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 3, we take a look at the defensive and central midfielders.
Signed for a substantial €12 million fee from Bayern Munich, Sebastian Rode was widely expected to add athleticism and beef to a Dortmund midfield that at times can be overpowered by opponents too easily. Whether or not one was of the belief that a “fighter” was needed in light of the team’s crumbling at Liverpool in the UEFA Europa League, a dynamic player such as Rode couldn’t hurt.
However, the 26-year-old has to be considered one of the biggest disappointments of the first half of the campaign. His ultra-conservative playing style has made him the butt of countless jokes on social media, proving that gallows humour is ever-present when it comes to football. The former Eintracht Frankfurt man adds little to Dortmund’s play on the ball and is thus rarely a good option to start games.
Already looking like a rare transfer-market miss, there seems to be no natural fit for Rode in Thomas Tuchel’s team.
It’s hard to believe a player who avoids every risk in his passing would dare to attempt a backheel flick in the opponent’s penalty box — let alone score with it — but everything goes when you’re 5-0 up against 10-men SV Darmstadt.
It’s tough to point out a singular moment as the problem with Rode is his consistent lack of creativity and ingenuity, but his forcing Matthias Ginter into a costly mistake in a rare start against former club Frankfurt was especially annoying.
Outlook for 2017
While he wouldn’t be the first player who needed a few months to get going at the Westfalenstadion, Rode’s first half of the season gave no indication he’s suddenly going to become a high-impact player for Dortmund. He could be useful should the team advance in the UEFA Champions League and face a dominant side in the quarter-finals, but, generally speaking, his appearances should be fairly limited.
The first half of the 2016/17 season was another difficult half year for Nuri Sahin. Still one of the fan favourites and an important dressing-room figure, injuries and Tuchel’s preferring others limited him to only three appearances across competitions.
Picking up a knee injury in his lone Bundesliga match, a 36-minute cameo against Borussia Mönchengladbach in December, was another setback just when it seemed he had fought his way back into a more regular rotation in defensive midfield.
The Turkey international is the team’s best back-up for Julian Weigl, but his inability to stay healthy makes planning with him awfully difficult.
Given he only played 174 minutes of competitive football, there’s little to choose from. His goal in the whacky 8-4 over Legia Warsaw in the Champions League stands out as a rare positive moment in a forgettable six months.
Not even making the squad despite being healthy for the first five Bundesliga matchdays.
Outlook for 2017
Sahin’s long-term fit at Dortmund is murky at best. If he were to stay healthy for an entire year, there’s every chance he could play an important role under Tuchel, but that seems unlikely going by how the last two or three years went. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Sahin leave the club in the summer, sadly.
Arguably the biggest surprise of last season, Weigl’s incredible consistency at a young age made him one of the most important players of the club. That hasn’t changed this season — if anything, he has become even more pivotal with the departures of Mats Hummels and Ilkay Gündogan.
While he’s still displaying his remarkable steadiness, it’s plain to see Weigl struggles without Gündogan’s pulling the strings in the build-up phases of the game. The 21-year-old needs a creative running mate at his side, allowing him to do all the little things without the pressure of cultivating possession resting solely on his shoulders.
Even though he’s not hitting the high standards he set in his first season with Dortmund, Weigl’s contract extension until 2021 in December was huge news for the club. Players like him don’t grow on trees and he’s a perfect fit for Tuchel’s preferred playing style.
Weigl talked about wanting to make more of an impact in the final third and, while he’s still far from being a phantom of the penalty box, he did score a belter of a first professional goal in the Champions League against Sporting CP.
One of the main issues with Weigl is his lack of physicality. He can be overpowered at times, and he gave up an important opening goal against Bayer Leverkusen that came via a set piece.
Outlook for 2017
Weigl remains an automatic starter for the important games and, beyond 2017, one of the key building blocks for Tuchel and future coaches. He’ll look to stay consistent but at a higher level than in the season so far.
Dzenis Burnic only made one one-minute appearance in the Hinrunde, coming off the bench in Lisbon, but since we’re looking at every player who saw the field in a competitive match for Dortmund, he’s to be included here.
He actually played at left-back in that game and has been used in a variety of ways in friendlies under Tuchel, be it at centre-back, full-back or in midfield roles.
Making his club debut in the Champions League.
Outlook for 2017
Burnic is one of only two youth players to join the team in the training camp in Marbella, Spain — the other being Jacob Bruun Larsen — indicating he’s one of the academy products expected to make the jump to the senior level soon. While it’s unlikely he’ll play in any matches without a horrendous streak of injuries, he could become a squad member for the 2017/18 campaign.
