Borussia Dortmund has gone through different periods this season, as they experienced both being ineffective and getting exploited by the rivals and also playing better than some serious Champions League competitors. They have been improving recently though and have shown signs of returning to last season’s stunning form and gameplay. The way they have gone through this season is maybe the most interesting one right now in European football and it’s worth having a deeper look into their tactical evolution.
One of the main reasons for their weak performances at the beginning of the 2016-2017 season is the busy transfer window they had in the summer, but for their business model it was inevitable. They sold three of their most influential players; Gündoğan to Manchester City, Mkhitaryan to Manchester United and Hummels to Bayern Munich. To fill in the gaps left by these players the staff bought Sebastian Rode, Marc Bartra, Raphaël Guerreiro, Mario Götze, Mikel Merino, Emre Mor, Ousmane Dembélé and André Schürrle to the club. When buying such a huge amount of new players it’s acceptable to struggle a bit at the start of the season, as they have to be incorporated and most of them have to learn BVB’s game model. This has been strongly visible in the case of Dembélé, as the young Frenchman had to improve his decision making to suit the playing style, and also Thomas Tuchel had to brainstorm a lot about where to position the team’s rough diamond.
Tuchel’s positional play
Like many modern coaches, Thomas Tuchel has his own interpretation of positional play (about Pep Guardiola’s one you can read great articles here and here.). To be exact, his version isn’t the classic positional play (Juego de Posición in Spanish), but still a footballing style that focuses highly on positions, for example the position of the ball, the players and also on the proper distances between these individuals. The base of the whole concept is offering passing options for your teammates directly or indirectly, but never with coming close to them, and this can be seen in each of their matches. In this game the movements of the players are usually placed in their zone, and in every zone players have to act differently.
In Tuchel’s system the players rarely make runs with the ball, which is one of the biggest sources of interest towards his team, as in most cases coaches like to build up a game model where the biggest aim is keeping the ball and dribbling with it as long as possible. Dortmund converselu put emphasis on offering passing lanes instead of offering dribbling routes for their teammates. The biggest exception was Dembélé in the Hinrunde of the Bundesliga, but after a while the coach decided to focus on interactions between individuals rather than isolating them and making them solve the situation themselves. This decision can minimize individual differences in tight situations and is also useful when not having an insanely good dribbler in the starting eleven.
Underperforming in autumn
As said, Borussia Dortmund’s playing style is heavily based on positions, which caused them several issues in the first part of the season. Tuchel tried using the team with four defenders, which meant that they had to use deeper fullbacks than in the three at the back variant, thus letting the opponent press higher up on the wing. But the real problem was that the lack of movements made them vulnerable against man-marking.
The other huge problem was the constant dropping movement of Weigl, which was a consequence of him not having the usual pair in midfield who could help him receive in space, so he needed to drop between the two center-halves to be able to get the ball. To be fair, these movements were mostly proven counterproductive, as after him getting the ball at the back the six space was often abandoned, and if not, the man-marking the central midfielders got prevented them turning with the ball. Here I feel like I have to mention Sebastian Rode, who ‘evolved’ from a great signing into the fans’ nightmare in build-up situations, as he totally lacked the sense for supportive movements, thus weakening the team in the most critical stage of play. The problem with the eights prevented Dortmund from building their attacks through the middle, leaving a gap between the lines, and this didn’t allow them to penetrate via the central zones of the pitch.
As it’s known, Weigl has a central role in BVB’s overall play, and opponents usually try to get him out of play in clashes against the Schwarzgelben, with different methods. So when he wasn’t about to drop into the backline, forwards usually used a strong man-marking on him, thus preventing Dortmund to use their key man when trying to get the ball out of the defensive zone. This man-marking had different styles through the year, some were efficient enough, sometimes BVB could solve their problems with some nice schemes with the other teammates. The man-marking happened with both one and two strikers, which meant that one man was always close enough to Weigl, forcing the play sideways, or if they were really efficient, then backwards. And when this movement with forcing BVB to the flank succeeded, the opponents immediately closed down the flank, which was helped by some structural issues of Tuchel’s side. With the strong man-orientation on Weigl, the midfield should have created other passing options in the middle, but the lack of supporting movements meant that with man-marking on the ball near side progression was easily preventable. Teams like Hoffenheim were prepared for the issues and killed Dortmund’s attacks on the flank.
