After coming agonizingly close to capturing the Bundesliga last season, Borussia Dortmund enter the transfer window with the objective of securing enough talent to challenge Bayern Munich once again. To do so, the club must completely reforge its midfield after losing both Jude Bellingham, who ended the Bundesliga as player of the season, and Mahmoud Dahoud. With dozens of midfielders from across the continent linked to Borussia Dortmund, this article seeks to establish a guide on the most prominent contenders. In order to understand what Dortmund needs in midfield, however, we must look at who the club is losing. All statistical information is courtesy of FBRef and can be found here.
The Players Leaving
Club: Real Madrid
Transfer Fee: $145,000,000.00 (Inclusive of addons)
Jude Bellingham’s time at Borussia Dortmund saw him transform from a wonderkid into a genuine world-class player. Despite being only nineteen, Jude is easily a top ten midfielder in the world and the reigning Bundesliga POTY. He dominates other midfielders in the vast majority of statistics but his true talent lies in his ability to progress the ball. Bellingham had 3.06 progressive carries, 8.18 progressive passes every game, 2.63 successful take-ons, and 2.44 fouls drawn per 90 minutes. On the other side of the ball, Bellingham averaged 2.54 tackles with a 66.7% completion rate and 1.17 interceptions a game. For Borussia Dortmund, Bellingham did everything you want from a midfielder and encompassed what it means to be a perfect box-to-box midfielder. He added defensive solidarity next to Emre Can and was responsible for facilitating play into the opponent’s final third, doing so with a whopping 4.13 shot creating actions - a number that even an attacking midfielder would be proud of.
Additionally, Bellingham was the definition of consistent for Borussia Dortmund. Even with his injuries in the second half of last season, he played more minutes in the league than any other Dortmund player. He also did the same the season before that. In fact, throughout the duration of his three years at Borussia Dortmund, Jude Bellingham played more Bundesliga minutes than any other Dortmund player at 8,294 minutes. That’s a staggering 90.3% of possible minutes. The next closest was Raphael Guerreiro at 6,303 minutes.
At this point, it should be easy to see why Real Madrid spent a whopping $145,000,000 on Bellingham and, more importantly, the task at hand to replace the 19-year-old; Dortmund would need an all-action midfielder who can progress the ball, defend adequately, win duels, and create opportunities consistently at a high level.
Club: Brighton and Hove Albion
Transfer Fee: Free Agent
This season, Mahmoud Dahoud only played 337 minutes in the league for Borussia Dortmund after a shoulder injury left him sidelined for the first half of the season. It’s impossible to use Dahoud’s stats from this season due to his limited gametime but, using his stats from the 2021/22 season shows us the type of player Mahmoud Dahoud is: a progression expert.
In that season, Dahoud received only 2.5 progressive passes a game but completed 6.3 progressive passes, .81 through balls, 4.72 passes into the final third, and 1.3 passes into the penalty area per 90. This means Mahmoud Dahoud was often responsible for picking up lateral passes in the first third of the field and progressing the ball, usually via passing, into the final third or penalty box. When fit, Dahoud was one of the best midfielders in the league at advancing play, but unfortunately for him, he was unable to keep his fitness at Borussia Dortmund and now leaves for England.
While Dortmund don’t need to ‘replace’ Mahmoud Dahoud, they already did through a combination of Emre Can, Julian Brandt dropping to midfield, and Bellingham’s continued excellence, they need to find depth pieces that can challenge for the existing number 8 role like Dahoud did.
The Likely Arrivals
Club: Ajax Amsterdam
Estimated Cost: $35,000,000.00
The biggest incoming transfer saga for Borussia Dortmund this season has been Edson Alvarez, the Mexican defensive midfielder from Ajax. Unlike Jude Bellingham or Mahmoud Dahoud, Alvarez is a more defensive player who is accustomed to playing with two more advanced midfielders. Rather than being a replacement for either of the outgoing midfielders, Alvarez will likely be competing with Emre Can and his profile shows that. He led Ajax in tackles (2,47), tackles won (4), blocks (36), and clearances (76) while also dominating other defensive metrics with 14.6 inceptions per 90 and a dribbler tackling rate of 61.1%. In possession, Alvarez would drop back and pick up the ball from Ajax’s center backs and begin the team’s offensive plays with him leading the team’s outfield core in touches in the first two thirds of the field per 90. He often acted as a shuttle between the team’s defensive line and creative players further up the field with 2.54 progressive carries per game and 7.78 progressive passes a game.
So, what kind of player would Dortmund be getting? Alvarez will essentially be a direct competitor for Emre Can in that number six role and allow for additional rotation across the backline as both Can and Alvarez have experience playing center back as well. He will also open the door to a potential sale of Emre Can if the club wishes to pursue that. A direct comparison between the two’s passing, defensive actions, and possession actions can be seen below.
