When Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig clash on Friday (2:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+), we will witness some of the Bundesliga’s most promising youngsters playing in front of a jam-packed Signal Iduna Park. More than 80,000 will be in attendance to watch the two favourites to dethrone Bayern Munich this season, and it’s teenagers and those in their early 20s who are likely to be in the spotlight.
For years, the Bundesliga has developed — or at least polished — one future superstar after another, and that’s seemingly not going to stop. From Kevin De Bruyne to Jadon Sancho to Erling Haaland, the quantity of exceptional prospects is in part what has defined the appeal of Germany’s top flight.
However, the cruel reality for any club not named Bayern Munich is that most of these players leave sooner rather than later. When Dortmund and Leipzig clash, we will see midfielder Jude Bellingham facing off against centre-back Josko Gvardiol and attacker Christopher Nkunku. All three might sign with Premier League clubs this summer.
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Both Gvardiol of Croatia and Nkunku of France have been linked with Chelsea, while England midfielder Bellingham can choose any club in Europe as his next destination. Liverpool and Real Madrid are said to be favourites for the 19-year-old this summer.
The Bundesliga wouldn’t be the Bundesliga if there weren’t other youngsters waiting to fill their places, though. Borussia Dortmund wingers Karim Adeyemi, who is going to miss Friday’s game due to an injury, and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens have made a splash this season, while Nico Schlotterbeck continues to grow into the role of chief defender. Meanwhile, Leipzig may have already found their new Nkunku in Hungary midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai.
Twenty-two-year-old Szoboszlai is a fascinating case in that he struggled noticeably after being moved from FC Salzburg to Leipzig in January 2021. At first, he dealt with an adductor injury and later had a tough time adjusting his style of play in such a way that he could meet the needs of his new team. Before his move, Szoboszlai had been the focal point for both club and country and was allowed to do almost anything he wanted, including frequently trying his luck from distance. However, he seemed uncertain about his role once he sported Leipzig’s jersey, yet the club remained patient.
Szoboszlai received the time a young up-and-comer sometimes needs, but doesn’t always get at powerhouse clubs who are focused on winning trophies. The Bundesliga has created an environment in which developing talent seems like a part of its mission statement, and there is pride among clubs in being the former homes of star players. Szoboszlai is as ambitious as his friend Haaland, but he needed that extra time and patience to refine his game, transforming from what you could almost call a shoot-first midfielder to a player with an eye for better-positioned teammates and the timing to play key passes through the defence.
Some of this development could be attributed to Leipzig head coach Marco Rose, who has known the player since he was 15 years old. While Rose’s predecessor, Domenico Tedesco, used Szoboszlai as a somewhat one-dimensional winger on the outside, Rose usually employs him as a winger/attacking midfielder hybrid in his 4-2-2-2 to use his pupil’s refined skill set effectively. Szoboszlai has assisted 2.1 shots and made 0.94 goal-creating actions per 90 minutes so far this season, according to FBref.com.
From World Cup zero to 80,000’s hero
During the game at Dortmund, the Hungary international will likely clash with Schlotterbeck on several occasions. As Mats Hummels was showing signs of slowing down in recent years, BVB had to look for alternatives. They found one in Schlotterbeck, a very modern type of centre-back with a gifted left foot, playmaking abilities and a progressive style of defending. Due to being a left-footer, Schlotterbeck naturally eyed the place as left-sided centre-back in Dortmund’s back four, the position Hummels had occupied for years. But Schlotterbeck also had to go through valleys, most notably a frustrating World Cup campaign during which the public put some of the blame for Germany’s loss to Japan in the opening game of the group stage on him.
It required an expert’s eye to see that, regardless of his defensive errors and lapses of concentration, Schlotterbeck was special. Only a few months after the World Cup, rarely anyone at Dortmund, including the 80,000 inside the Signal Iduna Park, would advocate benching him, as he has been a revelation in Dortmund’s nine-game winning streak since the winter break. While Hummels would surely prefer to be standing on the pitch, he likely accepts the fact that Schlotterbeck, who is 11 years his junior, is the future.
Of course, Szoboszlai and Schlotterbeck are only two names on a list that also includes Bayern Munich’s generational talent Jamal Musiala, Eintracht Frankfurt striker and World Cup final participant Randal Kolo Muani, VfL Wolfsburg winger Patrick Wimmer, Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Manu Kone, Bayer Leverkusen playmaker Florian Wirtz, and Dortmund’s Youssoufa Moukoko, among others.
It naturally frustrates supporters that those with deeper pockets take away their team’s best players, but, so far, Germany’s top flight and its clubs have found ways to unearth new talents from year to year. Watching them grow is special; it’s even exciting to watch them when they are still unpolished and youthfully audacious. This has become an appealing part of the Bundesliga experience.