Roger Schmidt opted for a pair of poachers, Stefan Kießling & Javier Hernández, as his striker duo. In the middle line, as a response to fitness issues for Lars Bender, Schmidt started Kevin Kampl to accompany Christoph Kramer shielding the back line. For Dortmund, in the absence of Marco Reus, Thomas Tuchel opted to play Jonas Hofmann. Matthias Ginter started as the right back meaning Lukas Piszczek stayed on on the bench.
Immediately after/when Dortmund started to play out of back, Leverkusen shaped with their “normal” pressing set-play, which consisted of four pressing sequences. The first wave was generated by Kießling who pressed the ball carrying center defender (CD), sometimes depending on the ball position and game development, Hernández occasionally took the task of pressuring the ball carrying CD. When the first 9 put the pressure on the Dortmund’s CD, the other one had to make sure (1) he nullified the working space for Dortmund’s six who dropped deep in this 1st phase of build-up and (2) be ready for the second sequence when the other CD got involved in the build up.
If Dortmund’s CD insisted to play through the middle, to any central midfielder, Leverkusen’s six would come up and close him down. By taking notice on Kevin Kampl’s pressing orientation it was clear that his initial duty in this pressing-scheme was keeping close to Ilkay Gundogan.
By occupying centrally both Leverkusen’s wide-men blocked the diagonal option to the wing plus the middle press assisted by the twin 6, it was never easy Dortmund to try to overload the area across their six to overcome such pressing. All of these wide-men and six pressing manner of leverkusen can be considered as the 3rd and 4th sequence.
Dortmund reacted well as they had their own plan of dealing with this: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was the outlet. He moved to the 8, in his role in this positional play, to provide the 3rd passing lane as well as receiving the pass from the ball carrying CD. His movement often gave his team the opportunity to transition quickly into offense. By using Aubameyang as the outlet, there were two main advantages gained by Dortmund. The first, Jonathan Tah had to follow him which meant the Leverkusen’s CD left his post in the back line. And second, it allowed Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jonas Hofmann to stay on the upper half-space or flank both to maintain the possibility of tight ball-circulation or stretch the opponent’s defense.
When Aubameyang was not able to drop-deep in his effort of creating the “3rd line scheme”, caused by his too-high-up-pitch position for example, it was Shinji Kagawa who presented himself on the left half-space at 8. The way he was able to receive the pass from Hummels was based on two major factors. First, the asymmetrical diamond-positioning of Hummels, Weigl, Schmelzer & Kagawa, which loosened Leverkusen 2nd line compactness. The second biggest support was the bad performance of Christoph Kramer. It was he and Kampl tasked with securing any through or direct pass to the central midfield, but in many occasions Kramer made individual mistakes which allowed Dortmund to keep the possession and progress more easily. In short, followed by a quick attacking transition, Dortmund often seemed to benefit from this positional play.
As mentioned in the paragraph above, the issue of Leverkusen’s press was the individual mistake which contributed to a lack of stability within the press. This was evident at 32:12 (one example of many). A good pressing shape had created a 4v2 situation in favor of Leverkusen. They managed to isolate Kagawa from others, as Leverkusen clearly got better ball access. Kagawa mis-controlled the pass from Mkhitaryan which should’ve allowed Kießling to regain possession, but this did not happen. The 9 missed the opportunity and allowed Kagawa to regain the loose ball.
When Leverkusen played this pressing-scheme properly, they managed to force Dortmund to play long ball which Leverkusen would be happier to deal with. In some occasions, Dortmund seemed to find the way through this pressing-scheme by playing to the wide. But here was issue for Tuchel to pay more attention on. It was Dortmund’s right hand-side looked to be more susceptible, possibly as the consequence of Dortmund left side focus which in turn made their left side overloading to be more stable.
Matthias Ginter was found in occasions to misplace his pass when he was used as the ball progression point in Dortmund’s 1st to 2nd phase of deep build-up. One such examples occurred in the 40th minute. Roman Burki played it long to the right touchline into the middle third. Ginter (the target) played a one touch header to Gundogan in a difficult position. Leverkusen’s twin CMs, wide man, and 9 could immediately overload Gundogan, regain possession, and quickly shifted the ball into the centre of the pitch. It gave good access for Leverkusen to generate the gegenpressing, retaking control of the ball, and attacking the opened space in the center.
Leverkusen overloaded Gundogan.
