For all the attacking excitement on show, defensive additions are clearly needed at Borussia Dortmund. Their fans were painfully reminded of this truth recently when Erling Haaland scored a hat-trick against Bochum, only for Die Schwarzgelben to lose the game 3-4.
With this being the sixth time that they’ve conceded three or more goals at home this season, it’s no wonder they moved to sign SC Freiburg defender Nico Schlotterbeck. A long-rumoured target, the transfer was finally confirmed this week.
The 22-year-old signed a five-year contract, with the club’s future sporting director Sebastian Kehl revealing they competed against several other suitors to land his services: “Nico’s path reminds me a little of my own, because I also came to BVB from Freiburg at the same age as a young international player. I hope that Dortmund will become a new home for him as it did for me. Nico has huge potential.”
Schlotterbeck was born in the town of Waiblingen, about 200 kilometres away from Kehl’s hometown of Fulda. In 2015, he joined Karlsruher SC, where he progressed quickly, playing in the U19 Bundesliga at just 16-years-old.
In April 2017, he debuted for Germany’s U18 team against Austria, and a few months later he was signed by Freiburg. It didn’t take long to see the centre-back make his senior debut for the Baden-Württemberg club, coming on as a substitute in March 2019 against Hertha Berlin.
The remainder of the season saw Schlotterbeck make two first-team starts under Christian Streich. After making a further 14 appearances in the following year, he then spent the 2020/21 season on loan at Union Berlin.
Despite several injuries hampering the first half of the campaign, he returned to play a key role for Die Eisernen. Of the 16 league games the defender featured in, they lost only five times. A regular presence at the heart of the backline, he helped Union qualify for European football as they finished in seventh place.
His performances helped win him a place in Germany’s UEFA U21 Euros squad, who went on to win the tournament that summer. Returning to Freiburg last summer, the 22-year-old has become one of the first names on Streich’s team sheet, missing just two games this season.
In March, Hansi Flick handed him a senior international debut in Germany’s 2-0 win over Israel. Despite making a mistake in conceding a penalty, Flick was satisfied with his performance, saying: “Nico is making enormous progress, he defends very well, [and] is very self-confident.”
With Streich switching his defensive formation often, between a back four and three, the left footed Schlotterbeck has become accustomed to both systems. It’s easy to see why this versatility would appeal to many clubs across the continent. Flick has even suggested he can play in midfield too, given his qualities.
Anytime the ball ends up near the left half-space, the defender is more than capable of handling the situation. His timing of his tackles is often impeccable, and he’s rarely caught out of position. His good recovery speed means he’s reliable in covering for wing-back Christian Günter whenever he joins the attack or makes an aggressive forward press.
Football statistics website FBRef records the 22-year-old to have made 2.78 tackles per 90 minutes this season, ranking him in the top 4% of centre-backs. Indeed, only two other Bundesliga players have won more tackles than he has. He also ranks in the top ten for total interceptions, blocks, and clearances among those in the German top-flight.
As well as being formidable on the ground, he’s superb at defending balls in the air. Using his 6’2” frame, the German international has won about 74% of his aerial battles. It also helps him be a set-piece threat going forward, with two of his four goals being headers from such situations.
In terms of creating moves from the back, Schlotterbeck is comfortable with the ball and uses it effectively for Freiburg. He often is tasked with getting the ball into the final third for his team, while he’s equally capable of dribbling it himself up the pitch.
His impact for the Baden-Württemberg club has been immense this season. Streich’s defence has been instrumental to their push for Champions League football, conceding the third-lowest total in the league.
Therefore, there was very much excitement among Dortmund fans when the signing was officially announced by the club and player. With Niklas Süle also set to join from Bayern Munich, it gives Marco Rose a formidable central defensive pairing to work with next season.
While more defensive signings are needed, signing Schlotterbeck now puts BVB in a better position to launch a stronger title challenge next season.
By Josh Sim.