Borussia Dortmund – Atlético Madrid: Dortmund surprisingly crush Atlético thanks to dominant play from wings (4-0)
It turns out Borussia Dortmund can score just fine without their scorching hot striker, Paco Alcácer. Lucien Favre’s decision to start Marco Reus as a defensive number ten behind Mario Götze disrupted Atletico’s buildup. Dortmund’s wing speed more than negated Diego Simeone’s fullback tactics, as Achraf Hakimi put in a man of the match performance with three assists.
Although both Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund are unbeaten in their last six league games, the two sides came into Wednesday’s crucial Group A match with mixed emotions.
Dortmund have been flying high in the Bundesliga with a 23-7 goal difference in their last six matches and sit at the top of the table. Sure, Paco Alcácer’s seven goals in only 127 league minutes and Jadon Sancho’s six assists in 307 minutes have grabbed the headlines, but Dortmund’s strength lies in numbers: Borussia have already had 14 different goalscorers in the Bundesliga.
Lucien Favre could not count on the injured Marcel Schmelzer and Manuel Akanji, while the talismanic Alcácer could not recover from a muscle injury. Dortmund thus started with only two changes from last weekend’s 4-0 win over Stuttgart, with Christian Pulisic coming in for Sancho and Mario Götze getting the nod as Alácer’s replacement. Lucien Favre’s side has been getting accolades for its offensive output, but Dortmund have only allowed a league-best eight goals in the Bundesliga and kept a clean sheet in both Champions League matches so far.
Atlético are just two points off leaders Barcelona in a very tight LaLiga table, but have scored just eight goals in their last six games. The main reason why they are very much in contention is their defense, conceding just five goals so far in LaLiga, thanks to Jan Oblak boasting an 83% save percentage. The Slovenian goalkeeper is the owner of an improbable record: in his 125 Atleti games, he has more clean sheets (73) than goals conceded (72). That would change in this one.
Diego Simeone opted for his customary narrow 4-4-2, with Antoine Griezmann roaming alongside Diego Costa up front, and Thomas Lemar and Koké as the nominal wingers. In central midfield, Thomas Partey and Saul Níguez were tasked with protecting the back four.
Feeling each other out early
The emphasis on structure and solid defending was evident in the early parts of what would become a chaotic match. Dortmund’s initial plan against was to at times press high in a 4-3-3 with the ball near winger (Pulisic or Jacob Bruun Larsen) joining Reus and Götze in the first line of pressing. Favre’s plan was to win the ball versus Atletico’s buildup and initiate transitions where speedy dribblers such as Pulisic, Hakimi or Reus could run at Diego Godín and company.
Defensively, Atletico employed a situational high press effectively in the first fifteen minutes, in what looked like a 3-4-3 shape. Around the twenty minute mark, Atletico eventually switched to a 4-4-2 low block against Dortmund’s increased possession and quick transitions. Partey and Saúl stopped two of these opportunities while escaping yellow cards, thanks to referee Anthony Taylor’s leniency.
Simeone’s team maintained a bigger share of the possession in the first fifteen minutes by building their attacks in two distinct ways. First, Griezmann would drop back quite deep to create numerical superiority in midfield when Thomas Partey picked up the ball in defensive midfield. The other way included short passes on the right side in a triangle between Lemar, Costa and Partey. Juanfran was not often involved due to Dortmund left-back Hakimi’s threat going forward. Due to Dortmund’s pressing and overall activity, much of this was ineffective, as Atletico would not get their first shot attempt off until the 37th minute.
Dortmund’s pressing movements in the opening stage of the game.
Dortmund defend effectively, then take over the left side
Favre set up his defense in a 4-4-2 shape that could quickly shift into a 4-3-3. Mario Götze starting was already a surprise, but being played as a kind of defensive forward was even more shocking. The World Cup winner was very active in disrupting Atletico’s defense, but it was his counterpart Reus who stole show: the 29-year-old superstar was a nuisance with his pressing – particularly in winning the ball from behind the Atletico ball-carriers Partey and Saúl.
