“You can’t win anything with kids.” That was the assertion Alan Hansen, the former Liverpool defender turned pundit, made on the first Match of the Day of the 1995/96 season, after seeing Manchester United beaten 3-1 by Aston Villa.
Those “kids”, of course, who included the likes of Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and the Nevilles, went on to capture a league at cup double that season.
Borussia Dortmund were similarly written off ahead of the current campaign. Having struggled to a fourth-placed Bundesliga finish in 2017/18, and having sold key players Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Ousmane Dembélé in the space of 12 months, BVB appeared to pose little threat to Bayern Munich’s domestic dominance.
However, 11 games into the season, unbeaten and having defeated Bayern 3-2 in the first meeting between Germany’s two biggest clubs in 2018/19, Dortmund sit top of the pile, boasting the Bundesliga’s best attack and second-tightest defence.
And they have done so by playing the kids. Of the 17 Dortmund players to have featured in more than 200 Bundesliga minutes so far this term, nine are aged 23 are younger, five are either 20 years old or still teenagers, and only three are aged 29 or older.
The key, in both the cases of Dortmund and mid-90s United, however, is the presence of an experienced, talismanic presence in attack, knitting together the capricious youngsters and guiding them through setting a reliable example.
At Old Trafford, it was Eric Cantona; at Signal Iduna Park this season, it is Marco Reus.
“Eric was immense,” Gary Neville wrote of Cantona’s influence on United’s crop of prodigies in the 1995/96 season in his autobiography, Red. “As young players, we’d looked to him for leadership and he’d been incredible as a match-winner. Winning titles is all about teamwork, but there are a couple from my time – certainly that year, and also 2006/07 with Cristiano Ronaldo – where you are so indebted to one player that you feel like giving him your medal. That was Eric’s championship.”
This, if Dortmund are able to stand firm and end Bayern’s six-year Bundesliga monopoly, will in many ways be Reus’.
Cantona began the 1995/96 season belatedly, having been suspended until October thanks to his infamous “kung-fu kick” on a Crystal Palace fan in January. In his absence, Newcastle United took the initiative, only for the Frenchman to power the Red Devils comeback from a 12-point deficit in the new year.
There has been no such wait for Reus, who has started all of Dortmund’s 16 all-competitions fixtures this term, scoring ten goals and registering four assists.
There is a sense, however, that the German forward’s career is only now beginning to blossom as long hoped, with Reus, at 29, finally putting horrific misfortune with injuries in the rearview mirror.
Indeed, Reus’ 962 minutes of Bundesliga game time in 2018/19 is already more than he was able to muster last season, and he is just five starts short of his total from the year before.
His talent has never been in doubt – he had been touted by many as potentially the world’s third-best player during the peak of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Ballon d’Or duopoly – but now, thanks to how he has faced and overcome countless setbacks, Reus has a marked steeliness. As club captain, he is the ideal man to guide and harness this nebulous cloud of nascent talent at Dortmund.
Reus plays with the urgency of a player with something still to prove and who has been made acutely aware of the tenuous grasp any professional athlete has on their career – every tackle, change of direction and acceleration is potentially the next, and possibly last, injury. But he has achieved enough already in the game, showcasing his undeniably elite talent in merciful periods of fitness, that he instantly commands respect among his peers.
This, too, mirrors Cantona’s plight, with the fire which drove his immeasurable success and influence at United stoked by how he remained under-appreciated in his homeland. And Dortmund’s young players are beginning to speak of their captain in similar tones to how Cantona was revered by his junior colleagues at Old Trafford.
“I look up to Marco Reus because he’s a very big player – I look up to him like an idol,” English winger Jadon Sancho told Deutsche Welle at Wolfsburg’s Volkswagen Arena, speaking after Reus had scored to give BVB a 1-0 win in early November.
“It’s good to have him on the pitch talking to me and giving me advice, because when he tells me things I listen. I just have to keep taking that advice and learning as a player.”
One of the keys to how Reus’ influence has been amplified at Dortmund this season is new manager Lucien Favre’s decision to deploy the German centrally, moving him in from his customary left inside-forward role to become the team’s No.10 and focal point. From there, not only is he a more direct creative threat to the opposition, he is also stationed perfectly to conduct the buzzing traffic of BVB’s vibrant youngsters.
Operating between the lines of the opposition’s defence and midfield, he has the freedom to roam and is always an available option for a less-experienced colleague, while constantly in position to punctuate his team’s fine work with reliable end product – tactical similarities, too, then with United’s French legend.
As Dortmund overcame Bayern at Signal Iduna Park, 18-year-old Sancho buzzed and harassed the visiting defence, 20-year-old Jacob Bruun Larsen provided industry and invention from the left, and full-back Achraf Hakimi, 19, was composed and forward-thinking.
But it was Reus, with a brace in the 3-2 victory, who glued it all together. As he raced off in celebration after sweeping home a magnificent winning goal, he was pursued by his adoring apprentices, the pied piper of Favre’s new Dortmund; Signal Iduna Park’s very own “king”.