The month-long hiatus from professional football Germans know as “Winterpause” offers a good opportunity to look back at the first half of the season.
In this series, we’ll look at every player who appeared for Borussia Dortmund since the start of the campaign in August, assessing their performances and providing an outlook for 2017.
In part 2, we take a look at the centre-backs.
The first half of the season was a tale of two halves in itself for Marc Bartra. Signed for a cut-price €8 million from FC Barcelona after he failed to play in enough matches for his release clause to rise to a whopping €40 million, the Catalan looked a superb signing in pre-season.
Confident on the ball and resolute off it, the surprisingly quick 25-year-old seemed to fit right into the team following the departure of Mats Hummels and left a strong impression from his first appearance in pre-season and throughout his competitive debuts for the club, until a muscle injury he suffered against VfL Wolfsburg kept him out of action for about a month.
It cost him four matches but, more importantly, seemingly his confidence as well. Upon his return in autumn, Bartra was hardly recognisable, looking nervy and unsettled in most matches. His passing became less precise, his decision-making — especially when to step up from his position into midfield — deteriorated and he produced maddening individual mistakes with alarming regularity.
Few players needed the winter break more than Bartra.
It’s easy to forget just how good the 25-year-old looked in his first matches for Dortmund. He was well on his way to nailing down a regular starting spot for good until his injury, and here’s a big reason why:
— Tom Payne (@TomPayneftbl) September 29, 2016
Generally playing poorly from November on, his performance against FC Augsburg was so bad Thomas Tuchel saved Bartra from himself and took him off the field after 45 minutes.
Outlook for 2017
Bartra has every opportunity to win back the starting spot next to Sokratis Papastathopoulos, but he’ll have to find his form — and soon — if he doesn’t want to fall behind both Sven Bender and Matthias Ginter in the pecking order. More than anything, he’ll have to show more consistency.
After a successful conversion from defensive midfielder to centre-back under head coach Thomas Tuchel last season — he wrested the spot next to Hummels from Sokratis for a while — many expected Bender to continue improving at the heart of defence while Bartra would develop as the third option.
Then came a call-up to the German squad for the Olympic football tournament in Rio de Janeiro, an opportunity the 27-year-old couldn’t pass up. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, albeit one that came at a cost, with one of the longest-serving players at Dortmund suffering a complicated foot injury. Being the fighter he is, Bender played till the bitter end, with Germany losing to hosts Brazil on penalties in the final.
The injury cost him almost the entire first half of the season, with his comeback only coming at Cologne in December.
Representing Germany in their first Olympic appearance since 1988 and overcoming his injury in time to be at full fitness for the winter pre-season.
Picking up another lengthy injury in a career littered with them, especially with it not even being the real national team.
Outlook for 2017
Bender’s calming influence and steady nature should come in handy as Tuchel tries to fix a leaky defence in 2017. While he and Sokratis aren’t an optimal pairing because Dortmund would lack a ball-playing centre-back, it may well be the best option to shore things up in the Rückrunde.
Like Bender, Matthias Ginter started the campaign in Rio, but with a more positive outcome. Tuchel noted a few times how the experience helped Ginter grow as a player and a person, and his improvement at Dortmund shouldn’t be overlooked in light of the somewhat disappointing first half of the season for the club on a whole.
Talked about as a potential sale in the summer (Wolfsburg were lurking, reportedly) and without a clear positional fit, Ginter’s emergence at centre-back came as a bit of a surprise. Of course, injuries to Bender and Bartra helped, but so did mostly solid performances from the 22-year-old himself.
Only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sokratis and Julian Weigl played more minutes across all competitions than Ginter, who clearly benefited from his first extended run at his natural position since he joined the Westfalenstadion side in 2014.
Unfortunately, he regressed similarly to Bartra late in the year and his long-term future at the club remains somewhat murky with Ömer Toprak likely to join as another older, more experienced centre-back in the summer.
Ginter only played sparingly at right-back in the first half of the season, after picking up impressive numbers in that position in Tuchel’s first year at the club. His assist for Adrian Ramos’ winner against Sporting CP in the UEFA Champions League was a reminder of that productive spell in Ginter’s BVB career.
Ginter didn’t make too many individual mistakes, but one was quite costly, with his giving the ball away to Szabolcs Huszti setting up the decisive second goal for Eintracht Frankfurt in November. One could argue, however, that Sebastian Rode made him make the mistake and Roman Weidenfeller could have saved the ball.
Outlook for 2017
Despite doing better than most expected when given a chance in central defence, Ginter could move down the depth chart with Bender returning to the team full-time and Bartra — hopefully — regaining his swagger. Add Toprak in the summer, and Ginter could be best served with leaving for a more permanent centre-back role at another club. Lest we forget, he entertained thoughts of a transfer in 2015 and last summer, if reports from local paper Ruhr Nachrichten are to be believed.
Mikel Merino isn’t a natural centre-back, but his (few-and-far-between) appearances have come at that spot, which is why we’ve to include him in this part.
Signed from CA Osasuna, the 20-year-old was always going to have a hard time finding the field in his first season, but few would’ve predicted he’d end up playing only 180 minutes of competitive football during his first six months at the Westfalenstadion.
A superb passer with good technical skills and strong in the air, it’s understandable why Tuchel seems hellbent in making a central defender out of Merino, but he clearly doesn’t have the greatest instincts playing the deeper position.
His two starts were uneven, indicating both huge potential and the long way he’s to go if he’s going to become a starting defender for Dortmund.
His pre-assist for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s equaliser against Hertha BSC on his competitive debut showed Merino’s vision and passing qualities, and it’s no surprise it came in a situation where he moved up to a midfield role.
Playing in only three of Dortmund’s 25 matches across competitions and not even being included in the Champions League squad.
Outlook for 2017
Rumours of a potential loan move to either Osasuna or Cologne are persistent, but at the moment there’s no indication Dortmund are willing to let go of a hugely talented but struggling player. Chances are he’ll see the field a bit more often as the season progresses, potentially in midfield roles with Bender’s coming back to the centre-back fold. In the summer, both Merino and the club will have to look at his progress and make a decision.
One of if not the best Dortmund player in 2016, Sokratis was certainly the most consistent Borusse in the first half of the current campaign. The Greece international has developed into the undisputed leader of the club’s back line, serving as an anchor for the entire team to hold on to when times get rough.
As always, he’s been resolute in his defending without being a dirty player, while also making some strides as a ball-player. Most importantly, his decision-making has improved from last season, when he and Hummels often were both aggressively trying to win balls high up the field.
It’s no stretch to call Sokratis one of the two or three most important players on the team — alongside Aubameyang and Weigl — as there’s no telling how bad Dortmund’s season so far would’ve gone if not for the calming influence of the 28-year-old.
As stated above, the highlight of Sokratis’ first half of the season was his consistency. Captaining the team when Marcel Schmelzer missed games through injury was a nice reflection of his standing as one of the leaders of the team.
Sokratis didn’t have a single truly bad on-the-pitch moment in the first half of the campaign. He missed four matches with muscle and ankle injuries, none of which Dortmund managed to win, however.
Outlook for 2017
The biggest benefactor of the Hummels transfer to Bayern Munich, Sokratis is one of the first names on the team sheet and will remain a building block for Tuchel. The question in central defence isn’t which two players should start, it’s who should start next to Sokratis. That won’t change in 2017, even once Toprak joins the fold. Don’t be surprised if he signs another contract extension in the coming months.
In part 3, we’ll look at defensive and central midfielders.