Only seven matchdays have passed, yet he is already considered the rookie of the season. Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Weigl is very young, slender, and pretty unexperienced at this level. But above all he is the new metronome in BVB’s midfield.
THE SIGNING OF WEIGL went almost under radar in summer. A transfer fee of €2.5 million and rather unimpressive curriculum vitae — he had played his first 40 games for second division side TSV 1860 München — seemed quite unspectacular next to names like Gonzalo Castro and Roman Bürki.
In addition, the central midfield, where Weigl feels comfortable, already seemed very well stocked. In Thomas Tuchel preferred 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid system, Nuri Şahin, Sven Bender, and Oliver Kirch should have been ahead of him in the deep-lying playmaker pecking order. But Şahin missed the preseason due to a lengthy tendon irritation. Kirch also repeatedly struggled with injuries and was eventually sold to Paderborn.
So it was a showdown between Weigl and his hero, Sven Bender. Both come from the talent pool of TSV 1860 München. Both play primarily as a number six. But there is a significant difference. In contrast to the coarse type of player that is “Manni” Bender, Weigl is comfortable with the ball. He is perhaps not a virtuoso passer à la Şahin or Gündoğan, but very confident for a 20-year-old. “We see every day that it goes forward, that he had the extreme desire,” Tuchel said about his young protégé after Weigl’s first appearances in Europa League qualifiers.
Against the Carinthian team of Wolfsberger AC, Weigl made a first great impression. Against Borussia Mönchengladbach, making his Bundesliga debut in front of 80,000 euphoric BVB fans — in front of the roaring Yellow Wall — the Bad Aibling-native went through his baptism of fire.
As a pivotal point in front of the defence or alongside Ilkay Gündoğan, he was partly responsible for the dismantling of M’Gladbach’s defensive system. In his first Bundesliga match, 91 touches and 94 percent passing rate (per Squawka) spoke for themselves. “We thought Ju[lian] is capable of delivering such a performance. Otherwise we would not have fielded him,” Tuchel said.
Weigl served as a balancing player off the ball and was more present as strategist with the ball at his feet. His mechanics and movement — basically his whole appearance on the pitch — led the German sport magazine kicker to draw an analogy between him and one of the all-time greats, Franz Beckenbauer.
“An unusual lightness characterizes his game; elegance, that reminds of Germany’s football Kaiser.”
THE EXAMPLE OF WEIGL also shows just how fast moving professional football is. A little over a year, his former head coach Ricardo Moniz appointed him to be the captain of the 1860 München senior team, and thus he became the youngest player in the club’s history to do so, at the age of 18.
A few weeks later, Moniz took the armband from him, short-term suspension included. A taxi driver, who is, unfortunately, a 1860 München supporter, heard how Weigl and some teammates spoke in a disrespectful way about their club. The taximan babbled the story out. Weigl played on probation from then on. “Almost every day, there was something written about me in the newspaper; even things that were not true. The coach did not nominate me anymore, despite I gave everything I got,” Weigl said in retrospect.
As if this was not enough, shortly after the taxi incident happened TV viewers witnessed by watching the Sky Sports documentary “57, 58, 59, Sechzig” how Moniz got het up during the pre-season about Weigl — whom he described as a “fantastic footballer” — and his lack of offensive penetration in his role as number ten, as he would never run into the penalty area.
Fortunately, Thomas Tuchel would not even think about Weigl asking to do so. When wearing the black and yellow jersey, Dortmund’s number 33 especially takes care of the first forward balls and determines the rhythm in build-up plays.
91% pass completion, 56.68 forward passes per 90, 1.04 key passes per 90, and 2.68 interceptions per 90 after Bundesliga Matchday seven (per Squawka)
THE BRILLIANCY OF WEIGL is that he understands his strengths and his limitations better than perhaps anyone else on the field. It can be inspiring to watch a player, that is not the fastest, that is not the strongest, and that is not most talented, surviving on his football intelligence and sense of avoiding dangers.
Thomas Tuchel has introduced a tactical approach that put emphasis on a rigid positional play, overloading certain spaces and causing imbalances. This kind of Juego de Posicíon-esque style demands that players not only understand their specific roles, but have a feel for spacing and structure. That is why the likes of Weigl, Schmelzer or Mkhitaryan — players who can read the opposing defence scheme — have benefited from Tuchel’s arrival.
