How Erik Durm has benefitted from Borussia Dortmund’s defensive crisis

by Archie Rhind-Tutt

The 21-year old has made a remarkable and rapid rise from being a second team striker to starting at left back for BVB.

Mainz has proved to be a valuable breeding ground for Borussia Dortmund. It was where Jürgen Klopp played and where he began his coaching career in February 2001. Just over seven years later, he was making the transition from Mainz to Dortmund, bringing with him a 19-year-old centre back called Neven Subotic. In between now and July 2008, two Bundesliga titles, one DFB-Pokal and a Champions League Final have followed. Klopp has been hailed as the mastermind behind these achievements and Subotic in turn has been a very important part of his team – this you probably knew.

In the summer of 2012 though, another man made the journey from Mainz to Borussia Dortmund. Young striker Erik Durm didn’t play a game for the Mainz first team but he was offered a four year deal by the club before departing. The problem for Durm was that he wasn’t given the assurances he wanted – that he’d be training with the pros at the club. As talks broke down, Borussia Dortmund came in and off Durm went to the reigning German champions.

Whilst BVB were enjoying their run to the Champions League Final last season, Durm was with the second team, trying to keep Borussia Dortmund II in the third tier of German football. But on Saturday, the 21-year-old has a great chance of lining up against Bayern Munich at left back – a position he did not even play once for the second team last year.

After an initial spell in his preferred role as a striker, Durm then flitted between playing as a left midfielder and as a winger. It wasn’t until he had a chat with Jürgen Klopp after a training session with the first team towards the end of the last campaign that the idea of becoming a full back was put to him.

As Durm explained in an interview with SPOX in September, as long as it meant he could play in the Bundesliga, it was no problem at all. Klopp explained the potential he saw in him as a right back but added that he should think it through carefully. For Durm though, it was just too tantalising a proposition.

His retraining began when he arrived back for preseason as the 21-year-old watched and analysed video sequences cut together for him of the team’s first choice full backs, Marcel Schmelzer and Lukasz Piszczek. This learning was enhanced by playing in the position in training and in pre-season friendlies but SPOX were interested see if Durm knew off by heart what Jürgen Klopp wants from his right backs – which he did.

“Of course – there are a couple of bullet points which I can mention. If the ball is on the left hand side, always orientate yourself on where the back line stands. After gaining possession, quickly get to a position high up the pitch in order to be able to participate in the attacking play. Then there are a couple of other things like hesitating and attacking but those things are left to intuition and it also depends on the current situation on the pitch.”

Durm’s response is testament to the meticulous preparation of Jürgen Klopp but also to his own work in being able to get up to speed. It was in fact the 21-year-old’s speed on the pitch along with his stamina that led to Klopp approaching him in the summer. With each player’s progress closely monitored, Klopp was encouraged by Durm’s impressive numbers when it came to his pace and stamina as he’d then prove once more in pre-season where he showed himself as the fittest player in the squad.

Physically speaking, Klopp described him as “the most extraordinary player we have,” not just in his endurance but with his pace too. Given how much he likes his full backs to run, you can understand his excitement in finding a player such as Durm. The striker turned full back had also done enough in pre-season to earn a place on the bench on the opening day of the season at Augsburg as he even had a three minute run out with Dortmund 4-0 up.

Some game time at right back was acquired in the form of a second team game against Jahn Regensburg in the third tier. Such has been his subsequent form and such have been the injuries Dortmund have sustained defensively, that remains the only occasion he’s played for Borussia Dortmund II this season. Another cameo came, again with BVB cruising, this time against Hamburg in mid-September but just a week later, Durm had his Bundesliga debut in the away draw with Nuremberg.

It coincided with the team dropping their first league points of the season but Durm was solid on debut, especially considering the circumstances. He played at right back for the first half but with left back Marcel Schmelzer sustaining an injury, Durm was switched to the left flank for the second half with Kevin Grosskreutz moving to the right back slot he’s occupied for most of the season.

The move didn’t affect Durm as he continued to put in a solid display. Klopp had suggested to him that he’d be perfect for right or left defence in their original chat last season which makes this relative success a little less surprising.

With Schmelzer missing the next three weeks, it was time to further test Klopp’s original theory as the 21-year-old made his first Westfalenstadion start at left back in a 5-0 success over Freiburg. A good enough display once more, yet he put in a better performance on in the Champions League against Marseille, showing that fabled pace of his on what he described as a fairytale debut.

Just 16.5 seconds after a Marseille free-kick was floated into the Dortmund box where Durm was defending, the 21-year-old was putting the ball across for Robert Lewandowski to put BVB ahead as they went on to win 3-0. Durm also started the next game though – Dortmund’s first domestic defeat of the season at Borussia Mönchengladbach. It was a somewhat unfortunate loss given that BVB were dominant but Durm’s place in the team was not compromised with Schmelzer still out.

