Bayern Munich had cranked up the pressure on Borussia Dortmund ahead of the league leaders’ trip to RB Leipzig, with an injury crisis in defence giving Lucien Favre further cause for concern. The Dortmund boss need not have worried, though, as Julian Weigl stepped in to shut out the home side and take the honour of Matchday 18's Man of the Matchday.
Bayern followed up an impressive end to 2018 with a 3-1 win at Hoffenheim on Friday, meaning that the record champions were just three points behind Dortmund following a sixth successive Bundesliga success. That was a little too close for comfort for fans of BVB, and meant all eyes were on whether Favre’s men could hold their nerve on Saturday.
That would be easier said than done. For a start, Leipzig were unbeaten at home all season, and Ralf Rangnick’s team were keen to cement their place in the top four.
Then there were the defensive problems. Manuel Akanji and the experienced Ömer Toprak were both out through injury, and the game had also come too soon for French defender Dan-Axel Zagadou. New signing Leonardo Balerdi is at the South American U-20 Championship, and with skipper Marco Reus missing the match as well, Dortmund required cool heads if they were to come away unscathed from a seriously tough fixture.
Enter Weigl, an assured and cultured central midfielder by trade who had only taken part in four league games – all at home – before Matchday 18. The 23-year-old would have hoped to play a lot more in the first half of the season – having featured in 85 league matches over the previous three campaigns.
Weigl had been handed the captain’s armband for the DFB Cup win over Union Berlin in October, however, suggesting that Favre still rated him highly. And he had also been trusted in central defence once before, partnering Toprak in the 2-1 victory over Borussia Mönchengladbach in Dortmund’s final game of 2018.
In Leipzig, Weigl played in that unfamiliar position again, and once more he rose to the challenge – helping Dortmund earn what could prove a massive three points in a tight title race. Axel Witsel grabbed the headlines with a thumping strike for the only goal of the encounter, but Weigl dug in to make sure Dortmund saw the game out.
“He already helped us out before the winter break in central defence, and did a really good job,” Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc said of Weigl after the 1-0 victory.
Watch: Witsel: "We're going to play game-by-game"
“He performed really well [in training] throughout the preparation, and was consistently at a high level. Today he put in another flawless performance in the position. Given that he’s always played in midfield, it was a really great display.”
Weigl won 60 per cent of his duels – which was a better return than his defensive partner Abdou Diallo (50 per cent) had managed. And despite the change of position, the Germany international’s passing was almost as good as ever, as he finished with an accuracy rate of 95 per cent compared to his season average in midfield of 96 per cent.
“It was a really tough battle,” Weigl said afterwards. “We had to resist, and there were times in the game where we had to suffer. Thankfully we survived.
“For me, centre-back is something of a new position,” he continued. “I’m fighting my way into the role, and I’m trying to help the team. I’m really happy that we kept a clean sheet, and took the three points with us.”
He wasn’t the only Dortmund player to impress, of course. Roman Bürki did well in goal, and brilliant Belgian Witsel proved the matchwinner. But Weigl’s contribution – in the circumstances – was invaluable. A well-earned MOTMD award.