He may not have been grabbing headlines in the same way as Jadon Sancho, Jacob Bruun Larsen or Paco Alcacer in recent weeks – not to mention captain Marco Reus – but midfield metronome Axel Witsel is clearly one of the most important pieces in the Borussia Dortmund puzzle.
The missing cog in the machine
As BVB extend their record unbeaten run ahead of the crucial period before the winter break, bundesliga.com takes a closer look at the Belgium international's crucial role for Lucien Favre's table-toppers.
Having failed to threaten Bayern seriously in their unrelenting march to the Bundesliga title over the past six years, Dortmund addressed a key weakness during the 2018 summer transfer window: their soft centre. Despite boasting the league's third-best attack in 2017/18 (64 goals scored), a perceived lack of midfield muscle frequently left the BVB backline exposed, meaning they ended up with only the ninth-best defence (47 goals conceded). Enter Witsel.
"Axel's a player of great international experience who brings all the qualities required to make a mark on the BVB midfield," sporting director Michael Zorc enthused in August. "[He's got] tactical awareness, strength when challenging for the ball, pace, creativity, and mentality."
Watch: How Witsel makes Dortmund tick
Fresh from helping Belgium finish third at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Witsel made a dream start to life with Dortmund. In his first competitive outing, the 29-year-old came off the bench to score a vital late equaliser against Greuther Fürth, sparing BVB's blushes in the DFB Cup first round.
"Witsel has a big character," Reus told kicker after the game, having gone on to grab the winner in the dying seconds of extra time. "When he came on, you could see that he was exactly what we needed. We're now very well-stocked in this position."
Thomas Delaney has also been an important addition since his summer switch from Werder Bremen, while Mahmoud Dahoud has improved since being reunited with Favre, who gave him a first taste of Bundesliga football with Borussia Mönchengladbach. But given his international standing, experience and charisma, Witsel is undoubtedly the new boss of the Dortmund midfield – even if it has been one curious journey to the Signal Iduna Park.
A career-changing tackle
It took Witsel until the age of 29 finally to join one of Europe's five major leagues, which seems remarkable for a player of his ability – but the reason for his journeyman career path goes back to a fateful derby with Anderlecht in August 2009. The young prodigy was 20 years old and appeared to have the world at his feet: after helping Standard Liege secure their first Belgian title in 25 years, he was named the country's Footballer of the Year in 2008. The following season, his boyhood club completed a league and cup double.
The young midfielder looked destined for a rapid rise to the top of the game, but a shocking, leg-breaking tackle on Anderlecht defender Marcin Wasilewski changed all that. Witsel was banned for eight games and went from golden boy to public enemy No.1, receiving hate mail and even death threats. It came as no surprise when he eventually moved on to Benfica.
"People insulted him, some even threw stones through our windows," his Martinique-born father and agent Thierry recalled. "The incident changed him. There was an Axel before the tackle, and an Axel after. His character became more closed, you could see that he was affected by the storm around him. That lasted a few days and then he made the switch."
Better the Red Devil you know
While Witsel's season in Portugal was seen as a logical transition, his subsequent moves to Russian outfit Zenit St Petersburg and Chinese Super League side Tianjin Quanjian raised more than a few eyebrows. However, there was a constant throughout – the elegant midfielder was always called up to the Belgium national squad, becoming one of the Red Devils' most important figures both on and off the pitch. He is set to reach the symbolic milestone of 100 caps when they host Iceland in the UEFA Nations League in November.
"When I'm setting up my team, Witsel is the first name on the teamsheet," former national coach Marc Wilmots declared in France Football ahead of the 2014 World Cup, where Belgium were knocked out by eventual runners-up Argentina in the quarter-finals.
"I'm confident Axel will maintain his thirst for victory and remain an important player for Belgium," current boss Roberto Martinez insisted, following Witsel's lucrative move to China. "At Zenit, in Russia, he never dropped his level, so I don't see a problem. He won't miss a minute, he's always there. I've been very impressed by him."