Overall, Ginter missed six (more than Schmelzer did) of his ‘1st phase build-up’ passes. All this six-pass we’re talking here was received directly from the back line and was almost immediately pressed. The pressing intensity and Dortmund bad overloading around the right hand side seemed to cause a difficult situation for Ginter.
Thomas Tuchel is the one to identify the root cause. He needs to reduce such potential weakening variable, as he also makes sure that Ginter is “pressing-resistant enough” to keep his place within his juego de posicion.
Leverkusen’s attacking issue
When they got the pressing to work successfully, Leverkusen would make a quick counter attack (if possible) as they seemed to want to exploit the opponent’s transition phase. Their key weapons in such counter attack were their indented winger (in 4-4-2 box shape) and intelligent inverting movement by the full back.
The indented winger made sure to avoid Leverkusen from being underloaded in the central area. The wingers were also used as the transition point (wall-pass) of the diagonal play. The winger would move from a central area to the flank to play short-quick combination with the attacking full back. When the full back (Wendell for example) needed to transitition centrally, this winger would be the one to occupy the half-space, enable the wall pass, and open the space for the full back to move diagonally to the 18 yard box. The situation from 27th minute was the perfect example of this.
Leverkusen, for sure, would prefer to build patiently from their own third instead of rushing into a questionable long ball. But Dortmund never allowed Leverkusen to play this well. Every time Dortmund got the chance to press the goalkeeper, they would be more than happy to do it. Aubameyang was the first layer in this scheme and Dortmund benefited from such play as it created issue within Leverkusen early build-up phases.
One to note, such pressing needs some adjustment within the formation to avoid numerical inferiority. By pressing the opponent’s goal keeper Tuchel knew they would lose one outfield player that was needed for overloading and second-ball battles as well. This was why Dortmund always tried to overload the area of where the ball fell onto by narrowing their back line shape, to allow any of their CD to move out to the intermediate-defense area to duel with Kießling (as the prime long ball target). This intermediate-play was supported by the backward movement of the central midfielders (CM) or the indenting wide-men.
Dortmund defending against the long ball. They defended well against it. They won many of the second ball battles, followed by secure ball circulation, and leading to some promising attacking scenes. (05:48)
With this, Dortmund managed to nullify any potential play that might be generated from Kießling’s aerial ability (something Lazio failed to prevent from in their Champions League play-off clash). With Kießling to be considered as the main threat (and prime Leverkusen long ball target) it was crucial to eliminate all his direct involvement in any aerial duel.
Based on the aerial duel map from squawka.com, Kießling won 4 of 11 aerial duels. When we take a closer look at all of these 11 scenes, we’ll figure out that Leverkusen would struggle at ball-recovery. Dortmund made 5 straight away recoveries at the first touch of the second ball claim. 2 recoveries were made 5 seconds or less after the duel was done. And 1 other recovery was made 7 seconds after the aerial duel. While Leverkusen recovered 3 of them.
One can say Dortmund’s central midfield spatial compactness had contributed hugely to the ball-recovery action. 6 of the 8 recoveries were recorded by the 3 CMs with 2 others (of 8) made by Roman Burki and Marcel Schmelzer. The positional structure in a narrow shape had been a very big contributor in this matter.
Dortmund defensive strength
Dortmund’s pressing was based on their 4-5-1/4-1-4-1. In general, the variant they used was an option-oriented one which occasionally looked like it was space-oriented, particularly when their own far-side half-space/flank was not occupied by the opponent’s players. In this very specific situation, Dortmund’s 4-5-1 tried to occupy 3 horizontal spaces (near flank/half-space, and center).
But the story was different since the opponent occupied the far half-space/flank, as shown on the graphic below.
As the left side was not occupied, Mkhitaryan looked to squeeze the right side space. Different defensive-manner would be taken along with the forward movement by Giulio Donati. Mkhitaryan would have moved closer to the half-space or even to the far-flank to deal with any attack from Donati. The identical defensive action had also been shown by Marcel Schmelzer; he man-marked Hernández on the farthest side.
As the 3 CMs tried to block any pass through the center, some space was allowed between the middle and back line. To reduce the potential exploitation to this space, Hummels was the one to deal with any threat occurred around the intermediate-defense.
