Axel Witsel: Zenith

Liège, Lisbon, St. Petersburg, Tianjin, Dortmund. A peculiar journey that invoked scrutiny and raised eyebrows, yet one that quietly shaped the emergence of one of Europe’s finest midfielders today. Now 29 years of age, Liège-born Axel Witsel calls Dortmund, a city that breathes, speaks, and pulsates with the beautiful game, home. The Belgian, amid interest from José Mourinho’s red renegade, Thomas Tuchel’s capital juggernaut, and yes, Sean Dyche’s Claret army, decided to land in Germany for Michael Zorc and Hans-Joachim Watzke’s rebuilding project at Borussia Dortmund. 

Despite being a mainstay in the Belgian national team over the years, many criticized the transfer, believing the ‘Fro’ no longer had the defiance to withstand the ascent in quality that accompanied moving from the Chinese Super League to the Bundesliga. Jokingly nicknamed “Marco Polo” due to his rather questionable travels, his transfer went through with an aura of uncertainty around it. Constantly goaded as being a talented player without the gut to set a hand to the European elite, Witsel – now nearly half a year since his move – is playing football as he always has, but now on a platform big enough for his virtuosity to be acknowledged, enjoyed and admired.

A physically imposing, dominant midfielder, Witsel is often deployed as the deepest of a midfield three (although capable of playing as an #8) where calculated, crisp passing and seemingly impermeable core strength have made him an instant hit in the Ruhr. Able to receive possession from deep and gallop forward, he brings BVB into the final third in dashes that pierce the banks of opposing pressure and almost eliminate the need for the initial phases of build-up. The Belgian hardly misplaces a pass, and dispossessing him seems a near-impossible feat, where a melange of brute force and tidy technique allows him to avoid having his pocket picked, either by nonchalantly hurdling challenges with slick control or evading a physical duel as the victor. Witsel concluded the Champions League group stage with a pass accuracy of  96%, completing 427 of 447 attempted passes, the highest of any player in the competition. Defensively sound, his robust frame and impressive timing allow him to retain possession by way of tackling, outmuscling an opponent or winning an aerial duel. He is also adept in inadvertent defence, where intelligent running allows him to congest areas, make up ground and shut off passing lanes.

Often playing alongside Witsel is fellow summer recruit Thomas Delaney. Brought to the club in order to ignite sparks of mental strength, steel and physicality into the Dortmund midfield, the Dane tirelessly runs, tackles, jumps, fouls and presses in midfield for die Schwarzgelben. Although Delaney lacks the technical proficiency and quick, creative thinking to deal with smothering opponents, he is given the freedom to forge his iron in the middle of the park due to the quietly brilliant Belgian by his side. Witsel covers for Delaney when he ventures, dropping in as a third centre back in possession to aid circulation and to allow Delaney to push further forward in pursuit of retrieving the ball. He always makes himself available as a passing option in build-up and has more than enough in the way of technique to compensate for Delaney’s lack thereof.

Something that may well have amplified his rapid acclamation to the quality gap is fellow Francophone Lucien Favre. Described as a perfectionist, the meticulous Swiss tactician demands mastery of the ball from his team. Witsel discusses that Favre confers with his players regarding the thesis of wasted movement. He gives an example, saying that should the players receive the ball from the right, they should angle themselves in a position to comfortably take it on the right foot and subsequently drive forward, in an attempt to open up windows of opportunity in offence and to constantly keep the game out of the reach of the opponent by remaining multiple steps ahead.

Something so seemingly intricate that upon a modicum of thought, seems really quite logical. It is this sheer depth, yet jolting simplicity of the Swiss’ tactical acumen that is perfectly suited to Witsel, who executes his terribly complex midfield job, shrouding it in majestic simplicity. Nicknamed “Chaloupe”, meaning a “small boat” in French, it is no surprise that the level-headed Belgian is Favre’s first mate, equipped with the task of hauling the anchor over the bow of not a small boat, but the rather large ship that is Borussia Dortmund, down into calmer, safer waters.

By: Mo Essop

Photo: Revierfoto/Imago/Icon Sportswire