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As far as Manchester United fans were concerned, it was only a matter of time. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side began to be strongly linked with Jadon Sancho towards the end of last season, and well-sourced reports in the English press suggested the club were confident of capturing the man they had made their leading transfer target.
Yet United’s pursuit of the Borussia Dortmund winger has not gone to plan. The Red Devils retain an interest and have not yet given up hope of prising Sancho away from Signal Iduna Park, but Dortmund holds a very different view. The German side has maintained throughout the saga that Sancho would not be sold until next summer if he was still on the books by the time BVB began pre-season at the start of August. Once that deadline passed, it was always going to be difficult for United to bring the England international home.
Many will focus on the ramifications of the failed move for United, who are desperate to close the gap to Liverpool and Manchester City at the top of the Premier League this term. But the Sancho episode reveals more about Dortmund than their English counterparts.
By many measures, BVB is among the biggest clubs in Europe. Before the coronavirus pandemic put paid to the ritual of going to the match, Dortmund routinely attracted the largest crowds on the continent. In the 2020 edition of the Deloitte Money League, Dortmund is listed as the club with the 12th-highest revenue in the European game, having made $446.4 million in 2018/19.
The problem for Dortmund is that its chief domestic rivals, Bayern Munich, made $781.4 million over the same period. Rather than hiding from this economic reality, the Yellow-Blacks have responded to it by adopting a business model centered on the recruitment of talented youngsters who are later sold on for a profit. What the Sancho tale tells us is that Dortmund still retains considerable control over when those players depart.
It is easy to see why United are so keen to bring Sancho back to Manchester, where he previously spent two years in City’s youth team. The winger has been a revelation in the Bundesliga over the last two seasons, justifying his bold decision to ask for a move away from the Etihad Stadium in 2017 due to concerns over game time.
In 2018/19, Sancho scored 12 goals and provided 14 assists in the Bundesliga. He was even more productive last time out, finding the net on 17 occasions and setting up team-mates 16 times. Those are extraordinary numbers and underline why United are so keen to sign him; were it not for the pandemic and the resultant blow to clubs’ finances, several other major European sides would surely be tussling for his signature right now.
Sancho would potentially be a game-changing signing for United, who already have some exciting young players in their ranks. He is likely to depart next summer but Dortmund is adamant that he will once again be part of their line-up for the upcoming 2020/21 campaign, which begins in Germany next weekend.
The term ‘selling club’ is seen as a pejorative in England, but it need not be. Dortmund has shown that accepting your place in the food chain is not incompatible with relative success. Of course, BVB has at times lost players against their wishes – most notably when Robert Lewandowski joined Bayern Munich on a free transfer after his contract expired in 2013. More often than not, though, Dortmund has been in control.
The Yellow-Blacks have made huge sums from player sales in recent times. Mats Hummels joined for €4.5 million and was let go for €35 million. Ilkay Gundogan was bought for €5 million and moved on for €28 million. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, an €11.7 million signing, was sold for €64.5 million. Dortmund made a €64 million profit on the United States international Christian Pulisic and a whopping €90 million on Ousmane Dembele, who spent just one year at Signal Iduna Park.
The proceeds have, for the most part, been reinvested in young, up-and-coming talent. Sancho is one such example. Another is Erling Haaland, the Norwegian striker who rejected offers from several other clubs to sign for Dortmund last year because he deemed it the best place for his development.
Other starlets are sure to follow suit. Dortmund knows they will not keep hold of Haaland forever, but his time at the club can benefit both parties: Haaland may ultimately see Dortmund as a stepping stone but in the meantime, he can help them achieve on-field success.
Defining what that success looks like is increasingly tricky. Dortmund has now finished as runners-up in the Bundesliga five times since they last finished top of the pile under Jurgen Klopp in 2012. The odds on them winning the title this term (+600 with DraftKings Sportsbook) illustrate how difficult it will be to overhaul Bayern Munich (-560 with DraftKings Sportsbook). They have only won one DFB-Pokal in that eight-year period and have not made as much progress in Europe as they would have liked, failing to get beyond the quarter-finals of the Champions League since they contested the final in 2013.
Bayern was the team that beat them at Wembley that year, and German soccer’s biggest club won last season’s edition of the Champions League too. Hansi Flick’s side ended 2019/20 with 21 consecutive victories in all competitions, and it is hard to see Dortmund being able to compete with that this campaign. They will also face pressure from RB Leipzig, who seem to have the staying power to remain among the top four in Germany.
Given the financial disparity, it is unreasonable to expect Dortmund to finish above Bayern across a 34-game campaign. And despite their lack of titles of late, the success of BVB’s business model cannot be questioned. With Sancho set to stick around for another year, perhaps Lucien Favre’s side can be dark horses for the Champions League.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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