Julian Weigl is important again. Injury meant the midfielder was forced to watch from the sidelines at the start of the season as BVB blew away all before them, but he has since established himself in a new role. The 23-year-old is an example of how quickly things can change in football. While on a walk in the woods, he explained how those experiences had been "more educational than all the positives" and why he is full of optimism.
Nothing always stays the same. Especially in the rapidly changing world of professional football. Julian Weigl suspected as much in his first Bundesliga season when he felt like he was "on a wave". Back then – in the 2015/16 campaign – the 19-year-old midfielder burst onto the scene as a relative unknown soon after joining Borussia Dortmund from then second-tier outfit 1860 Munich. But it probably wasn't too much of a surprise to Thomas Tuchel, the BVB head coach at that stage. He recognised the prodigious talent of the lanky Bad Aibling native, who had initially planned to make "a temporary move to a smaller Bundesliga club in order to adapt to the conditions in the top flight".
Tuchel, however, convinced the young Weigl to skip that step and move straight to a big club. "He explained that the competition is stiff and the pressure is big at a top club," said the five-time international, who is as relaxed in an interview setting as he is on the pitch. "However, he also made it very clear I'd play if I was better than the others."
An immediate starter
And that's exactly what happened. Weigl went straight into the starting XI, making his debut in a 4-0 win at Borussia Mönchengladbach and impressing with his natural ability to win the ball back in tight spaces in front of the defence before initiating attacks with his intelligent and precise range of passing. In most of his 51 competitive appearances − 30 of which came in the Bundesliga − Weigl appeared so effortless and relaxed that he acquired the rather complimentary reputation of being a "passing machine" that worked like clockwork in Tuchel's positional play. Reflecting on being thrust into the spotlight, Weigl said: "In my first season at BVB, I never really thought much or hesitated; instead, I simply played as best I could. In 2015/16, I enjoyed every moment and it was a great time."
At the same time, the naturally positive "Jule" began to wonder for the first time about "how I'd probably react if I had to go through a more difficult period where I did not perform as well. Sometimes they catch you completely by surprise, and then your mind goes into overdrive and you think too much."
But Weigl's initial high continued for a while longer. The midfielder − whose first Borussia Dortmund game at Signal Iduna Park as a spectator at the age of 15 made such an impression on him that he started to think "I want to play there someday" − was a consistent performer in the BVB team throughout 2016/17, making 30 appearances in the Bundesliga and 43 in total. But both he and his team-mates were shaken to the core towards the end of the season by the spineless attack on the team bus ahead of the Champions League quarter-final first leg on 11 April 2017. Then one month later, in the penultimate game away to FC Augsburg, he suffered an ankle dislocation − his first serious injury. It was especially painful because it meant that he would not be able to feature for Dortmund in the 2-1 DFB Cup final victory against Eintracht Frankfurt a fortnight later or for Germany in the Confederations Cup in Russia that summer.
"Weeks in which I grew to love BVB even more"
In his most difficult hour as a patient and a convalescent, Weigl greatly appreciated the mental support and encouragement shown to him by his team-mates. A prime example was Marco Reus − nowadays an exemplary Borussia Dortmund captain − who visited Weigl and took him to a cafe shortly after his friend had undergone an ankle operation in order to cheer him up while he was still on crutches. "He's unfortunately very experienced at dealing with injuries," said Weigl, "and so he was a key source of support for me back then. He really helped me, as did a whole host of other players. They were weeks in which I grew to love BVB even more than I already did."
When Weigl's fracture had eventually healed and he made a 24-minute comeback in the 5-0 home victory over 1. FC Cologne four months later, he at times resembled the precision passer and midfield metronome that had won over team-mates and supporters alike following his arrival at the club. But Weigl himself was aware that not everything was likely to happen as naturally for him as it had done after his transfer from Munich in the summer of 2015. Coach Thomas Tuchel had since been replaced by the Dutchman Peter Bosz, who tried to replace the German's preferred 4-1-4-1 system based on possession and defensive stability with a 4-3-3 formation that prioritised quickly winning the ball back and countering. "My return was obviously not so bad," says Weigl as he casts a glance back to the early autumn of 2017. "But I still didn't truly manage to rediscover my game. I was consistently spending too long on the ball and making incorrect decisions. You suddenly want to do special things when they aren't even necessary."
The fact that Bosz played the defensive organiser, who speaks perfect high German when away from his Bavarian hometown, further forward in his system did not help while Weigl was trying to rediscover his form. "It wasn't easy to stay patient and wait for the moment when things would start to happen naturally again," said Weigl. "I was now getting fewer touches of the ball than I had been earlier." In May 2016, he had set a Bundesliga record in the 2-2 draw against 1. FC Cologne with 214 touches of the ball. Now, though, "I was struggling to find my spaces in the new system. In the disastrous 4-4 draw against Schalke 04, I only had 30 touches of the ball − as many as I usually do in the opening 20 minutes. What made things even more difficult was the downward spiral we entered into under Bosz. Everyone was struggling at the time."