Hummels (and the other Dortmund defenders) ability of defending the intermediate area was an integral part of Dortmund’s tight defense. This was extremely important as the intermediate(-defense) is a strategically crucial area of breaking the opponent’s defensive block. A pass to this intermediate area could potentially ruin the compactness as it always invites or lures the back line to move out and press. This has been the natural occurrence of the intermediate area reaction to any pass which is played onto its territory.
A pass to the intermediate middle (especially to the center or half-space) and its potential response (press from RCM or RAM) of the defending team’s midfielders, eases the potential penetration either by the LM or LCF. Any forward press by the RCM will open the space in the more centrally area. A press from the RAM might open the space on the flank.
Often during their 2nd line press, Dortmund 3 CMs pressed collectively to the same space in order to block any opposition progression. In turn, this created some space in the intermediate-defense. Here the capability of defending the intermediate-defense is crucial.
The level of direct threat towards the goal of such pass is raising as if the pass is played to the intermediate-defense, particularly in a deep area (zone 5 or penalty box). As you can see in the graphic below.
A scene from the Dortmund vs Monchengladbach match. Lars Stindl managed to find the way through the center and the ball went straightly to Rafael. The striker made a one touch pass to his left which was intercepted by Mats Hummels.
Such play has two polar opposite sides. On one side, with great anticipation, decision and composure of the CD, the defense will stay stable, as they could move out at the proper timing to stop any threat. On the other hand, the potential exploitation of such huge space remains there, particularly by a needle-players whose on-ball technique and quick decision are the true strengths of them.
Compact defense, offensive play, and half-space feature
Dortmund’s defense and its relation to attacking transition was also supported well by their flexible basic shape of 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1/4-5-1. The 3 CMs, Kagawa, Gundogan, and Weigl quick transition and their staggering to each other was the key. Combined with the narrow shape, Dortmund gained a lot of advantages as they reach good level of horizontal and vertical compactness.
A high-up press forced Kyriakos to play it long. As discussed earlier, Dortmund were very capable of dealing with it. The pass was intercepted by Sokratis. In his positioning of keeping the shape remained vertically-compact, Weigl was able to recover it and play it forward to Gundogan. These 3 CMs staggered in a triangle shape often found to be effective in regards to their need of tight and save ball circulation. This is evident in the above graphic. A one touch passing play between Weigl, Gundogan, and Kagawa had provided nice diagonal passing combination and provided a good attacking space for Dortmund. Aubameyang noticed the opportunity and he shifted fast to the far half-space to receive Kagawa’s diagonal through ball. Despite this situation ending up without a goal, one thing is clear; the extreme narrow defense, good level of vertical compactness, staggering positioning among the CMs which generated diagonality had achieved its purpose.
Another brilliant scene was the sequence of play within the 55’s minute. Started by a Sokratis forward pass to the right hand-side, Dortmund began their attack. A compact press of Leverkusen halted the progression. Dortmund needed a square or backwards pass. A good movement by Weigl to the upper-right half-space provided a back-diagonal passing lane for Mkhitaryan. It then allowed the ball to be shifted from the ball-side half-space to the far half-space of where Kagawa and Hummels alternately occupied on. This suddenly opened a strategic progression as Hummels played it forward to Mkhitaryan, who also occupied the half-space in the final-third. From his position, Mkhitaryan gained a diagonal passing chance. He straightly played it diagonally to Aubameyang who in a very good view to the goal as the 9 had its face towards the goal.
For additional information, below is the graphic of passing comparison. The graphic is taken from the 5-serial analysis on half-space (in Indonesian) from September 2015, at fandom.id. If you want to read another recommended analysis on half-space you can go to Rene Maric’s.
With the graphic above as the benchmark, we gain :
Another perfect example? The second goal. It was Mats Hummels with his 26 meter visionary diagonal pass to Aubameyang in the central circle of the upper middle-third. Leverkusen regained possession but in no more than 5 seconds Hofmann’s gegenpressing regained it. Ginter recovered it and made a forward pass to Hofmann. With a quick turn-around, Hofmann briliantly took on Kyriakos on the right byline. A cut back from the right winger was made to Gundogan, who occupied the near-ball half-space. Gundogan made a simple pass, from half-space to the center, to Mkhitaryan. The Armenian couldn’t miss it anymore, as his diagonal pass rightly reached Kagawa who slotted the second goal. Diagonality, positional structure, and gegenpressing played their part to the max.
