Dortmund's Hummels conundrum

Instead of the considerable hoopla, sensationalism, pseudo-moralizing and all the #narratives surrounding the return of Mats Hummels, this newsletter\post will take a look what the veteran center back will bring to BVB. In doing so, I’ll take a closer look at his final Bayern season, his strength and weaknesses and how\why he fits in at Dortmund, as well as some potential question marks regarding what it means for the Black and Yellows vis a vis Bayern.

One of the main reasons for signing Hummels, despite a contentious exit last time around, is that he is a Watzke favorite and one with still many strong ties to Borussia. More importantly, BVB leadership’s assessment of last season was that the team needed experience in the back and made too many mistakes in the spring.  Putting aside the non-footballing drama with the return of Hummels, there are two competing narratives. 

The glass half-full version is that despite a difficult and mistake-ridden early portion of the season at Bayern, (Sancho running circles around him, struggles against Hertha’s and Düsseldorf’s speedy counters) Hummels rebounded strongly and is considered to be the top German CB by kicker - although best try not to mention that to the Bayern brass. Alongside Jerome Boateng, the 30 year-old is still the preeminent ball-playing/playmaking CB in the Bundesliga and he is, as BVB found out, still a huge threat on set pieces. He’s still capable of virtuoso performances - the cup final in Leipzig, where he is splitting the RBL press via a solo dribble comes to mind - and because of his football intelligence can play at a high level for at least 3-4 years. Dortmund getting a familiar player, with all kinds of leadership qualities for 30.5m (including bonuses) is certainly a nice bit of business. Hummels will also perhaps have an easier time in Favre’s more conservative defensive scheme that won’t expose his lack of speed the way the tactics of Kovac or Jogi Löw did.

(Rashica has a chance to dribble at Hummels in open play and easily runs past him to score Bremen’s equalizer in an April, 2019 DFB Cup match)

The glass half-empty version focuses on the negative aspects of Hummels’ game. That lack of speed and the ability to look pedestrian in open space versus the likes of Milot Rashica, Dodi Lukebakio or even Blaise Matuidi in the UEFA Nations League among others (see below), though at least Jadon Sancho will only join that list in training. 

(Heidenheim’s Maurice Multhaup beats Hummels in space, as the Bayern CB can’t react with his feet, he is forced to reach and bring him down for a penalty in the 5-4  cup win in April, 2019)

And for all the plaudits earned from kicker (which has its own biases), Hummels was directly at fault for the above 2 goals, plus the Mane goal and perhaps the van Dijk header, both positional mistakes, that doomed Bayern in the UCL. In addition, he was partly to blame for Hertha’s first goal (Mittelstadt running into the box) and committed an absolute howler of a backpass for their second) in a February cup match. 

Furthermore, prior the deciding 2nd Leverkusen goal in the highly entertaining 3-1 win by Bayer  Hummels got caught in no man’s land before Mitchell Weiser’s through ball. That’s at least seven mistakes leading directly to goals, which (based on my film study) is more than he committed in the Hinrunde: the Sancho run (PK goal), the 2 goals against Gladbach (first and third), and if we want to be strict we can give him half for the Felix Götze equalizer for Augsburg and the Wolfsburg consolation goal (ball played behind him on the counter). That is 4 at best, though we are discounting his terrible giveaway in the tenth minute which led to Marco Reus missing a 1v1 w Neuer in the 3-2 BVB win in November. Long story short, the “Hummels has been a better defender in the Rückrunde” theory does not hold up. I understand that there is a lot more to defending than just big mistakes and I am sympathetic to the idea that Hummels and Bayern improved a lot in the spring, but one can certainly understand that sort of cautiousness from people who hold the glass half-empty view.

