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A Wing and a Prayer: Dortmund and the trouble with depth charts

Depth charts are simple, easy ways to see the positional organization and hierarchy of a squad. However, as Dortmund’s depth and injury troubles on the wing suggest, sometimes things just aren’t that easy.

Borussia Dortmund - Training & Press Conference Photo by Lukas Schulze/Bongarts/Getty Images

Going into 2016, Dortmund’s strong suit was supposed to be on the wings. Sure, Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang and Adrian Ramos provided a great 1-2 punch up top, and Julian Weigl came off of a stunning breakout season in defensive midfield, but just look at the depth and talent they had stocked up on the wings. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s departure was accounted for by the arrival of German international Andre Schurrle, who along with Marco Reus formed a formidable pair on paper. Add those two to the incredible and incredibly young talent pool of Christian Pulisic, Ousmane Dembele, and Emre Mor behind them, all (still) teenagers and all (now) full senior team members for their international sides, and the offensive imperative seemed clear for Dortmund: stretch the field with these dynamic wingers and rip open space for Aubameyang, Mario Gotze, Gonzalo Castro, and/or Shinji Kagawa to work in.

That plan was all well and good before Reus and Schurrle began the predictable yet annoying cycle of being out for a month or two at a time and leaving the wings up to the teens. Add that to Mario Gotze clearly not being the same player he was when he first left Dortmund, Shinji Kagawa’s continuing inconsistency and frequent disappearing acts in games, and Castro’s inability to build on strong performances and make himself indispensable in either attacking or holding midfield, and Dortmund’s attack has understandably sputtered. The wingers have alternately looked great and also invisible, but a rough hierarchy seems to have formed with Christian Pulisic and Ousmane Dembele emerging ahead of Emre Mor as Thomas Tuchel’s most dedicated wingers. Assuming everyone is healthy at some point, a depth chart on the wing at the moment would probably go as follows: 1. Marco Reus 2. Andre Schurrle 3. Christian Pulisic 4. Ousmane Dembele 5. Emre Mor.

A depth chart oversimplifies this situation however. First of all, it assumes that all wingers can play either side. Pulisic and Dembele seem to most naturally pull off the two-sided winger, and Marco Reus, while favoring the left side, swapped frequently last season with Mkhitaryan. Schurrle, on the other hand, plays on the left exclusively. He just doesn’t play the inverted winger role well.

The depth chart also assumes that Tuchel won’t use other players that usually play elsewhere on the wing. Raphael Guerreiro, Gonzalo Castro, and Adrian Ramos have all played on the wing infrequently, but enough times to mess up the comfort of a stable depth chart.

And so Thomas Tuchel, faced with Andre Schurrle’s newfound health and Marco Reus’s imminent return, must figure out how to balance his team, and sort out just who will be playing on the wings when he (finally) has a fully healthy squad. And to that end, instead of a simple depth chart, it might be more helpful to group the wingers into three groups based on their style of play: direct, indirect, and hybrid.

The direct wingers are the classic wide midfielders, who thrive on running up and down the sideline, getting the ball to the end line and sending in crosses, and stretching opposing defenses on the counter attack. Here, Dortmund have Andre Schurrle and Christian Pulisic. Schurrle is perhaps Dortmund’s most direct, straightforward midfielder. He huffs and puffs out wide until he runs out of breath or succeeds in blowing the house down. All that running, even on an injured knee, is what got him his goal against Real Madrid.

That goal also showcases Christian Pulisic instincts as a direct winger. While he does drift inside sometimes and isn’t quite as direct as Schurrle, Pulisic’s modus operandi on the wing is fairly consistent. Find space on the wing and get the ball into the box. Sure, he’s fortunate that his deflected cross fell to Schurrle, but that goal doesn’t happen if Pulisic doesn’t put the ball into the mixer while he’s got the chance.

The indirect wingers, on the other hand, are Dortmund’s mazy dribblers, Ousmane Dembele and Emre Mor. Both of these two are far more likely to cut inside and look to make defenders miss multiple times on the dribble than they are to cross the ball in the box when the opportunity arises. Of the two, Emre Mor is typically the one to cut the ball inside and dribble horizontally, looking for a shot, more often, but Dembele isn’t far behind him. Both play the wing as a means to get the ball inside and create mismatches for the defense, rather than as a player who provides service for forwards.

If you watch Dembele or Mor play a game, you’re more than likely to see this exact run attempted multiple times by either of them.

This all brings me to the hybrid winger, Marco Reus. Reus is valuable because he’s equally comfortable as a winger as he is as a forward, and can mix those two positions rather seamlessly. As opposed to mainly threatening defenses by either running at outside backs or trying to use his skills to give himself a better look at goal in the middle, Reus does both.

What does this all translate to for Thomas Tuchel? Different looks for different games. It’s easy to mark out one player as being better than the other, but sometimes a certain style of play just might suit a game better than another. For example, Christian Pulisic’s directness has been widely praised this season over Ousmane Dembele and Emre Mor’s habit to dribble inside and either shoot from outside the box or just dribble themselves into trouble. But Pulisic himself has been marked or muscled out of games by more athletic outside backs on more than one occasion this season, and while Dembele and Mor’s decision-making in the final third could certainly use work, denying their respective abilities to find solutions for defenses that try to sit back and muddy up games with physicality is to show a short-sighted view of Tuchel’s selection process. And while Andre Schurrle was Dortmund’s big-money acquisition this offseason, it’s easy to see situations in which Dembele’s ability to make defenders miss may be preferable, or Pulisic’s ability to swap wings might pair better with Marco Reus’s tendency to do the same.

Balance and finding a way to get everyone at the top of Dortmund’s depth chart onto the field at the same time have been big questions for the BVB faithful frustrated with the lackluster start to the Bundesliga season and awaiting the return of their injured superstars. But relying on lists and rankings to determine Dortmund’s best possible starting XI doesn’t do justice to their depth. Finding the way to get all of the best players on the field at the same time doesn’t necessarily spell success. Adjusting lineups for different situations and taking advantages of the styles of different players allows for more flexibility, and a better competitive balance as a result.