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Sky Sports: Axel Witsel to Leave Dortmund, Denis Zakaria Linked as his Replacement

Axel Witsel has been linked with a move away from Dortmund. Here are some thoughts on his declining numbers and his future with the squad.

RB Leipzig v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

As they say, father time is undefeated. The day will always come when a fan favorite must depart, and for one of Borussia Dortmund’s most notable players from the past five years, who has been a constant mainstay in the midfield, such a departure might be on the horizon.

According to Sky Sports, Axel Witsel is interested in a January transfer away from Borussia Dortmund. Sky reports that Juventus are pursuing Witsel, but I’m sure there are a number of clubs that could be interested in his services. According to the article, both parties are amenable to a transfer: Witsel to secure a role at another club, and BVB because Witsel doesn’t fit into their plans for the future. Ideally Marco Rose would only need to play Witsel sparingly, once Mahmoud Dahoud and Emre Can return from their injuries. Witsel has every right to want more playing time, so it makes sense that he would want to move to a team that would see him as an integral part of the squad.

The Sky Sports article mentions Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Denis Zakaria as a possible replacement. I could say plenty about Zakaria, but for now I’d like to stick to Axel Witsel (if the links continue then we’ll write about Zakaria). Nonetheless, Sky aren’t the only source that have reported his potential move out of Dortmund.

When Axel Witsel tore his Achilles tendon last season it seemed to many people, including myself, that it would end his career with Borussia Dortmund. An Achilles tendon injury is devastating to anybody, let alone a player in his early 30s. Despite the potential seriousness of his injury, Witsel managed to recover in six months, in time to feature for the Belgian national team during the Euros and start the season fully fit with BVB.

As you all know, Witsel’s good health at the start of the season turned out to be the exception and not the rule. Nearly every other midfielder in the squad who could possibly emulate his defensive role has been injured. Going into the season, Marco Rose probably would have wanted to rotate Witsel as much as possible to avoid aggravating his Achilles, prevent fatigue, and to shelter him from fast teams that he can’t compete with any longer. With the constant injuries to Emre Can and Mahmoud Dahoud, Marco Rose has instead been forced to ride Witsel into the ground. He has the fifth most minutes of any player in the squad in all competitions, and has run the fourth furthest distance of any BVB player.

Witsel’s injuries and constant usage are starting to take their toll on his caliber of play. He was never particularly quick, but his pace has really fallen off a cliff since he returned, and the lack of reinforcements in midfield have allowed opposing teams to isolate him more. His pass accuracy rate is high as always, but his progressive passes/90 have decreased dramatically, from an average of 3.74 over the past three seasons to 2.89 this season. This indicates that he’s frequently making safe passes along the back line instead of moving the ball forward, which used to be one of his strengths. His key passes, or passes that lead directly to shots, have also decreased. His progressive carries/90 have decreased from 4.93 over the past three seasons to 2.77 this season, an indication that he isn’t able to run with the ball as effectively as he used to either. I could rattle off more stats that indicate his decline, but I’m sure you get the point. Most people seem to agree that Witsel’s play has suffered in the new season, and if Sky Sports are to be believed, then BVB’s front office feels the same way.

To be fair to Witsel, none of this is his fault. He’s been very good for Dortmund for years, and the fact that he recovered at all from an Achilles tendon injury, especially at his advanced age, speaks to his work ethic and perseverance. He’s also been given a workload far above what would be expected due to BVB’s constant midfield injuries. All these factors have conspired against Witsel, and his play has suffered as a result.

While Witsel has done his best for Borussia Dortmund, it may be best for both parties if he moves on. The Bundesliga is one of the highest-pace league in the world. Maybe Witsel would thrive better for a team like Juventus in Italy, where he can keep up with the pace of the game more easily.