Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho and Marco Reus grab the goals and the headlines, but what if Julian Brandt was the most important player in the Borussia Dortmund squad?
"I'm on my way to making sure that I'll be the player here at Borussia Dortmund that many of you already know me as," Brandt recently told bundesliga.com after hitting form for BVB after his summer switch from Bayer Leverkusen earlier in the 2019/20 campaign. The thing is, it's not really as the player Bundesliga connoisseurs know him as at all.
Watch: A closer look at why Dortmund signed Julian Brandt
When Brandt picked up the Fritz Walter silver medal — behind Timo Werner, so someone knew what they were talking about — in the U17 category in 2013, he was a blond-haired cherub-faced left-winger with Wolfsburg. That label stuck at Leverkusen until the arrival of Peter Bosz last season.
"I've seen a lot of games involving Julian," explained the former Ajax and Dortmund coach. "During my time with Dortmund when we played against Bayer, in Leverkusen. Back then he was playing on the wing, but I saw him as a midfielder."
The switch from the one-on-one isolation of the flank to the frenzy of the midfield battle was not the most obvious move to make with a ball-playing talent such as Brandt. Or was it? Bosz's logic was certainly sound, and schoolboy simple: you get the best out of a ball player when he has the ball.
"He's such a good player and you've got to give good players the ball as much as possible," said Bosz after seeing a Brandt masterclass in which he scored twice and recorded two assists in a 5-1 win over Mainz last season that vindicated the Dutchman's thinking.
"Today he was really exceptional. He barely lost the ball, he was choosing the right moments to complete the triangles. He's a great player."
Bosz was rewarded with a stunning second half of the 2018/19 season from Brandt. A tactical tweak that proved a double-edged sword for the Bosz as his former club swept in to take Brandt to the Ruhr valley.
"It's different in Dortmund," said Brandt after five-and-a-half years at the BayArena. "I can shape myself, both in personal and sporting terms."
Initially, that metamorphosis took place mostly on the Dortmund bench as Lucien Favre gave him a bit-part role in the Bundesliga, and placed him out wide. But then the Dortmund boss had the same idea as Bosz. With it, has come the same result.
The defence-devastating pass from deep that led to Reus crossing for Sancho to score the opener against Slavia Prague in the Champions League was from Brandt. It was symptomatic of the passing range, vision and talent to deliver the ball where he wants it — at nearly 84 per cent pass completion in the Bundesliga — that make him a potent force in the centre of the pitch.
"It's a lot of fun to play there. Being able to get into the game from the centre of the pitch can really bring it to life," he told bundesliga.com after orchestrating the 5-0 win over Fortuna Düsseldorf on Matchday 14 without even having a hand in any of the goals. "In central midfield you're connected to every player, and an important link between defence and attack. That was certainly the case against Fortuna, and it worked really well!"
Being in the thick of things certainly fits snugly with Brandt's own vision for his game. "I'm not a loud kind of guy like Joshua Kimmich or always having a laugh like Thomas Müller, but I know how I would like to go into training," he explained. "I see it as my duty to contribute and give the team support in footballing terms. I must now be a player that others orient themselves around."
While he seeks to play a pivotal role for Dortmund à la Mesut Özil — "You don't often hear him on the pitch, but he can dictate a game," says Brandt — you can forget the idea this baby-faced 24-year-old does not have the physical oomph to do the dirty work required of a man at the heart of things. He wins over 52 per cent of his ground duels, a ratio of rude health for a creative player.
Brandt is no snowflake then, but he does have a handy knack of melting into the side just where Favre needs him.
With Reus pushed up as a centre-forward, Brandt took on the Dortmund captain's playmaker role for the first Champions League meeting with Slavia and teed up both of Achraf Hakimi's goals. Come the DFB Cup tie with Borussia Mönchengladbach, Brandt took on the goalscoring mantle of his Germany international teammate with both strikes in a come-from-behind win.
Against Schalke on Matchday 26 - Dortmund's first game back after the coronavirus-enforced hiatus - Brandt took up a position as part a fluid front three, floating between wide and central positions. With a hand in all four of BVB's goals, including two direct assists, a team-high five passes to a shot and match-leading 31 attempted challenges, he was - pardon the pun - on fire.
Though Brandt himself has admitted he is far from the finished article, his scrapbook of world-beating displays across the midfield and in attack add credibility to the prospect of him being the long-term replacement for 30-year-old captain, Reus.
And for the short-term? The media loves a teammate vs. teammate battle, but do not expect and dressing room designer handbags from Brandt and Reus.
"It was on a trip with the national team that he came to me the first time and told me that he absolutely wanted me to come to Dortmund," Brandt said of the influence of his club and country teammate on his summer transfer.
"It triggers something in you when a player like Marco says something like that to you."
Reus, too, started out wide with Favre at Gladbach before moving inside to stunning success, an experience that — coupled with the duo's natural-born genius-level football IQ — ensures they do not tread on each other's toes and are growing increasingly effective together.
"Sometimes you just need a bit of time to get used to each other. Now we're able to be far more effective. It's about knowing where the other player is, even if you can't see him. In the past few weeks, I've played out wide, then as a striker, and today I played centrally. It always felt like Marco was in a different position on the pitch," said Brandt, who sees good omens in their duo.
"I've realised that things could turn out to be the same as they were for me last season with Kai Havertz at Bayer Leverkusen. Unfortunately, these combinations don't always work overnight. Marco and I have always had patience though. We believe it's working."
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