Borussia Dortmund – Bayern Munich: Mentality Monsters Get Their Comeuppance (2-2)

The weekend’s topspiel brought together two familiar foes at the peak of German football. What was a second half spectacle revealed why this edition of the fixture broke from the past. One camp had to risk it all, while the other must face the same inquiry it has stirred around its rival.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

One question hung over Bayern Munich ahead of the new season. How would they cope with the loss of Robert Lewandowski? The outcome has been ambivalent. On the one hand, the absence of a fixed target has paved the way for a more fluid, dynamic attack that took Germany by storm in August. On the other hand, a four match winless streak in September was a marker of their struggles against low blocks that have resisted such a brutal offensive rhythm. Loose cogs remain in the Bavarian machine.

Their perennial challengers have had their share of problems. Borussia Dortmund, likewise, lost their marksman in the summer. But their difficulties extend beyond the exit of Erling Haaland. A resolute rearguard can offset less explosion in the final third, but their manager’s body of work mimics that of his players. Neither is the quality of the squad secure from back to front, nor has Edin Terzić always set out a structurally sound unit. More than ever, the club seems to be closer to the rest than the best.

A glaring doubt emerged over the right back slot for Terzić since Thomas Meunier was not in the matchday squad. Niklas Süle filled this hole in the lineup, and Matts Hummels partnered with Nico Schlotterbeck in central defense. Emre Can sat behind Salih Özcan and Jude Bellingham in midfield, while Donyell Malen stepped in for Karim Adeyemi as the other wide forward with Julian Brandt.

Julian Nagelsmann, himself a Bavarian, organized the guests in a 4-2-3-1 shape. He made minimal rotation to the starting eleven that thrashed Viktoria Plzeň 5-1 in midweek. Benjamin Pavard came in for Noussair Mazraoui on the right of the back four. Ahead of him, Marcel Sabitzer sat next to Leon Goretzka in the double pivot. Joshua Kimmich was fit enough to be a bench option, but Thomas Müller was still ill with COVID-19 symptoms. Hence, Serge Gnabry held onto a spot in the attack.

Central combinations are the key to the lock

The 4-2-2-2 system Nagelsmann used at the start of the campaign has manifested in other guises. Sadio Mané, initially the man mainly at the tip of this new-look offense, has not been in the best vein of form. Less mobility off the front and linking with other forwards had rendered him less valuable.

The manager has given him a different role as of late. Since Gnabry or Müller have led the line, he can now use his dynamism to penetrate from the left. In this way, higher width was a more static component of the team’s repertoire instead of a dynamically engineered tool from one of the inside forwards. So, Alphonso Davies was in a narrower, lower role that manipulated Brandt and opened space for his teammate. To his inside, Goretzka was the more advanced member of the double pivot.

The center was still visibly the target of the visitors’ buildup. The pair of central defenders tried to break multiple lines from the back. Ahead of them, Jamal Musiala starred as a first point of contact to breach the midfield, and space gains on the flanks were a means to find a way back in touch with the tight, ball near network. Terzić wished to minimize the productivity that such a strategy could offer.

19th minute: offensive transition indicating Davies’ inversion. Matthijs de Ligt drills a skip pass wide to Mané. Goretzka’s higher positioning pinned Süle and Hummels, supporting this progression, then the midfielder drops off to turn inside with the ball into the pocket Bellingham opened. Musiala and Gnabry pin the rest of the back four, facilitating a switch to Sané, just outside the width of the box.

No Kimmich, no party

The 4-3-3 formation that amply served him against Manchester City was a source of inspiration. The hosts were not aggressive, sitting off in their half of the pitch, where the central midfielders shielded the halfspaces. The Bavarians found gaps in this block, flashing signs of their potential with dynamic follow-up actions. Yet, all in all, the threat that loomed near the penalty area never came to fruition.

Their decision making between the lines was far from optimal on the day. The turnovers that followed were the basis for dynamic, hectic spells where Dortmund could strike back in a series of fast blows. Goretzka’s much higher positioning in the left halfspace afforded room for Bellingham to be an outlet in transition. Nevertheless, for all of their faults, the away team went ahead. Musiala squared the ball to Goretzka to slot home into the bottom left corner past the reach of Alex Meyer in the 33rd minute.

7th minute: turnover from Bayern. Pavard rotates inward, then makes a secondary underlapping run to complement Musiala’s outward movement while Sané dribbles inward. The flat staggering on the last line offers no option between the lines and Sabitzer has moved to the right, removing a possible switching option. Schlotterbeck intercepts the right winger’s reverse pass and switches the play to the right halfspace, where Bellingham is a free man. Moukoko immediately pins the central defenders.

Nagelsmann made a triple substitution at half time. Kingsley Coman entered the fray on the left flank, pushing Mané back into the center, and Josip Stanišić replaced the injured Davies. But, most of all, Kimmich was back on the field. Goretzka still had the license to roam forward, but his general set the game’s structure. A line breaking pass into the path of Musiala dragged out yellow shirts in the 53rd minute, generating more space for Sané to stride forward and sublimely double Bayern’s advantage.

Modeste rights the wrongs of his past

Dortmund were staring down the barrel of another derby day defeat unless they could imminently turn the tide. Terzić reacted with the introduction of more forwards. Özcan made way for Adeyemi, then Anthony Modeste swapped in for Malen after 70 minutes. Cue the rise of an improbable savior. Kimmich had toned down the chaos, but the presence of a second striker unsettled the visitors.

Heading into the final fifteen minutes of the allotted time, the home team made headway on their left edge. Schlotterbeck broke the lines, feeding Moukoko. The forward set away Modeste in behind the back four, got back the ball in the box, and rifled a shot to the right of Manuel Neuer. Coman’s tactical foul on Adeyemi, rewarding him with a second yellow card and dismissal, put on even more pressure in what was now an enthralling duel. Could Nagelsmann’s men resist the stress on their backline?

In injury time, the hosts pounded at the stronghold near the goal, peppering the box with crosses. Adeyemi’s looping lofted ball into the danger zone almost released the tension out of the air, but Schlotterbeck threw his body across the floor to retain possession. Conversely, Stanišić was not alert, slow to close down the ball. His opposite man could turn, whip a delivery to the far post and assist Modeste. The Signal Iduna Park burst into raptures. This four goal affair ended all square at the death.


For the first time in nearly three years, neither of these two giants were at the top of the table ahead of kickoff in Der Klassiker. The draw has barred both from a spot in the top two after the ninth matchday in the Bundesliga. Many may see that as an indicator of worse quality in the league, but several clubs’ exploits suggest otherwise. Indeed, the prolonged periods the managers have spent at pacesetters Union Berlin and Freiburg in the dugout shine a light on the current direction of the German elite.

Inconsistency has been the dominant theme of affairs at Dortmund for half a decade. Bayern Munich’s status in Germany renders claiming league titles an almighty task. Yet, that dynamic is even more of a reason to locate an identity that brings stability. Terzić might not have made a clean break from the flaws of his predecessors, but he is also not the first man to confront the club’s more holistic issues.

Bayern’s board might have parted ways with Hansi Flick on a sour note, but one must ask how well Nagelsmann weds with this structure. His offense should flow freely centrally, but a scintillating start to the season has trailed off for the second year on the spin. Indeed, Kimmich and Musiala are pivotal to a squad in short supply of the ingenuity to crack compact blocks. And refraining from the intensity of Flick’s football, the manager must add to his side’s arsenal to thrive fully without Lewandowski.


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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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