Even with the first choice full back close to a return, Jürgen Klopp was happy to continue with Durm after the international break against Hannover, a decision that was rewarded when he was fouled by Hiroki Sakai inside the penalty area. The following spot kick was converted by Marco Reus for the only goal of the game.

Durm had previously talked about the benefits of being a skilled attacking player in his new position and his performances against Hannover and Marseille certainly justified that. It wasn’t like he’d had to look far for inspiration in terms of other players who successfully made the transition from attack to defence with injured first choice right back Lukasz Piszczek also starting out as a forward earlier in his career.

However, when Schmelzer returned to fitness, Durm didn’t keep his starting spot for either the Arsenal away game or the Revierderby the following week. You can understand Klopp’s thinking given Schmelzer’s experience and standing as being not just Borussia’s first choice left back but Germany’s too.

Schmelzer though could partly be faulted for the goal that Arsenal scored that week as he failed to close down the cross from Bacary Sagna but for the most part, he justified his selection. Yet at half time in the Revierderby, even with Dortmund one goal up on Schalke, Klopp replaced a struggling Marcel Schmelzer with Erik Durm. No assist or goal for the substitute resulted but the 21-year-old put in a fine performance as Borussia went on to win the game 3-1.

It appeared that Durm had the momentum to make a claim for the left back position over Schmelzer but Klopp stuck with the Germany international for the home game against Stuttgart.  Durm made a 20 minute substitute appearance but that was his last showing for Dortmund before the international break.

It would be incredibly naive to put the following two results down solely to the absence of Erik Durm but Borussia were beaten by both Arsenal in the return game and then away at Wolfsburg as they fell four points behind Bayern in the Bundesliga.

Given how Durm had been playing in Schmelzer’s absence, he perhaps deserved a start in at least one of those defeats. Such is the intensity with which Klopp’s side play, someone with Durm’s fitness and stamina is invaluable. Durm has also been an imposing physical presence, more so than the man currently considered first choice. Add to that the value which attacking full backs have in the modern game along with what he has brought going forward and it’s not such an outlandish idea to consider the 21-year-old as a stronger option than Marcel Schmelzer.

Even defensively in the Bundesliga this season, Durm has been superior to Schmelzer in his tackling. In 690 minutes played, Schmelzer has completed 72.7% of his tackles whilst in comparison Durm’s percentage is at 93.3% from 437 minutes.  Not only is that a sizeable jump from the player you’d now consider his direct opponent in the squad (with Grosskreutz comfortable at right back until Piszczek returns), but it’s also the best figure for any defender who’s played regularly in the Borussia backline this season. There’s more evidence in the Durm over Schmelzer argument given that he’s won nearly 10% more of his duels (54.7% to 44.9%) but Jürgen Klopp doesn’t have to make a decision on this issue for now.

Schmelzer injured his calf in Germany’s 1-0 win over England. He will miss the next three weeks but it’s these very injuries to Schmelzer and indeed the operations which Lukasz Piszczek has had to undergo which have led to Durm getting his chance.

Looking at the bigger picture though, Borussia Dortmund will be missing their entire first choice back four against Bayern on Saturday – something that even Bayern might struggle with (but to be fair, they’re missing Ribery and Schweinsteiger elsewhere). That BVB lost their first choice centre back pairing of Hummels and Subotic to long term injuries in the space of 11 days was particularly unfortunate too. You have to question with these injuries how much of an impact the intensity of Dortmund’s style of play and the lack of rotation recently has influenced this. Jürgen Klopp perhaps bears some responsibility on that front.

Yet looking at a potential back four for the Bayern game, it might not be as disastrous as many fear. Both Sokratis at centre back and utility man Grosskreutz at right back have proved themselves as reliable presences this season. It’s 34-year-old Manuel Friedrich, signed until the end of the season during the week, who is the biggest risk in Klopp’s potential line-up for Saturday. Even then, he’s a former Germany international who spent six years at Bayer Leverkusen and only left them in the summer but his match fitness is a potential worry. Alternatively, Sven Bender could drop back from defensive midfield into central defence.

Still at least at left back, Jürgen Klopp shouldn’t worry. Because even though he may have been the second team’s striker just over a year ago, Erik Durm has proved himself as more than just a promising player at full back. The decision to extend his contract through to 2017 in September before he’d even started a game showed the faith the club had in him but such is the way that he’s played, it’s not that farfetched to see Durm overtaking Schmelzer by the end of the season. Injury withstanding, he’s on course to be another success story to have followed that well trodden path from Mainz to Borussia Dortmund.

Header image courtesy of Facebook.

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Author:Archie Rhind-Tutt

Archie is a freelance sports reporter and producer. Based in London, he reports on the Bundesliga for BT Sport's Sunday Night Football show. He can also be found on Talking Fussball Extra every so often. Archie has also cultivated, along with a man who we shall call "Terry", a fine collection of Bundesliga Bath Ducks. Unless you refer to it as the Bunducksliga and wink twice, he won't know what you’re talking about. When questioned on his relationship status because of the ducks, Archie refused to comment. He can be found on Twitter @archiert1
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