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Axel Witsel Q&A with Fear the Wall

Sean Keyser, who manages SB Nation’s Borussia Dortmund site, gives us an idea of what to expect from Witsel.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Borussia Dortmund - UEFA Champions League Group A Photo by David Aliaga/MB Media/Getty Images

Into the Calderón: How would you characterize Axel’s four years at Borussia Dortmund?

Fear the Wall: A gradual downward trend. When he initially joined in 2018, he was arguably the club’s most important player. At the very least, he was the club’s most important midfielder. He was a brick wall in front of the back line and wonderful in possession. He would finish games with absurd pass accuracy percentages, like 95% or higher, all the time. He was a big reason BVB got as close as they did to winning the Bundesliga title in 2018-19. He was very good again in 2019-20, but unfortunately the club couldn’t score enough in the first half of the season and Erling Haaland arrived too late to help BVB win a title.

Like the rest of the team, Witsel struggled in 2020-21, and suffered that disastrous Achilles injury in 2021. H has never been the same player since the injury. His ability to cover a lot of ground completely evaporated. He was never supposed to play more than 1,000 or so minutes last season, but a slew of injuries to BVB’s other midfielders meant he was used a lot more than manager Marco Rose would have planned for. Rose’s system was very demanding from the #6, giving them quite a bit of defensive responsibility, and Witsel very often struggled to fill this role.

Overall, Witsel will be remembered fondly. He was a leader on and off the pitch and I never once questioned his work ethic or desire to win. He was largely responsible for the single best half-season of the last 8 or so years for BVB in the fall of 2018, and was very reliable until his injury. I personally hope that he’s able to carve out a niche at Atlético Madrid and help them make some noise in Spain or in Europe.

ItC: You mentioned his Achilles tendon tear in your first answer. How well did Witsel recover from such a traumatic injury?

FtW: First things first, the fact that he’s playing at all, let alone at such a high level, after an achilles tendon injury at his age, is remarkable. For many players, this type of injury is career-ending.

Witsel has been a much different player since the injury. He’s lost more than a step. He used to be first to every loose ball and able to catch all but the quickest attackers, but those days are behind him. He has to use his positioning a lot more, but there’s only so far that can take him.

ItC: What facets of his game should excite Atlético supporters? What do you feel are his weaknesses?

FtW: Not to use a tired hockey cliché, but he’s very much a “meat and potatoes” kind of player (although he does have a knack for bangers like once a year).

I think he’s the exact type of player that Diego Simeone will love. He’s slow but hasn’t lost his strength, and he can body almost any forward or midfielder he comes across off the ball. He’s very smart in possession, and practically never misses a pass long or short. He used to be an underrated dribbler as well, although that’s diminished significantly following the injury. Most of all he’s a veteran who’s done it all and will be a calm, competent presence on the pitch who will never fold under pressure.

As I mentioned above, his primary weakness is his lack of ability to cover ground. I’m no expert on Atlético, but I know that Simeone’s system is physically demanding, so that might be a problem, even if he doesn’t have to cover as much ground.

ItC: Any parting words about Witsel for our readers?

FtW: You now have the player with the best hair in La Liga. Cherish it well.