For the fans of Borussia Dortmund, it’s the same story all over again. A player shines at Dortmund and subsequently moves to a more fashionable club. The player has a mixed time at the new club and he eventually returns to Dortmund. With the announcement of his transfer from Bayern Munich back to Dortmund for a reported fee of £33 million, Mats Hummels is back at his old club.
Hummels’ transfer has been met with mixed feelings among the supporters. The Dortmund supporters are used to having their best players cherry-picked. Players like Robert Lewandowski, Mario Götze, Shinji Kagawa, etc. have left in recent years. But none of those transfers hurt Dortmund more than that of Hummels. He was their captain, their poster boy of the uprising against the dominance of Bayern Munich.
What made his transfer to Bayern Munich in 2016 even worse was the fact that Hummels had repeatedly criticised players who joined Bayern. In an interview with Sport Bild, he even publicly criticized Götze for the move.“No [I cannot understand his decision], and that’s how I told him too. Everyone can see how good our team is,” said Hummels.”I don’t believe that there are or was any sporting reason to leave us. One could see how our team developed and Mario got along well with many here, which is why I was so angry about the fact that he was of the opinion of having to leave so early.”
Upon signing a contract extension in 2014, Hummels said: “I don’t have to have won eight championships by the end of my career. I’d rather do something special. I’d rather win one championship as a leading figure rather than as a part-time worker. It has to be the aim of more teams in Germany to break Bayern’s dominance.”
But for all his past misgivings in the eyes of the supporters, he comes back in a position that needed reinforcement. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at what he brings to the table and how that factors into the team’s needs.
Lucien Favre is expected to continue using the same formation and tactics next season which nearly propelled them the Bundesliga title. The side will continue in a 4-2-3-1 formation next season. The only changes expected are in the personnel. With the departure of Christian Pulisic, one of Julian Brandt or Thorgan Hazard is expected to line up on the left wing. The left-back spot will be filled by the new summer signing Nico Schulz. Meanwhile, Hummels will slot into his preferred position as the left-sided centre-back. The full-backs are expected to continue pushing high up the pitch, which means the centre-backs would have to be at the top of their game.
One of the most famous quotes by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson was :
“Attack wins you games and defense wins you titles.”
Having a good defence is the bedrock for any title-winning side. Lucien Favre’s young side played fast and offensive football. They scored 81 goals in the league, second only to Bayern’s 88. Dortmund created and scored chances at will and with additions of Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt that trend will continue. What proved to be the key difference between the two teams was their ability to keep the opposition from scoring. Bayern only conceded 32 goals in the league all season, less than a goal per game. Dortmund’s leaky defence shipped in 44 goals. They also conceded more shots per game against them than Bayern.
Part of the reason for their poor defence was the never-ending series of injuries. They were forced to use 16 different combinations of the backline in a span of 34 league games. Dortmund started with a central pairing of Abdou Diallo and Manuel Akanji as they blitzed their way through the first half of the season. Their exciting side scored 44 goals and only conceded 18 (same as Bayern) as they raced to a six-point lead by Christmas. They overperformed their xG against by 1.10 (that is, they were expected to concede 1.10 more goals than they did) while only losing one league match.
It all started to unravel in the second half of the season as the games started coming thick and fast and the injuries started to mount up. Dortmund had seven different centre-back pairings as they shipped in 26 league goals, underperforming their xG against by 2.23. The problems got so bad that Julian Weigl had to play games at centre-back: he ended up making 11 appearances there with four different partners.
Adding Hummels to the team doesn’t just bring depth to the position, it also brings in a formidable presence who can add grit and steel to the side. In a year where there were doubts over his ability after a disastrous World Cup campaign with Germany, he started slowly but had a strong finish to the second half of the season as he was voted as the best defender by the kicker magazine. On average, he had 1.2 tackles,1.6 interceptions, 2.3 clearances and 0.4 blocks per game.
According to German legend Lothar Matthäus, “I would not let Hummels go. Certainly not for the money that is supposedly being talked about. And certainly not after the strong second half that Hummels played. For me, he plays much better since he is no longer in the national team. If the Bayern let him go, they strengthen their direct competitors for the championship.”
At the age of 30, Hummels still has a few good years to give. Most defenders don’t even reach their prime until their 30s. With no added workload of the German national team, he could be available fresh during the Bundesliga games.
Maturity and calmness
In the span of a league season no team can sustain their form to win every game. On the days you’re not at your best, you need to have that intangible attribute of the ability to see off games. Turning the defeats in draws and turning those draws into wins, is the hallmark of a champion. Dortmund’s inability to see off the games is what cost them the Bundesliga title in the end.
In the past season, Dortmund led Bayern by nine-points until 2 February 2019 where they squandered a 1-0 lead to draw the game 1-1 against Eintracht Frankfurt. Still, they had a seven-point lead in hand. Bayern had never come back from a seven-point deficit to win the Bundesliga in their entire history. But the inability of the inexperienced backline of Dortmund to close out games was becoming a big issue. In their next cup game against Werder Bremen, the team capitulated, losing on penalties, twice giving up their lead in the extra time.
All seemed to be fine in their next league game against Hoffenheim until Borussia Dortmund devastatingly blew a 3-0 lead to end up with a 3-3 draw. No matter how many goals the attackers scored, the lead was never good enough. As soon as the opposition got a goal, panic set among the Dortmund backline. The centre-backs were unable to stem the flow of the game. This is where the ability of Hummels to bring the calm comes in. While these successive draws left the players short of confidence, Hummels’ Bayern capitalized on it.