More importantly (Not really), however, is that Dortmund found their successor to Mahmoud Dahoud’s tendency to hit anywhere but the goal with his shooting ability. Last season, Alvarez shot 63 times, had only 18 on target and 3 goals. For comparison, across all six seasons at Dortmund, Mahmoud Dahoud has had 93 shots, 22 on target, and 4 goals. All the fans sitting behind the goal in Row Z have found their new villain.
UPDATE - As of three hours after this article was posted, the rumored Edson Alvarez deal to Dortmund is now off. Additionally, news of an Emre Can extension look positive.
Estimated Cost: $22,000,000.00
While most of the conversation regarding Nmecha is about his off-field problems which can be found here, here is a look at his playing ability.
As a player, Nmecha has a very different profile to both Jude Bellingham and Mahmoud Dahoud. As the right sided midfielder in Wolfsburg’s trio, Nmecha’s passing numbers were rather low; only 34.61 passes attempted with 75.6% completion, and 4.22 progressive passes per 90. His carries are also much lower than both of Dortmund’s departing players with 1.13 progressive caries and 1.08 carries into the final third. Although being on a less dominant team may explain some of these stats, they are still indicative that Nmecha wasn’t responsible for picking up the ball in the first third and progressing it up the field.
Instead, Nmecha prefers duels against opponents to win and advance the ball. He attempted 2.25 take-ons per 90 with a 56.5% success rate and was only tackled 28.3% of the time. Additionally, he was only disposed 0.64 times per 90 and drew 1.86 fouls per game. Even then, these stats are still fairly comparable to Mahmoud Dahoud’s statistics from the 2021/23 season and much lower than Jude Bellingham’s stats from the season just passed. Here are his take-ons side to side with Bellingham’s.
As you can see, they have similar success rates and tackled rates but a massive different in the amount of tackles attempted. This is partially a product quality differences between Dortmund and Wolfsburg giving the respective players more opportunities to dribble at opponents. It could also be indicative, however, that Bellingham is more willing to take on players in challenging positions, such as in the offensive third against centerbacks or defensive midfielders rather than the middle of the field against other midfielders, while maintaining a high success rate. That idea is supported by the two players creative statistics:
The highlighted portions show the number of shots or goals created by the two players across the season. 16 of Bellingham’s take-ons led to a shot and 3 of them led to a goal. Nmecha, on the other hand, created only 3 opportunities and 0 goals following his take-ons.
On the other side of the ball, Nmecha is much worse in duels. He attempts a similar number of tackles to Bellimgham, 1.67 for Nmecha and 1.71 for Bellingham but has a much worse success rate at 47.1% to 66.7%. The only area where Nmecha is a clear upgrade over either player is in aerial duels 59.5% compared to Bellingham’s 50.7% and Dahoud’s 42.3%.
The upside of Nmecha is that he’s only 22 and the numbers in his early career are from playing in a lackluster Wolfsburg side that finished 9th. His profile suggests he’s a tricky midfielder that likes to take players on, on either side of the ball, but can’t offer much in the way of passing. What remains to be seen, however, is how the team make up the progressive numbers and play into Nmecha’s strengths.
Enzo Le Fee
Team: FC Lorient.
Estimated Price: $30,000,000.00
I won’t put to much time into Enzo Le Fee because it sounds like Dortmund missed their chance to sign him, as Stade Rennais seem to be closing in on him. After looking at Le Fee’s profile, it definitely looks like Dortmund missed out on a fantastic replacement in their midfield reshuffling as he put up huge numbers in a midtable Lorient side. In possession, he averaged 2.85 progressive carries, 6.48 progressive passes, 5.05 passes into the final third, 1.1 passes into the penalty box and 1.99 key passes per 90. This means not only is Le Fee putting up incredible passing numbers, he’s also playing his passes into dangerous positions. With 5 goals, 6 assists, and 3,57 shot creating actions, Le Fee served as Lorient’s most creative player with more than 15 games.
With the ball at his feet, Le Fee completed 4.61 take-ons per game with a 43.9% success rate which indicates that he likes to dribble although isn’t entirely prolific at it. In all honesty, his profile seems like the complete opposite of Felix Nmecha’s and it is interesting that Dortmund had both as transfer targets.
Team: Olympique Lyonnais
Estimated Price: $30,000,000.00
Some rumors have been swirling around about Maxance Caqueret, another French Ligue 1 player. At Lyon, Caqueret played as a box-to-box midifielder alongside former Bayern player, Corentin Tolisso, and another midfielder who either played as a more defensive or attacking option depending on Lyon’s opponent. Caqueret often picked up the ball in the middle of the field and was forward thinking with his passes; 6.38 passes into the final third, 0.94 passes into the penalty area, and 5.95 progressive passes per 90. Of the players linked to Dortmund, Caqueret is likely the most creative of the bunch with 7 assists across the season and 0.49 goal creating actions per 90, which translates to a goal or assists every other game.