As Martinez predicted, Witsel maintained his levels of form and fitness during an 18-month stint with Tianjin, putting in extra hours on the training ground and even hiring a personal physical trainer. He started all but one of Belgium's games at the 2018 World Cup as they beat England in the third place play-off, and a month later it was announced that he was finally on his way to a major European league – the best-attended of the lot, to boot.
Already pulling the strings
"After the World Cup I was determined to transfer back to Europe," Witsel admitted. "I'm really happy and proud that I'll soon be able to play for BVB. I didn't have to think about it for very long after our first discussion because Borussia Dortmund are one of the best clubs on the continent, in my opinion. I honestly can't wait to run out in front of 81,000 people."
It didn't take Witsel long to win over the Yellow Wall and the rest of the Signal Iduna Park, as he followed up his strike against Fürth with a spectacular goal in the home win over RB Leipzig on Bundesliga Matchday 1. Those early contributions were a nod to Witsel's past as a more attacking player, but he truly thrives in a deeper No.6 role: the so-called midfield enforcer.
His job is a vital one because he provides the link between Dortmund's defence and attack: anticipating opponents' movement, winning the ball back and acting as the launchpad for his team's forays forward. The importance of rapid transitional play in the modern game makes a player of Witsel's technical ability and tactical intelligence absolutely indispensable.
"It's not easy in the deep midfield slot," Favre pointed out at the start of the season. "When you get the ball, there's always someone breathing down your neck. But Axel is very good in those situations, very composed."
Watch: Witsel's acrobatic effort against Leipzig was voted August's Goal of the Month
"I think my biggest attribute is the way I shield the ball, and the fact that I don't tend to give it away," Witsel once told FIFA.com. "Even though I play in a different position to him, Zinedine Zidane has always been an idol of mine. With his control of the ball and his skill, he was the best in the world. I also love Andrea Pirlo, he's pure class. They're two players who have inspired me to keep working on my game."
Witsel has certainly restored a sense of harmony to the Dortmund team, and his expert conducting has got the rest of the BVB orchestra in full swing. They have tightened things up at the back – conceding 13 goals, a total only bettered by Leipzig – while their forwards have been running riot, netting 37 goals in just 13 outings. Gladbach have the next-best attack with 30.
The Belgian has had an average of 85 touches a game in the Bundesliga and boasts a pass completion ratio of 94.4 per cent, second only to Niklas Süle across the whole division. He has also won well over half of his challenges and dovetailed brilliantly with Delaney and Dahoud, helping lift Dortmund to the top of the table. Unsurprisingly for someone who wanted to be an architect as a boy, he has a natural talent for building play.
Inspiring the next generation
"I'm ready to be a leader," Witsel explained shortly after his arrival. "I'm 29, and one of the oldest players in the squad. We have a very talented group, but also very young. For them to be at Dortmund at 19, 20 years old, it's brilliant."
Along with captain Reus and elder statesman Lukasz Piszczek, Witsel is an ideal role model for BVB's hungry young talents, such as Pulisic and the emerging trio of Bruun Larsen, Sancho and Achraf Hakimi. As well as his considerable international experience, the Belgian has won nine domestic trophies and made 89 appearances in UEFA club competitions, more than any of his current teammates.
Goals and assists win football matches, so it is perfectly natural to see Paco Alcacer (10 goals), Sancho (six assists) and Reus (nine goals, five assists) grabbing the headlines at this stage of the Bundesliga campaign. Make no mistake, though: Witsel is the glue that holds Favre's masterpiece together, and his influence should not be underestimated.
Watch: Witsel helped Dortmund beat Bayern 3-2 in a Bundesliga classic!
His key run and pass for Alcacer to score the winner in Der Klassiker in November was a perfect reflection of his calmness under pressure. Much was the same on Matchday 13, as he dominated Freiburg, leading BVB in tackles won, touches (143 – a record for the season), and passes completed (124).
"The best transfer anywhere in the world this season was Axel Witsel," Martinez recently told Sport Bild. "For what he brings, for a relatively small transfer fee, I think he has been the best. BVB should be congratulated for bringing him on board. I knew he would succeed in Dortmund."