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BVB Midseason Review: The Defense

How did BVB’s back line fare during the first half of the seas

Borussia Dortmund v 1. FSV Mainz 05 - Bundesliga Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

The first half of the season has come and gone. After dropping out of the Bundesliga title race and the Champion League, Borussia Dortmund have been left to lick their wounds and prepare to make the rest of the season a success. Meanwhile, the Bundesliga’s long Winterpause offers fans an opportunity to assess how the season has gone so far and determine what BVB’s strengths have been, and where they need to improve.

While Borussia Dortmund’s star-studded offense has lived up to pre-season expectations, the defense, unfortunately, has not. BVB boast the second best goalscoring record in the Bundesliga, but their defensive record is only eighth best. Furthermore, despite being placed in a relatively easy group in the Champions League, BVB’s defensive record was seventh worst of all 32 teams in the competition, and played a key role in sinking their chances of making it to the knockout stage.

Much like the rest of the squad, BVB’s defense has been plagued by constant injuries. As a result, several midfielders like Axel Witsel and Emre Can have had to fill in for spot assignments on the back line. I’ve chosen to leave them out of this article, as they are technically midfielders. I’ve also left out Felix Passlack and Dan-Axel Zagadou, who only played a handful of minutes.

With that out of the way, here are my reviews for each BVB defender for the first half of the season:

Manuel Akanji

Grade: A

It took a few years, but Manuel Akanji has finally become the stalwart defender that BVB hoped he would be when they first signed him. While Mats Hummels’ play has begun to decline, Akanji has taken over as the leader of the back line.

He’s cool in possession, can pick out a long ball or a short pass with ease, and has begun asserting his physicality much more than in previous years. It’s no coincidence that some of BVB’s worst results of the season came in the final weeks of the Hinrunde, when Akanji was in rehab for his knee surgery.

In short: Michael Zorc, please extend the man.

Thomas Meunier

Grade: B+

When Borussia Dortmund made the choice not to sign a right back to replace Meunier this season, I was very concerned. Meunier was downright bad last season, and after Mateu Morey’s knee injury put him out for the season, there was nobody to even challenge him for his spot in the Starting XI.

To my surprise, Meunier has rebounded in a massive way. He has emerged from his slump as a high-end offensive full back. His crossing, in particular, has become a very useful tool. According to Adam Darowski’s hockey-style scoring tracker, Meunier is third on the team in primary and secondary assists, mostly because of his pinpoint crossing. He’s very good at making darting runs down the right side of the penalty area and whipping in quick crosses. Very often, even if a BVB player doesn’t reach the cross first, the ball’s mere presence in the box causes rebounds and chaotic bounces that eventually lead to goals.

Of all BVB players, Thomas Meunier is arguably this season’s most improved. Good job, Tom!

Mats Hummels

Grade: B-

Hummels has been BVB’s top defender for years, but it’s beginning to look like that era has come to an end. As Hummels’ play has slowly dropped in quality, Manuel Akanji has taken over as the de facto leader of the backline. This isn’t to say that Hummels has been bad, but he isn’t the world class defender he once was.

The glaring red mark on Hummels’ season was his disastrous performance against Bayern Munich. He had two crucial errors that gave Bayern the two goals they needed to win, and allowed them to pull away in the title race.

Hummels has never been a quick player, but it now seems like he’s lost whatever pace he once had. He has to rely on his positioning now more than ever. This is usually fine, but in the rare instances where he does get caught out, the consequences are disastrous.

On a positive note, his passing is as incisive as ever, he still has the ability to create a scoring chance out of nowhere with a well-placed long ball, and he’s still a threat to score on set pieces. If BVB can just find another reliable center back to add to their depth, then the club would be set at the back.

Raphael Guerreiro

Grade: B

The tricky part of grading Guerreiro is that he has played very well this season... when he’s actually been on the pitch. Unfortunately, Guerreiro has all-too-often been sidelined with injuries during the first half of the season. He has only played 832 minutes across all competitions this season, fewer than Nico Schulz, and less than half those of his fellow starting full back Thomas Meunier.

When on the pitch, Guerreiro has been a rock star. He’s averaged 0.43 G+A/90 in all comps, which would be good for a winger, let alone a full back playing in a back four. If you include BVB players who have played at least 500 minutes across all competitions, he leads the team in progressive passes/90, key passes (passes that lead to shots)/90, and passes into the final third/90. As far as moving the ball and doing beneficial things with it, he’s as strong as ever.

On the other hand, his defensive contributions do still need work. He has a tendency to ball watch and get caught out of position. He’s not very physically imposing, so he’s never going to be the type to win bundles of tackles, but he should still be able to use his positioning to make interceptions, block shots, and do the typical hard work that is expected of him defensively.

Finally, he needs to stay healthy. I know injuries are unpredictable and can happen to anyone, but it’s a simple matter of fact that BVB are a much better team with Guerreiro, and whichever full back is used in his place is a massive downgrade.

Marius Wolf

Grade: C+

If I were to grade Marius Wolf relative to his expectations, I would give him an A+. I didn’t think that Wolf was going to factor into the season at all, but he has somehow managed to carve himself a role in the squad as the ultimate utility man. He can make a spot appearance at almost any position and just about do a manageable job. Whether it’s a left back, right back, left wing, right wing, or in central midfield, Wolf is capable of putting in a decent shift. As a result he’s played over 700 minutes across all competitions.

GERMANY-DORTMUND-FOOTBALL-UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE-GROUP C-DORTMUND VS BESIKTAS Photo by Joachim Bywaletz/Xinhua via Getty Images

While Wolf hasn’t found the scoresheet with either a goal or an assist, he does have an impact on the pitch. He’s actually third on the team in shots-on-target/90, although they tend to be of low quality compared to his teammates. On top of this, some of his defensive numbers like interceptions/90 and blocked shots/90 are respectable. I would never expect him to score a ton of goals, but as long as he’s able to eat minutes while not playing like a traffic cone, I’m happy.

Marin Pongracic

Grade: C

Pongracic, or “Pongo” as we affectionately call him, was signed on loan from Wolfsburg more or less as an emergency stopgap. I never thought that he was going to play a significant role in the squad. When he first joined, however, he turned in a few solid showings that had me thinking that maybe BVB had found a diamond in the rough. In his first appearance in Black and Yellow, he played 83 minutes in what would become a blockbuster 4-3 win against Leverkusen. He followed that up with a few decent appearances off the bench.

Unfortunately, as the season went on, he struggled to establish a role in the squad, and the quality of his play when he was on the pitch began to decline. Most recently, he was a member of the disastrous three-man back line against Hertha Berlin that surrendered three goals in a defeat to close out the Hinrunde. It’s been reported that Pongracic will return to Wolfsburg once his loan completes. With the quality of play he’s demonstrated, and with Soumaila Coulibaly getting ready to join the senior squad, it’s not hard to see why.

Nico Schulz

Grade: D

Like Marius Wolf, I didn’t expect Schulz to play much of a role in the squad this season. Also like Wolf, injuries to players above him on the squad sheet pressed him into service in a more significant role. Unfortunately, unlike Wolf, Schulz has not played at even a replacement level in his time on the pitch.

Schulz’s performance against Ajax, in a match filled with bad BVB performances, somehow managed to stand out as being noticeably bad. He was so bad against Sporting Lisbon that he was subbed off for Zagadou after this:

He may have had a few decent performances, but ultimately they are too few and far between to outweigh all of his negatives. BVB will desperately need a full back to add to the depth chart so that Schulz doesn’t get exposed as often as he has.