Deep-lying controlling midfielders are some of the most aesthetically pleasing footballers to watch in the world. Setting the tempo and rhythm of the game is an incredibly difficult skill to master, requiring inch-perfect technique, passing and bat-like spatial awareness. Often though, a desire to hold onto the ball and play safe come at the detriment of the overall team performance.
Many would say Andrea Pirlo mastered the art of playing in this deeper ‘regista’ role during his later years at Juventus. The beauty of Pirlo was that he was a risk-taker. Like Evil Knievel soaring through the sky, Andrea Pirlo – with less glitz and more elegance – pinged passes left, right and most importantly, forward. The Italian’s lofted passes were especially dangerous and while they were not always as inch-perfect as we like to remember, they were almost always accurate enough to cause problems.
They broke defensive structure. They caused panic. They broke lines.
‘Breaking the lines’ is a term we use a lot at Scouted Football. We think it is a skill that breaks open games and unlocks defences – or at least puts them under duress. Its importance was highlighted in the summer by Pep Guardiola and Manchester City’s £50 million-pound acquisition of John Stones. Defensive-minded players with the ability instigate attacks through dangerous passes into the centre of midfield and beyond are now worth their weight in gold in the modern era.
Naturally, this also means that a player that possesses these Pirlo-like skills at the base of midfield is becoming more important as time wears on. The dilemma? They must be able to do this while being able to defend like peak Claude Makelele.
Sergio Busquets has established himself as the prototype and has since become one of Barcelona’s most indispensable players, potentially only behind Lionel Messi. The Spaniard quickly became a favourite of Guardiola’s, with the current Manchester City boss once remarking "If I was reincarnated as a player, I'd like to be like him”.
But Busquets, while brilliant in possession, does not quite have Pirlo’s expansive passing range nor Makelele’s gut-busting defensive menace. As always, there is room to improve on the prototype.
This brings us to Julian Weigl. Tall, lanky, but with remarkably good co-ordination, the German’s performances this season have a lot of ‘Busquets 2.0’ about them.
Under the tutelage of the brilliant Thomas Tuchel, Weigl’s game is developing rapidly. Not just the excellent tempo passer providing an option for centre-backs to bounce off, Tuchel’s game plan has promoted positive possession. It is not something the 21-year-old is entirely comfortable with.
Even since his time with 1860 Munich, his unwillingness to truly involve himself in attacking play has been noted. He is still developing trust in his own ability to turn away from the safety of his centre-backs in favour of utilising the space afforded to him at the base of midfield to truly damage the opposition. But Tuchel seems to be pushing for the German midfielder to take the game on.
Weigl’s performance against Sporting in the Champions League was probably the best of his career so far; while his goal probably elevated the performance to that calibre, Weigl was constantly pushing the game forward and taking advantage of his time on the ball.
It must also be noted that part of his role is to purely act as a pivot so that play can be switched across to the opposite flank – and he still did that against Sporting. But Weigl is becoming less and less negative in possession, and routinely pushing into the 60-70% range for forward pass percentage in each match. Against Sporting, he hit 47 of 82 passes forward and played 15 passes into the final third. (You can watch every pass he made in the match in the embedded tweet below.)
In doing this, his unwillingness to drift into attacking areas is compensated by his ability to be the creative player pulling the strings from deep, as well as being a midfield metronome. He is adding more and more dimensions to his game and it having a strikingly positive impact on Dortmund’s attacking game.
It has allowed Dortmund’s midfielders to sit unusually high up the pitch and creates a lot of space between the lines for these players to drop in and fill, rather than having to drop even deeper to pick the ball up from Weigl to play the line-breaking pass themselves. It is working wonders for Gonzalo Castro especially.
Weigl’s spatial awareness must also be applauded, with his instinct to fill the defensive half spaces often noticeable. He is rarely caught too central when play is being directed wide. Physically, he is not quite a destroyer but he only just turned 21 and soon he will fill out more and become stronger and more robust in the challenge – although he is already an avid slide tackler.
The Borussia Dortmund midfielder will be a top player. But to elevate himself to stratospheric heights he must continue being different. And to be different, he needs to be damaging, he needs to take risks and he needs to break lines. Anyone can pass backwards.