But luckily after a while the team got better, which was a consequence of Tuchel admitting the issues and trying to find a solution, but also of the individuals developing and fitting more and more into his positional play.
The fight against the man-marking was the probably most important part of their improvement, as such a big improvement in just one season is very rare even among Europe’s top teams. The best example of their escaping from this defensive scheme was their Champions League home match against the defending champions Real Madrid. In that match James Rodríguez and Karim Benzema were tasked with getting Weigl out of the play, and they failed. Dortmund produced maybe their best performance with a four at the back, and could easily get past the man-marking, even with the usage of Weigl. One option was when he was closely marked, the two center-halves had time and space on the ball to drive forward and play a pass towards the flanks. The other, more interesting one happened through Julian Weigl, who after seeing that he was put in the striker’s cover shadow started to drift laterally, thus opening a passing lane next to the forwards and giving himself extra space.
But what was even more interesting in these cases was how they could free a man next to the sideline. The fact that the two CBs split made Real Madrid’s wingers advance and close them down, as a lone striker couldn’t cover such a big zone. This created a 3v4 at the back, but also meant that in advanced areas the home players would have at least numerical superiority, and at the back they could also be superior due to the excellent positioning of Weigl. The two central midfielders drifted a bit wider, attracting Real Madrid’s CMs attention, which freed up the two advanced fullbacks in the side corridors.
This is a quite usual trait of Dortmund, they try to beat the opponent with dynamical and positional superiority even in outnumbered situation, which they can exploit in different parts of the pitch.
Against the 4-2-2-2
The biggest difficulty for BVB this year has been how to beat an opponent that uses a 4-2-2-2 defensive formula. The two pioneers of the system are Bayer 04 Leverkusen and RasenBallsport Leipzig, and both teams were able to beat the Schwarzgelben in the Hinrunde, by not allowing them to build up their attacks in central spaces.
It all started against Leipzig in the second match of the season, where the front six of Die Roten Bullen could stay really narrow during the match, and this compact shape made them able to close down every possible passing option towards Weigl. This forced BVB towards the sides, where they were easily trapped after a quick shift by Leipzig.
But the heaviest tactical defeat came against Bayer Leverkusen, who had studied Dortmund’s game plan before the match and created a model that could totally disrupt the visitors’ play. The biggest issue of Dortmund was that they still tried to break the block in the middle zones, so B04 could stay centrally compact in the pressing phase, surrounding the two central midfielders.
As in the pictures, the biggest issue of Dortmund was the lack of supportive movements from the fullbacks, as when they were in advanced areas the home team had time to shift and close all those passing lanes. And the two CMs were also problematic, as without real lateral movements they weren’t able to get the ball, and the two strikers kept them in their cover shadows during the pressing situations. This disconnection from the teammates resulted in a clueless attacking game, which consisted mainly of some circulation in the backline and long balls towards the front line. When the ball was played to the halfbacks, one of the side tens joined the first line of the pressing and put a higher pressure on the ball carrier, which forced long balls from the back.
After a while BVB switched to a 4-3-3 formation instead of their 3-2-4-1, but it didn’t have the expected effect, as the 4-2-2-2 offered a solution for this too. With a quick transition to a 4-4-2 Bayer Leverkusen could overload the area of the ball, and with slight man-marking in the ball’s area they started to press passively. This and the fact that the fullbacks and the two central midfielders were far from the ball, BVB lost the real control of the game. They had possession, but they weren’t the ones that controlled the game, and lost the game 2-0.
The results were shocking for the fans, and some started to say that Tuchel was just a one-season wonder, which showed, but many of them didn’t want to understand the causes and just judged because of the consequences. Luckily the German coach found out a way to prove these people wrong and during the winter break he created a model with which he could finally beat the 4-2-2-2.
In March the BVB-B04 game was one of the biggest surprises of the month, as the public could see a match full of goals, that led to Schmidt’s sacking from Bayer Leverkusen. The home team started the game in an asymmetric 3-4-2-1/3-2-4-1, and the whole game looked totally different than the one in the Hinrunde. The system had many advantages: for example the two central midfielders’ positioning invited the visitors’ CMs, but as Reus and Dembélé positioned themselves closer than in the first match, a dilemma occured for Schmidt’s side, because the two advanced midfielders could act freely in space, and now the two fullbacks weren’t able to mark them. The wingbacks stayed a bit deeper, which allowed better backline-circulation and posed the question for Leverkusen, how to defend them?
