Dortmund’s Most Fascinating Position Battles
We’re back at it again! After an inopportune international break, Borussia Dortmund will be looking to return to their winning ways (and surprisingly sound defensive form) established in the first 2 matches of the Bundesliga season against Wolfsburg and Berlin. The international break was predictable for those who follow the German National Team, as they were able to wrap up their 7th and 8th wins in as many tries in the World Cup Group C qualifiers, almost assuring their automatic bid to the tournament. The Ruhr club managed to escape the break with their players returning in good health, and some, like Christian Pulisic, got to experience expanded roles for their national sides due to their domestic performances.
As the transfer window officially slammed shut during the break, the squad was not yet complete when the internationals first left for their countries. Compounded with the arrival of new manager Peter Bosz and another summer of high turnover in the squad, Dortmund still face a bit of a challenge in identifying their best starting XI. With few places occupied by unquestioned starters, Bosz will have a bit of a selection headache on his hands most weeks in which the team stays reasonably healthy. If the dominant first two matches of this season are anything to go by, this will be a good headache to have, particularly if poor Marco Reus makes a return to something nearing his best form after recovering from his knee injury.
Let’s take a look at some of the most fascinating position battles for Borussia Dortmund this season.
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about new signing Omer Toprak may be that he has not yet broken into the starting XI in Dortmund’s first 2 matches this season. The perfect solution to last year’s problem of a criminally leaky defence, Toprak would have been the best fit in the squad to man the central position of last year’s 3 man backline experiment. However, so far this season he has found himself behind Marc Bartra and Sokratis in the pecking order for Bosz’s 2 starting centre back spots in his 4-3-3.
Bartra and Sokratis are probably the most aggressive ball winners of the centre backs currently at Dortmund, and perhaps the Dutch manager simply prefers them both. The high line required in his aggressive scheme to compress the space in the centre of the pitch requires the slick passing abilities of a player with Bartra’s two-way skill set, as well as the tackling abilities of both. Bartra and Sokratis both also possess great pace for central defenders, a real asset if the high line is breached by a well timed through ball.
Toprak is a different sort of defender: less aggressive, more cerebral. His play at Leverkusen earned the respect of his peers and fans, with his steady contribution and aerial prowess. It remains to be seen if Peter Bosz views his role as purely rotational, or if his destiny does lie in the starting XI, but at the very least, Dortmund have more depth in an area where they are undoubtedly improving, particularly if counting another new signing, Dan Axel-Zagadou.
Speaking of Axel-Zagadou, the towering defender got a look at left back before the break, spelling captain Marcel Schmelzer. He impressed with his performance for one so young, and has helped the team not concede a single goal in league play so far. It is unlikely that the youngster will end up anywhere but in the heart of the defence with his rare combination of physical gifts, but he looks to be Bosz’s initial choice to back up Schmelzer, at least until the return of Raphael Guerreiro.
Ultimately, it could be Guerreiro who factors in as the primary competition for the ageing captain. The younger Portuguese star signed for the club after a great performance at the Euros last season in a similar position, but saw a lot of time in the central midfield as the season progressed. Incredibly versatile, he is an adept passer, dribbler and defender as well as decent around goal. Like Felix Passlack, it may ultimately be his lack of height that keeps him out of the backline, but for him and his midfielder’s abilities, that may be a blessing.
As for Schmelzer, he has been a long and loyal servant to his club, respected across Europe as a very good left back with incredible work rate for his team. Schmelzer does contribute on both ends of the pitch, and he often found his role creeping further forward last season as he spent some time playing wingback. At 29, he has almost certainly hit his performance peak, and with a lot of kilometres on his legs, Dortmund are right to be collecting possible long term replacements in the squad.
Perhaps the most stable group so far this season, Peter Bosz has favoured the trio of Mario Gotze, Nuri Sahin and Gonzalo Castro. The balance of Sahin’s intelligence and work rate, Gotze’s magic and Castro’s box to box style, there is certainly an admirable balance to their play. For many, it has been great to see Gotze and Sahin back in action and as important contributors. Through their lifelong connection to the club and having both returned from departures to a warm homecoming, both players will always carry the backing of the Yellow Wall.
Should sudden dips in form and attrition take their toll on the supremely talented, if slightly undersized, midfield, Bosz has a wealth of talent that he can choose from in the squad. Mahmoud Dahoud, whose name has been like a drumbeat of optimism in my writings this summer, is still being integrated into the squad. In many ways, he possesses some of all 3 current starters’ best skills with his dribbling ability and incredible passing range. Julian Weigl is also a vital and still young member of the Dortmund midfield, and he provides the perfect cover to Sahin in the more central, holding midfield role. With others such as Raphael Guerreiro more than capable of playing in the midfield, as well as Sebastian Rode still to return from injury, Dortmund have enough quality options to get by for quite some time.