O Captain! My Captain! What happened to you? There was a time when Mats Hummels was untouchable. There was a time when he was invincible. There was a time when he was undeniably one of the best defenders in the whole wide world.
That time has passed. Now, he looks like a less driven version of himself. Once, the Black and Yellow supporters were happy that he joined them on a mission to success. They were satisfied that the overly powerful giant from the south, Bayern Munich, ignored his talent.
His passes were like razor blades cutting through defensive lines as if they were rotten tissue. His challenges were accurate and well-timed. His positioning was simply outstanding. His mind-set was different. He was the proof that a footballer did not have to have the intellect of a mongrel. He was self-deprecating, but not self-centred. He was leading, but not patronising. Time, apparently, can change humans.
O Captain! My Captain!
In 2012, Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng were the centre-back pairing that played for the German national team during the UEFA European Championship. Both defenders were considered equipollent. The latter had been a sloppy but talented defender who established himself on top of the pecking order after signing for Bayern Munich, while the former had been a reliable centre-back ever since Dortmund won their first domestic title under Jürgen Klopp’s guidance.
In recent years, Hummels has lost a step or two, though. He has become that kind of sloppy but talented defender. Even throughout the 2012-13 season, when BVB eventually reached the Champions League final, their boss of the back line was not free from defects. Back then, those mistakes were not alarming. Anything but chronic – it seemed.
In 2015, we know that his susceptibility to unforced or unnecessary errors is a chronic issue. Particularly when he is not in his best shape, when the season’s schedule draws on him, he gets caught too often – defensively and offensively.
His progressive style of defending has been a risky game all along. It can work out beautifully if he leaves his position at the right moment with the required dynamic. It cannot work out at all if he just tries too hard even when his legs back out. On those occasions, Mats Hummels looks one-dimensional.
The truth is, without his attacking style he is just an average centre-back. He is not the type of defender who can simply sit deep and wait until the opponent arrives ten yards away from the penalty box. He needs to be proactive. He needs to make the first move. But what if his mind and his body do not act jointly? It becomes complicated.
You know going into a match that whichever performance he shows will take some time to digest. It is either world-class or annoying in the extreme. There are no shades of grey. With Mats Hummels, it is black or white.
He is able to out-play anyone at any given time. He can slaughter opposing pressing blocks. But then, at one point, the sloppy version of him shows up, delivering a horrendous pass right into the feet of an opponent. When Schalke’s Leon Goretzka had a complete read on him, he could not resist temptation and went for a vertical ball. Interception. Counter-attack. Goal conceded.
If that’s not bad enough, Mats Hummels has become allergic to critique. Once upon a time he was his own harsh critic. Nowadays, he calls out his critics. He gets angry, when someone slightly questions his performance. He gets indignant when someone scrutinises his abilities to be a top-notch centre-back. Time, apparently, can change humans.
I can’t stand the completely exaggerated critique anymore. Unbelievable what one has to put up with. Far away from reality. (Mats Hummels, 23/11/2015)
Already during the last months of Jürgen Klopp’s incumbency, he tended to be over the top with his comments. He seemed to think that, after his promotion to captain, he could, on the one hand, criticise his teammates inopportunely, while on the other hand being overly sensitive when he himself had to eat verbal punches.
After the defeat at Hamburg last week, Mats Hummels said he felt like he was made responsible for every mistake Dortmund’s defence as a whole made. That is not true. The public laid blame on him solely for his flaws. In fact, there is no greater plot against him. Dortmund’s supporters still admire him. And make no mistake, he can still be an outstanding defender at times.
To return to his old strength, he is not only asked to show better timing and decision-making under pressure, he should also embrace critique and evaluate his performances. Otherwise, Thomas Tuchel has a tough decision to make.
“There are defeats that reinforce a coach’s authority,” wrote the journalist Oliver Fritsch after Dortmund lost 1-5 to Bayern, pointing at Hummels, who was involved in a couple of defensive breakdowns during that match.
If Tuchel does not react to his captain’s demeanour, it could eventually weaken his position. If Tuchel benches his captain, he undermines Hummel’s authority dramatically. It could end up in a dispute that is hard to settle. It could end up in Hummels leaving Dortmund next summer. Despite his flaws, who would want that to happen?
O Captain! My Captain!