Borussia Dortmund’s title-winning former manager Ottmar Hitzfeld once spoke of the importance of ''aggressive leaders.'' In Thomas Delaney, the present-day Black & Yellows have found a player who embodies the term like few others do. Delaney is solid, serious and smart. He boasts a complete game, managing to combine relentless pressing and aggressive tackling with dynamic runs into space, dangerous deliveries and precise diagonal balls. What is more, his power in the air and impressive shooting (with both feet) means he also offers a goal threat. And then there’s also his flexibility: ''I’m not interested in the formation; all I want to do is play football and run about.''
Delaney, born and raised in Frederiksberg, made his first steps in football playing for the youth set-up of Boldklub in Copenhagen. His talent was soon recognised by FC Copenhagen, for whom he made his first-team debut on 16 April 2009. During his time at the club, he went on to make over 50 appearances in European competition while also winning four Danish league titles and three domestic cups. Since winning his first cap in 2013, he has been a fixture in the Denmark national team and had the honour of representing his country in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Delaney’s mother is Danish, while his father is American with Irish roots. As a result, the midfielder possesses both a Danish and an American passport.
In January 2017, after eight years and 250 first-team appearances for FC Copenhagen, Delaney chose to venture south into the German Bundesliga, signing for Werder Bremen. During his one-and-a-half year stint at the club, he contested 45 Bundesliga matches, scoring seven goals and providing six assists in the process. His ''vision, strength in the tackle, precision passing and shooting ability'' (German broadsheet newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) soon made him a fan favourite at the Weserstadion. The newspaper Die Welt called him ''the best signing since Mesut Özil,'' while kicker magazine identified him as the ''new leader'' at Werder.
Just 18 months at Werder Bremen were enough to attract the attention of Borussia Dortmund. Delaney himself admits to having hesitated when the prospect of a move first appeared: ''I had to have a long, hard think about whether or not I’d be able to fulfill the expectations. Of course I knew I had what it takes to be this kind of player. I have the fundamental qualities required. But could I do it at this level? But Borussia Dortmund is different, it's a big club with big ambitions. From the very start, there was one thing that was clear in my mind: the only way to become a leader at BVB is through top-level performance.''
Following his move to Dortmund, Delaney soon rose to the status of one of the club’s leaders. Indeed, it was no coincidence that, shortly after joining the club, he was named one of the team’s vice-captains. The numbers speak for themselves. During the 2018/19 season, the Black & Yellows only managed to win two of the four matches played without the Dane, conceding ten goals in the process (4-3 against Augsburg, 3-3 against Hoffenheim, 2-2 against Hertha and 3-2 against Leverkusen). Delaney brings a healthy dose of aggression to the table and always makes his presence felt when the going gets tough. In his first season at BVB, he won 57% of his tackles and covered more ground on average than any other member of the first-team squad (12.5 km per 90 minutes).
Mental strength and a desire to win are the qualities that define Delaney today, but he credits their development to the many years he spent at Copenhagen. The biggest club in Denmark are expected to win trophies every season. The players are expected to work like machines. It’s little wonder that this breeds a winning mentality: ''Having to win every match, lift trophies and reach the Champions League definitely left its mark on me,'' says Delaney. It was only after his move to Bremen that he really learned how to do the thing he hates most: lose. Nowadays, Delaney can just about endure defeat on the training pitch. But in competitive matches? That’s a different story altogether.
Delaney always looks for the ball, gets stuck into tackles and makes his voice heard. ''It’s all about not shying away when the going gets tough. Supporting and guiding your teammates. Giving the youngsters support and a sense of security. Having their backs. Running into space. Being strong in the tackle. I'm not the kind of player who appears much in the highlights reel. Other people are there to do that,'' says the Dane. Although the sliding tackle has perhaps gone out of fashion in some quarters and physical play is deemed old-fashioned, robustness and aggressiveness nonetheless remain defining aspects of Delaney’s style.
''Sliding tackles are always great!'' said the midfielder in conversation with Nobby Dickel for the club’s Matchday Magazine interview series. ''I always do my best to make sure I'm under control,'' he said in an interview with Borussia magazine, going on to add: ''Just after I arrived in Bremen, the coach subbed me off because I'd been given a yellow card. He was clearly worried that I'd go and get myself a red shortly afterwards. But if you actually have a look at my career statistics, you'll notice that although I've been given plenty of warnings, not once have I actually had to take an early bath.'' Thomas Joseph Delaney and Borussia Dortmund certainly seem to go well together! Not only does he have plenty of what we might call Danish Dynamite; he also offers something that’s arguably become rarer and rarer in professional football: a sense of humour. On 1 April 2017, after scoring the first-ever hat-trick of his career in Freiburg, Delaney was asked if he would take the match ball home with him as a souvenir. His response? ''No, I’m not too fussed about the ball. First I have to go and check whether or not my Wikipedia page has been updated.'' The joke was enough to see the Dane nominated for the German Football Culture Prize in 2017.