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Raphael Guerreiro is Gundogan’s heir apparent

When he was signed, no one expected the Portuguese international to find a home in the center of the midfield. Several games into the season, no one expects him anywhere else.

AFC Sunderland  v Borussia Dortmund  - Friendly Match Photo by Deniz Calagan/Getty Images

Of all the myriad young and exciting pieces Dortmund added in the summer of 2016, Raphael Guerreiro was one of the oddest. Dortmund added attacking players galore, from teenagers Emre Mor and Ousmane Dembele to full-fledged German internationals Mario Gotze and Andre Schurrle. There was a need for attacking depth, both on the wings and in the attacking midfield, and Dortmund got it. An Ilkay Gundogan-sized hole remained in the center of the pitch, but with the newly-signed Sebastian Rode, a fully-healthy Nuri Sahin, and incumbent starters Julian Weigl and Gonzalo Castro still around, it didn’t look like BVB would miss Gundogan that much.

Guerreiro was talented, sure, but where would he play? He wasn’t replacing Marcel Schmelzer, and that was confirmed yet again before the season began when the left back was named team captain. Erik Durm also remained on the squad as left back depth, and before the length of his injury layoff was revealed, Guerreiro’s addition looked more like hoarding than meeting any specific need. He was a good left back, even a great left back at the European championship in the summer, helping Portugal to a trophy and showing he could get up the flank to use a sweet left foot to cross the ball in as well. But Dortmund didn’t need another left back, and they didn’t need another winger. Where did he fit?

The beginning of the season provided more questions than answers. A nervy 2-1 win against Mainz and subsequent 1-0 loss to newly promoted RB Leipzig revealed a problem with Dortmund’s bolstered midfield: for all the players they brought in, no one appeared to possess Ilkay Gundogan’s ability to break lines with a pass, facilitate possession from back to front, and fulfill the box-to-box duties of a #8. Castro proved once again too inconsistent deeper in midfield. Rode just a bit too conservative. Weigl still a pure holding midfielder at heart. And without a threat to break lines in the middle of the pitch, the wings became a more and more predictable method of attack.

Enter Raphael Guerreiro, a left back with a golden left foot and a football mind like a sponge. Thomas Tuchel had experimented with Guerreiro as a holding mid to quiet success in the preseason, but it was quite another thing to watch the 22-year-old dictate Dortmund’s attack and seamlessly track back into the defense, first against a poor Legia Warsaw, then against a usually-game SV Darmstadt, and then yet again against a Wolfsburg side with aspirations of a European return, all within the span of a week.

Guerreiro’s pace and ball control naturally lend themselves to a box-to-box midfielder’s role. Quick and accurate, it’s not surprise that his skill set allows him positional flexibility. What’s more surprising is the speed with which he’s taken to the role. In three games in the last week, against increasingly harder competition, Guerreiro has inserted himself more and more into a suddenly thriving Dortmund attack: after starting the season scoring two goals and conceding two goals in two games, the Black and Yellows scored seventeen goals in their next three, while conceding just one. Guerreiro has collected two goals and three assists in that stretch of time, in addition to taking over most free kick and set-piece situations as well. The 22 year-old left back, in three games, seems to have made himself the answer for just about any situation on the pitch.

That’s not to say Guerreiro has been perfect. Wolfsburg’s lack of scoring was mostly down to poor luck and bad finishing from Mario Gomez, as they became more organized in possession after going down two to Dortmund. Knowing where to be at all times is one of the tricks of the trade that Ilkay Gundogan managed to pull off so well that he seemed to be everywhere on his best days. Dortmund ceded possession far too easily with some errant passes after taking the lead, and Guerreiro was partly culpable in that effort as well. His positioning and connections on the field in the first half, particularly in relation to Mario Gotze, left something to be desired at times.

On the other hand, Guerreiro’s skill and versatility immediately paid dividends again in the second half, after an injury to Christian Pulisic and some threatening Wolfsburg attacks on the left side compelled Tuchel to switch Guerreiro to the left wing and insert Castro into the middle. Guerreiro immediately helped shore up the defense along the wing, and also split Wolfsburg’s defense open with a pass to Castro in the 58th minute, who eventually squared the ball to Dembele for a simple finish and restoration of the two goal lead. For all of Gundogan’s amazing qualities, he could never be used for an extended period of time as a winger. Guerreiro has the ability to go wherever he is most needed in the midfield.

Ultimately, this is a three-game stretch, and a lot can change in a very short period of time in soccer. Raphael Guerreiro might take a developmental nose-dive in the coming months, and Dortmund will have to find a different answer in the midfield. But there is such a stark contrast between the Dortmund of the first two games of the Bundesliga season and the one that played in the last three, and Guerreiro’s energy and skill in the middle of the park has been central to it. And if this season is Guerreiro’s introduction as heir apparent to Ilkay Gundogan in Dortmund’s midfield, the last week has been one hell of way to start a reign.