Boosted by Borussia Dortmund’s switch to a three-man backline, Mats Hummels has been using his wealth of experience and pinpoint passing to become a potent attacking force for the title chasers.
bundesliga.com explains how the central defender has developed into a commanding, quarterback-style player during his second spell at Dortmund…
A man well versed in the art of incisive passing from the back, Hummels was a long-time teammate of one of the best in the business. A former centre-back partner of the Dortmund stalwart at both club and international level, Bayern Munich defender Jerome Boateng was once compared to an American football quarterback by Pep Guardiola.
“When it comes to build-up play, Jerome is one of the best around,” said Manchester City head coach Guardiola, who worked with Boateng at Bayern between 2013 and 2016.
The quarterback comparison was apt. Like an NFL star, a centre-back has a great view of the majority of the field. In the modern game, he often receives the ball under pressure, so making the best choice about how to keep possession is vital. Take too long, and you risk having the ball stolen from you – and finding your goal immediately under threat.
A new quarterback in town
With big teams like Bayern, Dortmund or Germany, however, how centre-backs use the ball can often be key to breaking down stubborn opposition defences. Boateng became famous for his accurate diagonal passes and switches of play in particular.
“It’s incredible to be able to open up the game like that as a centre-back,” his teammate Thomas Müller once said.
Thanks in part to Boateng’s deadly distribution, Bayern became European champions in 2012/13, while Germany won the FIFA World Cup in 2014. Alongside him for the latter triumph – and for Bayern’s most recent Bundesliga title wins between 2016 and 2019 – was Hummels.
This season the 31-year-old has been taking a leaf from the Boateng playbook. Hummels was always impressive on the ball – his pass completion rate is once again hovering around 90 percent this term – but in recent weeks he has used that talent to lethal effect.
Watch: A narrower look at Hummels' laser-sighted distribution
Hummels has been regularly playing at the heart of a three-man defence since the end of November, and three of his four Bundesliga assists have been delivered since Lucien Favre changed to that system.
The first two goals he made this season were somewhat unorthodox for a central defender. A hooked cross on the volley in the 3-3 draw with Paderborn in November was followed by a cushioned header back to the edge of the box for Marco Reus to thrash home in the 4-0 win over Mainz.
Since the end of the winter break, though, his vision at the back has been highlighted even more – playing a direct part in breakthroughs during their back-to-back victories over Augsburg and Cologne.
In the win over Augsburg, the defender – who has 70 caps for Germany – played a booming left-footed ball from his own half which landed at the feet of Jadon Sancho. The England winger did the rest to make it 3-3, before Erling Haaland completed his debut hat-trick in a 5-3 success.
A week later, Hummels was at it again. Dortmund’s opening goal in a 5-1 win against Cologne came in the very first minute, when the man at the centre of their back three swiftly fired a long pass into the feet of Reus. He found Sancho, who teed up Raphael Guerreiro, and BVB were up and running.
The long way round
With close to half an hour played, Reus was again the beneficiary of some quick thinking and perfect execution. The Dortmund captain had a simple close-range finish after running on to another right-footed ball over the top from Hummels.
“It’s a question of supply and demand,” the elegant defender told bundesliga.com, when asked whether he was pinging through more ambitious passes than usual.
“I always keep my eyes open for long balls. We have brilliant movement up front, with our three or four attacking players. That’s what makes it possible.”
Hummels is currently the league-leading centre-back for assists in 2019/20, with Kaan Ayhan of Fortuna Düsseldorf the next most prolific on two. The five-time Bundesliga winner – twice a German champion with Dortmund – said that Cologne had been particularly vulnerable because they were trying to pressure the home side high up the pitch.
“It certainly won’t work in every game,” he said. “But when it makes sense, and when the boys up front are making their runs, I’ll try to pick them out.”
Mixing and matching
The switch to a back three will no doubt give Hummels more opportunities to show off his range of passing. He’s averaging 93 touches per game this season, and a Bundesliga career-high 57 per cent of his long passes are connecting unopposed with a teammate.
By the end of Matchday 19 he had attempted 128 long passes, with Borussia Mönchengladbach’s former Dortmund centre-back Matthias Ginter and Freiburg’s Dominique Heintz – another man playing in a three-man defence – the next highest on that list in the Bundesliga.
There is work to be done considering that Dortmund conceded 11 goals in their first eight games since switching to a back three. But the new formation has clearly allowed them to mix up their game.
Having such options – and continued good movement up front – means that Favre’s side have the firepower to overwhelm any opponent.
“In that way, even against well-organised opponents who press the ball high, you can still find solutions,” Hummels said.
Given that Dortmund opened 2020 by scoring 10 goals in two games, they may find that upcoming adversaries will play a little deeper. If there is space to exploit, though, Hummels is more than capable of doing so – and off either foot as well. With nimble and sharp players like Haaland, Reus, Sancho and Thorgan Hazard to hit, he will likely add to his assist tally sooner rather than later.