Lukasz Piszczek has been given a new lease of life at Borussia Dortmund after being installed into the heart of defence by Lucien Favre.
Dortmund secured an eighth win in nine games in the Bundesliga with a comprehensive 4-0 triumph over FC Schalke in the Revierderby last Saturday.
Piszczek has been instrumental for the Black and Yellows during the Rückrunde and his experience could play a decisive role in the Bundesliga title race.
Die Borussen currently trail league leaders Bayern Munich by four points but could reduce the deficit when they meet on Tuesday, May 26.
Bayern won a seventh consecutive Bundesliga title in 2018/19, despite Dortmund leading the way in the title race for nearly five months of the campaign.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for Favre but his energetic and auspicious young outfit look set to send the title race right down to the wire. Jadon Sancho and Erling Braut Haaland are among the hottest young prospects in Europe, while Achraf Hakimi and Dan-Axel Zagadou have also caught the eye.
Favre predominantly played with a 4-2-3-1 system during his maiden season at the helm. Hakimi and Raphael Guerreiro struggled when playing as outright full-backs, while Piszczek was hampered by a series of injuries.
The attacking disposition of Hakimi and Guerreiro left an abyss of space for the opposition to exploit and Favre took the decision to change to a 3-4-3 formation in November.
Their formational change came off the back of a 4-0 defeat at Bayern and a 3-3 draw against rock bottom SC Paderborn at the Westfalenstadion. Paderborn had stormed into a 3-0 lead at the break, before BVB completed a miraculous comeback after the break to salvage a point.
Piszczek made his first appearance at centre-back since May 2018 in a 5-0 win over Fortuna Dusseldorf on 7 December. Another opportunity presented itself when Mats Hummels sustained a wrist injury on the cusp of half-time against Hoffenheim just 13 days later.
The Polish international was tasked with filling the void left by Hummels and conceded twice in the final 15 minutes in a debilitating 2-1 defeat at the PreZero Arena. Favre persisted with Piszczek due to defensive injuries and was forced into replacing him when FC Augsburg stole into a 3-1 lead upon the return from the winter break on Saturday, January 18.
He was reprieved for his lacklustre performance when his replacement Haaland marked his debut with a hat-trick to inspire Dortmund to a remarkable 5-3 victory. Despite his questionable form across both games, Piszczek completed the full 90 minutes in comfortable victories over FC Koln and Union Berlin respectively.
Zagadou replaced Piszczek for the 4-3 defeat at Bayer Leverkusen on Match Day 21, which highlighted the importance of the 34-year-old. Piszczek has injected experience and composure into a relatively inexperienced group of players.
Although Sancho and Haaland may be heralded as the next generation, it’s the winning mentality of Piszczek that could play a telling role during the business end of the season.
The Black and Yellows have conceded just twice in their last seven league games when Piszczek has featured. He’s registered five clean sheets in his last eight games and has also assumed the captaincy in the absence of Marco Reus over the past seven games in all competitions.
Piszczek’s chances of featuring more prominently have also been enhanced after Zagadou was ruled out for the remainder of the season. The Frenchman injured the lateral collateral ligament in his left knee whilst training in small groups in April.
Die Borussen have improved significantly in defence since the turn of the year – conceding 0.4 goals fewer per game than before the winter break. Piszczek has averaged 62 passes per game in the Bundesliga and boasts an enviable pass completion rate of 87.5%.
His effective distribution was illustrated beautifully when he initiated the attack which resulted in Haaland breaking the deadlock in the Revierderby. He steered an incisive pass inside for Julian Brandt, who deceptively flicked the ball down the right channel with an exceptional backheel. Thorgan Hazard drilled a low cross into the penalty area and Haaland cut across the ball to caress his finish into the far bottom corner.
Favre has transformed Piszczek into a crucial figure once again after his career looked set to be drawing to an uneventful conclusion. He penned a new one-year contract extension on Wednesday after initially planning to retire at the end of the current campaign.
Their title-winning aspirations are likely to hinge on their meeting with Bayern Munich at the Westfalenstadion next week. Although Sancho or Haaland will be likely to steal the headlines if the result goes in their favour, the leadership qualities and unlimited experience of Piszczek will undoubtedly play a crucial role.