set out by Southampton, Leicester City, Bournemouth, Norwich City et al.

The response was swift and - ignoring the plethora of teams mentioned - the pair immediately responded with Borussia Dortmund, claiming:

I think the team we’d like to follow a model upon is Borussia Dortmund.

They [the media] kept asking us if one day we could compete with the Chelsea’s, Tottenham’s and Manchester United’s of this world.

Well, first of all that’s not our level. Not now. But if you do look at Dortmund, they don’t even try and compete financially with Bayern Munich, they do it their own way. But because this is a success they can compete with Bayern on the pitch with a very clear identity of who they are.

The pair continued on, discussing the potential at Sunderland to reach this level, especially in comparison to Southampton and Burnley of recent years (two clubs to have been dwelling in League One within five years):

They [Dortmund] like Southampton too, got it right in the academy, and providing a development pathway through to the first team.

Southampton doesn’t have the potential of Sunderland. If we reached a few cup finals and successively finished in the top ten every year we’d have 50,000 at the stadium every week and we’d be talking about extending the top tier.

Southampton went right to the edge of their potential, and Burnley have even moved beyond this.

However, the issue with Sunderland is rediscovering what Sunderland is, what we are about. The issue is regaining it’s soul, history and connection to the fanbase.

This may just be early platitudes, but never have we heard an owner come out with this before. Right now getting back to the Premier League is not the club’s top priority - in the short-term it’s re-discovering that we are Sunderland, that those on the pitch should be honoured to pull on the shirt, that those in the stands are not just spectators or customers, but part of the very fabric of the club.

Stewart Donald explicitly wants Sunderland to follow the Dortmund model, but will it work?

Neither Methven nor Donald are promising unattainable delusions of grandeur (as some up the road have mocked), but outlining just exactly the perfect model how Sunderland can achieve their identity in the short-term and success in the long.

Borussia Dortmund went through exactly this process themselves, and here’s how.

“Das Goldene Zeitalter”

The Golden Age.

Fans of the black and yellows will be highly familiar with this statement; it is the name describing essentially the 1990s chapter of the club’s history in which they finished league runners-up in 1992, reached the final of the UEFA Cup in 1993, won the Bundesliga and Supercup in 1995 and 1996 respectively and then the Champions League in 1997 all under the tutelage of manager Ottmar Hitzfeld and captain Matthias Sammer.

Even long before this, Borussia was the pride of Dortmund. So much so, that the only other civic pride that many from the blue-collar city feel is from the largest Christmas tree in the world erected every winter. But make no mistake, BVB is the cities echte liebe (true love).

As always with football, cycles of success fade. But this liebe never does. Passion only grows through endurance - and Dortmund fans have endured their fair share of suffering.

Looking now at the eight-time Bundesliga champions, it is almost inconceivable that the club was quite literally days away from bankruptcy in 2005, only to be saved by one of their greatest rivals; Bayern Munich.

Dortmund players celebrate ...
Dortmund players celebrate their 3-0 win over Lokomotiv Moscow, March 2003. Long before the Dortmund Model was even a consideration. Jens Lehmann, Torsten Frings, Evanilson, Jan Koller and Ewerthon all played.
Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty images

Despite the incredulity of the 1990s, success came at a cost - literally.

Evanilson and Tomáš Rosický were among numerous high-profile and high-cost transfers that left the club in arrears for successive seasons in the latter half of the decade and beyond.

Early warning signs cropped up, and the club authorities tried to respond by becoming the first football club ever floated on the stock exchange, and lucrative sponsorship deals were signed with internet startup companies, and soft drink & chemical manufacturers - but transfer fees kept rising. By 2003/04, BVB has amassed debts of well over £100 million and Hans Joachim Watzke was forced to accept an embarrassing £2 million loan from arch title-rivals Munich to keep the club afloat for the season.

On 14th March 2005, 444 investors met in Dortmund to hear a meeting from a club representative, and - it was hoped - to agree stakes in and the future of the club. “The Dortmund Model” was presented to remedy the fiscal losses accrued during the so-called “golden years”, and they club lived to survive another day, but only by strictly adhering to the outlined bailout plan. But just what exactly is this model?