He does, however, struggle with the ball at his feet and when in duels. He only averaged 1.5 progressive carries per game and was disposed 1.56 times per game. He’s low number of fouls drawn, 1.01 per game, and high tackled during take-on percentage, 43.7%, suggest that he’s not at his best when forced to take on opponents. Instead, Caqueret playstyle is indicative of a passer who connects the his team’s attacking contingent.
Off the ball, his defensive numbers are strong – except when he is being dribbled at. He is dribbled past an average of 2.15 times per game, a number that puts him in the bottom 7th percentile of Ligue 1 midfielders.
All in all, I’d be excited to see Caqueret in black and yellow next season, but it seems like a long shot. Additionally, the change from an all action midfielder who is dominant when dribbling and physically, like Bellingham was, to a player like Caqueret could be jarring. His transfer would likely cost somewhere between 25 and 40 million euros.
Team: Chelsea FC
Estimated Price: $50,000,000.00
Of the players on this list, Gallagher plays in the hardest league and spent his time last season playing for a woeful Chelsea that finished with a -9 goal difference. Additionally, his career has seen him play a more offensive position than the other players on this list with most of his minutes coming in as an attacking midfielder or even on the wings. This is reflected with his stats last season as 37.11% of his touches came in the attacking third. For comparison, Bellingham had only 28.9% of his touches in the attacking third.
Gallagher’s averaged 5.83 progressive passes, 3.72 passes into the final third, and 1.11 passes into the penalty area per game which is above average for both midfielders and attacking midfielders. His shot and goal creating actions, however, are far from fantastic with 2.51 shot creating actions and 0.17 goal creating actions per game. This puts him above only Jorginho, Denis Zakaria, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek and behind Mateo Kovacic, Mason Mount, N’Golo Kante, Hakim Ziyech, and Enzo Hernandez in shot creating actions for Chelsea midfielders.
With the ball at his feet, he likes to take players on with 3 take-ons attempted per game but had only a 42.6% success rate and 42.6% dispossession rate. Additionally, he lost the ball 2 times per match, putting him in the bottom 3rd percentile for all Premier League midfielders. The fact that he players further up the field and was taking on compact defenders rather than players in the middle of the field will also contribute to that, however.
Despite being an attacking midfielder by trade, he still put up decent defensive numbers with 1.83 tackles won, 2.28 blocks, and 1.28 interceptions. He does struggle when players attempt to dribble past him, coming out with the ball only 27% of the time, a number that puts him in the bottom 5th percentile of all Premier League midfielders
All in all, Gallagher’s transfer would commend a sizable transfer fee around 50 million euros and it is hard to see Dortmund paying that for a player who plays a similar role to Julian Brandt, Giovanni Reyna, and Marco Reus.
Estimated Value: $15,000,000.00
Lecce’s Morten Hjulmand is a completely different player than anyone else on this list; he’s a defensive juggernaut with poor possession statistics. Last season for a poor Lecce side, Hjulmund was immense for them in defensive midfield. He led the league in interceptions (72), was fourth in tackles won (52), and won 58.6% of his aerial duels.
Outside of defense, well, he’s more redundant than Thomas Delaney. While he does have 4.83 progressive passes and 4.62 passes into the final third every game, that’s about it for his promising attacking statistics. He attempts only 40.26 passes per game with a completion rate of 78.5%, rather lower considering he . He averages 0.27 progressive carries a game and receives 0.49 progressive passes a game. This means he dribbles 10 yards forward in the opponent’s half once every four games.
What we can understand about Hjulmand’s game is that he spends the vast majority of his time in his own half passing the ball to more creative midfielders or attacking players. Still, he can offer a lot to any team considering his defensive ability and the fact that Lecce made him captain despite his age and time at the club, likely indicative of his character. Still, I don’t see why Dortmund would be in the market for Hjulmand, especially with Emre Can and the potential signing of Edson Alvarez.
Understanding Dortmund’s Future Midfield
What should be immediately obvious is that Borussia Dortmund’s midfield is going to undergo a complete transformation. Finding a like-for-like replacement for Jude Bellingham at Dortmund’s price point is impossible. Instead, Dortmund will have to replace Bellingham in the aggregate, and it looks like they are aiming to do that with Alvarez, who has better progression numbers than Emre Can while retaining a similar defensive profile. The biggest question mark is around the new addition to the midfield trio. Nmecha offers a player who can take players on, at least on the offensive side of the ball, but it remains to be seen if he can improve in quality to match Bellingham’s ability while other players make up for his limited passing ability. If Dortmund chooses to opt for a more prolific passer, such as Le Fee or Caqueret, it would be a replacement more akin to Raphael Guerreiro who lined up alongside Julian Brandt and Emre Can when Bellingham was injured for the final games of last season. Hjulmand would offer a completely different option to any of the other players listed and add much more defensive stability but push the job of ball progression almost completely onto Julian Brandt and the wide players. Regardless of what happens, there is only one certainty; Borussia Dortmund’s midfield will look completely different.
Let me know which players on the list you would like to see at Borussia Dortmund. Or, if you have other ideas, someone not on the list that you’d like to see!