When the Atlético Madrid rumour mill began to turn early this summer, one name that few people had thrown into the ring was Axel Witsel’s. And to be fair, why would they? At 33 years of age, he’s just been allowed to leave Borussia Dortmund for free. Having never played in Spain, or even in France where Atleti have shopped in the not-too-distant past, he would have been a wildcard pick.
But Witsel’s name has been on Atlético’s radar for quite some time. The Colchoneros made an offer for the Belgian to Zenit St. Petersburg back in 2014, fresh off the back of Diego Simeone’s first league title, but the Russians refused to sell the then-25-year-old.
Reports suggest that this summer, he was the club’s second choice behind Boubacar Kamara. But the 22-year-old was tempted by a better financial package on offer from Aston Villa, and Atlético moved for the veteran Witsel before he could agree a contract to join Marseille, Kamara’s former club.
The deal to bring Witsel — a close friend of international teammate Yannick Carrasco — to Madrid now, on an initial one-year contract, looks to be a reaction to a market opportunity. It also happens to resolve one of Atleti’s greatest weaknesses. Here, we’ll take a look at exactly how he could fit into the Atlético squad and what role he could take up within the dressing room.
Axel Witsel profile
Witsel’s reputation precedes him as a tough battler who breaks up play. Known for his physicality and strength in the tackle, he’s certainly not afraid to put himself about and put his body on the line to break up a counter-attack or halt an opposition forward.
An underrated element of his game is his impressive passing. He ranked in the top 1% for pass completion in the Bundesliga for 2021/22, and it’s clear to see why. Precise in his distribution, he has operated as Dortmund’s metronome, dictating the pace and providing the solid deep option to play back to or to begin a transition.
Perhaps key to this is Witsel’s vision and in-game intelligence. He isn’t a player who will often look for spectacular passes, but he knows how to get his team out of trouble, whether in or out of possession.
Another intriguing aspect to his game is his aerial ability. This has become somewhat of a weakness for Atlético over the past 12 months, and Witsel should improve that. At 6’1’’, he may not be the tallest player, but his stats impress. He won 74% of his aerial duels last season, ranking him in the top three percent of Bundesliga players. That presence at set pieces could become a differential factor between himself and Geoffrey Kondogbia, who only won 64.2% of his aerial duels in 2021/22.
Is Witsel still able to produce the goods?
That question will likely determine the success of this deal. Witsel is 33, so this signing will always be a short-term solution. But he has remained a regular for both club and country, even after an Achilles tear in 2021.
In 2021/22, Witself played in 40 of Dortmund’s 45 matches, completing 90 minutes in 19 of those appearances. He also made 10 appearances for Belgium, completing 90 minutes seven times, and was only left out of the squad for an international break once, for two friendlies in March.
This would suggest that physically, he is still up to the challenge. Another long-term injury, or simply his age, could easily catch up with him, but he appears to be in good shape.
The squad’s needs
The most evident need in Diego Simeone’s midfield is bringing in an option to rotate with Kondogbia. The French-born pivot was superb in 2021/22, particularly in the second half of the campaign, but he played only 55% of all minutes available in LaLiga. The remaining 45% saw the likes of Koke trying to play the same role but without the same impact.
Giving Kondogbia some competition will not only get the best out of him, but it’ll enable Simeone to ease up the pressure on him to be available. That will be crucial. The 5 is not a role that a young player can take on easily, as Javier Serrano’s early inconsistencies have shown.
The other area Simeone will be looking to improve is in working against higher presses. Sides who pushed high were able to break through easily and disrupt Atlético’s build-up play, with none of the backline particularly comfortable in possession.
A strong holding midfield presence would provide a crucial possession outlet, and if Kondogbia could be faulted for one area of his game last season, it was in providing that relief given his limited passing range.
Witsel’s passing is somewhat more impressive, with 93.2% accuracy for Dortmund last season. The previous high for an Atlético player under Simeone is Rodri’s 91% in 2018/19 — Witsel could top that. Kondogbia’s stat came in at 87.3% for contrast, but the difference between the two is an incredible 11.4% in Witsel’s favour when it comes to long balls, the kind of passes that provide a rapid solution to escaping a high press.
What role will he play?
Witsel is undoubtedly joining Atlético without any guarantees of being a first-choice regular, particularly given Kondogbia’s form last season. That’s not to say “he won’t play a fundamental role within the squad,” though.
When looking for a like-for-like example, Witsel could be this team’s modern-day Tiago Mendes. That midfield destroyer who can break up play, but also bring everything together with smart passing and intelligent positioning.
Tiago was a player who did not need to play every single match to prove his value, and Simeone managed his minutes well. In the 2013/14 season where he was so crucial, the Portuguese started only 21 of 38 matches in LaLiga, but no one doubted his importance in the engine room alongside Gabi and Koke.
Additionally, and much like Tiago, Witsel will bring much-needed experience to the Rojiblanco midfield. While none of Atleti’s options are spring chickens, Koke is the only other player over the age of 30. Players like Rodrigo de Paul and Thomas Lemar have not spent much of their career competing at the highest level in the same way Witsel has.
This addition is one which feels like it matters both on and off the field, with a short-term solution to a squad weakness resolved by a proven leader.