Die Wunderkind Fabrik

As previously explored on the site, strategic consultancy group Roland Berger put out the press release ‘How a struggling football club can turn around and come out on top. Based on their work at BVB, they outlined just how to rebuild a football club:

The first priority is to stop any bleeding, which means (most of the time) taking a closer look at the club’s financial situation.

Football is… a serious business, which requires corporate governance and discipline. Every club is a company and must be treated as such. Politics and personal interests are among the top causes dragging clubs into the abyss. There is no room for amateurism.

Instead of focusing on expensive transfers of millionaire players, clubs should consider developing and investing in younger players - they are hungry for good results and are willing to play their best game for a much more affordable wage.

The continuity of any business is secured by the professionalism of leadership, which is expected to prepare the club not only for today’s glory, but also to keep up the level of campaigns.

This is EXACTLY what happened at BVB, almost to the letter. We need to follow this model ourselves, and luckily Donald and Methven know it.

Today, Dortmund’s academy is a conveyor belt of genuine top-class talent... (deep breath); Christian Pulisic, Antonio Rüdiger, Mario Götze, Shinji Kagawa, Marco Reus, Marcel Schmelzer, Nuri Sahin, Kevin Großkreutz, Florian Kringe and Ibrahim Tanko. Over 50 players have graduated since the rebuild to forge formidable careers within professional football.

Countless others are now joining the ranks, going rogue on current elite clubs; Ousmane Dembélé was the first in 2016; and their newest star is 18-year-old Jadon Sancho, who moved from Manchester City last season - turning his back on Pep Guardiola’s enormously successful project at Eastlands. However, there have been plenty others and just this season Alexander Isak and Dan-Axel Zagadou have left AIK and PSG respectively before even signing professional contracts; both in favour of moving to the Ruhr valley.

Dortmund’s “yellow wall” on the sudtribune of the Westfalenstadion, a kop end housing over 30,000 fans.
CNN International via Getty Images

They have moved on because Dortmund is die wunderkind fabrik, the wonderkid factory.

The club, now under the omnipotent control and omniscient knowledge of former captain and now current Sporting Director Michael Zorc, rebuilt by focusing upon the inside, rather than worrying what anyone else was doing.

This model, however, is not just focused on bringing in the biggest youth prospects from all over Europe. Alike to Sunderland, Dortmund is a working-class city and thus, to the club civic pride is more important than making money. The fans and club are one together, and the philosophy runs right throughout the club.

Although this is often easily said than done, as nearly every club in England serves up the same platitude - it is genuinely the case over in Germany. Ticket sales are among the cheapest in Europe, ranging from €16-55. The most expensive ticket at Borussia Dortmund is cheaper than the cheapest adult ticket at Arsenal, just let that sink in for a moment. The ground holds 80,000 and the incredible sudtribune (yellow wall) houses the same amount as Bayer Leverkuesen’s BayArena does as a whole. As such, attendances and atmospheres are high and raucous respectively.

Also like Sunderland, a quiet suburb on the outskirts of Dortmund houses the famous but unassuming 18,000 square metre Strobelallee Training Centre, where kids from the age of eight train in the same facilities as the first-team. It is designed for the youth products to see the team up-close and can quite literally see a physical and metaphorical pathway to the first team. This microcosmic and at times all-engrossing atmosphere creates a small-knit community within the club and the academy which even has a boarding school for older youth products.

Expensive, high-profile transfers are now a thing of the past, as Zorc explains:

We try to find these extraordinary players when they are not at their peak. We develop them and then, at some time, we know that they will go.

The academy is a state-of-the-art facility to boot, in which the starlets are not assessed through victory, but reaching their individual targets; how often they press, how many passes completed, how many shots on target they have, how many dribbles are successfully completed and so on. The main aim is to challenge the kids intellectually and use the setup to integrate them into this community.

In 2011, Zorc masterminded and installed a “Footbonaut” robotic facility, specifically designed in-house and aimed to improve a players awareness, vision, reactions, passing ability and, above all else, their mindfulness on the pitch (reading of the game). Only Hoffenheim followed suit in Germany, and it is by no coincidence that these two sides consistently field the lowest average age starting eleven’s in the whole league. Even before this, Jurgen Klopp’s Bundesliga side - which won two league titles in a row before reaching a Champions League final - only had an average age of 23.3.

