Which new faces have made the biggest impact at Borussia Dortmund this season? Jadon Sancho? Paco Alcacer? Lucien Favre? All worthy candidates, to be sure, but how about the men in the middle: Axel Witsel and Thomas Delaney? The case for these two is a compelling one…
“Axel is a player with huge international experience, and he has everything a player needs – tactical awareness, strength in the tackle, creativity and mental strength – to leave his mark on Dortmund’s midfield.” So said sporting director Michael Zorc when Witsel signed for the club in August, and, judging from the Belgian’s performances so far, one wonders if Zorc is clairvoyant.
Witsel has started all but four of BVB’s competitive matches this term, completing 90 minutes in each of their six UEFA Champions League group matches; he has also won 59 per cent of his challenges in the Bundesliga and has a pass completion rate of an astonishing 94 per cent.
Since scoring on his debut in the DFB Cup and then again in the Bundesliga on Matchday 1, the Liege-born No.6 has exuded calmness and authority, underpinned by the experience of playing over 100 times for Belgium and close to 500 times in his club career. At 29, he has plenty more to give, especially for BVB, to whom he is contracted until 2022.
By his side, meanwhile, is another player on whom Borussia took a risk in the summer. Danish international Delaney had been a reliable performer in his 18 months at Werder Bremen, but how would he adapt to a bigger club with higher expectations? Exceptionally, as it turns out.
A humble man and hard-working player, Delaney does the simple things well. He harries, closes down and keeps possession ticking over, combining the energy and tenacity of former midfield general and current Head of the Player Department Sebastian Kehl – the Dane runs 12.4 km per game on average – with the composure of a Nuri Sahin. And like Witsel, he also has impressive pedigree, having won four Danish league titles with FC Copenhagen, played numerous times in the Champions League and represented his country on 34 occasions.
Witsel and Delaney are Dortmund’s engine room and, like an engine, they may not be seen but their presence is certainly felt. BVB have won 10 and drawn two of the 12 matches the two of them have started, while each has registered a goal for his new club, Delaney’s coming in Matchday 14’s superb derby win away at Schalke.
In 2017/18 Borussia were brittle. They lost nine league games, won only 15 of 34 matches and conceded an alarming 47 goals, also taking just two points from six Champions League group games. This season, however, they are robust, obdurate and athletic throughout, nowhere more so than in midfield where Witsel and Delaney work in tandem with one another.
Some 12 months on from a home defeat to this weekend's opposition Bremen that left BVB 13 points off the top of the Bundesliga and on the verge of dismissing Peter Bosz as coach, Favre’s charges are seven clear at the league’s summit and unbeaten domestically. As long as Witsel and Delaney are marshalling the midfield, you get the feeling that will not change any time soon.