Two years can be a long time, especially in football. Careers have been made—and wasted—in shorter spans of time.
For Matthias Ginter, his first two years at Borussia Dortmund may well have felt like a lifetime. Only now, in his third season at the Westfalenstadion, is he getting the chance to prove his worth at his preferred position for an extended run of matches.
The 22-year-old joined the Ruhr side in 2014 as one of the most promising centre-backs in all of European football. Coming off a season in which he played the full 90 minutes 33 out of 34 times for boyhood club SC Freiburg en route to a safe 14th-place finish, Ginter even worked his way into Joachim Low's 2014 FIFA World Cup-winning squad.
Even though he did not play in Brazil, his mere inclusion at the age of 20 was a sign of just how talented a player Dortmund had captured from the Black Forest side for a modest fee of €10 million. Ginter himself was ecstatic at the time, telling the club's official website a "childhood dream is coming true today."
That childhood dream turned sour for a while, however. His first year at the club saw Dortmund inexplicably tumble into the relegation spots into the second half of the campaign.
One of the youngest players on the team, Ginter looked overwhelmed in his rare appearances at the heart of defence. He made only three starts during the second half of the campaign, all of which came in defensive midfield. Sport magazine Kicker (link in German) astutely graded him as Dortmund's second worst player of that disappointing campaign.
The coaching switch from Jurgen Klopp to Thomas Tuchel brought change for Ginter, but not at his natural position. His first start in central defence lasted all of 45 minutes, with Dortmund embarrassing themselves by falling behind by three goals against Norwegian side Odds BK in the UEFA Europa League qualifiers.
Tuchel moved the then-21-year-old out wide to right-back and, for a while, things seemed to click for Ginter. Scoring two and assisting an impressive seven goals in the first half of the Bundesliga season alone, per Transfermarkt.com, his unforeseen quality in attack was arguably one of the most surprising aspects of Dortmund's strong performances early in Tuchel's maiden campaign.
Much like the year before, though, his playing time dwindled after the winter break. His second start at centre-back under the 43-year-old came in April against Werder Bremen.
Constantly moved around on the pitch when he did not spend entire games on the bench, it was difficult to imagine Ginter making a breakthrough at Dortmund. Even when the transfer of Mats Hummels to Bayern Munich was finalised, few will have thought Ginter would get the chance to finally prove himself at centre-back.
It was understandable: Even without team captain Hummels, Dortmund still had Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Neven Subotic as experienced options, while Sven Bender converted from holding midfielder to central defender under Tuchel. The club also signed Marc Bartra from FC Barcelona and had every intention of making the Masia product Hummels' successor on the pitch.
Ginter's fortunes would change for the better in Brazil. Two years after witnessing Germany's World Cup win from the sidelines, he was back for the Olympic tournament, alongside team-mate Bender. Apart from playing fairly well in a silver-medal-winning run, the experience he made as one of the leaders of the team helped his personal development.
Tuchel acknowledged as much earlier this season, as relayed by Dortmund-based football writer Stefan Buczko:
Just as important as his own time in Brazil was the fact that Bender came back with a nagging foot problem that has kept him out of action ever since. With Subotic already nursing a long-term rib injury, Ginter suddenly was the lone senior cover at the heart of defence.
Then Bartra picked up a muscle injury during the 5-1 win over Wolfsburg. In a matter of a few short weeks, Ginter turned from a stopgap without a defined role into an important back-up and, ultimately, an indispensable player.
The 22-year-old has started all of Dortmund's last 10 matches across all competitions, eight times getting to play at centre-back. It is his first extended run at his natural position since coming to the club in 2014. His confidence visibly grows with almost every minute he spends on the field.
Completing 88.5 per cent of an average of 82.5 passes per match this campaign, per WhoScored.com, he has taken on an important role in the team's buildup phase.
While he does not display the same passing range that Hummels did—though, to be fair, few defenders compare favourably with the Bayern star—Ginter has shown a knack for breaking defensive structures with well-tempered ground passes.
He has also become more assured in his defending, even though he could still stand to add a few pounds of muscle mass to gain more strength in his upper body in order to hold his ground against the more physical strikers he faces.
Quite frankly, there is little reason for Tuchel to take Ginter out of the lineup, as Bartra has returned to full fitness. If anything, the head coach could be inclined to find a way to play both his ball-playing centre-backs together in a system with a back three, as he did against Hamburger SV in the final Bundesliga match before the November international break.
Ginter's positive development in the recent weeks once again proves the importance of confidence in football, as Tuchel alluded to himself, again via Buczko:
Dortmund would do well to nurture the 22-year-old's blossoming. If Ginter continues to make good on the huge promise he showed before signing at the Westfalenstadion, his difficult first two years at the club could go down as important life experiences.
The Black and Yellows still seem set to sign Bayer Leverkusen's Omer Toprak as another experienced centre-back option in 2017 for a bargain of €12 million, per tabloid Sport Bild (link in German), but Ginter has finally made his mark at the club.
If he continues on the path he has taken this season so far, it will be difficult to keep him out of the lineup—for Bartra and Toprak and, really, Tuchel.