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BVB Midseason Review: The Midfield

Offense wins games, and defense wins championships, but the midfield wins our hearts.

Borussia Dortmund v VfB Stuttgart - Bundesliga Photo by Focke Strangmann - Pool/Getty Images

The midfield has been constantly burdened by injuries— not necessarily to the midfielders themselves, but because the countless injuries to defenders have caused both Emre Can and Axel Witsel to spend half their minutes shoehorned into the back line instead of in their preferred positions.

If the players have been in a constant rotation, so have the formations. Marco Rose’s preferred formation was a 4-1-2-1-2 with a traditional “midfield diamond”: a pair of box-to-box midfielders with a traditional #6 as the lone defensive midfielder. At times, Rose would abandon this setup in favor of a 4-2-3-1 or a 5-3-2, depending mostly on which players were available.

The midfield saw some incredible heights and some incredible lows during the season. Against Bayern Munich, Marco Rose’s diamond was at its best. It took less than five minutes for it to open Bayern’s defense. Just look at how BVB successfully overload Bayern’s right wing and force them to collapse, before Jude Bellingham switches the play to a wide open Julian Brandt darting in from the opposite side of the formation:

Even though BVB lost the match, the result could hardly be blamed on the midfield. Unfortunately, with such highs came the lows. Against Ajax in Amsterdam, BVB could barely string three passes together. In a system where the full backs attack so often, the midfielders would often be forced to move out of position to cover for them, which too often would have dire consequences... but I’ll return to that point in a moment.

Let’s break down each player’s performances.

Note: I’m choosing to include Julian Brandt and Marco Reus in the forwards’ review, because even though both appeared in midfield at various points, they are mostly forwards.

Axel Witsel

Grade: C-

This one hurts. I really like Axel Witsel. Everyone’s favorite afro-sporting midfielder has been an anchor in BVB’s midfield for years, but unfortunately that time has come to an end. Between his age of 32 (33 next week) and his achilles injury last season, Witsel has lost just about any pace he once had. I could wax poetic about how time waits for no one or do something really pretentious like compare Witsel to the statue from Ozymandias, but I think you get the idea.

The bottom line is that Axel Witsel can’t perform in Marco Rose’s system. The #6 position already requires a ton of stamina and the ability to cover a lot of ground quickly. In Rose’s preferred midfield diamond, where the full backs have to play high to provide width, the #6 has to be able to drop into the back line at a moment’s notice or drift out wide to cover for a full back. He seems to be caught out of position very often, and doesn’t have the ability to make up ground anymore. When shoehorned into the backline, like he was against Hertha Berlin, the results have been outright disastrous. I feel bad for him, because he still clearly gives 100% effort, but all too often the quality just isn’t there.

I get the feeling that BVB’s coaching staff has used Witsel much more than they would like to. He clearly sits behind Dahoud, Bellingham, and maybe even Emre Can in the depth chart. Unfortunately, a constant barrage of injuries has meant that often Witsel has been the only healthy midfielder capable of playing at CDM. This means that he has played more minutes than expected; almost 1,700 minutes in all competitions. In a sense, Witsel has been a victim of his own good health.

The front office has made it clear that they will let Axel Witsel go in the summer, and that they are actively looking at a potential replacement in Denis Zakaria. I think this is best for both parties.

Emre Can

Grade: D+

If there’s one player who makes me want to bash my skull against a rock, it’s Emre Can. Coincidentally, he often plays like he’s the one bashing his skull against a rock.

Okay, that was mean. But beneath my ridiculous hyperbole is the reality that Emre Can, despite not playing a ton of minutes in the first half of the season, has committed a seemingly endless cavalcade of colossal errors, some of which have come in BVB’s biggest matches. For instance, in BVB’s biggest defeat of the first half of the season, against Ajax, Emre Can came onto the pitch to replace Nico Schulz just to stop the bleeding, and ended up getting absolutely posterized by Anthony.

On Ajax’s fourth goal, he again dropped the ball, this time standing virtually idle while Sebastian Haller climbed into the air to head the ball into the net off a cross. Against Sporting, Can momentarily lost his cool at Pedro Porro after the Spanish winger committed a late foul, which earned him a red card. Even if the call was soft, it was still unnecessary for Can to blow his lid like he did. Those are just a few of his biggest errors: he is also prone to the occasional careless turnover on a basic short pass.

To be fair, Can hasn’t been all bad. Unlike Witsel, he does cover a lot of ground. Despite some high profile instances against Sporting, Ajax, and Hertha where he backed away from challenges, he is still one of the most likely players to dive head- or studs-first into a challenge. If he could just control himself a bit better and limit the turnovers, he could still be an effective player for Dortmund.

Mahmoud Dahoud

Grade: A-

So I was writing my analysis of Dahoud, and while doing so I decided, mostly for the memes, to turn once again to Fear the Wall’s most ardent yet elusive Mahmoud Dahoud fan, who I have alluded to previously in numerous articles.

The latter half 2020/2021 season saw everyone’s favorite mustached midfielder thrust himself into Dortmund’s starting XI, as he became one of the team’s most important players in both the UCL and Bundesliga. However, much like Jaws: The Revenge, this season has so far been an underwhelming sequel to a story fans loved. Although FTW’s reigning Midfielder of the Season has shown glimpses of his best under Rose, injuries and a foolish red card have left him sidelined for a large chunk of the campaign.

It’s obvious he still has the talent he displayed under Terzic and the side has looked better when he is healthy. But if Dortmund wants to succeed in the second half of the season it will be important for Dahoud to become a consistent performer at the level we became accustomed to last season. Until that happens, much to the dismay of the Dahoud Fan Club, he’ll continue to play in Bellingham’s shadow.

Who is he? Nobody knows. I mean I do, but... shut up.

Jude Bellingham

Grade: A

I don’t have enough superlatives to describe Jude Bellingham. The kid is absolutely world class, and at the age of 18, he’s only going to get better. Much better. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s considered a top-five player in the world by the time he enters his prime.

Bellingham excels at virtually every aspect of the game. He’s arguably BVB’s best midfielder on the ball, and can seemingly carry the ball all the way from in front of the back line to the edge of the opponent’s penalty box. He can singlehandedly shield the ball from two or three midfielders at once before picking out a quick through ball. His endpoint goal contributions are good, with three goals and eight assists through 21 games in the Bundesliga and the Champions League.

Just look at this absurd goal he scored against Bielefeld.

That’s Messi-esque. The kid is unreal.

The discipline issues are... an issue. Obviously. His five yellow cards earned him a one-game suspension that made him miss the final match of the half against Hertha Berlin. His post-match antics following Der Klassiker demonstrated a lack of maturity, even if many BVB fans will agree with his message.

Sure, he might have some discipline issues, but I’m sure as he matures he’ll get over them. He’s a great player and I absolutely love that I get to root for him every week.

Your thoughts

What would you give each BVB player? Let me know your thoughts below.