The 4-2-2-2 is an extremely central-focused structure against the ball, which proved to be deadly for BVB in the first match, but then Tuchel realized that it would be practical to penetrate on the flanks. As the opponent focused all of their forces to the middle, it was reasonable to start buliding the attacks in wing areas. They used two different methods depending on the side, about what Eduard Schmidt made a great diagram.
On the left side they usually used Gonzalo Castro to start their attacks. The left-sided midfielder was often used as a bait for the Bayer front six, to provoke pressure on the ball in central spaces, and thus creating space for Guerreiro on the side. It was usually a dropping movement and quick one-two passing between Bartra and Castro, before the ball went to Guerreiro.
But what was rather interesting how they dealt with the situation when the ball was on the side on the feet of the young Portuguese left-back. To keep Guerreiro free, Reus drifted towards his original position on the side, to attract the fullback’s attention, as he couldn’t leave the German international free. After that Reus started to make runs behind the defensive line, while Aubameyang dropped back a bit to balance the team’s shape and offer a diagonal passing route back to the center. Castro also had an important role in these cases, as his positioning in the left half-space focused Leverkusen’s left sided pressure towards him and gave the left-back more time for the diagonal inside pass.
On the right side the situation was different, mostly because of the individual styles and qualities of the players. As Durm is less gifted both technically and tactically than his left-sided pair, he was given a more advanced role with less responsibilities, and the plan was based on rather the other three players on that side. Piszczek usually had the opportunity to drift a bit towards the flank and advance with the ball there, bypassing the first line of pressure. During this movement Dembélé started making runs into the defensive wall, leaving the CM in a dilemma, whether he should follow him or not. Weigl drifted sideways, which offered a diagonal passing option for Piszczek back to the middle, behind the front lines of B04’s pressing.
If Leverkusen’s ball-near central midfielder stepped up and closed down Weigl, then the Polish sideback had to choose from two other opportunities depending on the positioning of the opposing advanced midfielder. If he closed down the passing lane towards Dembélé, then Durm could receive a pass easily, but if he closed down the route towards him, then the young Frenchman could get the ball directly after a vertical pass. If you are interested in the topic more, I can recommend to you Tom Payne’s aspect analysis.
And I also have to mention a way they progressed against Leipzig’s 4-2-2-2: against such a formation the wing-dynamics are a possible solution, not just for penetrating there, but also for opening up central passing lanes. With a back three the circulation between the defenders can be accelerated, so the two strikers won’t be able to close down the far-sided sideback before the ball reaches him, so the advanced midfielder has to step up and press him, leaving space behind him quite unoccupied. And as the central midfielder is busy with pressing the defensive midfielder, after a quick exchange between the RCB and MCB, the ball can be played to the attacking midfielder between the lines.
Dominating the half-spaces
The importance of the half-spaces is getting admitted around the world, and the focus of play has shifted there in the last few years. The cause of this is most likely the accelerated evolution of defending, which concentrates players into a very narrow shape in front of the goal, making it hard for the attacking team to penetrate in the middle. Borussia Dortmund put a big emphasis on these areas of the field, nowadays placing two, sometimes three players in each of those zones: the sidebacks, and the attacking midfielders, sometimes also the central midfielders. In their 3-2-4-1 the field is divided into zones somehow like this:
Some smaller zone changes are allowed if the distances between the players are kept in a proper way, but the basic positioning looks like this. What makes their half-space focus special is the dynamism they have developed to break through the opponent there. At the beginning of the season the wingers were positioned in an orthodox way playing by the sideline, but it has clearly changed, and they profited from it a lot. Dembélé, Pulisic and Reus – the players who usually play in that position – are found in the half-space and occupy it in total depth. The most common movement from them is dropping quite deep in that space – just one of them – to drag midfielders out from there, and that can be used in many different ways.
