Borussia Dortmund – Bayer Leverkusen: The Defense Rests (2-5)

Coming off a two-week break, Borussia Dortmund seemed ready to kick on and end the second half of the domestic season in style. However, an avalanche of defensive mistakes drowned the hosts, as Bayer Leverkusen cruise to a stunningly comfortable victory over the shell-shocked hosts.

Tactical analysis and match report by Manasvin Andra

Somehow, it seemed entirely appropriate that Borussia Dortmund had two weeks to recover after their nail-biting victory over TSG Hoffenheim. Though Georginio Rutter threatened to inspire a comeback for Sebastian Hoeneß’s men, Marco Rose’s side showed resilience in holding out for the win. Now, after recovering from their exertions with an extended break, they were expected to be fresh against an  impressive Bayer Leverkusen side, despite the blow of another niggling injury to star striker Erling Haaland. Rose even picked the same starters, with only two changes as Thorgan Hazard replaced the injured Haaland and Dan-Axel Zagadou entered the side in place of Mats Hummels.

Gerardo Seoane’s Leverkusen have become this season’s great entertainers, with their high pressing, up tempo style proving to be a wonderful advert for the Bundesliga. After blowing the doors of Markus Weinzierl’s Augsburg in a 5-1 win, they arrived prepared to the Signal Iduna Park, with the same XI taking the pitch against second-place Dortmund.

Dortmund’s passive play

Both on and against the ball, the defining feature of Dortmund’s play was passivity. There did not seem to any sense of tempo in their play, and they were curiously cautious against the ball. What stood out from the first half was the ineffectiveness of their fullbacks in the buildup phase, and of the wide forwards in actually stretching the pitch. These were factors that put Dortmund in a hole against their more energetic opponents, as the first half scoreline revealed.

Dortmund used their usual structure in possession, with the fullbacks wide and on the same line as the two advanced midfielders. Mahmoud Dahoud formed a triangle with Zagadou and Manuel Akanji, whole forwards mainly occupied the halfspaces and the center.

Dortmund’s usual structure in buildup.

It was immediately apparent that Dortmund would run into trouble given their setup and lack of intensity. Leverkusen pressed with a 4-2-3-1 shape from goal kicks, but mostly sat off in a 4-4-1-1 shape as they were content with the Dortmund defenders having the ball. But when the pass was made to the fullbacks, they moved to cover his options, with the winger and fullback on the side of the ball stepping up to prevent forward progress. While Dortmund did have Jude Bellingham and Julian Brandt for support, the swarming nature of the Leverkusen press and the absence of support from the forwards rendered them ineffective in possession.

Somehow, this lack of intensity carried over to their work against the ball, where a soft 4-3-3 shape was used which allowed Leverkusen to build their play. Even in the instances where they did push up, there was an evident gap between in midfield since Dahoud was a sole holding midfielder tasked with covering oceans of space. Exacerbating this was the fact that while Dortmund lacked a focal point they could look to between the lines in Haaland’s absence, Leverkusen had the dynamic Florian Wirtz sprinting into good locations when his side had the ball.

When in possession, Leverkusen staggered their double pivot, with Robert Andrich and the reinstated Demirbay operating at different heights to support their center-backs. Moreover, after the initial circulation of the ball pushed Dortmund into their soft approach, Leverkusen would use asymmetric shapes to overload one side of the ball.

Leverkusen’s occasional asymmetric shape. Bakker has the ball in a deeper position on the left, while Frimpong is preparing to make the run on the outside of Bellarabi.

Both Mitchel Bakker and Jeremie Frimpong had chances to go forward, but given how often Wirtz tipped out to the left, it was usually the right back going forward while the left back remained in a deeper position. When Wirtz moved to the sides, Demirbay would move up to fill the creative void in the center, while Andrich acted as the screener in midfield ahead of Jonathan Tah and Piero Hincapié. More than the structure, Leverkusen simply looked like the more energetic side, and were willing to do the work off the ball (in and out of possession) that was simply lacking on Dortmund’s part.

Dortmund shows the value of good rest defending – by neglecting it

Rose may be criticized for his side’s anemic offensive showing, but the reason the coach has escaped censure over this performance has to do with the performance of his center-backs. First, Zagadou made a mistake when he received a return pass from Bellingham, as his poor body orientation deprived him of an outlet in the face of pressure by Wirtz. This meant that the ball fell to Schick, whose shot rebounded off Akanji and into the net.

Second, after Brandt’s free kick had restored parity, Dortmund was left completely exposed on a counterattack. Despite multiple shot attempts, Marco Reus & co. were unable to score, with the ball falling kindly to a Leverkusen defender who smashed the ball into Diaby. The winger managed to turn and lay off the pass into Schick, who had a completely uncovered Bellarabi flying down the right. The midfielder’s subsequent pass to Wirtz was perfect, as the youngster swept the ball into the net for the lead.

The third goal was perhaps more palatable to concede, as Andrich whipped in a superb free kick that Gregor Kobel had little chance against. What was more unforgivable was Dortmund giving up the mirror image of the previous counterattack in the 42nd minute, which fortunately did not result in a goal following a poor touch from Diaby. So shaky was the rest defending that Dortmund looked likely to concede every time they lost possession – a brutally difficult situation for even the most potent of offenses.

Too little, too late for Dortmund

To begin the second half, Rose replaced Meunier with Marius Wolf, and there seemed to be an uptick in Dortmund’s intensity against the ball. As Dortmund started to take more shots after just one Bellingham attempt (from open play) in the first half, Leverkusen had to buildup which created more opportunities for Dortmund to press.

However, the offense continued to be plagued by issues, and Dortmund seemed to switch to more of a 4-1-3-2 shape after Thorgan Hazard was replaced by Gio Reyna. With Reus and Donyell Malen up top and three midfielders behind them, the idea seemed to be pull Leverkusen into the middle and generate some space for fullbacks Wolf and Raphaël Guerreiro to combine with the wide midfielders.

Despite these changes, Leverkusen remained secure and consistent in their 4-2-3-1 shape, switching effortlessly into a 4-4-2 structure when the situation needed it. Fullbacks Bakker and Frimpong were alert to the movements of their Dortmund counterparts, though the latter were largely irrelevant in possession. Moreover, they remained active in the middle, causing numerous ball losses and always posing a threat to score on the counter. This was primarily due to Schick’s aerial ability and Wirtz’s preternatural ability to be in the right place at the right time, as well as Diaby’s searing pace with and without the ball. Ultimately, Diaby would indeed be the one to add a fifth goal, before late substitute Steffen Tigges scored a late goal to make the scoreline a little more respectable.


Remarkably, the Dortmund hierarchy managed to dispel the noise surrounding this defeat with their signing of Bayern Munich man Niklas Süle on a free transfer. Regardless, this was a chastening loss for a side that was supposed to be fresh coming out of a break, though it was mainly errors from the defenders that let put Dortmund in a hole. While that part may not be on the coach, Dortmund looked lifeless without the forceful Haaland making things happen in midfield. These performances make one wonder about next season when they will likely be without the Norwegian, with an increasingly impressive Leipzig returning to their usual levels.

This was another outstanding win for Seoane’s side in a campaign full of them; though they remain in third place, they are as dangerous as a team can be outside the ‘Big Three’. It is entirely possible that they make serious noise in the Europa League – the job then would be to remind viewers that they have been consistently impressive this season.

Match plots will be added as soon as they are available.

Manasvin covers the Bundesliga and Champions League for Between The Posts. He can be found on Twitter @RPftbl. [ View all posts ]


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