One of the keys to success in the sporting world is to find the right blend of youthful energy and veteran experience. This season, Borussia Dortmund have benefitted from a salvo of fast, talented youngsters like Jadon Sancho and Achraf Hakimi, and have been anchored by veterans like Marco Reus, Axel Witsel, and of course, Lukasz Piszczek.
While we expected Reus and Witsel to do “big things” in Dortmund, many, including myself, began the season thinking that Lukasz Piszczek would be something of a liability. He turned 33 in June, and it already looked like his play was declining. He had a difficult World Cup with Poland, and with Achraf Hakimi joining BVB on loan, it looked like he might lose his starting spot at right back.
Instead, BVB fans have been treated to game-after-game of “Vintage Piszczek”, in which Lukasz has consistently played like he did back in the glory days of 2011-2012. As the lone veteran on BVB’s otherwise-green back line, Piszczek has provided leadership, calmness, and defensive stability that Dortmund desperately needed. He’s played a key role in many BVB victories, and is a big reason why BVB are in a position to win the title. In my Borussia Dortmund Victory Map, I wrote about Piszczek’s success this season, and how Dortmund’s success will depend on whether Piszczek can maintain his current level. I’ve decided to break down the reasons for his success.
It’s difficult to find metrics that objectively demonstrate how well a player defends. Using stats like “tackles” can be deceptive, as it could be argued that players with proper positioning shouldn’t be making any more tackles than necessary. There are some stats, though, that are pretty close to being objectively positive, namely interceptions and clearances. Piszczek has been excellent in both categories. He has a remarkable 2.2 interceptions per 90 minutes, which leads Borussia Dortmund and is 10th in the Bundesliga. He also has 3.3 clearances per 90 minutes, which is excellent as well.
Piszczek’s success has come despite a heavy workload. Many teams have tried to “take advantage” of his age by repeatedly attacking down Dortmund’s right-hand side, and trying to have their wingers beat Piszczek one-on-one. Piszczek has had to face down the likes of Thomas Lemar, Diego Costa, Thorgan Hazard, and Franck Ribéry, and with some exceptions, he’s been able to contain them.
I went back through my match ratings this season, and I found that I almost always gave Lukasz a rating around 7. This description, an excerpt from my match ratings against Atletico, perfectly encapsulates what we’ve seen from Lukasz week-in and week-out:
An old legend surrounded by youth, Piszczek continues to play the role of the wily veteran. He often found himself defending 1-on-1 against Diego Costa. While a younger, more aggressive full back might have fallen for Costa’s fake shots and cut backs, Piszczek was having none of it, and consistently stripped him off the ball. He was also excellent holding down Thomas Lemar and Antoine Griezmann.
Lukasz’s play has been emblematic of the wily veteran, who makes up for what he lacks in pace with perfect positioning and a brilliant understanding of the game. This kind of consistent stability is exactly what you want from a full back, and is part of what has made Piszczek so successful with BVB this season.
Often considered one of the first “Modern Fullbacks”, a class of players who contribute equally on offense and on defense, Lukasz plays an important role in moving the ball up the pitch for Lucien Favre. While Favre doesn’t have Piszczek venture forward like Achraf Hakimi, he frequently sits back and distributes the ball along the flank to Sancho or Christian Pulisic.
Once the ball is in the attacking half, Piszczek then moves forward to . provide additional options to BVB’s forwards. He can either run towards the edge of the box to receive a cut-back pass, or he can place himself near the touch line to receive the ball and provide excellent service into the box.
The following is a clip of Marco Reus’ goal against Bayern Munich. It’s a simple but brilliant play that isn’t flashy but demonstrates what Lukasz brings to Dortmund’s attack. Piszczek is floating along the touchline inconspicuously. He’s not pressing Bayern’s back line, so David Alaba isn’t worried about him, and Ribery is simply focused on keeping him from cutting inside towards the 18-yard line.
Piszczek receives the ball, takes a few steps, and whips in a cross that weaves around two defenders to Marco Reus, who smashes it past Neuer to bring BVB level with the Bavarians. Again, it’s not a terribly complicated play (Piszczek only takes two touches), but it still demonstrates a combination of excellent positioning and ball skills, and had huge implications for the game and Dortmund’s season.
Piszczek’s offensive play has put him on pace for one of his best seasons in years. He already has 1 goal and 4 assists, which easily puts him on pace to match his 2012/13 totals of 2 goals and 8 assists, and is just off the pace from his 2011/12 season totals of 4 goals and 7 assists, which was arguably one of the best years ever from a Dortmund full back.
Piszczek doesn’t just contribute goals and assists. Even if he isn’t directly setting up or finishing goals, Lukasz is constantly moving the ball forward or getting involved in passing combinations that end with the ball in the net. His xGChain/90 is 0.5, which means that on average, he’s involved with creating .5 expected goals every ninety minutes. That’s good for any player, and outstanding for a full back.
An example of this would be Marius Wolf’s match-winner against Eintracht Frankfurt. Fox soccer doesn’t allow embeds, so you’ll have to follow the LINK. The entire play begins with Piszczek jaunting forward into midfield and bouncing a pass off of Paco Alcacer, which sends Sancho off to the races down the wing. Just like the previous case, Piszczek’s contribution was nothing flashy, but it was exactly the kind of play you want to see from your full back.
Lukasz Piszczek might not be Dortmund’s best or most important player, but his success this season has been a pleasant surprise. His solid, consistent play on defense and offense has been vital to BVB’s title challenge, and his leadership has helped marshal BVB’s inexperienced back line. While he may be in the twilight years of his career with BVB, he’s at least making them memorable.