Electric Youth: Borussia Dortmund, Ligue 1 Unafraid of Innocence
Ligue 1 has proved a fantastic hunting ground for big European clubs to successfully scout young players who have been given a chance to perform in the top flight, but Borussia Dortmund are proving youth and success can work hand in hand.
Borussia Dortmund may find themselves outside the top four in the Bundesliga with only two months of the league remaining, but with a Champions League semi-final place not out of the question, the Black and Yellow are showing other clubs how investing in youth can pay dividends.
Across the reigns of Lucien Favre and Edin Terzić this season, BVB have handed 7,620 minutes of playing time to players aged under 21 in the Bundesliga – more than any other club within the top five European Leagues.
These minutes have been accumulated via eight different players in 2020-21, and the eight youngsters have made sure their impact has been felt.
Astonishingly, as a collective unit this season, these eight players have had a hand in 55 Bundesliga goals for Dortmund while aged under 21.
Erling Haaland has an exceptional 21 goals and four assists in 22 Bundesliga appearances – all this before he turns 21 years old in July. Jadon Sancho – whose talents we highlighted last month – has chipped in with 15 goal involvements before he turned 21 in March, while fellow Englishman Jude Bellingham has impressed enough to have a serious chance of a starting XI slot for the Three Lions at the Euros this summer following a summer move from Championship outfit Birmingham City. Still only 16 years old, Youssoufa Moukoko made his debut for the club earlier this season during a 5-2 win over Hertha back in November. He has since gone on to become the youngest scorer in Bundesliga history, aged just 16 years and 28 days old when scoring against 1. FC Union Berlin on Dec. 18, 2020. Unfortunately for Moukoko and Dortmund, he’ll spend the rest of the season on the sidelines following a foot injury in training.
Whilst it’s clear that Dortmund have a plethora of young stars at their disposal, it’s mixed with more experience and guile. With an average starting XI age of 26 years and 64 days, they have only the ninth youngest team in the Bundesliga, and it’s older than both RB Leipzig (25y 191d) and VfL Wolfsburg (26y 19d) who are above them in the table.
With Haaland and Sancho in particular linked to moves away from the club this summer, BVB fans might not have the chance to see their young stars in the flesh again before they return to stadiums. But those supporters will be used to the role that their club have in developing young talent before they fly the nest – it’s happened before and will happen again. They know how to enjoy it while it lasts.
Nice to See You, to See You Nice
It’s common knowledge that Ligue 1 is the breeding ground for some of the most talented players plying their trade across the top European Leagues. Stars like Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Eden Hazard, Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappé all began their professional career in the competition.
The French top flight constantly leads the way for giving all-important playing time to younger players, and this season is no different.
So far in 2020-21, Ligue 1 has handed a total of 62,046 minutes of playing time to footballers aged under 21 – nearly double that of the next most, the Bundesliga. In fact, it’s only just below the combined figure for the German top flight and Premier League (64,165).
Four of the seven European teams with the youngest average starting XIs this season play in Ligue 1, with Nice leading the way. At 24 years and 5 days old, Adrian Ursea’s side are the youngest within the top five European leagues in 2020-21, with Reims, Monaco and Brest not far behind.
Mid-table side Nice suffered a disappointing 3-0 home defeat to Bordeaux back in January, but this defeat saw them play the youngest team seen within the top five European leagues this season – at just 22 years, 283 days old.
They’ve used 11 different players aged under 21 in league competition this season, which is the joint-second highest within the top five European leagues. In fact, the three most prolific teams at using under-21 players have all been within Ligue 1, with Saint-Étienne leading the way with 14.
Monaco’s use of 11 under-21 players, as well as having the sixth-youngest starting XI on average within the top five European leagues this season, makes their title challenge even more impressive. Just four points off leaders Lille with seven games remaining, Monaco’s most-used player in Ligue 1 this season is 20-year-old Benoît Badiashile.
