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Player Review: Marcel Schmelzer

Year in Review - 2015/16

Hertha BSC Berlin v Borussia Dortmund - DFB Cup Semi Final Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images

Ahhhh… Marcel Schmelzer. One of the few remaining characters from the Klopp revolution and always a fan favorite, this April, Schmelle further cemented his legacy in the hearts of Borussen worldwide with a contract extension, tying him to the Schwartzgelb through 2021. At 28, this certainly represents a career commitment to Dortmund. In contrast to his compatriot and fellow veteran, Sven Bender, who made the same contract extension in February, there are far fewer questions as to the future of Schmelzer.

Hertha BSC Berlin v Borussia Dortmund - DFB Cup Semi Final Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images

This was certainly not the case last August. Coming off of the disastrous season that was 2014/15, Schmelle’s reputation suffered more than most. Dortmund’s back four were frequently caught out on quick counterattacks, and Schmelle, more than often, bore the brunt of the fans’ discontent, either caught ball watching or marking the wrong man on a cross into the area. Your humble author on more than several occasions even called for his ouster.

Enter Thomas Tuchel. The sea change that was his possession-based, quick-movement, incisive-passing, triangle-creating, overloading-and-exploiting-the-left-side-half spaces, played perfect to Schmelle’s attributes. In possession, Schmelle, Gündoğan, Weigl, Reus, and Mkhitaryan imperiously moved the ball up the pitch and scored at will in the first half of the season. Yes, defensive lapses were still present as Dortmund would be caught outnumbered on counterattack due to an infrequent turnover, but the offensive watershed that was the Hinrunde papered over those cracks… at least until the final match against Köln.

The tactical changes made by Tuchel over the Winterpause stabilized the defensive frailties without impacting Schmelzer’s contribution to the attack. Instead of both full backs shooting forward into the attack, Tuchel changed to a back three in possession with Łukasz Piszczek staying home alongside Hummels and Bender/Sokratis. Schmelzer proved to be similarly adaptable as oppositions changed their style, frequently choosing to defend with 10 behind the ball, ceding possession and daring Dortmund to take them apart. Due to this change, Schmelzer more frequently ended up on the scorer’s sheet with direct assists to strikers in the box rather than providing the key through passes on the ground or quick crosses to the weak side.

When the German National Team manager Jogi Löw made his announcement of the first provisional squad for this summer’s European Championship, it surprised no one to see Schmelle’s omission from that list. Long known for picking his own favorites, it had been clear since Erik Durm’s selection in 2014 for the World Cup, and Jonas Hector’s inclusion thereafter, that Löw did not rate Schmelzer as high as the likely 2015/16 Bundesliga manager of the season. Schmelle really deserved a call up for the consistent form he displayed this year, but I think we all know of Löw’s deficiencies when it comes to full backs (Höwedes, Boateng, Hummels, and Mustafi as a back four in Brazil anyone?).

Cup Handover DFB-Pokal 2016 Photo by Boris Streubel/Bongarts/Getty Images

The real remaining question for Marcel Schmelzer is what role he will play in the team’s future? Not necessarily as a player, but in the team leadership. Hummels was given the arm band in 2014 as a sign of good faith for his contract extension in that year (and we see how that was repaid). Similarly, the appointment of Marco Reus as vice-captain has been seen as a similar inducement to get his own contract extension (one, which, though he extended, I find it hard to see how wearing the band in minor matches when Hummels is rested could have significantly impacted his decision more than a Dortmunder Jung choosing to continue to play for his boyhood club). Certainly the fan consensus is that Schmelle deserves the arm band for not only his loyalty, but his constant leadership on the pitch. I am not certain Tuchel shares this perspective, but regardless of the captaincy decision, Schmelzer will not change his habits.

As for his playing future, Schmelzer is the number one left back and will continue to be until his is pushed from that position. In Tuchel’s current style, Schmelle plays an important role that cannot be filled consistently by another. Erik Durm is certainly the understudy, but until he shows the ability to play consistently in the left back position, Schmelzer will continue to lock it down. This is of course limited to Schmelle’s fitness. He does not have a worrisome injury history, but as his age creeps toward 30, expect to see his speed in attack and track-back decline. This likely, is the only potential impediment to his utility in the season to come.