It was the 31st minute in Borussia Dortmund’s match against Eintracht Frankfurt on matchday 22. Julian Schieber, who had started in place of the suspended Robert Lewandowski, had just been shown his second yellow card and was promptly sent off by referee Felix Brych. Dortmund were already two goals up by that point but in their meeting earlier in the season Eintracht came back from a two goal deficit to draw 3-3 in the end. Down a man, there was a real danger that the same collapse could happen again.
Instead, Dortmund had one of their most impressive performances of the season. They convincingly won the game a player down for an hour without conceding a goal, without being troubled by Frankfurt’s usually dangerous attack, and most notably, without a recognized striker on the pitch. Mario Götze and Marco Reus’ interchangeable and dynamic performance filling in up top raised an interesting question for Jürgen Klopp and the club; do they really need Robert Lewandowski? With rumors continuing to link Robert Lewandowski with a move away in the summer, Götze and Reus certainly suggested they can adequately replace the Polish striker and may have hinted a new direction for the club’s progression.
Strikerless in Style
In vogue in the football world, more and more coaches and clubs are opening up to the idea of a strikerless formation. Spain and Barcelona are the obvious examples but both Manchester United and AS Roma have used similar approaches over the years. In Germany, Christian Streich at Freiburg this season has used two attacking midfielders as his most advanced players and even deployed a defensive midfielder up top. Last year, Germany coach Joachim Löw experimented with a strikerless formation for the first time by playing Mario Götze up top in a friendly against the Netherlands.
The versatility and fitness levels required of players in the modern game lends itself to more flexible formations that aren’t as linear or constrictive but open to interpretation and collective involvement. The greater the movement and variety in play, the more unpredictable and effective a team can be in the modern game. The traditional target man is a dying breed specifically for this reason; because the individual limitations of the player are no longer self contained in an organic and ever-changing whole. When a player restricts those around him, it forces the team to cater to those deficiencies rather than build on its strengths.
That’s not to say Robert Lewandowski is an outdated target man. On the contrary, he is one of the best modern strikers in the game. That said, in Reus and Götze Dortmund have two players whose qualities combined very much compensate for the abilities of a player like Lewandowski. Their chemistry and ability on the pitch was there for all to see against Frankfurt and is only getting better. The question becomes; does Klopp go for a direct replacement for Lewandowski or does he build on and supplement the brilliant Reus and Götze partnership. There are several pathways for him to consider.
There’s no question that, should Lewandowski leave in the summer, Klopp will most likely go shopping for another attacker and he’ll have no shortage of options. The exact nature of those options though, as mentioned above, will be the most interesting thing to track. The club is already being linked to a host of strikers from around the league and Europe, some are more similar to Lewandowski while others hint at a different direction.
- Adam Szalai (Mainz) – Of the players linked to Dortmund, the Hungarian is probably the most prototypical and most reminiscent of a traditional in-the-box striker. That’s not to say Szalai lacks talent. His first touch is excellent and his ability on the ball is often understated. He was part of Real Madrid’s reserves after all. He would provide Dortmund with the most direct option possible, a player who will be more of a focal point than an equal part of the attack.
- Edin Dzeko (Manchester City) – Similar to Szalai, Dzeko, while being quite skilled for his size, will feed off the support around him rather than take part in the creative process. Bundesliga fans know very well what Dzeko is about from his prolific spell with Wolfsburg and to many he would be an ideal candidate to replace Lewandowski but Klopp may see matters differently differently.
- Mame Biram Diouf (Hannover 98) – Another player whose stock has risen tremendously since he came to Germany. The former Manchester United striker has an incredible workrate coupled with a great instinct in front of goal. On paper he seems like an ideal Lewandowski replacement and it wouldn’t come as a surprise if Klopp has an eye on the Senegalese striker whose contract runs out next year. Where Diouf mirrors Lewandowski the most is the work he does off the ball, be it his intense pressing or ability to win the ball back. In Hannover’s 2-2 draw with Nürnberg last weekend only Thomas Pekhart won more duels than Diouf for example.
With the next couple of players we branch out in an entirely slightly different direction. The aforementioned strikerless formation is one in which player roles and positions are not so much allocated as they are shared. A player’s position on the field on a specific play may dictate his behavior but overall, the possession, the creation and the finishing are all a synergized process. For that the players listed below are a more ideal fit.
- Heung-Min Son (Hamburger SV) – Hamburg’s explosive South Korean is probably the most versatile of the players linked to the club. The 20-year-old is also linked to a host of clubs in England, and for good reason. Son scored three times against Dortmund this season and was a big reason the club beat them both times, something that very few clubs have done since Klopp took over. Son has played out wide, behind the striker and as the most advanced player in his time with Hamburg and his biggest strengths are his great pace and lateral movement across the box.
- Kevin Volland (1899 Hoffenheim) – Although Volland is just making his mark at Hoffenheim his incredible talents and potential will probably take him elsewhere real soon. In Volland, Dortmund would get an all around offensive player who, very much like Son, can play just about anywhere up front. Volland has played out wide and off the striker this season but his finishing is as good as it gets in his age group and he possesses the creative instincts of a playmaker.
Klopp and Dortmund could realistically pick up where they left off with any of the above mentioned players. They all possess qualities that Klopp would look for in a player, but suppose he decided to pursue players like Volland and Son. Doing so could very much influence the team’s tactical evolution. Jakub Błaszczykowski will still play a big role in the team in the short term and either Götze or Reus could fill in up top in the customary 4-2-3-1. Moritz Leitner may get his turn in central midfield or further advanced or Ilkay Gündogan could fill in behind the striker as he did with Nürnberg.
In the long term though, it’s not unrealistic to foresee a gradual progression to a 4-3-3. With either Volland or Son, an interchangeable front three alongside Reus and Götze is a real possibility and a setup suited for the freedom and variety allowed by the 4-3-3 possession. The Dutch and Spanish models are again obvious examples and Klopp is admittedly a huge admirer or Barcelona’s work over the years. The team would still be infused with their own trademark high tempo style but it could play out through an updated model.
Regardless of whether Lewandowski leaves this summer or the next, like Klopp said a few days ago, the club will be ready. Klopp’s success with Dortmund is very much a result of his willingness and ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Dortmund were said to struggle after Nuri Sahin left but they bounced back even stronger and acquired a player with an even greater ceiling in Ilkay Gündogan. Similarly, Barrios’ goals appeared invaluable but they compensated with an even more prolific striker in Lewandowski. Last year Kagawa’s departure threatened to leave a creative hole but the team is even more dynamic with Reus and Götze. You can bet that whatever fans and pundits speculate, Klopp is already a step or two ahead.