A surprising line-up by Thomas Tuchel, as he opted to bench some of his regular starters. Sven Bender played as the 6 and the extra centre back as well. When dropping deep, he filled the space between Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Mats Hummels. Bender often tried to utilise long vertical passes, to the dropping-deep Pierre Emerick Aubameyang. Eric Durm filled the left back position, benching Marcel Schmelzer. Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the opposite flank tried to create attack from wide areas. In midfield, in front of Bender, Tuchel paired the natural defender, Matthias Ginter who occasionally dropped deep to the 6 with Moritz Leitner.
Roger Schmidt, as usual, fielded his 4-4-2. Admir Mehmedi started on the right wing and Karim Bellarabi shifted to the left. One of the potential reasons for such a setup was that Schmidt wanted Bellarabi to attack diagonally and hit Dortmund with his right foot. Mehmedi was a bit different, with his indenting-movement, which enabled him to fill the 8 both on half-space and central area to make sure the shape was secured in central areas. At 6, Kevin Kampl and Christoph Kramer were paired once again, and played a very important part within Schmidt’s system.
Basically, Dortmund shaped up in a 4-1-4-1. But this would be transpositioned into a 3-men-behind as Bender dropped deep in the first phase of attack. This created a 3v2 situation against Leverkusen’s first-line press helping them to bypass it and allow for easier progression. This numerical superiority meant Bender could move into the 8 or make a vertical pass directly to Aubameyang, the false 9 in Tuchel’s positional play.
With Kramer and Kampl oriented to Leitner and Ginter, Dortmund (Bender in this context) gained some space centrally which helped to make a direct passing lane from the back-line to Aubameyang. Again, in this phase, when Aubameyang saw the opportunity, he dropped deep and created another numerical superiority along with Leitner and Ginter against the 6-pair of Leverkusen (3v2 for Dortmund). As the numerical superiority provided positive impact to Dortmund’s first line of attack, Leverkusen needed to deal with such movement. Kramer was often the one to respond it and put pressure on Bender. This often meant that Kampl was outnumbered by three Dortmund players.
But this didn’t mean the Dortmund shape was a flawless one. In some specific situations, particularly when Leverkusen were able to establish the horizontal compactness (through the assistance of both indented-wingers) and executed it properly, it meant they defended the central area better, there would be a gap between the three-chain and midfield-line of Dortmund. Such a gap had negative impact to the connectivity of play which meant they lost the central access.
Leverkusen were very compact centrally, as ever. Tuchel asked for a more direct approach from his players. In such play, we can see Mkhitaryan (or Aubameyang if possible) as the main target of the long ball from the deeper players. Here, Dortmund relied on how Mkhitaryan could create play through his explosive movement. Such direct play also effected how the full backs played. This was partly the reason why we didn’t see very aggressive play of Eric Durm or Lukas Piszczek. The long ball directly to the furthest forward players meant the full backs were automatically relatively late to move forward.
Against the ball, the ball-oriented shifting was a standard one, as the far-side winger had to make sure he covered the far half-space or the centre. In their defensive-play, Dortmund opted to play a relatively middle-block as they start the press from the central-line. Aubameyang would determine the pressing manner as he was the first-wave of press and the most aggressive one as well. Here, Dortmund mostly shaped in a 4-5-1/4-4-1-1 and waiting for Leverkusen to come out. This allowed Leverkusen to have relatively high procentage of possession in their deep-development. The pressing-shape was adjusted as, one example, Leitner went forward to track the dropping-deep 6 of Leverkusen or even higher as he took Bernd Leno.
Leverkusen, as shown on the first graphic, pressed high-up the pitch trying to force Dortmund to play a lot of long balls in uncomfortable situations. Some defensive issue can be seen in their high-block press. When Dortmund built up with a situational three at the back formation, Leverkusen needed to equal the numbers to halt the progression. This was an issue when the lines behind the forward-duo were a little bit late to move out to cover spaces in the more advanced areas.
For example, when Bender and Sokratis managed to drag the attention of the 9-duo, to the right side, and the ball was switched to the left, back to Hummels, this situation forced Mehmedi to come up and press Hummels. Mehmedi’s movement allowed huge space behind him which allowed Durm to receive any distribution form Hummels. Tin Jedvaj was tasked with covering Mehmedi’s vacated space. Mehmedi pressing-manner also provided some space for either Leitner or Ginter to stay on the ball-side half-space and get close to Durm to maintain the nearest passing-lane, keeping the connectivity alive.
When Leverkusen managed to regain possession deep in their own half, for example, they would circulate the ball across the back-line trying to find good access for progression..
As Schmidt wanted Chicharito or Stefan Kiessling to get involved in this phase, he needed to make sure the passing lane was clear. It was the 6-pair, Kramer and Kampl, who took this duty. They occasionally moved wide to the half-space or even to the flank to open the central area. This made the 6 space available so any 9 was able to drop-deep to help created a vertical access.
In some other situation, Kramer stayed centrally whilst Kampl occupied the near-ball flank. such swinging-6 positioning managed to drag the opponent focus to one side and opened the space on the far ball side flank, in the middle-third, that being occupied by Chicarito and made himself available as the outlet from Dortmund first-phase press, as well as pushed Leverkusen’s full back to get further forward.
This scheme had its own issue. In the context of clean progression, Leitner was the issue for Leverkusen. As aforementioned, Leitner played as the 8 so he was the one to keep an eye on Kramer when the midfielder dropped-deep to help creating central access for Leverkusen deep-circulation. In this situation, the central space was blocked so Leverkusen had to take the long ball option.
But it was not always a wasted one. When the structure was executed properly it would be a success zugriff planned, a German term which can also be translated as a plan to create an access by a purposely missplaced-pass then recover by claiming the second ball, or regain it by gegenpressing. This scheme was established by the extremely-narrow-shape of the midfielder-four. The gegenpressing in this scene gave some positive impact to Leverkusen transition, particularly as it managed to fail Dortmund’s counter-attack.
Right after the break, Tuchel got Marco Reus in to replace Pulisic. The other (major) adjustment was the basic formation. In the second-half, Tuchel decided to play with an asymmetrical basic shape of 3-5-2/3-4-1-2. With three dedicated central defenders + double pivot in front of it, Dortmund possession game in the deeper area was strong as the central-control was well-occupied.
On their second phase of attack, Tuchel still utilized Aubameyang as the connector between the deep-circulation and more advanced area penetration. Reus as we can see always tried to exploit the half-space.
Schmidt took Kampl out and replaced him with Ramalho as the new 6. He was assigned a simpler duty compared to Kramer. From Dortmund, Julien Weigl was brought in to replace Bender. But all of these substitutions didn’t bring any significant impact, as both sides were struggling to deal with each opponent’s defensive barrier.
Despite the struggle from both sides, individually, there were some interesting note to be taken. Wendell played an inverted wing back-esque role which resulted in some positive impact on the attack and stabilized the center. A good signal as the wing back is developing into a more complete player. Moritz Leitner also played exceptionally; some of his positioning (off the ball movement) in attack actually gave potential situation for Dortmund and might have given better result if utilized properly.
So did Christoph Kramer: a world-class midfielder. His pressing resistance helped him to find space for a better passing-lane. His defensive positioning enabled him to support the need of gegenpressing and kept the shape stayed compact.
Good defensive play from both sides. Dortmund won it by the single goal from Aubameyang but Leverkusen deserved a draw.