Still, Hummels overall is an excellent addition and a natural fit at BVB for two additional reasons: the Favre system should protect him more (well maybe not the brainfart passes - sorry Zagadou) especially if the 4-2-3-1 continues to deploy the defensively stout Witsel (44 of 54 tackles successful) and Delaney (succeeded on 58 of his 67 attempted tackles) duo, thus limiting his exposure vs attackers in space. Secondly, Manuel Akanji seems like the ideal partner for Hummels in a number of ways. Their weaknesses, speed\ defending in space for Hummels, aerial duels, playmaking and progressive passes for Akanji,  perfectly complement each other. You can just envisage Akanji cleaning up after a winger blows by Hummels, much like Niklas Süle did for Bayern.

Hummels in turn should help with BVB’s aerial difficulties on defensive set pieces - at the very least by no longer scoring\dominating against them on corners - while the former Bayern CB will also take over the playmaking duties which are not Akanji’s forte. On the team level, Hummels can surely improve building out of the back, which given the change in the GK rule, will arguably be an even bigger focus. While the extra 18 yards to be defended and further ramifications vis a vis oppositional pressing and defensive strategies lie beyond the scope of this piece, adding the premier passing CB in the Bundesliga is a substantial improvement.

(Progressive Passes per 90 minutes via Wyscout)

Already in preseason, the man who has “outside of boot” (Aussenrist) as his social mendia handle is living up to his name:

What does the Hummels signing mean for BVB ?

Clearly, with the arrival of Mats Hummels, the CB position is addressed in terms of buildup help and ball progression and if the partnership with Akanji works, defensively as well.

Of course there is a trickle down effect: the departure of Abdou Diallo (31-32m to PSG) is perhaps short-sighted, though making a small profit (3-4 m) on a player who despite his versatility would presently be a backup at LCB (Hummels, perhaps Zagadou) and LB (Schulz\Hakimi) is certainly a win-now kind of move.

I believe there are a number of reasons why BVB brass think that way:

In their mind, Bayern’s transition post-Guardiola has been rocky (albeit still dominating the Bundesliga, less so in Europe) and they are only now starting to make some good long-term signings (Pavard, Hernandez, Arp) to add to their younger core (Kimmich, Goretzka, Süle, etc). An injury to Lewandowski or Thiago could torpedo them and even with those two all-Bundesliga players, the past season has shown that Bayern are certainly, at last, beatable. Whether that has to do with Kovac’s efficient but only sporadically entertaining football or the FCB leadership living in the past is perhaps irrelevant.

It would seem that after the failed Bosz/Stöger year, Dortmund got their desired man in Lucien Favre after all, and despite the tough ending, no one really expected quite a debut season. So, Watzke and Zorc have to feel that BVB’s timeline to win the Bundesliga has accelerated so quickly under Favre. Knowing how last season went down, the fact that the Swiss coach rarely sticks around for the long haul, plus given Bayern’s rather tepid transfer window and Hummels not exactly having a great relationship/future with Kovac opened the window of opportunity.

Dortmund smashed that window by bringing back a player of Hummels’ quality and stature, plus added some peak-age talent in Brandt, Hazard and Schulz who offer much-needed depth in quality. That is bad news for the likes of a heap of “still relatively/somewhat young, but not quite at the talent only stage of their careers” players: Dan-Axel Zagadou (there were a lot of immediate transfer rumors upon Hummels’ arrival), Jacob Bruun Larsen (who still could play some backup winger minutes with Brandt playing centrally) and Raphael Guerreiro played over 1250 league minutes and ranked 11-14th on the team. It’s even worse for Maxi Philipp and Mo Dahoud who played in the 700s minutes-wise and are 3rd choices for most positions. In terms of the CB position, we already mentioned the now-departed Diallo and Zagadou as the losers of the Hummels signing, but the now suddenly 30-year-old Ömer Toprak and the 20-year-old Leonardo Balerdi (from reports, he is still a ways away from being able to contribute meaningfully on the Bundesliga level) can hardly be called winners either.

Overall though, paying 30.5 million for a thirty and half year old CB, who has arguably been one of the top 10 CBs of this decade is a solid/small risk to take for Dortmund, who are perhaps now neck and neck with Bayern for the 2019\20 Bundesliga title.