Round of 16 Fan Preview: Borussia Dortmund

Group A of the 2018/19 Champions League Group Stage boasted a rapturous crowd, one that witnessed a narrow race between German and Spanish footballing royalty. In a two-team contest that remained neck and neck until the dying embers, it was Lucien Favre’s Borussia Dortmund who prevailed, emerging group victors on a goal difference of 8, despite sitting level on 13 points with Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid.

For Dortmund, the opening six matches in Europe’s most prestigious footballing competition coincidentally mirrored the first six months of the Lucien Favre era, an era that can only be described as a refreshing surprise. Despite blips such as a terribly frustrating loss to Fortuna Düsseldorf and a sprinkling of draws along the way, die Schwarzgelben sit top of the Bundesliga with defending champions Bayern Munich in hot pursuit.

Showcasing fluid attacking football, the 61-year-old Swiss manager is progressively polishing the extremely capable troop he has at his disposal ever so carefully. Exploratory as ever, the meticulous tactician is trialling a plethora of experiments within his squad, most of which have come to blossoming fruition.

The most prominent examples of this include converting Marco Reus into a dynamic #10, Mario Götze into an unfettered central forward and Julian Weigl into a surprisingly brilliant centre-back in the midst of a centre-back crisis: Manuel Akanji and Dan-Axel Zagadou have been injured since December, and new signing Leonardo Balerdi has been away at the Sudamericano U-20 for Argentina, leaving Ömer Toprak, recently coming back from injury, Abdou Diallo, and Weigl, who for the first time in his career, is playing in central defense.

Armed with a deep squad that strikes a precise melange between invigorating youth and pacifying experience, Dortmund are most certainly capable of overcoming the challenges that bolt towards them, but whether or not these words will translate into actions will only be told by time.

Borussia Dortmund now stand face to face with Tottenham Hotspur. The North London infantry, equipped with world class players and a world class coach, are a familiar foe for BVB, having locked horns with them twice before in recent years. The first occasion being in the UCL Group Stage of 2017/18, and the second being in the 2015/16 Europa League round of 16.

Tottenham, weakened by the *most probable* absences of luminaries such as hitman Harry Kane and Dele Alli for the first leg, should not have the potency of their threat misconstrued. Under a battle-hardened coach capable of delivering in adverse conditions, as well as wielding the harpoon to Dortmund’s Moby Dick in Son Heung-Min, the fixture remains nip and tuck, almost guaranteeing a barn burner capable of producing a big result for either side.

A product of a Lucien Favre experiment, Julian Weigl is almost a lock to start in central defence at Wembley. With Manuel Akanji and Dan-Axel Zagadou on the treatment table for the Rückrunde and Ömer Toprak involved in an annual struggle with muscle injuries, many expected veteran Lukasz Piszczek to shift inwards as a makeshift next to Abdou Diallo. It was Julian Weigl, however, who was tasked with makeshift center back duties, and Dortmund haven’t looked back since.

Coming as somewhat of a surprise to fans considering his lack of robustness, the former 1860 Munich captain has been Dortmund’s best defender by some margin since the restart of the Bundesliga. Weigl, despite his lack of physicality, has calibrated into his new role ever so shrewdly by using the tools he naturally has at his disposal.

To compensate for his slight frame, Weigl uses his excellent reading of the game to assess the movement of opposing attackers, and then make nifty, countering runs to close down space and disrupt the mechanics of the offense. In doing so, he is able to defend inadvertently and put himself in positions where he can simply nick the ball away without ever having to engage in many physical battles.  

In modern football, it is almost a requirement for central defenders to possess a developed passing game. Blessed with a passing range that aspiring registas could only dream of, Julian Weigl is able to comfortably venture forward and break multiple lines of opposing pressure with little to no difficulty, aiding circulation and helping Dortmund to build up play significantly faster. It is not so inconceivable to say that Weigl may actually prefer his new role, as having the entire game ahead of him completely quashes the need for him to defend going backwards, something he has had trouble with when deployed in defensive midfield.

Another player who has acted as a test subject for Favre is 2014 World Cup superstar Mario Götze. His second spell at the club seemed destined to end blandly when the 2017/18 season concluded, but Favre unexpectedly decided to add Götze to his shallow list of options for the center forward spot.

With Max Philipp underperforming and with Paco Alcácer struggling with relapsing muscle injuries, Mario Götze was hauled up top, and after a slight acclimation period, he seems to be making the CF spot in the XI his own. Despite Alcácer’s swift start to life in Germany, Mario Götze’s involvement has added a new dimension to Dortmund’s offensive play that just can’t be emulated by the Spaniard.

Blessed with world class technique, vision, and the occasional eye for goal, Götze offers Dortmund’s other attackers a channel to play through. A player that has his teammates’ full assurance in possession, Götze, with surprising core strength and an innate ability to weigh killer passes, can play nifty one-twos in and around the box to set up his peers in promising shooting positions.

Without the ball, Götze runs tirelessly and shrewdly to occupy opposing defenders and open up lanes for those behind him to exploit. This is often showcased by Götze receiving the ball with his back to goal and immediately releasing into space (often with his first touch), and then spinning and making an inquisitive run, taking his marker with him. This allows Marco Reus, Raphaël Guerreiro or Jadon Sancho to pierce that space, collect the ball, and then make an attempt at goal or square to another player in a better shooting position – a gear Borussia will have to enter should they wish to breach Tottenham’s formidable backline.

Die Schwarzgelben travel to Wembley this Wednesday with notable absentees of their own in Manuel Akanji and perhaps Marco Reus, but none of this will hinder the Swiss conductor’s plan, which will most definitely be to defend compactly, transition swiftly and orchestrate a goal or two to take home. BVB certainly have their work cut out for them, facing a grueling blockade that they will be obliged to clear should they wish to progress in Europe’s Königsklasse and inch slightly nearer for a mere glance at the elusive ‘Ol Big Ears.

By: Moa Essop