Recognizable from a mile away by his afro-textured hair, Axel Witsel has much more to offer than an eccentric hairstyle. The 29-year-old midfielder has made the move from Chinese side Tianjin Quanjian to Borussia Dortmund for a reported fee of €20 million on a deal lasting until 2022.
Born in Liège, Belgium, Witsel began his career at his hometown club Standard Liège in 2006. At only 18 years of age, he was already an integral part of the squad, winning the league title in the 2007/08 season while also being awarded the Belgian Golden Shoe (Player of the Season). He enjoyed five successful seasons at Liège, in which he scored a total of 45 goals and assisted 18 in 194 appearances. In 2011, he made the move to Portuguese side Benfica, before joining Zenit St. Petersburg in 2012. Witsel spent five years in Russia, making a name for him, before Chinese money beckoned and he made the move to Tianjin Quanjian in 2017, before returning to Europe in 2018 to join Borussia Dortmund.
Witsel is also a key figure in the Belgian National Team, having made 96 appearances for the Red Devils. He played a big part in the 2018 World Cup, appearing in six of Belgium’s seven games, while also earning a third place finish in the tournament. In 2017, he won the Belgium Goal of the Year award, after his sensational bicycle-kick goal against Gibraltar.
Witsel started his career as a right-winger, and could be seen playing in this position at Standard Liège. This might explain his slightly higher goal contributions when compared to later years. Once he moved to Benfica, he was converted to a defensive midfielder. However, he does like to get forward into a more attacking position, making him a stellar box-to-box midfielder.
What can Witsel add to Dortmund’s midfield?
Whether it’s his composure, his passing, or his clean tackling, Witsel is a midfield menace. The Belgian contains everything one might want in a midfielder, as he is able to contribute in attack as well as defend. Standing at 1.86 meters, he is a threat from attacking set-pieces, while also being able to use his height for stopping aerial attacks from opposing teams. He is confident and composed when on the ball, with his ability to drive at opposition defenses a convenient skill. His passing accuracy is remarkable as well, achieving an 89.8% pass succession rate in all competitions last season. An added bonus is that he has a wicked shot on him, launching long-range lasers from outside the box. Tall and somewhat heavyset, Witsel is not particularly agile, but his ability to stay on his feet and use his strength is certainly a useful trait.
When it comes to midfielders, Dortmund was not void of talent. Die Schwarzgelben have seen the likes of Julian Weigl, Mahmoud Dahoud, Mario Götze, and Shinji Kagawa already exhibiting their skills in years past, and the talented Thomas Delaney was acquired from Werder Bremen earlier in the summer. Additionally, exciting youngsters such as Sergio Gomez and Dzenis Burnic await their opportunities. So why did Dortmund splash cash on an aging midfielder playing in China?
First and foremost, Witsel brings years of experience to the squad. At 29, he’s no spring chicken, and having played in four different countries, he has experienced many different styles of football. Being a box-to-box midfielder, he can add a nice balance between more defensive-minded players such as Weigl or Dahoud, and attacking midfielders like Götze or Kagawa. With Nuri Sahin showing inconsistent form in recent seasons and Sebastian Rode dealing with injuries, Witsel will also add depth in midfield. As usual, Dortmund will be partaking in three competitions this upcoming season, so it is vital that there is coverage in the midfield in case of injuries or suspensions.
Dortmund midfield under Favre’s system
BVB’s new coach Lucien Favre has been experimenting with various formations in pre-season. Known for using a 4-3-3 formation in the past, Favre has alighned his side in a 4-2-3-1 against the likes of Lazio and Manchester City, while testing a 4-1-4-1 against Liverpool and Benfica.
With the flexible Witsel, one could see him rotate heavily between midfield positions. In an offensive 4-3-3 formation, Witsel could be utilized as the lone defensive midfielder sitting behind more attacking midfielders (Götze, Kagawa, Dahoud), or he might be seen as one of the more attacking players in midfield which would allow the likes of Weigl or Delaney to slot in the defensive midfield role. The same goes for the 4-1-4-1 formation where he can either be used as defensive or attacking midfielder. When it comes to a 4-2-3-1 formation, he is more likely to slot in the defensive role alongside Weigl perhaps. Seeing as Wiegl is slightly more defensive-minded, this would allow Witsel to roam freely between attack and defense as he would have Weigl protecting him from the back.
While the addition of Witsel may seem unnecessary or counterintuitive, Witsel is nonetheless a class signing, adding valuable experience and qualities to Dortmund’s midfield. His composure will ensure a calm presence in a sometimes hectic BVB midfield, and his flexibility will see Favre have lots of tactical choices when assessing his midfield. One of Dortmund’s more peculiar signings this summer, but one that is very exciting for the club, its fans, and the league in general. One to keep an eye on this season!
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