Borussia Dortmund were meant to be the antithesis of Barcelona. The encounter was supposed to be a madcap melding of magic and medicine: The tricks performed by Lucien Favre’s adventurous brood would clash with the Catalonians’ scientific, scholarly, yet engaging interpretation of football. Goals were forecasted.
The September meeting ended 0-0.
What the opening Champions League matchday against Barcelona and the 2-0 win at Slavia Prague earlier this month demonstrated, though, was that Dortmund are much more than Jadon Sancho’s whirring legs and Paco Alcacer’s bewildering scoring streaks. There is a calmness in the eye of the storm, a batch of wise heads that won’t be cowed by the mission to finish above at least two teams out of Inter, Barcelona, and Slavia Prague in Group F.
Wednesday: Inter vs. Dortmund, Slavia Prague vs. Barcelona
Favre set to work on fortifying the heart of the Dortmund lineup soon after his belated appointment as manager for the 2018-19 campaign, and he made Thomas Delaney one of his earliest signings. The Dane’s authority in midfield was recognized when he was handed the FC Copenhagen captaincy at 22, and he spent 18 months before the Dortmund move almost single-handedly transforming Werder Bremen from relegation fodder to a respectable mid-table outfit.
Delaney is the physical operator at the base of Der BVB’s midfield, capable of unfussily nudging opponents aside and dispossessing foes with a fine repertoire of tackles. Given his experience in Europe and the Bundesliga, Delaney was almost a certainty to succeed with Dortmund.
His regular colleague at the base of midfield, however, was met with some skepticism when he signed during the same summer.
Axel Witsel’s arrival to one of Europe’s top five leagues at age 29 was a surprise. The allure of Zenit St. Petersburg’s Gazprom-fueled project when he joined in 2012 was understandable, but Witsel’s transfer to Tianjin Quanjian in January 2017 was widely ridiculed. Why would a player of such repute choose to play in the Chinese Super League seemingly at his peak? The overwhelming answer was avarice.
Yet, somehow, his spell in China now looks like a masterstroke. The standard was poor, so Witsel could earn a packet while coasting through matches in second gear. He appeared rejuvenated when he landed in Germany.
His reading of the game is impeccable, with his knack for dropping into the backline particularly invaluable when last season’s oft-youthful rearguard was caught out of position. What stands out the most, however, is his obsession with retaining possession. Only Aymeric Laporte and Toni Kroos played more successful short passes than Witsel during the 2018-19 Champions League group stage.
“I hate losing the ball,” Witsel said of his playing style earlier this season. “If I give the ball away two or three times in a game, that’s too much. It drives me mad after the game, and I ask myself why it happened.
“I’ve always been like that, but I always try to stay cool during the game. That’s my style.”
With Witsel in midfield, Dortmund are much better at keeping the ball than they are often given credit for. The counter-attack is potent, but the vast majority of the club’s wins under Favre occurred when Dortmund dictated play, not just hit teams on the break.
Possession in Dortmund’s league wins under Favre:
|50% or more||Under 50%|
It’s telling that Dortmund’s only defeat this term – a 3-1 loss at Union Berlin – came when Witsel was unavailable and Delaney was forced off at the interval.
The final piece of Dortmund’s mature core is Mats Hummels, who returned to the Westfalenstadion last summer after three seasons with Bayern Munich. His transition into Favre’s setup hasn’t been as smooth, but his ability to traverse high-pressure situations comes as a relief following last season’s inexperienced center-back rotation of Manuel Akanji, Dan-Axel Zagadou, and Abdou Diallo, the latter of whom has since moved on to Paris Saint-Germain.
Hummels was imperious in Saturday’s 1-0 in over Borussia Monchengladbach, but his finest performance so far this season was in the goalless affair with Barcelona. It was a stoical outing from the 30-year-old as he waded in with more interceptions than the rest of his teammates combined and smashed a huge nine clearances to safety.
That evening in North Rhine-Westphalia, goalkeeper Roman Burki only had to perform one save against a team featuring Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Antoine Griezmann. His game was relatively easy, and it was primarily down to the work of Hummels and the two midfielders protecting the back-four, Delaney and Witsel.
More of the same from this judicious trio, and Dortmund should glean enough points over the remaining four Champions League matchdays to emerge from the competition’s supposed group of death.