After a strong initial quarter of an hour by the visitors, Dortmund took over, thanks to its strong left sided connection lead by Witsel and Hakimi. The on-loan Real Madrid fullback completed a whopping 18 of his 20 passes in the attacking third in the first forty minutes, while Witsel misplaced just one of this opening 45 passes.
Pulisic’s and Hakimi’s diagonal runs from the flanks caused a lot of problems for Simeone’s team. The opening goal is a nice example, as Pulisic was able to cut inward among five Atletico defenders, leaving Juanfran to defend Bruun Larsen and Hakimi. With Atletico scrambling, Hakimi’s pass found Axel Witsel’s, whose deflected shot beat Oblak to give Dortmund the lead. With the injured Thomas Delaney replaced by the crisp passing Mahmoud Dahoud, Dortmund took the momentum into the dressing room.
Atletico dominate opening stage second half, but can’t equalize
Atletico came out of the half-time break a different team, with Rodri replacing the ineffective Partey in midfield. The first fifteen minutes of the second half were as close to domination as Atletico would come. Rodri was very effective in moving the ball through midfield in the build-up, and secured the middle for Simeone. That also allowed the coach to bring Koke more centrally, and deploy Saúl much further forward.
This would cause major difficulties for Dortmund’s inexperienced left side. Saúl in particular relished this advanced role with three dangerous shots in a six minute spell. Firs, a left-footed effort after a corner that despite Götze’s contest went wide of the goal. Then came a stunning curling effort that smashed against the bar, and then finally Roman Bürki was at full stretch to save another shot from the edge of the box.
Atlético pin Dortmund in with Rodri’s possession and Saúl’s movement.
Guerreiro’s fresh legs and Hakimi’s running kill off Madrid
Favre reacted to the increasing pressure by taking off Bruun Larsen and bringing in Raphael Guerreiro. The Portuguese international, who plays left-back for his country, has more or less struggled as a defender for Dortmund. Thomas Tuchel used him as a left-sided inside midfielder, but Favre handed him his season debut as a left midfielder. Guerreiro does remember a few of those old tricks, as his cutting inside initiated the second goal.
Juanfran followed him inside and forgot that Hakimi apparently does not know the meaning of being tired. The fullback who had earlier taken a goal off Marco Reus, got a perfect ball from Dahoud and found Guerreiro for the 2-0 finish.
Two goals down, Atletico had been forced to give up their plan A of playing solid defensive football with occasional high pressing in the hopes of finding a goal. In theory, Simeone’s introduction of Ángel Correa was a good idea, in practice, doing it for Saúl, not so much.
The visitor’s desperation grew. After some nice pressing to win the ball by Godín, the Correa’s near post shot clipped the post, though Bürki had gotten a piece of it. Godín would also set up Griezmann a minute later, but Zagadou’s crucial block saved Dortmund again.
Jadon Sancho entered the match for Pulisic, and, like he has done so often this season, made an immediate impact. Credit should go to Hakimi’s attitude for winning the ball in the 83rd minute, and Götze’s sublime pass to find the Moroccan. Improbably, Hakimi collected his third assist of the contest, putting it on a platter for Sancho.
Six minutes later, an uncharacteristic and awful Filipe Luís backpass gifted Guerreiro his second and Dortmund its fourth on the evening.
The 4-0 scoreline was probably a bit flattering, but after a strong first half, Borussia Dortmund took Atletico’s best punches (the Saúl chances) and effectively countered their way to victory again.
Lucien Favre’s tried and true recipe of resolute defending – even from the likes of Marco Reus or Mario Götze -, great individual performances by Diallo, Hakimi and Witsel, plus the impact substitutions of Guerreiro and Sancho won this game.
Diego Simeone, on the other hand, looks like a coach that is searching for answers and making curious changes. Taking Saúl off, not starting Rodri, leaving Lemar and Koke on were all signs of a team and a manager that are not necessarily clicking.