Borussia Dortmund’s 4-1 victory over RB Leipzig saw them bounce back from a sub-par showing in the German Cup. Lucien Favre’s new-look midfield played a huge role in the win, especially new signing Axel Witsel.With Borussia Dortmund so far lacking a specialist striker, coach Lucien Favre has put his faith in a number of alternatives to share the team’s goalscoring duties.
Marco Reus, Maximilian Philipp, Christian Pulisic and Mario Götze were the obvious candidates to chip in with the goals, but one unlikely candidate has emerged as Dortmund’s equal top goalscorer.
Enter Axel Witsel, the central midfielder signed from Tianjin Quanjian for €20 million this summer. While he was brought in to add steel and experience to the BVB’s midfield, he’s filled a gaping hole in the team’s offence, too.
And together with Mahmoud Dahoud and fellow new arrival Thomas Delaney, Witsel forms one third of a midfield trio that could become the focal point of Favre’s Dortmund tenure.
Unexpected goal threat
Against Greuther Fürth in the German Cup, Witsel scored the all-important last-minute equalizer that pulled Dortmund back from the brink of an embarrassing defeat.
The goal showed the skill, poise and ice-cold instinct of a striker rather than that of a disciplined midfielder, as Witsel calmly cushioned Reus’ ‘Hail Mary’ cross into the back of the net.
And again, on Sunday against RB Leipzig, Witsel popped up in the six-yard box to give Dortmund a 4-1 lead heading into the half-time break.
This time, the Belgian international swiveled his body and smashed home an acrobatic bicycle kick after Delaney had seen his header wonderfully saved by Peter Gulacsi.
Two goals in two games, not bad for a man signed for his calming presence at the base of midfield.
“We did not actually bring him in to score goals,” sporting director Michael Zorc admitted earlier this week.
That may be true, but those who have followed Witsel’s career will know that he does have an eye for goal. At his first club, Standard Liege, he scored an impressive 45 in 194 appearances, albeit from a more attacking role.
But while goals are invaluable in football, the most impressive aspect of Witsel’s performances against Fürth and Leipzig has been his fine blend of energy and composure.
He appears, at this early stage, to be the archetypal box-to-box midfielder. A player who combines the defensive sensibilities and engine room of Julian Weigl and the expert vision and creative touch of Shinji Kagawa.
It was difficult to know where on the pitch to look for him against Leipzig, such was Witsel’s uncanny ability to be everywhere at once.
At one stage he was dropping between the two center-backs, kick-starting Dortmund’s attacks from deep. The next minute he was ghosting in at the back post, waiting for a black and yellow shirt to seek out his unmarked presence.
“He plays simply and calmly,” Favre said after the Fürth match. “He knows when to hold onto possession and that’s important for the team.”
New-look midfield shines
Witsel’s arrival at Dortmund gives Favre the perfect tools to create a dangerous midfield trio alongside Dahoud and Delaney. One that could threaten to match the heights of Jürgen Klopp’s famed midfield, which featured the likes of İlkay Gündoğan, Sven Bender, Shinji Kagawa and Mario Götze.
Dahoud, who dazzled under Favre during his time at Borussia Mönchengladbach, showed flashes of his talent against Leipzig after a poor opening 15 minutes, which followed a sub-par showing against Fürth.
He marked his solid performance with his first goal for the BVB and his first since April 2017 – a wonderfully acrobatic header from Marcel Schmelzer’s cross – which pulled Dortmund back into the match.
Delaney is undoubtedly the workhorse in the trio, breaking up play and screening the back-line, while also providing bursting runs from deep timed to perfection. He was equally impressive in the Leipzig victory.
But if Witsel continues his balanced mix of defensive steel and attacking penetration, he’ll stand out alone as the key to making Dortmund’s midfield click and to coaxing the best out of his teammates.
He promises to be a leader in this relatively inexperienced Dortmund side, a priceless commodity when it comes to building a team capable of challenging for silverware.
And while Dortmund’s concerns, both in regards to their striking stocks and their still fragile defence, cannot be ignored due to one promising performance, fans have a right to be excited that Favre has the means to create a new dynasty over the next few seasons.