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Player Review: Neven Subotic

A Season Best Forgotten

Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

In one sentence: the 2015/2016 season has not been great for Neven Subotic. Despite establishing himself as one of the two key centre-backs in Jürgen Klopp’s defense, new manager Thomas Tuchel didn’t fully warm up to Subotic as a first-choice, with Sokratis Papasthathopoulos and Erik Durm preferred in most of the Schwarzgelbe’s pre-season friendlies. Perhaps as an indicator of troubles to come, a back injury late summer then forced Subotic out of the squad before the first game of the Bundesliga campaign. By the end of the Hinrunde, or first half of the season, Subotic would only feature twice out of 17 games. But to be fair, both were full 90 minute appearances that ended in wins for BVB, including a strong defensive display against VfL Wolfsburg.

VfL Wolfsburg v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga
Subotic defends well against Wolfsburg's Max Kruse (11)
Photo by Oliver Hardt/Getty Images For MAN

After the winter break, it seemed like Subotic’s injury-woes were fully behind him. A string of consecutive starts in mid-February and early-March had glimpses of his stalwart defensive form that was critical to BVB winning two consecutive league titles (2010 – 2012). But Subotic’s style of defending – direct and solid, albeit one-dimensional – never fully meshed with Tuchel’s constant tactical tinkering. Notably, in the critical second meeting with Bayern, where the formation switched to an unconventional, possession-based 5-2-3, Subotic was dropped in favor of Bender, who, lest we forget, was a defensive midfielder converted to centre-back.

Subotic did have a few great games, especially in the Europa League. In the first leg against Tottenham Hotspur, his height and aerial ability were on perfect display, with the big Serbian heading down a corner-kick to the far-post for Marco Reus to smash into the net. In the second leg, with Tottenham needing a large win and thus attacking as such, Subotic was again quite solid, cutting out final balls and making vital tackles for most of the game. But as an omen of a defender who spent the first half of the season injured, Subotic played a horrendously short back-pass to Roman Bürki, which was picked up by Tottenham's Son Heung-Min, who then rounded the keeper for an easy goal.

Tottenham Hotspur v Borussia Dortmund - UEFA Europa League Round of 16: Second Leg
Subotic was directly at fault for Tottenham's goal in the second-leg of the Europa League round of 16
Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images

From that game in mid-March on, Tuchel reduced Subotic to the bench. To make matters worse, at the beginning of April, it was discovered that he had a thrombosis in the arm; in one fell swoop, Subotic’s season was over. But it had effectively been finished long before that.

For a two-time Bundesliga-winning defender to feature only 11 times over the course of a season, where BVB was not only challenging for the league title but also in Europe, can only be described as a massive disappointment. Injuries notwithstanding, Subotic simply didn’t thrive under Tuchel in the way that he had with Klopp. He’s not the type of defender who holds onto the ball looking for a splitting through-pass. At his best, Subotic is classic – he stops dangerous attacking plays and clears the ball by any means necessary. This leads to some questionable decision-making at times, sure, but it’s important not to forget that it also leads to incredible saves in very big games.

Subotic’s future in Dortmund is far from certain, especially under Tuchel’s management. He has one more year left on his contract and plenty of interest from other clubs, among them Klopp’s Liverpool. He’s shown himself to be a valuable defender that in a direct defensive system and at 27, Subotic still has quite a few footballing years ahead of him. But it’s safe to say that regardless of what happens in the future, this past season will not be a cornerstone of his legacy at BVB.