In games like these and the 2-2 draw against Werder Bremen, Dortmund dropped points from games in which they were the better side. In all these games, with Hummels in their backline, more often than not they come away with the three points.
Hummels has the experience of leading a title charge. On top of that, he brings the maturity of playing in high-pressure European ties against top opposition. Dortmund shipped four goals against Harry Kane-less Tottenham, where Jan Vertonghen was deployed at wing-back.
At the tail end of the season, Dortmund went to the potential title-decider at the Allianz Arena with a slim lead at the top. By the time they got back onto their team bus after a 5-0, they had fallen a point behind. Bayern went undefeated in their last 14 games, winning 11 and drawing three and they won the Bundesliga by two points.
Dortmund poor marking and lack of organization would be instantly fixed with the arrival of Hummels. In the games where his team is under pressure, you can see Hummels frantically telling each player around him who to mark and which passing lanes to cutoff. Very often he can be seen making the ‘calm down’ gesture, instructing his teammates to keep the ball and take the sting out of the opposition.
BVB have in their ranks inexperienced but talented trio of centre-backs in Manuel Akanji, Abdou Diallo and Dan-Axel Zagadou. No one is anywhere near their prime. A few seasons alongside the calming presence of Hummels would benefit the side. In a squad with an average age of just 24.9, his know-how about dealing with bad periods of the games comes in handy. A character with the maturity to dig out those games is invaluable.
At 6’4” Hummels adds an aerial presence and defensive organization on set-pieces. That’s something that the Dortmund side lacked as their poor aerial organisation hurt them time and again. For a team that aspires to be title challengers, the statistical analysis of the defensive numbers leaves Dortmund with a poor image. They conceded in the league, joint second highest 13 goals in from set-pieces which were almost 30% of their total tally. They also ranked 17th in an 18-team league in the number of aerial duels won per game.
Having Hummels instantly solves the issue of having someone who has the ability to organize. The Hummels-led Bayern defence conceded the least amount of set-piece goals. He also ranked sixth in the Bundesliga for the aerial duels won per game. Dortmund’s three centre-halves: Manuel Akanji, Abdou Diallo and Dan-Axel Zagadou didn’t even make it to top-25. He won 4 aerial duels per game as compared to their 1.8,1.8 and 2.9 per game respectively.
For all the excitement created by the youthful energy of this Dortmund side, there lacked experience in the title race. No one in the Dortmund locker room can boast a C.V. as deep and envious as that of Hummels. In his first spell at Dortmund, he won one DFB-Pokal, two DFL-Supercups and was the bedrock of that Jürgen Klopp side that toppled Bayern Munich off their perch. In his three trophy-laden years with Bayern, he won all domestic honours offered by two. On the international level, he won the UEFA European Under-21 Championship in 2009 and 2014 FIFA World Cup. Dortmund’s young centre-halves with an average age of 23.5 could use the title-winning experience. Hummels was the former captain at the club so he knows the culture of the club inside out. He knows the fans, the expectations, the traditions and the values that the Dortmund faithful hold dear. His experience and knowledge of both the club and their rivals would prove vital in the title quest next season.
Modern football doesn’t work on specialists alone. Forwards must be able to defend and the defenders and goalkeepers must be comfortable with the ball at their feet. In today’s age of pressing and counter-pressing, it’s an added bonus to have a ball playing centre-half. Hummels has consistently been good at this for years. He played an average of 82.6 passes per game at an accuracy of 89.4% in the league last season. That’s more average passes per 90 minutes than all the centre-halves currently with Dortmund. He has more key passes and shots per game.
He’s technically gifted and is the kind of player Dortmund forwards would appreciate. He plays fewer long balls per game because he is always looking to pass vertically along the ground. This is an asset as none of the Dortmund attackers are big players. His ability to look for that line breaking pass is perfect for the swift attacking machine of Dortmund.
While a defender’s job is primarily to keep the ball from going into his own net, it certainly an added bonus is he can pop in and put the ball in the opposition goal. On the other occasions when the opposition has got 10 men behind the ball and your strikers are having an off day, it certainly helps if a defender can score off a set-piece. Think Carles Puyol against Germany in the 2010 World cup semi-final. Though Hummels isn’t known as someone who can regularly score during a campaign, he has that knack of scoring some important goals. Whether it was scoring in a 3-1 league win in the title-winning season of 2010/11 or 5-2 demolition in the DFB-Pokal Final: he regularly scored in important games versus Bayern. He also scored some crucial goals in the knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup winning title campaign, against Portugal and France. Most recently he popped in to score the first goal in a 5-0 hammering that Dortmund suffered at the Allianz Arena. That win propelled Bayern to the top spot at the expense of Dortmund, something they didn’t relinquish until the end.
This scout report shows that the signing of Hummels is the missing piece of the puzzle to finally wrestle back the Bundesliga. While he didn’t have the most amicable of the departures, it won’t be long before the Yellow wall faithful start signing his name again once the team starts winning again. As for Hummels, he has the chance to prove that the reports of his early demise are being greatly exaggerated. With no international commitments anymore, we might see the best of him in years. Mats Hummels, with a point to prove, could well maybe the signing that brings home the title.
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