From Rui Costa to Juan Roman Riquelme, the ‘playmaker’ position has taken on increasing significance in modern football, helping those with a masterful appreciation of the ball become the most renowned and respected players of all.
Nuri Sahin is a true playmaker, by any definition. He’s the epitome of the deep-lying defensive distributor, able to quickly spark a counter-attack with his outstanding range of passing, while possessing the defensive aggression and strength to be relied on as an all-round Sechser.
In January, Sahin was welcomed back to Dortmund with open arms. His first full pre-season in two years, engineered by the club’s coaches to suit his needs, has beared fruit early in the campaign. Leaner and meaner, the midfielder instrumental to Jürgen Klopp’s first title win of 2011 has advanced the work-in-progress project of gegenpressing at Signal Iduna Park.
Although Sahin returned in the weekend's 1-0 win over Hannover, team-mate Ilkay Gundogan is unlikely to feature in Dortmund's Champions League trip to Arsenal on Tuesday after only recently returning to training after injury. The 22-year-old aggravated a back injury in Germany's August clash against Paraguay and hasn't featured since.
When both are fit, whenever that may be, Klopp is faced with a dilemma. There is an argument that both are playmakers of one form or another, but there’s a sizeable difference in the pair's playing styles.
It’s never been a question of one or another, but more of how Klopp will use the two in midfield.
Gundogan is closer to a traditional No.8 with his attacking thrusts from midfield – the 22-year-old takes hold of games and imposes his authority with powerful pressing. It's why Klopp often used Sven Bender or Sebastian Kehl to complement the young Germany international's style last season.
Defensively, Sahin and Gundogan bring something different to the table.
Last month Dortmund inflicted a 6-2 trashing on Hamburg as Sahin, still on loan from Real Madrid, hit his peak in the yellow and black since his January return. As the defensive pivot in front of the back four, the Turkey international marshalled operations and took control of possession in deep areas.
As shown above, his ball-recovery work was focused in the defensive half of the field, which complemented the more driven, aggressive pressing of Bender. Comparatively, Gundogan is more likely to recover possession in advanced positions, rarely sticking to confines of a No.6.
Comparisons between Gundogan and Sahin, while still interesting, aren't strictly necessary considering their unique roles in the team. Indeed, they both help mark a clear evolution in the style of Klopp’s squad.
Dortmund’s counter-pressing strategy has been honed to near perfection, with the team's forward quartet chasing increasingly higher up the pitch to suffocate the opposition and allowing the attackers to recover possession closer to the opposition goal. That, in turn, means less work trying to break down a compact opposition.
Sahin is right at home at Signal Iduna Park
Before the international break, Dortmund suffered their first defeat of the campaign at Borussia Mönchengladbach – but Sahin still proved the perfect No.6. He did so by spreading the play from right to left and vice versa to create the kind of two-vs-one situations that were integral to Dortmund’s success last season. As much as Kevin Grosskreutz and Durm have plugged the gaps adeptly, the power of injured right-back Lukasz Piszczek has been missing to take advantage of counter-attacking transitions.
This season, though, Dortmund are looking to develop the effective use of high-pressing in a similar fashion to that of their 2011 vintage, a team that included Shinji Kagawa, Grosskreutz and Mario Götze. Sahin is still essential to making all of these equivalent elements tick.
Dortmund’s ability to squeeze play into the opposition half gives Sahin freedom and a licence to start attacks. In pratice, Sahin drops back to create a narrow triangle with centre-backs Hummels and Neven Subotic, while the full-backs occupy advanced areas, creating a fearsome 2-1-3-4.
Klopp's men are equipped to recycle possession, or as shown above, switch play and move up the gears quickly in the transition from defence to attack. In nine league matches this season, Sahin has made almost 500 successful passes and averaged over four tackles per game.
Only sporadically will Gundogan drop deeper to retrieve possession, instead closing down in the middle or attacking third of the pitch. He’s more likely to include himself in the play with the front four, or go beyond the supporting three to reclaim possession.
The only match in which the duo have lined up together was in Dortmund's DFL Supercup victory over Bayern Munich, where Klopp's side put on a devastatingly efficient exhibition in counter-attacking football. Sahin and Gundogan both impressed, with the latter getting his name on the scoresheet in a more aggressive attacking role than that of current No.10, Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Dortmund's trip to Arsenal is the first game in a challenging period of fixtures that also includes a weekend visit to arch rivals Schalke 04.
Klopp's selection dilemma has been dealt with for the meantime, but Sahin’s impressive return to top form makes the problem not about which of the two drops out, but how they're going to fit in together when the time comes.