Ilkay Gündoğan and Forgetting about Sahin 2.0

by Travis Timmons

At the conclusion of 2011-2012’s Hinrunde, Ilkay Gündoğan seemed crushed under the squat weight of expectation. By the holiday break, he had 1 goal, 1 yellow card, and (amazingly) no assists. The main complaint was that he slowed Die Schwarzgelben‘s stinging attack down by holding the ball too long.

Tellingly, he was underwhelming in matches like Borussia Dortmund’s 4-0 and 5-0 romps over Augsburg and Köln. Nuri Sahin’s appointed replacement seemed to be anything but.  Thanks to the distraction of Borussia Dortmund’s 32 point and 10 win Hinrunde, Gündoğan’s struggles received little attention.  Things got worse: “Illy” rode the bench with minimal playing time and even played a game on Dortmund’s reserve squad during the beginning of the Rückrunde.

Here, I believe, we can pause the story and simply state that Gündoğan was both a victim of wrongly-placed expectations as well as Jürgen Klopp fumbling around a bit with his lineup’s chemistry. Furthermore, at this moment Gündoğan represents Dortmund as a microcosm, or its synecdoche. Was he simply supposed to replace Nuri Sahin so that 2010-2011’s Dortmund machine could thrum on, or was Dortmund itself changing into something else? That is, was Dortmund a machine or something else?

Then Gündoğan scored “the goal,” a game winner on March 20th. It happened at 120′ in extra time during the DFB-Pokal semi-final against SpVgg Greuther Fürth. The pinball goal was cathartic for Gündoğan – and the whole squad. Boss Jürgen Klopp was besides himself with defiant adrenaline. Illy was promptly buried in a pile of Schwarzgelben love.

I think it’s simplistic to label this goal as the turnaround moment, or “coming to Jesus moment,” for Gündoğan’s inaugural campaign with rampant Dortmund in any other sense but psychologically for the Turkish German. No, Gündoğan didn’t suddenly become “Nuri Sahin 2.0,” yet from this point on, he suddenly began mostly playing 70+, 80+ minutes per match for Dortmund.

He ended 2011-2012 with one more goal (it’s worth watching – a creative effort against Nürnberg), three assists (this one against Bremen is lovely), and three WhoScored.com’s man of the match awards. (His average player rating on the same site steadily climbed to its campaign end 7.24, including his single best effort of 9.24 during Dortmund’s 4-0 victory lap romp over Freiburg.) His rhythm and pass timing improved, as he began to find his place in the frantic pace that is Dortmund footy. His improved play even attracted the attention of Jogi Löw, who stuck Gündoğan on Germany’s bench for the Euro 12 campaign.

The 21 year old’s 2011-2012 other final numbers look like this, which I paired with the Bundesliga’s top performer in each category for context (with some attempt to weed out relative statistical outliers in each category):

  • 22 starts in 28 appearances (vs. 34).
  • 85% of passes completed (vs. 91%) .
  • Averaged 2.3 dribbles per game (vs. 5.3).
  • Averaged 1.3 shots per game (vs. 3.5).
  • Averaged 48 passes per game (vs. 76.5, thanks lateral Lahm!).
  • Averaged 1.2 “key” passes per game (vs. 2.7).
  • Averaged 0.5 accurate crosses per game (vs. 2.3).
  • Averaged 5.1 successful longballs per game (vs. 9.5, I skipped the GKs) .
  • Averaged 0.2 successful throughballs per game (vs. 0.5).
  • Averaged 1.8 times dispossessed per game (vs. 2.9).
  • Averaged 1 turnover per game (vs. 2.2).
In general, Gündoğan’s numbers put him in the Bundesliga top 30 in most categories. They also reveal areas where Illy can expand his role in Dortmund’s offensive attack, as he continues to settle in; specifically, he needs to grow in the number of total successful passes per game, number of longball and throughball passes, and number of dribbling runs. More passes total = more involvement, while more successful longballs and throughballs = more danger for defenders; finally, more dribbles could = more openings for attacking teammates. Put together, I think improvement in these areas will increase assists for Illy. (I discount “key passes” here for both statistical reasons and because an increase of these passes tend to correlate with a higher number of turnovers and unsuccessful passes – essentially, a more risk adverse passer – we’ll see this with Nuri Sahin later in this article.)

I am confident that Gündoğan can deliver in these passing categories when I watch footage of 2011-2012 highlights:

Obviously, the video contains selective cuts of positive footage, so I don’t want to use it to evaluate Gündoğan, only to fall prey to the confirmation bias. The video is useful, however, in offering discrete bits of action that feature skills Gündoğan brings to the pitch, as he builds up a “body of work” (as we say American sports culture). Don’t forget that these highlights capture a season in which he struggled for a while. My observations:

