As it’s the international break and there isn’t much to talk about (if you want to ignore speculation that Mario Götze could return to the Westfalenstadion), how about Ilkay Gündogan?
After a dodgy spell following the return from his back injury, the midfielder has been reinvigorated by a full pre-season and revitalised by the freedom and responsibility he’s been awarded in Thomas Tuchel’s Dortmund side.
Partnering the young Julian Weigl and the more attack-minded Shinji Kagawa at the beginning of the season, Gündogan was the link between Dortmund’s defence and attack, using his superb passing and pressing resistance abilities to tie everything together from back to front. An incisive passer and a clean dribbler, Gündogan can find gaps in any defence or midfield.
When Dortmund are out of possession, Gündogan intelligently positions himself well, anticipating the game to make up for some possible defensive and physical deficiencies. There isn’t a phase of play that finds him wanting.
Yet, in the last four games, the team has looked good without him. Lining up with Erik Durm as a right wingback, BVB managed to control proceedings against an intelligent and organised Tottenham Hotspur by using Henrikh Mkhitaryan in a more central role and trusting the abilities of Weigl and Gonzalo Castro.
Days later, a midfielder in black and yellow snatched the ball from the opposition and spun away, facing the opposition defence and sliding a perfect ball through to Marco Reus to broke the deadlock against a stubborn defence. It was the standout moment of Gonzalo Castro’s performance against FSV Mainz 05.
Implementing a back-five once more at White Hart Lane Dortmund were never in danger, largely thanks to the roaming Armenian in the midfield once again.
There were much bigger issues at Augsburg in the final game (analysed in depth here by Constantin Eckner) before the international break. Gündogan’s absence was exacerbated by the loss of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and poor performance of Shinji Kagawa, who was often disconnected from the rest of the play. At the base of midfield, Julian Weigl was rarely free in the midfield so dropped too deep and Nuri Sahin struggled to add the impetus that Gündogan so ably provides – the Turkish international is an excellent passer and creates space well but cannot open and exploit gaps while running with the ball at his feet.
However, thanks to the superb ability of the coach, Dortmund could make up for these shortcomings. Gonzalo Castro and Moritz Leitner both provide (albeit watered down versions) some of Gündogan’s ability on the ball and helped BVB move more fluidity through the pitch when introduced by Thomas Tuchel. Once again, the head coach had found a way to work around not having his best midfielder.
Borussia Dortmund aren’t just rather good this season, they’re exceptional. Take Ilkay Gündogan away and the team will still be capable.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s superb if he stays. He’s one of the finest midfielders in the world. Off the top of my head I would argue Thiago and Marco Verratti are the only direct replacements (of a suitable age) stylistically and ability-wise. Both are, obviously, absolutely unattainable. Essentially, Gündogan is irreplaceable in Dortmund.
He sets our tempo with his passing and nigh flawless decision-making. Playing passes others can’t see and driving through gaps in pressing that others can’t beat, the number of attacks he launches or adds something to is insane, but there’s nothing to stop this team maintaining its level even if he does move on.
Early in the season the trust shown in Weigl and his development couldn’t have happened without a midfielder as good as Gundogan next to him. He was, essentially, the former 1860 midfielder’s safety net when BVB struggled to play the ball efficiently or were under pressure. That rarely happened and, without the safety net of Gündogan or even Mats Hummels, Weigl has continued to shine.
Nuri Sahin is back in midfield and is looking great in possession. Not as dynamic as Gündogan and more of a Weigl alternative in truth, Sahin offers total security and class in possession. As we’ve seen already, Tuchel can use him alongside Weigl when BVB aren’t under too much pressure.
Gonzalo Castro is much more athletic and dynamic but less polished with the ball. Gündogan’s vibrant change of pace can be added to the team by the 28-year-old or, indeed, by Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Having the season of his life, the Armenian is an elegant dribbler and, at the top of his game, approaches perfection. Dortmund fans have seen him in more central areas recently and, should Gündogan leave, the idea of watching that on a weekly basis is incredibly exciting.
Without even delving into the transfer market there are already options at the club to soften the blow of Gündogan’s departure. We don’t play with a rigid system, player’s responsibilities in and out of possession are not defined and unbreakable. If we do have to sell our star midfielder, Thomas Tuchel will find attractive options way to structure the midfield without him.
Losing Gündogan wouldn’t be a disaster, it would be a challenge. Your move, Thomas.