Ultimately, the Dutchman was relieved of his duties in 2017 and replaced by the Austrian Peter Stöger for the remainder of a season in which little seemed to go right for Weigl or any of his team-mates. "In the end, we could be happy we managed to finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League despite all the adversities and shortcomings," said Julian Weigl of a campaign that will not live long in the memory.
"I stopped thinking too much and hesitating, instead just playing how I could"
When Lucien Favre was appointed as Stöger's successor in the summer of 2018, Julian Weigl was unable to take part in pre-season preparations for the second successive year due to an "adductor inflammation that developed into osteitis pubis". "The doctors advised me to take a holiday and to avoid sport so that my complaints would clear up." But towards the end of his enforced vacation, the pain came back and Weigl had no choice but to take a longer break. When he finally returned to the training ground, the team had already gelled together and picked up their first successful results of the season with the new signings of Axel Witsel and Thomas Delaney as the double pivot in midfield. Julian Weigl, used to life as a first-team regular, found himself behind the Belgian, the Dane and the Germany U21 international Mahmoud Dahoud in the pecking order. "I have no complaints about the fact we have more competition in midfield," he said. "We've gained in quality. But by the time I returned, the lads already knew what was important for the coach and how his new system − usually a 4-2-3-1 − should function. We were already operating smoothly, and there were times when I would think to myself: who is actually waiting for you?"
For a man who had been one of the first names on the team sheet in 2015, being handed only three cameo appearances in the first 16 matchdays did not go down well. It was the toughest test for Julian Weigl in his four seasons at BVB, with the carefree teenage hero from the 2015/16 campaign having been reduced to a bench-warmer or sometimes even a spectator in the stands. "I was not satisfied with the situation," said Weigl earnestly. "And for the people around me, it wasn't so easy when I came home from training in a bad mood." Fortunately, the player who felt he had been cast to one side had his girlfriend Sarah Richmond for support. To distract his thoughts away from football, with all its up and downs, Weigl would take long walks with his Labrador "Mason". "It's a little bit of time out for me, otherwise there's so much happening on your phone, social networks and so on," said the midfielder of his woodland walks.
But that displeasure has dissipated now that Julian Weigl is back in the frame for a first-team berth. The winter injuries sustained by the first-choice defenders Manuel Akanji, Dan-Axel Zagadou and Abdou Diallo saw him return to the fray in a new role as a central defender. Favre, who appears to be blessed with a seventh sense when it comes to suggesting alternative positions for his players, gave Julian Weigl and the tried-and-tested Ömer Toprak the nod as the centre-back partnership for the home game against Borussia Mönchengladbach on Matchday 17. "Favre approached me and asked whether it was a position I could play," said Weigl of the discussion with his coach. And I answered him by saying that I wasn't really sure." But the Swiss coach appeared unperturbed and continued in his usual pleasant but persistent manner: "We believe that you can play in central defence." Favre had taken a look at a half in which Julian Weigl had had to deputise as a central defender in a 2-2 draw with Eintracht Frankfurt in 2017, although he had not particularly convinced in the role. He had been substituted at half-time in that game, because he had not really been familiar with the specifications of a central defender.
This time, however, Weigl received the best-possible coaching in training from the experienced Toprak, which gave Weigl the time and inner peace to focus on gradually improving in his new role. And it is one he performed with growing confidence in the 2-1 victory over the men from Gladbach and in the subsequent games too. Suddenly, Julian Weigl was back among the Black & Yellows who were in demand on a weekly basis. Nowadays, he says: "I would prefer to play in the central defensive role than to not play at all. I've tasted blood and the new role is fun for me." But the old and familiar midfield role still appeals more, and Weigl makes no secret of where his preferred position on the pitch is. "In the defensive midfield role. That's where I feel at home. I think that that's where I can produce my best-possible performance." Indeed, Favre has since made use of Weigl's qualities in front of the back four, such as in the 3-2 home win over Bayer Leverkusen where he played alongside Axel Witsel.
"This time has helped me to mature and perhaps even made me a better player"
Now a semi-regular fixture in the team, Weigl said of his recent struggles: "This time has helped me to mature and perhaps even made me a better player. All of the things that weren't so good were perhaps even more educational than the many positives. You learn to appreciate how lovely it is when things go well." For the coming season, he has set himself two targets drawn from previous experiences: "Staying healthy and eventually completing a full pre-season." That would serve as a good basis for an energetic and optimistic start to the 2019/20 campaign.
Author: Roland Zorn
Photos: Alexandre Simoes