Axel Witsel Borussia Dortmund Tactical Analysis

Borussia Dortmund are set to make their seventh new addition of the summer as Belgian World Cup star Axel Witsel is due to arrive for a medical this week. The 29-year-old central midfielder found himself back on the radar of some of Europe’s biggest clubs following his solid performance in Russia for Belgium. Witsel is returning from his short but lucrative stay in China with Tianjin Quanjian for a fee reported to be around €20 million. The midfielder netted a cool €18 million in annual wages during his year in the football wilderness, but he is expected to take a pay cut to come to the Westfalenstadion and don the yellow and black.

He will join a heavily reworked Dortmund midfield as new manager Lucien Favre looks to put his own tactical stamp on a team that spent much of the previous season in turmoil. With a plethora of options already at his disposal, the arrival of Witsel could signal the departure of at least one player from Favre’s crowded central midfield. Sebastian Rode, Julian Weigl and Nuri Sahin all play a similar position to the arriving Witsel, and one could be moved on to make room for him.

A physically capable midfielder, Witsel will bring energy and aerial ability to the centre of the pitch. Winning 2.4 aerial duels, 1.7 tackles and 0.9 interceptions per match in the Chinese Super League last season in his 9 appearances, he does not project to add much more defensively than Weigl (1.4 aerial duels, 2.8 tackles, 1.4 interceptions) and Sahin (2 aerial duels, 2.2 tackles, 1.1 interceptions), but his dribbling ability (1.6 successful dribbles per match to 0.3 for Sahin and 0.2 for Weigl) will help Dortmund break through the aggressive pressing that is a hallmark of many Bundesliga defences. 

Witsel is also very capable in possession, completing 86.8% of his passes last season in China, while also completing a staggering 94.2% of his passes for Belgium in this summer’s World Cup. As he typically plays more as a defensive midfielder than a driving, attacking midfielder, he does not contribute much to the score sheet, having scored a career-high of only 4 goals on two separate occasions in his career. While he does have an eye for a defence-splitting pass, his game is far more predicated on ball retention than creativity. With a new manager in Lucien Favre who prefers a methodical, possession-based style, Witsel could be a good fit for what the Swiss manager wants from his midfield.

Weigl On His Way Out?

With the numbers piling up in central midfield for Favre, it is clear that at least one player is likely to be moved on. While some fans would prefer to see Sebastian Rode, who has been plagued by inconsistency and injury since his arrival from Bayern Munich, become the expendable piece, rumours in France suggest that the 22-year-old Julian Weigl could be the one to leave. Weigl got his big breakthrough with Die Schwarzgelben under Thomas Tuchel, who was hired this summer by PSG to manage the Ligue 1 giants. Tuchel has a clear affinity for the player while at the club, trusting the then teenager as the all-important single pivot at the base of the midfield in 2015/16. 

Weigl has struggled since Tuchel’s departure with injury and the fluctuating situation at manager that saw the team move between tactical extremes under first Peter Bosz and then Peter Stoeger. Since becoming manager at PSG, rumours linking Weigl to a reunion with his former boss have been steady. While Tuchel has many talented midfielders at his disposal in the French capital, he arguably lacks the controlling defensive midfielder that he prefers to have anchoring his team. With the increased competition and yet another manager to learn from at Dortmund, perhaps Weigl will take the opportunity to join one of the best teams in Europe and earn top of market wages. At just 22, he has plenty of time to come good on the sublime ability he has flashed since breaking through to the first team, and the move could fetch a hefty fee for his current club should he decide to go.

The Verdict

On its surface, the move for Axel Witsel seems very uncharacteristic for the Ruhr Valley club. Dortmund typically choose to spend their money on younger players with room to improve, but Witsel arguably still has some growing to do after spending the majority of his career in Russia before his year in China. His presence also gives club executives Hans-Joachim Watzke and Michael Zorc flexibility heading into the final weeks of the transfer window. The wily duo can wait and see how the market plays out, and can move on from nearly any of their central midfielders of the right price comes in. 

There is little sense in denying the increased turmoil surrounding Borussia Dortmund over the last couple of seasons, and there is plenty of work for Lucien Favre to do in order to return Die Schwarzgelben to the top of the Bundesliga. With the restructuring of the backdrop, staff following Sven Mislintat’s departure last season, the club needs to prove that its knack for finding young talent and undervalued veterans hasn’t diminished. While it is not yet clear whether Witsel was a specific target of the club, or if he was bought simply because the price was good or to provide cover for a future sale, Witsel should be an important part of the team, next season. At the very least, a talented European player is returning to a league far more suited to his talent, and given the way players have been following the riches to markedly inferior leagues in recent times, this is perhaps a good thing.