It appears even more impressive that Dortmund’s formula for success relies heavily on the abilities of a 20-year-old newcomer. Weigl is usually positioned in the left half-space behind the first opposing pressing line. Only sometimes he drops between the centre-backs to build the attack up from deep. His main responsibility is to ensure the ball moves up-field, while taking the pressure off Gündoğan — his partner in crime in central midfield.
However, even after tremendous performances he delivered in the first matches, opponents apparently underestimate the value of Weigl. For instance in the Leverkusen match, Kevin Kampl and Christoph Kramer, the opposing centre-midfielders, often man-marked Shinji Kagawa and Ilkay Gündoğan, so that Weigl was Dortmund’s free man who could receive Mats Hummel’s opening passes, which went straight through Leverkusen’s first pressing line, or lay-off passes from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in higher zones. Weigl carrying the ball unmarked caused confusion, as his midfield partners were then able to release and run into open zones.
Weigl’s intelligent movement to get into perfect positions, constantly moving laterally and vertically in search of pockets of space, while also responding to Gündoğan’s and Kagawa’s runs, ensures Dortmund’s centre-backs have enough options to utilise. Plus, Weigl is able to open space for the players around him.
In a few matches, he and Gündoğan positioned themselves relatively wide, so that both could stretch the highest opposing line or had enough space and time to receive the ball in the outer half-spaces and afterwards distribute effective forward balls into the attacking players. By stretching the opposing line, Hummels normally starts to advance with the ball, as moments later Weigl reacts to this situation by dropping back and providing security for Hummels.
Moreover, in moments where Weigl stands more centrally and passes into him are blocked off, he just tries to lure his opponent even more into the middle, so that it creates space for others — customarily Hummels — to progress the ball forwards themselves through the outer lane.
This leads us to his defensive skills. Acting and reacting in a system that is designed to mostly overload the left half-space and to free the right wing for possible crossovers, Weigl is particularly responsible to cover his advanced teammates on the left. Tuchel primarily intends to generate a high Gegenpressing intensity, once the ball gets lost on the left, because by overloading that side Dortmund can usually outnumber the opponent in tight spots or, at least, put pressure on the opposing ball carrier in the early phase of transition. Weigl, though, is asked to move to the left to a certain extent and to pick up longer passes from the opponent, if Dortmund’s Gegenpressing could not grab the ball in the first place.
As Marcel Schmelzer usually moves forward, while being less involved in the early build-up play, the hole behind Dortmund’s left-back could cause them trouble. However, Weigl’s intuition and matured ability to read plays ensures he cuts out attacks before they can even reach Dortmund’s defensive third. When the rubber hits the road, he is already there.
THE POTENTIAL OF WEIGL seems to have no limits. Yet, to dampen high-wrought expectations, we just should look back and watch some of his matches for 1860 München last season. Even in this car wreck of a club, Weigl looked calm and prudential, but he was not the playmaker who outshined everyone among him. Quite the opposite, in many matches he served as the balance player, as he does under Tuchel’s guidance now, but sometimes sought shelter behind a tree, having little to no effect on 1860 München’s attacking plays.
He has not changed on a grand scale since then. However, the new environment on and off the pitch, the newly gained confidence of a whole club, and, most notably, a coach, who his able to use Weigl appropriately, have helped him to be part of something great. Accomplishing his assignments with a team-first attitude is the best way to not only be a part of the team, but to be a leading figure at the club one day.
Of course, comparing him with Franz Beckenbauer is a way of exaggerating at this point. By the way, the same goes for the likes of Sergio Busquets or Nemanja Matić. He is not their equal (yet).
Weigl, however, could be a reminiscent of Dortmund’s legendary skipper Sebastian Kehl. Surely, he cannot come up with the same kind of robust style. Both, though, have the deliberate movements in central midfield and dispassion on the ball in common. And who would have thought, when Kehl finished his career a few months ago, that his successor could be that 20-year-old kid from Upper Bavaria that goes by the name of Julian Weigl.