Three seemingly disparate occurrences took place in the world of German men’s football recently:
- Real Madrid, in a must-win game against Borussia Monchengladbach, fielded a trio of Kroos, Casemiro and Modric in the starting XI for the first time in this season’s Champions League and ended up winning the match comfortably;
- Borussia Dortmund lost to Stuttgart at home by a margin of 5-1 despite having 72 percent of ball possession;
- Robert Lewandowski was adjudged as the best player among men by FIFA for the year 2020. Being the captain of Poland, Lewandoski was entitled to a ballot of his own and he chose to vote for Thiago Alcantara as the best player among men.
As a consequence of Dortmund’s loss, manager Lucien Favre was sacked. It was a sacking which, according to certain pundits, was on the cards. Favre had failed to maximise the brimming potential of the Dortmund side, and it was thus surmised that a change in management was apt.
Let’s rewind to Favre’s arrival in 2018. Favre was coming off an excellent season at Nice. He won plaudits for his attacking brand of football, aided by the return to form of Mario Balotelli and Dante alongside breakout performances from midfielders Wylan Cyprien and Jean-Michel Seri. Dortmund, on the other hand, were at an ebb having lost talismanic striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finishing the season at a disappointing fourth position. Favre’s first season at BVB was an unmitigated success, as he made the most of the existing squad and revitalized Spanish striker Paco Alcacer who had arrived as a loanee during the winter. Dortmund finished just two points behind Bayern to secure second place.
Dortmund had a spring in their step for the 2019-20 season, and this was demonstrated by the signings of the young attacking midfielder Julian Brandt and the industrious wide player Thorgan Hazard. Most of all, the return of prodigal captain Mats Hummels led to renewed optimism. The icing on the cake was the signing of the talented Erling Haaland from RB Salzburg. The season contained many highlights with Haaland at the centre of these successes, the most memorable of all being his brace against PSG in the Champions League. Yet, Dortmund fell short of mounting a title challenge against what, in hindsight, one can term as a generational Bayern Munich team under Hansi Flick. While the signings of Haaland and Hummels grabbed the headlines, there were two departures which were met with relatively less coverage. Julian Weigl, so pivotal to Favre’s first season, was sold to Benfica after a dip in form. Sebastian Rode left permanently for his boyhood club Eintracht Frankfurt after a successful Pokal winning loan spell. What connects Weigl and Rode are that they are midfielders who perform a variety of tasks such as tackle, carry the ball, and dictate play according to varying degrees.
Going back to the fateful day of the Stuttgart match, Dortmund, bereft of experienced midfielders, started 17-year-old Jude Billingham to partner the languid-styled Axel Witsel against a high-pressing Stuttgart. Even though Dortmund had the bulk of possession, they were overwhelmed by Stuttgart’s directness. The midfield combination of Orel Mangala, a box to box midfielder with excellent ball-carrying abilities, and Wataru Endo, an old-fashioned defensive midfielder who breaks attacks and releases more creative players into space, set the tone.
Perhaps some may argue that Favre could have made better use of Emre Can in defensive midfield. Favre’s persistence with Can at centre-back rather than defensive midfield points to another lacuna – central defence – forcing Favre to play three centre-backs in order to keep a tighter defence. Mahmoud Dahoud, a revelation at Gladbach under Favre, could have been the all-action midfielder Dortmund were crying out for, but in the past two seasons he has managed only 26 appearances in the league. Same goes with Thomas Delaney who managed only eleven games last season. Considering the lacunae in central midfield and defence, it is baffling why Dortmund did not seek to strengthen these areas in the transfer window.
While we see the collapse of Dortmund’s midfield on one side, when one looks towards Real Madrid’s escape from an embarrassment rendered by a group stage elimination, one sees a reaffirmation of the importance of central midfield as the pivot of big games. Notwithstanding possession statistics, it is the midfield combination that determines the success of teams in big games. The trio of Kroos-Casemiro-Modric with a combined twelve Champions League medals proved too good for a young Gladbach team. But this midfield wasn’t a ready-made agglomeration of stars as they seem today. Modric was a marquee signing in 2012, but faced teething problems in La Liga and was also adjudged as the worst signing of the year. Casemiro, too, faced initial detractors who saw his role as a mere hard man.
From our third disparate element, another midfielder emerges as a protagonist: Thiago Alacantara. Alacantara was the only signing Pep Guardiola insisted on when he signed on as manager, and Bayern kept faith with Thiago despite numerous injuries. This faith was rewarded with Bayern’s historical treble campaign, with Lewandoski’s ballot serving as a cherry on the top.
What the examples of Modric, Casemiro, and Thiago prove is the need for patience with central midfielders. They are the ones who still set the tone in a hyper-fast modern game with the ability to take a touch and assess the play in tight situations being a premium attribute. Dortmund’s foibles, in my opinion, aren’t a function of Favre’s inability to motivate his Dortmund squad, but a result of Dortmund’s transfer policy of focussing on attacking talents who could be sold for higher fees to bigger teams. Weigl, in the meanwhile, had a renaissance season with Benfica last year and seeks a move to a bigger club. Rode is proving to be a difference-maker for an Eintracht team with ambitions of football in Europe. Dortmund would do well to remember that the last time they won a league title, their central-midfield options were filled with experience and nous in the form of Kehl, Gundogan, and Sven Bender.