Borussia Dortmund’s “footbonaut”, an innovative 360 degree passing infrastructure only mirrored by Hoffenheim and FC Krasnodar (in southern Russia) worldwide.

Every single Dortmund signing had to buy into the ethos that togetherness and hard work as well as genuine technical ability brings success. As such, the whole managerial structure was changed, with the aforementioned Hans Joachim Watzke (CEO) and Zorc at board level, and later Jurgen Klopp as manager and Sven Mislintat as Chief Scout.

The latter may be an unheralded name, but he is responsible for unearthing and orchestrating some of the greatest talents and transfers in the game today. It was he, under direct orders from Zorc, was watching the USA U17s side at a youth tournament in Anatolia, Turkey. The teen in demand was Haji Wright - a forward watched during the same game by a dozen other clubs. But Mislintat was there for one name only; Christian Pulisic. The 19-year-old is the youngest ever foreigner to score in the Bundesliga and one of the brightest prospects in world football; unearthed by Mislintat and Zorc from under the noses of nearly every other elite European club. This is but a microcosm of Mislintat’s work at Dortmund, and numerous others follow suit, and Pulisic knows he has them to thank for everything:

I learned how to be a true pro, how to take that bigger step.

[Dortmund] always gave me the opportunity, they allowed me to play, they gave me the training with the first team, they allowed me to develop. Not too fast, but in the right way.

They all played vital roles in steering the club towards solvency through an inwards approach. As of 2016/17, the last time BVB’s accounts were released - the club had an annual revenue of €332 million and €134 million profit since 2011, thanks to consistent success and domestic/European broadcasting rights.

Essentially, Dortmund were transformed from a sleeping giant suffering from years of economic mismanagement into one of the real forces of European and even world football. Their finances are only matched in Germany by Bayern, and their academy is matched by none - but emulated by all.

This is by no means a suggestion that we will be an elite club challenging for European honours within a decade. Dortmund’s success was unprecedented and is still unparalleled. However, it is a supremely efficient way of doing business. One which ignores the attempt to compete financially with those we cannot, one which efficiently counterbalances the squeeze put on middle-tier clubs by over-strenuous and unfair FFP regulations.

Dortmund’s own Chief Operating Officer, Carsten Cramer, sums it up perfectly:

We once tried to overtake Bayern Munich, although we should know that it will never be possible to overtake Bayern Munich... the most important lesson of 2005 [the financial crisis] was to focus on yourself, ask yourself what you stand for, and how you will stand for it.

We will be able, sometimes, to make it a little bit more difficult for [Bayern, Manchester United, Real Madrid], but it’s not part of our DNA to be one of them.

Of coruse Dortmund spend big. They are an elite club. But they never spend outside of their means. Sunderland have tried and failed to do this for far too long, add a disastrous recruitment process and constant managerial turnover to boot; and we found ourselves facing the precipice two leagues below Dortmund’s equivalent in 2005.

Lyden Gooch, in the words of Bally, “gets it”.

However, there is hope if we follow a similar path. The academy already instills in players what it means to be Sunderland, just look at how our own young American Lynden Gooch has taken to Sunderland and graft like a Mackem to cheesy chips.

However, before being forced into it this season, there just wasn’t a viable pathway to the first-team. Our facilities are state-of-the-art, but they have always been utilized wrongly. The academies persistence on refusing to allow loan players to develop on loan and remain with the U23s is precisely because the mentality is in direct opposition to Dortmund’s; here it has always been about winning. That is a problem throughout academies all over the country.

However, Donald and Methven know just how to bring success. Just look at their comments in the podcast, almost echoing Zorc.

Jack Ross in the recent Wise Men Say Podcast echoed the pairs analysis in terms of following the Borussia Dortmund model. On the podcast, he also explicitly mentioned wanting to echo the way BVB addressed their rebuild before going on to describe his own philosophy of a high pressing, attacking system. To have both the board and football minds at the very top of the club on the same track is an auspicious sign indeed.

Now, we can finally have a chance to implement a new way of doing things at the Stadium and Academy of Light. No longer will clubs take the piss out of us - but let’s stop taking the piss out of ourselves. This Dortmund model provides stability and success, and Sunderland could just be a perfect position now to implement and thrive from it.

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