Half-space and triangle shape had been a lot discussed in various tactical pieces as the key of Dortmund’s switch play. Achieving the right-timing of the combination of near-ball half-space and near-ball flank occupation created the triangle allowing to switch. Dortmund applied this very well. The other nice and interesting set-play in Dortmund’s switch-play is their occasional far-flank overloading, as shown in this match.
There were several moments to see that Leverkusen were not prepared well for such a situation. But we take these two moments as the example. 1. the 9th minute. Before Mkhitaryan switched diagonally from ball-side half-space to the far half-space, Jonas Hofmann filled the far half-space. Then he moved to the center when the diagonal ball was released to reach Matthias Ginter who moved gradually from deeper to final third flank. Leverkusen’s left side defense had been broken by the right-timing movement by Hofmann and the late-arriving Ginter. 2. In the 22nd minute, Dortmund moved and overloaded even more intelligently, as both Ginter and Hofmann overloaded the far flank and created 2v1 situation.
The white arrows with straight line indicate the man-orientation on Leverkusen zonal marking. Special case applies to Wendell. The far-flank overloading had given him an additional task which split his focus, either to stay with Ginter or to follow Hofmann. The behaviour of Calhanoglu was a sign that his movement was not a planned one, which would also suggest Leverkusen were not well prepared for this situation.
Horizontal and vertical compactness, intermediate-defense play, and half-space occupation had given Dortmund a secure defense as well as a flexible & quick transition between their defensive and offensive play. This meant the stable gegenpressing was ready to be generated whenever Dortmund needed to.
If there is a striker to be considered as an underrated one, it is Aubameyang. Last season, a piece by Colin Trainor of statsbomb.com on Dortmund’s flop shows us despite Dortmund’s flop, it could be suggested that Aubameyang still performed decently as he maintained the level of his statistic performance.
Many people recognize Aubameyang as a speed-merchant. The one with light-speed run who is versatile enough to play both on as a wide forward and central striker. This season, under Tuchel’s guidance, Aubameyang seems to be becoming better than ever. In his role as a false 9, his involvement in preventing his team from being isolated (particularly in Dortmund’s 1st phase of build-up) was fascinating. His contribution to build-up is fantastic.
In the above graphic, Dortmund’s back line (particularly Hummels as the ball carrier) was isolated and might be forced to play it back to Burki, Dortmund’s goalkeeper. But his composure allowed him to be patient and calm to observe any potential open space. Aubameyang understood this and dropped off to the 8 zone to create a potential passing lane. The false 9 accommodated the play away from pressure and isolation whilst quickly followed by a promising offensive action against the lacks stability of the press as he lured the press and managed to play the ball to Kagawa.
The initial movement by Aubameyang had in turn ended up with this (promising) attacking scene.
Dortmund’s second goal was also a nice example of how crucial Aubameyang’s role was, both in preventing the deep build up from being isolated as well as the check-point of Dortmund’s ball progression.
Again, by dropping off to the 8 zone, Aubameyang provided a “new” passing lane for Hummels. This movement was not directly connected to the Dortmund’s 2nd goal, as Leverkusen briefly regained possession for 5 seconds before Dortmund managed to retake it and scored. But it was clear, without Aubameyang intelligent movement, Dortmund might not be able to easily progress the ball, which means Kagawa may never have scored the second goal.
Aubameyang mobility throughout the match had been a huge positive factor contributing to Dortmund’s progression. He dropped deep, got himself involved in a duel, made recoveries, moved from flank to flank, opened the space either by a pass from various strategical areas or his off the ball movement. Along with Shinji Kagawa, Aubameyang deserves the man of the match award.
Anything else to say but ‘brilliant’ for Tuchel’s team? Dortmund played their football to the maximum level. They stopped Leverkusen from playing out of the back, they squeezed the central area, and their chances creation in the penalty box is simply top level. For a brief look you can see an xG graphic created by Michael Caley.
Separated by next two matches, FC Bayern will play Dortmund at Allianz in the match day 8th of Bundesliga. A potentially to be the match of the season. A classic clash of the highest level of German clubs competition.
For deeper understanding of Dortmund’s Tuchel, you should check out spielverlagerung’s works. You can find a lot of worth reading Dortmund-related pieces there. And, for sure, Pep’s Confidential or any juego de posicion articles (with Adin Osmanbasic’s as a highly-recommended one). Cheers.