Injuries to Julian Brandt and Marco Reus will force Borussia Dortmund head coach Lucien Favre into a midfield rethink. But who is likely to help provide the creative spark in the absence of the two Germany internationals?
bundesliga.com assesses the options…
When it rains it pours, the old saying goes. First, Dortmund were knocked out of the DFB Cup by Werder Bremen. Club captain Reus was injured in that match, meaning he sat out a crucial league game against Bayer Leverkusen a few days later.
The rain continued to hit home. The visitors slipped to a 4-3 defeat, missing out on the chance to close the gap on Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig at the top of the table. Afterwards, it emerged that Brandt – who had been replaced at half-time – had damaged his ankle ligaments.
The former Leverkusen attacking midfielder will miss – at the very least – Friday’s home match against fast-improving Eintracht Frankfurt, while Reus will be out for around a month.
The arrival of Emre Can has, however, given Favre some breathing room. Playing alongside Axel Witsel in central midfield in Leverkusen, he scored a wonderful first-half goal on his Bundesliga debut for Dortmund. An all-action type in his own right, the on loan Juventus player will no doubt improve his new side as his partnership with Belgium international Witsel grows.
“The team has a lot of potential but needs to learn one thing: when you’re in the lead, you have to be ‘dirtier’, to put it simply,” Can said after the loss in Leverkusen.
“Sometimes you need to commit fouls, defend better, all together. We play beautiful attacking football, but we all need to be better defensively.”
Can is still building up his match fitness, having not featured as much as he would have liked in the first half of the campaign. His drive can help Dortmund in both aspects of the game, but – given that attack is often the best form of defence – who can replace two of their most creative central forces?
He came to wider attention with a stunning finish in the 3-2 cup defeat in Bremen, and then replaced Brandt in Leverkusen in what was his fourth substitute appearance in this season’s Bundesliga.
A busy, inventive midfielder, the son of former Leverkusen and Wolfsburg playmaker Claudio is surely coming close to earning his first start for Dortmund.
“You see every day in training what he can do,” Favre said, when asked before the Leverkusen game about Gio Reyna.
“He’s a very intelligent player. He can play in almost every position in any system.”
Another option is to deploy Jadon Sancho more centrally, playing in behind in-form striker Erling Haaland in a 4-3-3 formation. It might seem strange to advocate the winger shifting position, considering he has scored 12 Bundesliga goals and laid on a joint-league-leading 13 more already this season.
But needs must, and the fact that Brandt and Reus are absent means it’s worth considering. Sancho’s silky footwork allows him to go either side of an opponent, and that unpredictability – coupled with his eye for a defence-splitting pass – suggests he could do similar damage through the middle.
Watch: Learn why Sancho and Erling Haaland play so well together
All the more so, considering that the 19-year-old seems to have developed an immediate understanding with winter signing Haaland, who has already plundered eight goals in five matches for his new club.
As far back as October 2018, after all, Germany legend Lothar Matthäus – who knew plenty about midfield raids himself – was full of praise for Sancho’s understanding of the game.
“He is a natural footballer, who loves to play on the left wing but has unbelievable talent,” the former Borussia Mönchengladbach and Bayern star said, before going on to describe the England international as a “perfect player.”
“Sancho is a player who has everything. He has fantastic speed, great technique, a good eye for his colleagues and that key pass.”
Dortmund’s devastating third goal in Leverkusen – with Achraf Hakimi coming infield to tee up Raphael Guerreiro – also suggests that both those players should be accommodated as high up the pitch as possible.
Guerreiro can play at left-back or on the left side of midfield, but he has – most notably during his first year at the club under Thomas Tuchel in 2016/17 – played a more central role. Could a midfield three including the Portugal international, Can, and Witsel be an option?
A more obvious alternative to Brandt or Reus, however, is Mario Götze. Before making the false nine position famous with Germany in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, he had started out playing much of his football in a central midfield role behind Robert Lewandowski. The 27-year-old has only started five league matches this season, but a two-time Bundesliga winner with Dortmund under Jürgen Klopp between 2010 and 2012 is not a bad man to call on.
Last but by no means least, there’s Thorgan Hazard. Like his older brother – Real Madrid’s Eden – the Belgian loves nothing more than cutting in from a wide position to carve up an opposition defence. But on occasion – both with Gladbach and more regularly with Belgian side Zulte Waregem between 2012 and 2014 – the 26-year-old has operated as a No.10 supplying a striker from a central position.
Dortmund, then, have some issues to deal with ahead of the game against Eintracht and before their UEFA Champions League last-16 first leg against Paris Saint-Germain on 18 February.
But as former BVB head coach Tuchel – now in charge of the French champions – has highlighted, Favre’s side are still very, very dangerous – even without Brandt and Reus.
“I’m certain that they can also score six or seven goals in the same game – it’s almost every game with them,” Tuchel said, after being asked about Dortmund’s defensive imperfections in Leverkusen.
“In the same match that they lose, they’re capable of winning and scoring lots of goals. I saw a lot of things [against Leverkusen] so it’s going to be a really difficult game.”
That will be the case for any team that faces Dortmund, no matter who they are missing. Despite the current injury problems in midfield, Favre has plenty of cards left to play.