At 29 years of age and considering his vast experience both in the Bundesliga and on the European stage, more could be expected of Gonzalo Castro. The former long-time Leverkusen all-rounder still hasn’t found a consistent level at the Westfalenstadion and seems to switch on and off from game to game and even within games.
When in form, he provides superb links in the final third and often creates dangerous situations for himself and his team-mates, but seemingly just as often, he’ll look lethargic, lose balls in inopportune moments and feel like a passenger.
His versatility and experience make him an important squad player, but there’s still an overriding sense that he’s not quite at the level where he should be.
Castro was arguably the club’s best performer during a sumptuous spell in September, when he provided three goals and seven assists in big wins over Legia, Darmstadt, VfL Wolfsburg and SC Freiburg.
Outside of those three goals and six assists in a 10-day spell, the former Germany international was almost completely shut out. His decision-making in the final third was a strength last season but has been more problematic this time around.
Outlook for 2017
His playing time should reduce a bit with Raphael Guerreiro returning from injury and Mario Götze rounding into form, but Castro was seemingly buried on the depth chart a few times only to end up playing in most matches for Dortmund.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season to this point, Raphael Guerreiro joined Dortmund as a Euro 2016-winning left-back, only to become a hugely important all-action midfielder.
Tuchel speaks only in the most glowing terms about the 23-year-old Portugal international, for example noting “he makes everyone around him better because he resolves problems” and calling it an “honour to coach such a talented player.”
With his technical abilities, quickness on and off the ball and a surprising passing range, Guerreiro looked capable of filling the Gündogan void adequately until a series of somewhat mysterious muscle problems cost him more than half of the team’s 25 matches across competitions.
His performance against Wolfsburg showed just how strong Guerreiro can be, as he scored the opener and provided two brilliant assists and every move seemed to go through him.
Missing so many games with nagging injuries make the former FC Lorient man more of a tease until he shows he can do it for longer stretches.
Outlook for 2017
It’s easy to forget that Guerreiro played only five matches in central midfield, as fans consider him a potential saviour to cure all the woes the team has in possession. The team clearly wasn’t the same without him, but expectations should be kept relatively low for the time being. After missing so much time, it could take Guerreiro a while to reach his highest level again.
Götze is not the same player he was during his first stint with the club under Jürgen Klopp, but that doesn’t mean he’s less impactful. On the contrary, one could argue he plays a much more important role for the team.
Back in the day, he earned a reputation as the next big thing in attacking midfield, running at and, more often than not, past defenders on his way to goals and assists at an impressive rate. In the first half of the current season, he played a deeper position, often playing as a No. 8 rather than a No. 10, pulling the strings without the end product to appeal to the masses.
That’s the main reason there’s a lot of talk about his performances being disappointing when, in reality, they were much better than that. His defensive contributions remain vastly underrated and his impact for the team has gone largely unnoticed, but Tuchel knows exactly what he has in the 24-year-old.
On the pitch, he was the catalyst for Dortmund’s 1-0 win over Bayern in November, working tirelessly off the ball and setting up the only goal of the game with a dribble. Off the pitch, his return to Dortmund has gone smoother than expected, without any major protests from the Yellow Wall faithful.
There were no major negatives in his first half of the season, but Götze will surely want to make more of an impact on the scoreboard the rest of the way.
Outlook for 2017
Götze was a reclamation project for Tuchel and that process has been completed successfully. Getting better as the season went along, it’s now time for Götze to take more and more control of this team. He’s a player who has to make the difference.
Much like Castro, Shinji Kagawa once again alternated between strong and poor showings in the first half of the season, showing a disappointing lack of consistency in what should be the prime of his career.
Twenty-seven years old, the Japan international should be among the team’s key players going by his talent alone, but, for whatever reason, he hasn’t been able to put things together on the field with any regularity. With more competition than in years past, it’s no wonder he only appeared in 11 matches across competitions.
The midfielder “with the best eye for goal” Klopp had ever seen, Kagawa can still be effective but he has to overcome a certain apathy.
Braces against Eintracht Trier in the DFB-Pokal and Legia proved he can still get it done in front of goal.
Being anything but a regular starter despite many injuries to his competitors.
Outlook for 2017
Kagawa has been mentioned as a potential candidate for a sale in the winter transfer window, but nothing seems on the cards at the moment. If his performance in the first friendly of 2017 against PSV Eindhoven is any indication, the Japanese isn’t ready to give up on Dortmund just yet. Still, the second half of the season will go a long way in deciding how much longer he’ll play for the club. He’d benefit from Tuchel moving to a 4-2-3-1 (even though Götze could play the No. 10 role in his stead).
In our final part 4, we’ll take a look at the wingers and strikers.