10/19/18 - Admin
He may not have been grabbing headlines in the same way as young guns Christian Pulisic, Jadon Sancho and Jacob Bruun Larsen in recent weeks – not to mention captain Marco Reus – but midfield metronome Axel Witsel is arguably one of the most important pieces in the Borussia Dortmund puzzle.
As BVB gear up for a busy run of fixtures – with VfB Stuttgart, Atletico Madrid, Hertha Berlin and Union Berlin to come before the end of October – bundesliga.com takes a closer look at the Belgium international's crucial role for Lucien Favre's table-toppers.
Having failed to threaten Bayern Munich seriously in their unrelenting march to the Bundesliga title over the past six years, Dortmund addressed a key weakness during the 2018 summer transfer window: their soft centre. Despite boasting the league's third-best attack in 2017/18 (64 goals scored), a perceived lack of midfield muscle frequently left the BVB backline exposed, meaning they ended up with only the ninth-best defence (47 goals conceded). Enter Witsel.
"Axel's a player of great international experience who brings all the qualities required to make a mark on the BVB midfield," sporting director Michael Zorc enthused in August. "[He's got] tactical awareness, strength when challenging for the ball, pace, creativity, and mentality."
resh from helping Belgium finish third at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Witsel made a dream start to life with Dortmund. In his first competitive outing, the 29-year-old came off the bench to score a vital late equaliser against Greuther Fürth, sparing BVB's blushes in the DFB Cup first round.
"Witsel has a big character," Reus told kicker after the game, having gone on to grab the winner in the dying seconds of extra time. "When he came on, you could see that he was exactly what we needed. We're now very well-stocked in this position."
Thomas Delaney has also been an important addition since his summer switch from Werder Bremen, while Mahmoud Dahoud has improved since being reunited with Favre, who gave him a first taste of Bundesliga football with Borussia Mönchengladbach. But given his international standing, experience and charisma, Witsel is undoubtedly the new boss of the Dortmund midfield – even if it has been one curious journey to the Signal Iduna Park.
It took Witsel until the age of 29 finally to join one of Europe's five major leagues, which seems remarkable for a player of his ability – but the reason for his journeyman career path goes back to a fateful derby with Anderlecht in August 2009. The young prodigy was 20 years old and appeared to have the world at his feet: after helping Standard Liege secure their first Belgian title in 25 years, he was named the country's Footballer of the Year in 2008. The following season, his boyhood club completed a league and cup double.
The young midfielder looked destined for a rapid rise to the top of the game, but a shocking, leg-breaking tackle on Anderlecht defender Marcin Wasilewski changed all that. Witsel was banned for eight games and went from golden boy to public enemy No.1, receiving hate mail and even death threats. It came as no surprise when he eventually moved on to Benfica.
"People insulted him, some even threw stones through our windows," his Martinique-born father and agent Thierry recalled. "The incident changed him. There was an Axel before the tackle, and an Axel after. His character became more closed, you could see that he was affected by the storm around him. That lasted a few days and then he made the switch."
While Witsel's season in Portugal was seen as a logical transition, his subsequent moves to Russian outfit Zenit St Petersburg and Chinese Super League side Tianjin Quanjian raised more than a few eyebrows. However, there was a constant throughout – the elegant midfielder was always called up to the Belgium national squad, becoming one of the Red Devils' most important figures both on and off the pitch. He is set to reach the symbolic milestone of 100 caps when they host Iceland in the UEFA Nations League in November.
"When I'm setting up my team, Witsel is the first name on the teamsheet," former national coach Marc Wilmots declared in France Football ahead of the 2014 World Cup, where Belgium were knocked out by eventual runners-up Argentina in the quarter-finals.
"I'm confident Axel will maintain his thirst for victory and remain an important player for Belgium," current boss Roberto Martinez insisted, following Witsel's lucrative move to China. "At Zenit, in Russia, he never dropped his level, so I don't see a problem. He won't miss a minute, he's always there. I've been very impressed by him."
As Martinez predicted, Witsel maintained his levels of form and fitness during an 18-month stint with Tianjin, putting in extra hours on the training ground and even hiring a personal physical trainer. He started all but one of Belgium's games at the 2018 World Cup as they beat England in the third place play-off, and a month later it was announced that he was finally on his way to a major European league – the best-attended of the lot, to boot.
"After the World Cup I was determined to transfer back to Europe," Witsel admitted. "I'm really happy and proud that I'll soon be able to play for BVB. I didn't have to think about it for very long after our first discussion because Borussia Dortmund are one of the best clubs on the continent, in my opinion. I honestly can't wait to run out in front of 81,000 people."
It didn't take Witsel long to win over the Yellow Wall and the rest of the Signal Iduna Park, as he followed up his strike against Fürth with a spectacular goal in the home win over RB Leipzig on Bundesliga Matchday 1. Those early contributions were a nod to Witsel's past as a more attacking player, but he truly thrives in a deeper No.6 role: the so-called midfield enforcer.
His job is a vital one because he provides the link between Dortmund's defence and attack: anticipating opponents' movement, winning the ball back and acting as the launchpad for his team's forays forward. The importance of rapid transitional play in the modern game makes a player of Witsel's technical ability and tactical intelligence absolutely indispensable.
"It's not easy in the deep midfield slot," Favre pointed out at the start of the season. "When you get the ball, there's always someone breathing down your neck. But Axel is very good in those situations, very composed."
"I think my biggest attribute is the way I shield the ball, and the fact that I don't tend to give it away," Witsel once told FIFA.com. "Even though I play in a different position to him, Zinedine Zidane has always been an idol of mine. With his control of the ball and his skill, he was the best in the world. I also love Andrea Pirlo, he's pure class. They're two players who have inspired me to keep working on my game."
Witsel has certainly restored a sense of harmony to the Dortmund team, and his expert conducting has got the rest of the BVB orchestra in full swing. They have tightened things up at the back – only Mainz and Hertha Berlin have conceded fewer goals in the Bundesliga this term – while their forwards have been running riot, netting 23 goals in just seven outings. Leipzig have the next-best attack with 16.
The Belgian has had an average of 80 touches a game in the Bundesliga and boasts a pass completion ratio of 93 per cent, second only to teammate Manuel Akanji across the whole division. He has also won more than half of his challenges and dovetailed brilliantly with Delaney and Dahoud, helping lift Dortmund to the top of the table. Unsurprisingly for someone who wanted to be an architect as a boy, he has a natural talent for building play.