Two center backs, both alike in dignity,
in fair Westfalen, where we lay our scene.
From new partnership wrought from new mutiny,
where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
-William Shakespeare, if he were writing a play about Dortmund probably
Mats Hummels and his departure left a massive hole in the club. Beyond his captaincy and leadership off the field, he was also a sure bet on the field to start, often keeping the ship afloat amongst a rotating cast of center back partners at the end of last season. He certainly wasn’t perfect, but he did excel at so many areas of the game that it’s easy to focus on a few of his shortcomings and lose sight of all the things he did for BVB on the field.
Marc Bartra’s signing was interesting, but most fan’s optimism was tempered with caution. Could Dortmund really hope to replace a giant like Hummels with a Barcelona squad player?
The answer, at least in the preseason, is yes, and it’s in no small part thanks to the partnership forged between Bartra and everyone’s favorite Greek psychopath, Sokratis Papastathopolous. Sokratis is a known quantity to BVB fans. He is big, he is strong, and any deficiencies he might face in speed he makes up for with a unique blend of 1-v-1 tactical awareness and a willingness to actually commit murder on field to get the ball back. When paired with Hummels last season, the two made an imposing pair, and Hummels’ skill on the ball made up for Sokratis’ relatively simple possession game. Hummels was the knife to Sokratis’ club, and the two (in addition to Sven Bender, when healthy) were called upon as first choice center backs.
Sokratis is a good defender, but without Hummels on the field, Dortmund were a bit more hampered in possession, as Hummels used his vision and passing ability (as well as more than a few dribbling forays) to break high-pressing defensive lines. The good news for BVB fans? Bartra’s passing might be even better.
Marc Bartra had a good game last night vs. Eintracht Trier. German comms were very impressed at his verticality. https://t.co/7kTsjTw7YK— Michele Taylor (@nzm_fcb) August 23, 2016
Granted, this video features lower-league opposition, but Bartra showed the same incisiveness against Bayern Munich in the Supercup, calmly facilitating possession and showing a penchant for lobbing balls forward on a dime to wingers and forwards making diagonal runs, as well as finding the feet of the central midfielders. Against Eintracht Trier, you might have mistaken him for a number 10 at times.
Bartra couples that passing ability and vision with surprising speed and a tactical nous that makes him an ideal partner for Sokratis in the middle. Quick to step up in the midfield and snuff out attacks when the opportunity presents itself, his comfort with the rest of the Dortmund defense and central midfield is already apparent. Where Sokratis can track down just about any one player on the field and shut him off from the rest of the field, Bartra sees the whole field, and knows where to be in order to complement his partner wherever he may be.
That’s not to say the Bartra and Sokratis partnership has been completely fullproof. Bayern burned the pair with a blistering, three-pronged counterattack at the Supercup, and then scored a second goal from a set piece that should have been dealt with better. Bartra doesn’t have nearly aerial ability of Mats Hummels, and set piece defense could be a thorn in Dortmund’s side if no one can step up as a dominant ball-winner in the box. Tuchel can always bring in an extra defender against better teams, but the five defender set is a stop-gap solution at best. Dortmund shored up their defense against Bayern Munich in the second half of the Bundesliga last season, but Tuchel’s 5-4-1 traded away offensive potency for defensive stability. A draw in the league gave way to another draw in the Pokal final, before Bayern’s eventual victory via penalty kicks. Realistically, Dortmund need to be good enough with just four defenders on the field if they want to win against the best, both in Germany and in the Champions League.
As Thomas Tuchel himself said, no one can replace Mats Hummels. But in Marc Bartra, Dortmund have found themselves another unique centerback with some characteristics that surpass Hummels himself, while others may trail behind. And partnered with Sokratis, Bartra looks ready to leave his mark on the Bundesliga. Only one question remains: are the two of them good enough to carry Dortmund to silverware this year?