There is that adage about team sports that every coach loves to reference; offense gets the glory, defense wins the game. A popular variation of that is offense wins games, defense wins championships. In football especially, it is an approach that has stood the test of time. Italy established a period of footballing dominance on the back of brilliant defending, as have many clubs across Europe and the rest of the football world.
While a strong defense is so often at the heart of successful league seasons or tournament campaigns, another hallmark that the very best sides have had was a talisman deep midfielder. Again, referencing Italy, they had Andrea Pirlo, as did Juventus and both Milan clubs. Barcelona and Spain had, above all others, Sergio Busquets. Real Madrid have had Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, and Casemiro. Arsenal in their history had a few of their own, and the same can be said for Chelsea, and Manchester United. The list goes on.
A midfield fulcrum is just as crucial to the success of a team as a strong defense. I am in no way discrediting the power of goal scoring, but all you have to do is look back to Liverpool’s 2013-14 Premier League campaign as proof positive of how a side that leaks goals cannot score enough at the other end.
With their 2-0 win away from home against Mainz on Tuesday, Borussia Dortmund are looking for signs of revitalization under new headmaster Peter Stoger . The architect who brought European nights back to Köln for the first time in 25-years, the Austrian had a nightmare thus far this season, on the bridge for Köln’s horrific Hinrunde, collecting just three points by the time he was sacked earlier this month. Despite being dismissed by president Werner Spinner, the Vienna native now patrols the touchline at the Westfalenstadion in the wake of the end of Peter Bosz’s tenure.
Perhaps a bigger name was expected in the door, but the structure and stability that Stöger will provide is exactly what the club needs right now in footballing terms. In that light, it’s this stability, structure, and utilization of playing personnel to the best of their ability, which should once again bring the best out of Dortmund’s own midfield keystone; Julian Weigl.
No one expected the former TSV 1860 München captain to settle to life at the club as quickly as he did. A brilliant debut season in 2015-16 for Die Schwarzgelben was followed up with another one the following year, cementing Weigl’s role in the first-team as a crucial piece of the puzzle. Under Tuchel he was exquisite, but under Bosz, the full German international struggled. Dominant as a holding midfielder, Bosz utilized Weigl in the unfamiliar role of being more of a box-to-box player in a system reliant on a high-press and high tempo. Though those aspects were like that of Tuchel, it was Weigl’s specific role that robbed him of scenarios where he could do what he does best. Under Stöger, however, Weigl was back in familiar waters, and it showed.
Much in the mold of the Busquets, the boy from Bad Aibling, Bavaria, relies on his ability to read the game well. His control of the space around him is superb, and rather than rely on getting stuck in regularly (he averages 1.60 tackles/90min since he arrived at Dortmund), it’s his instincts of control and reading play that makes him so vital as the shield ahead of the defense.
Above his spatial awareness and intelligence, Weigl’s distribution and ability to control tempo from deeper areas of the pitch, as well as his range of passing, make him that much more crucial to operations on the pitch. At current, his 88% pass completion rating is pleasing to look at, but it is his intelligence in knowing what pass to make, and when to make it, that must be lauded. Seemingly always making the right pass at the right time, with the correct weight and trajectory that gives the recipient the highest percentage chance of collecting it with minimal difficulty, it’s this deep control of proceedings that make Dortmund tick offensively.
For all Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goals, Christian Pulisic’s direct style, and the forward creativity of the likes of Mario Götze and Shinji Kagawa, none would be possible without the calm and collected catalyst. His assist totals over the past few seasons are not indicative of a player who exhibits creative command-and-control, but Weigl isn’t the main assist getter, but rather that pass beyond the assist, the one that unlocks a defense, or puts a creative player into a pocket of space with time to provide for the goal scorers.
Julian Weigl vs 1. FSV Mainz 05:
96% pass accuracy
71 passes attempted
68 passes completed
Weigl completed more passes in one Bundesliga start under Stöger than in seven under Petr Bosz. pic.twitter.com/HlE69BnhL2
— ™ (@Tacticomotion_) December 12, 2017
Such is Weigl’s proficiency in his office, and his maturation year on year, that there are some sections of the Dortmund fanbase that want to see Weigl as one of the first names on the team sheet for Joachim Löw this summer in Russia. For now, it is about getting back to his best for his club. Much in the same way that flight operations are not possible without efficient ground crews, Dortmund’s efficiency, and indeed potency, are not possible without their own talismanic support system.