I know this isn’t exactly a controversial opinion. Shinji is in great form, he’s a beloved player, and virtually the entire fan base is clamoring for his extension. To avoid sounding repetitive, this article will be an attempt to use Shinji’s play over the past two seasons, as well as what this squad will look like in the future, to explain exactly why Shinji should stay.
Let’s go back in time. When Borussia Dortmund won the first 10 or so matches last season, Shinji was a huge reason for the club’s success. With a healthy squad around him, and playing in his natural position as a proper #10, with Julian Weigl and Ilkay Gündogan playing behind him in a double pivot. It was a vintage Klopp-era 4-2-3-1. As a result, Shinji’s production was through the roof. He finished the year with 13 goals and 13 assists in all competitions. Here’s the formation that brought the best from Shinji:
That doesn’t tell the whole story, however. There was a long stretch of the season where he fell out of Tuchel’s favor, and was almost entirely left out of the Europa League. Why was this? Sure, there were points where his production and his form dipped, but there were other reasons as well. Whenever Ilkay Gündogan was injured (which was pretty often), the formation that Shinji had flourished in was gone. Whether playing in front of a Weigl-Sahin midfield (ugh) or playing out of his position as a Central Midfielder in a 4-3-3 with Gonzalo Castro, Shinji was not utilized to his full potential.
This trend continued into this season.
With Mario Götze and Sebastian Rode coming to Borussia Dortmund, there were immediate questions about Shinji’s place in Borussia Dortmund’s midfield. There were two problems. First, neither of those players were successful. Second, neither of those players could replace Ilkay Gündogan. Neither player had the coveted ability to act in the crucial role of a box-to-box midfielder, crucial for a possession-style system like Thomas Tuchel’s. As a result, the midfield has sputtered all season long. The prevailing system has been a 4-1-4-1, with Shinji primarily playing in a Central Midfield role.
I know that the lineup has changed quite a lot due to injuries, with Guerreiro occasionally appearing in midfield, and the occasional back 3/5 hybrid, but the 4-1-4-1 more or less what we’ve seen. Playing in this formation, Shinji has struggled. In the traditional center midfield role, Shinji has a goal and an assist in 5 starts, with no goals and no assists coming off the bench 8 times. (Source: whoscored)
When he has played as an attacking midfielder, being given more space off the ball and less defensive responsibility, Shinji has been productive. In five starts in this position, he has two goals and three assists, echoing his production from early last season. In recent weeks, he has been on fire, demonstrating his technical ability and attacking skill in a brilliant performance against Hamburg, as well as some impressive performances with the Japanese national team.
To recap, this season has been an up and down season for Shinji. He’s been forced to defend more and become more involved in the buildup of play. His production has dipped, all while a Gündogan replacement failed to ever appear.
With the signing of Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder Mahmoud Dahoud, Dortmund have finally found the replacement for Ilkay Gündogan. I believe that if Dahoud has the impact that we hope he does, we could see a great year from Shinji next year. He has shown in the past weeks that he still possesses vast amounts of dribbling, passing, and offensive awareness, which could come to fruition in a 4-2-3-1 in front of a Weigl-Dahoud midfield.
I understand that there are other formations that we can play as well. With the addition of Toprak, Tuchel may want to employ a 3-5-2 or some other system involving three center backs. We obviously won’t see a 4-2-3-1 every match, but it does open up another option for Tuchel, and provides a formation where Shinji could be of great use.