Firstly, they can use their typical combinations from deep, exploiting the place that has just been created by the dropping movement. In these cases the central midfielders have a huge role as they have to offer themselves as an always reachable passing option, and also should be in constant movement to squeeze up the opponent’s structure. Against Benfica’s interesting style of defending they made some impressing combinations:
Manipulating the defensive actions of the opponent is one of the most important things when attacking, so it’s not a surprise that this kind of space-making has been preferred by Tuchel in this part of the game. But what makes them so special is that they can exploit in three different ways:
- combinational play
- wall passes and lay-offs
- individual dribbling
We’ve already seen how the first type looks like, so let’s move on to the second. In these cases the attacking midfielder’s movement drags a central midfielder out of his position, thus opening a passing lane in the direction Aubameyang. The African striker has loads of space, but he is facing his teammates and not the goal, so to turn the play towards the goal he has to pass it back to the midfielder, who can break into the abandoned space and then choose the best decision.
And to talk about an individual solution, it can happen against every kind of defensive approach, but as the one against the zonal defending isn’t so special, I’d like to highlight another way of breaking the man-marking.
When playing against man-marking in a position-orientated team, you should always take care of your body position. Against a zonal defense it isn’t so important, as the pressure when receiving or passing is lessened, but having a man in your back can be really irritating in such situations and can make it extra tough for you. So if you would like to avoid this, you should scan the game even more, and when receiving a pass from deep you should also position your body slightly diagonally to the pitch, which eases turning with the ball and also passing the ball forwards. And here Tuchel’s decision of playing wingers as attacking midfielders is proven right, just like his love towards Weigl.
But how should the players act to make all these combinations possible?
- The wingback always has to be ready for a run next to the sideline, so he will be able to run for the through balls given by his teammates, and also has to occupy the opposing fullback, so he won’t be able to help his teammates.
- The striker has to show himself in the middle, drifting towards the sides is rarely allowed.
- The attacking midfielder has to drop when he would like to drag a defender out, otherwise should position himself in the block. If the opposing attacking midfielder drops, he should stay in his position.
- The central midfielder has to look for depth after receiving, and should play it forwards as soon as possible, but only if the teammate is in a better position than him.
Overloading the defensive line
Borussia Dortmund last year often used a formation without Gündoğan in which six or seven players occupied the defensive line of the opponent, usually leaving Weigl and the central defenders at the back, and the other players up front. This is a quite risky approach, as they can get very vulnerable on the counter, but at the same time, it offers numerous opportunities in the defensive line. This year they have been more orthodox in this phase of the game, sending ‘just’ five players in front of the goal. This allows them to stretch the defensive line and thus open up passing lanes. This can mainly be done by the usage of the blind side, which requires a high level of positional awareness from the player, to know exactly where to position himself; then he has to time his movement well, so the midfielder won’t be able to anticipate the situation and intercept the ball.It’s also the attacking midfielders’ task to execute these movements perfectly, and the likes of Pulisic and Reus can make it perfectly.
BVB are still trying to rebuild the team with the newcomers in attack: one would hope they won’t stop evolving.
If we want to describe Borussia Dortmund’s defense, inconsistent is probably the best word for it. They can both beat Bayern Munich with an incredible defensive performance and conceded numerous chances against Ingolstadt at home. To be fair, what really matters in their defensive model is the time they have for the defensive transition and what is their approach towards the game. In situations where they have the time to get back into their defensive formation, they are pretty good, while during fast counter attacks they often become disorganized.
Their defensive model is based on blocking the center, just like most of the teams in Europe, and then trapping the opponent on the sides. In their 5-3-2/5-4-1 formation in defensive phases they are often focused on preventing the opponent from playing the ball to their playmaker in the middle, with a defensive formula based on cover shadows and zonal man-marking. In the opponent’s half they seem to be reactive, but as soon as the ball reaches their half, they become proactive and pressurize the player who has the ball.
In those situations where they have to defend a counter attack they look different from this, and they are always proactive. As soon as the ball is lost they maintain their compact shape around the ball and try to win it back as soon as possible, with ball-oriented counterpressing. They often succeed, but when they don’t, problems start to occur.
In their own half they often become too ball-orientated, which means that they attack the ball too aggressively and don’t care about the space left behind. This can cause major issues in several situations, just like against Frankfurt. It’s clearly a coaching issue, as Tuchel should find a way to protect his individuals and make a system that fits their qualities.
So far this season we have seen both the good and bad sides of Dortmund’s playing style, but based on their actual performance and the improving tendency shown by the team we can hope that they will keep on evolving and start to minimize the mistakes in their game.
This season they can still still have all to play for, but we can get our hopes high for next season, when they will have players like Dahoud and Isak in their squad.