When Borussia Dortmund announced their lineup shortly after 6pm local time on Thursday for the Europa League home tie against Porto fans around the globe rejoiced. To see Nuri Sahin in the lineup felt almost surreal as nobody quite expected the midfielder, who had to sit out training due to a tonsillitis a couple of days earlier, back on the field – let alone in the starting eleven. The first impression of Sahin on the pitch exceeded all expectations.
— Sandra Goldschmidt (@SanBorussia) February 19, 2016
A look into Nuri Sahin’s eyes told you everything you needed to know on how special the occasion was. 355 days of suffering definitely left their mark on the midfielder, who was just happy to be back on the field. A pure, childish joy of someone who just wanted to play football entered the pitch. Sahin admitted that he didn’t watch the home matches in the Westfalenstadion during his difficult time on the sidelines, as he just couldn’t deal with it.
But finally, there he was. European Night, floodlights, 65,000 fans, a stunning tifo on the Yellow Wall, an opponent with Champions League pedigree; the stage was definitely set for a prestigious comeback, but the occasion could have just as easily overwhelmed the 27-year-old.
Though in case anyone worried about Sahin, Marcel Schmelzer hit the nail on its head on Instagram after the match “The boss is back”. Nuri Sahin’s performance within the 57 minutes on the field was a testimony to his maturity and class. His presence on the field allowed Borussia Dortmund to play in a way they had never played before, all the while Ilkay Gündogan’s absence was hardly noted.
BVB played with a back three in possession, with Hummels, Sokratis and Piszczek lining up behind Sahin and Weigl in the double pivot. A 3-2-5 system in possession, if you will.
Sahin was the focal point in midfield, being involved in almost every action of the game (93% completed passes). His security on the ball allowed Hummels to roam forward in the match – obviously that also had to do with Porto’s lack of pressure throughout the entire game – and make use of his precise buildup passes from even further down the field.
With the skipper playing practically a left-back for the better part of the match, Marcel Schmelzer effectively played a left winger with Henrikh Mkhitaryan playing the counterpart on the right. A beautiful asymmetry was created that the guests most certainly did not prepare for. Combined with a gripping pressing and the immaculate positioning of Sahin and Weigl to intercept most passes that went through the middle, Borussia Dortmund were spread like cream cheese on a croissant around Porto.
Tuchel has found a way to give his team horizontal width without being susceptible to counter attacks, nor lacking penetration. It’s the shift in balance Tuchel mentioned when asked about four clean sheets within five matches. BVB shutting down FC Porto for an entire game – barring Suk Hyun-Jun’s blocked shot in the 88th minute – is the big take away from the match.
Yes, the Dragons had great defensive troubles and had to make do with a makeshift back line, but it’s still an achievement to make them look as ordinary as Hannover. Dortmund’s newly learned defensive prowess might very well be the key for a deep run in the Europa League and will help to consistently gobble up league points (not that it had been a problem before).
It might take the attack a couple more games to fully embrace Tuchel’s tweaks, as one could vividly spot that Dortmund’s combination flow was still a stuttering in the final third even though they found enough space, which is just a matter of automatism. Unsurprisingly, the manager found a lot of praise for the comeback kid.
Tuchel after Porto: “Nuri was super. We couldn’t hold him back any longer. He’s been itching to play for weeks now. He is training fantastically, session after session. I recently spoke to him and said: ‘Nuri, I’d ideally like to arrange a friendly for you so that you get to put the shirt on again, so that you know how it feels and so that you get your spatial awareness back. But I don’t know when I should arrange that.’ He replied to me: ‘I don’t need a friendly, I’m ready.’ And that’s how it was. We placed our trust in him. I am very happy that it worked out. It was clear that he would play a maximum of 60 minutes. He played fantastically. It is really quite something to come back after such a long break and perform like that on the pitch. He is always alert, passes well, is intelligent and has a good instinct for spaces where we have numerical superiority. It was great to watch.” (via BVB.de)
So what does Nuri Sahin’s return mean for Borussia Dortmund? Are you thinking what I am thinking? I can vividly imagine a midfield consisting of Nuri Sahin, Julian Weigl and Ilkay Gündogan. Take Mats Hummels into the equation – which one always should – and Borussia Dortmund have built themselves an epic machine of control and creativity.
The pressing resistance and passing accuracy in midfield would probably mean that BVB drive losses of possession in sensitive areas down to zero – they have already done so anyway. But Nuri Sahin’s addition to BVB’s midfield will make it tough for teams like Hertha Berlin to shut down the Black and Yellows by marking Hummels and Gündogan out of the game, as there is one more option that can catalyse the buildup play from deep.
In short, Dortmund’s axis of creativity can finally be x and y and at the same time. It will also allow Gündogan to move up forward, playing a hybrid somewhere between 8 and 10. A position Shinji Kagawa has recently played for the Black and Yellows, but the Japanese has to seriously worry about his game time with Sahin pushing into the starting lineup. Kagawa has suffered a considerable dip in form – so has Gonzalo Castro.
With Marco Reus, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sitting in front of Sahin, Weigl and Gündogan there is very little space left for Kagawa and Castro.
Tuchel: "From all I've seen, Sahin will play an extremely important role for us. I cannot stress enough how prominent his role will be."
— Stefan Buczko (@bvbawesome) February 5, 2016
Tuchel says that Castro is not in the squad because Sahin is there, Leitner still in form and he opted for a dribbler with Kagawa instead.
— Stefan Buczko (@bvbawesome) February 18, 2016
It remains to be seen what Tuchel will make of Sahin’s return and how Borussia Dortmund will shape up. The Dortmund coach has swooned every time when talking about Sahin and underlined how integral the role of the Turkish international will be once returned to full fitness.
Yours truly might have bought into the hype just a bit too early, as Porto didn’t do much to faze BVB’s midfield. An opponent like Bayer Leverkusen would give much more insight on how Sahin really reacts to pressure in midfield.
But this much is clear:
With Sahin reporting back, Tuchel’s possibilities to tinker with lineups and tactical shapes increases exponential. Nuri might just be the final ingredient in BVB’s system to find the perfect balance between a sound defense and unpredictable attack. Either way, everyone with a Black and Yellow heart will be glad to see the Dortmund boy back on the field.