  • He’s crafty.
  • His feet are devilishly quick.
  • He’s a technically accomplished dribbler.
  • He shifts his body well (sort of like a quick NFL running back).
  • He can execute pinpoint aerial long ball and ground ball passes.
  • He specializes in deft flick passing.
  • He actually should have had more assists in 2011-2012 – “Crossbar” had a great season against him.
At the very least, and despite any mistakes he might make on the pitch, the bullet points here capture what we call “exciting.” I wouldn’t go so far as to call Illy flashy, like Cristiano Ronaldo, rather his style is punctuated with moments of flash, yet substance in terms of meaningful passes and productive footwork toward the goal.
So where are we now?
I wonder if Bundesliga and Dortmund fans like myself still expect an eventual “Nuri Sahin 2.0″ role from Gündoğan, or have displaced this expectation with the reality of Illy’s actual play in the present. I wonder about Gündoğan, because I wonder in general about the nature of Dortmund’s play, especially this question: is Dortmund a machine into which the charismatic Klopp can simply plug in replaceable parts and motivate these parts to run the hell out of the pitch?
Put another way, I’m wondering to what extent Dortmund is a system of play vs. a set of circumstances orchestrated around the chemistry of a present moment. My litmus tests have been the departure of Sahin, the entrance of  Gündoğan, and the injury to Götze – you can also throw in Klopp dealing with other changes, like Bender’s injury, Barrios’ struggles, and Subotić’s injury. Despite these changes in 2011-2012, Dortmund marched on to triumph. Chock it up to Klopp, chock it up to pure talent and excellent development, chock it up to a system. Or chock it up to all of the above.
But was Gündoğan ever really supposed to be the functional equivalent of Sahin’s replacement? After all, their playing styles bear some striking differences. Overall, Gündoğan is – perhaps – the more technically brilliant of the two, while Sahin is more involved on the pitch. Particularly, Sahin’s play features these elements:
  • He plays more aerial longballs.
  • He’s more of a goal scoring threat, thanks to his crashing runs into the box and volley-habit.
  • He’s a bit of free kick, corner kick, and volley specialist.
  • His favorite trick is this wonderfully looping aerial longball.
  • He’s less risk-adverse as a passer, happy to lob longballs into the box.
  • His play seems more physical.
This video might remind you of Nuri Sahin, circa 2010-2011, if your memory of him has faded as fast as his Bundesliga career. This WhoScored.com infographic runs down some meaningful stats from that season, too. To me, the numbers on the infographic reflect Sahin’s risk-taking passing: he led the league in key passes and inaccurate passes in the opposition’s half. And if you need cliched shortcuts, I can put it like this: Gündoğan is more “Spanish,” while Sahin is more “English.” One is not necessarily better than the other – everything depends on context.

Nuri Sahin was amongst the most important players in the 2010/11 season.

In hindsight, this Rational Football blog post is prophetic in predicting the midfield tactical adjustments that Dortmund would have to make eventually to accommodate Gündoğan’s different style and function: his advanced field positioning, his penchant for shorter passes, and his decreased level of involvement defensively and crashing into the box contrasted with Sahin.

The footy analysis begins breaking down the notion that Dortmund is a machine with replaceable parts. Obviously, Gündoğan for Sahin is not a like-for-like swapping of parts. Instead, what does abide from Dortmund’s two championship seasons is a style, more than anything else – one of hyperactive ball-pressing defense and speed forward on the attack.  Meanwhile, I would argue, the style is expansive enough to accommodate a variety of midfield passing strategies. Hence Dortmund’s ability to adapt and adjust to the squad fluctuations during 2011-2012.

I wonder, however, if Dortmund was a better side during 2011-2012 for another reason: Gündoğan’s indirect effect on his teammates, which further catalyzed Dortmund to evolve its play in 2011-2012. This Michael Cox analysis explains that although Sahin was responsible for more aggregate offensive action than Gündoğan, the latter, who was responsible for less in 2011-2012, enabled other teammates to become more involved, like fellow midfielder Sebastian Kehl, whose number of total passes per game (41) nearly mirrors that of Gündoğan. Perhaps I could venture to conclude that Sahin’s departure was a proverbial “blessing in disguise” for Dortmund, giving other talents a chance to meaningfully contribute to attack on BVB’s march to the salad plate.

So instead of Dortmund’s story the past couple seasons being about a machine ruthlessly marching on, it seems that it’s really a story about evolution – that is, selective adaptability in the service of a style.

Gündoğan’s Bildungroman narrative in 2011-2012 crystallizes Dortmund’s ability to evolve. which steels me with the belief that they can continue to succeed despite the transfer market and the purchasing power of Europe’s big money sirens. So even more than Marco Reus, I’ll be closely watching Gündoğan’s progress this campaign. Specifically, I’m interested to see if he grows into a more involved passer and takes advantage of his wonderful dribbling technique to start runs deeper in the midfield, crossing around the center circle, at which point he’ll pose a slippery double-threat for defenders. He already looks sharper, quicker, and more composed in Dortmund’s pre-season matches – as he threads crisp passes, while menacing closer to the right side of the box. Besides, Reus is already a somewhat known  commodity, albeit an exciting one. Gündoğan? I think we have much to learn about him, as we watch the 21-year-old mature.

In some eyes, he has already been thrust into a leadership role. This situation for the Turkish German, who could play for either national team – of course we all know he chose Germany and made the Euro 12 squad. Like  the Alintop brothers and Özil, Gündoğan was born in Gelsenkirchen to Turkish immigrants, an indirect product of Gastarbeiter. Although Illy might symbolize models of cultural integration off the field, on the field models and machines must be dispensed with, as I watch him free of the “Nuri Sahin 2.0″ expectations.

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Author:Travis Timmons

Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. In addition to editing and writing here, he writes a regular Bundesliga column for Bloomberg Sports and sometimes blogs about sports and the meaning of life at http://sportisourstory.tumblr.com/ and tweets at @tptimmons.
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