Badiashile’s total of 2,451 minutes is more than any other player aged 20 or younger in the top five European leagues this season, while teammate Sofiane Diop joins him within the top 10 in eighth place with 1,961 minutes. Monaco’s second most-used player in Ligue 1 this season is Aurélien Tchouaméni, who only turned 21 at the end of January. And 1,670 of his 2,448 minutes in league football this season came before his 21st birthday (68%).
Saint-Étienne find themselves seven points above the relegation zone with seven to play, so safety seems likely. That’s impressive considering the number of young players they’ve fielded. Les Verts have given appearances to 14 different under-21 players, but only two of those have been semi-regular – 18-year-old Adil Aouchiche (1,445 minutes) and 17-year-old Lucas Gourna-Douath (1,037).
Aouchiche’s performances have been impressive given such a young age. Picked up on a free transfer from PSG, the youngster has racked up the ninth-most minutes of any Saint-Étienne player in Ligue 1 this season but is their leading creative player with 51 chances created and an expected assists total of 3.5.
Five of the top-10 players under the age of 21 in the list above currently ply their trade in the Premier League, which is slightly surprisingly given that Ligue 1 clubs have collectively given over twice as many minutes to these players.
Premier League on the Rise
Wolves’ Pedro Neto turned 21 last month, but before his birthday on March 9, the Portuguese had played 2,346 minutes in the Premier League this season – more than any other under-21 player.
Neto’s tally of five goals is a joint-club high in the league this season, while he has the outright most assists (six) and chances created (61) for Wolves.
Interestingly, of the 11 under-21 players to have played 900+ minutes in the Premier League this season, six have been for clubs considered within the big six: Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe at Arsenal, Phil Foden at Manchester City, Mason Greenwood at Manchester United, Callum Hudson-Odoi at Chelsea and Curtis Jones at Liverpool.
So far in the Premier League, there have been 29,172 minutes awarded to under-21 players. This is just 4,968 minutes below the entire 2019-20 campaign and already more than in six of the previous nine seasons of the competition – and there are eight matchdays remaining in 2020-21. As a result, it’s not out of the question that we might see more minutes given to under-21 players in the Premier League than in any campaign since 2007-08 (45,075).
One of the biggest success stories within the Premier League this season has been Saka. He doesn’t turn 20 for another five months, yet he’s become an integral part of the Gunners’ side, with 12 goal involvements (six goals, six assists) in 35 competitive appearances.
We haven’t spoken much about goalkeepers yet, and none within the top five European leagues have played more minutes under the age of 21 than Leeds United’s Illan Meslier. The Frenchman turned 21 at the start of March, but up until that point he’d played 2,250 Premier League minutes. In keeping eight clean sheets in the 25 appearances as an under-21 player in 2020-21, Meslier broke the competition record for the most clean sheets by a player within a season aged under 21 years old.
Not All Clubs Believe in Youth
There are seven clubs within the top five European leagues in 2020-21 that are yet to hand a league appearance to any under-21 player, however.
Premier League clubs Crystal Palace and Fulham, La Liga sides Cádiz and Real Valladolid, Eintracht Frankfurt of the Bundesliga and Serie A giants Internazionale and Lazio are the culprits.
Of those seven clubs, Lazio look to be the most anti-Dortmund in their stance to giving chances to young players. The Rome-based club have the oldest average starting XI age across the top five European leagues in 2020-21 at 29 years and 307 days.
Of the 98 clubs playing within the top five European Leagues in 2020-21, Lazio have the ‘oldest youngest player’ in Luiz Felipe. The Brazilian central defender was 23 years, 224 days old on his first appearance in 2020-21 and remains the youngest player to play for Lazio in Serie A this season.
Looking at the Lazio squad age profile graphic above, no Lazio player is deemed younger than what’s commonly accepted as peak age. Currently sixth in the table and looking unlikely to qualify for the Champions League in 2021-22, maybe it’s time for I Biancocelesti to assess their recruitment strategy going forward. Dortmund and Nice may have some youth to spare.