Borussia Dortmund – Borussia Mönchengladbach: Dortmund’s smart press beats Gladbach in a possession oriented Bundesliga match (2-1)
A match between the Bundesliga leaders and the current runners up holds a lot of promise. As a spectacle of sorts, the match did not deliver, but Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Mönchengladbach still offered a tactically interesting game between two possession based teams. The home side’s superior pressing setup proved crucial, holding off Gladbach’s attempt to reduce the gap between first and second place.
Tactical analysis and match report by Max Bergmann.
Borussia Dortmund quickly put the philosophy of new coach Lucien Favre into action this season. With a well structured defense and quick attacking play, Dortmund conquered the league. In the final match of 2018, league leaders Dortmund aimed to defend their six-point advantage at the top of the table.
Playing against his former club Gladbach, Lucien Favre had the mammoth task to reconstruct the heart of his defense. Manuel Akanji, Abdou Diallo and Dan-Axel Zagadou were all injured. To the surprise of many, the Dortmund coach decided to line up midfielder Julian Weigl next to defender Ömer Toprak as a center-back in his back four. Furthermore, Favre replaced his forward trio and left back Marcel Schmelzer compared to the surprise defeat against newly promoted Fortuna Düsseldorf.
Borussia Mönchengladbach managed a good start to their season and exceeded all expectations. After several years of deploying the typical Gladbach 4-4-2 formation, manager Dieter Hecking switched to a 4-3-3 formation – with success.
Hecking also undertook some changes in his starting eleven for this match, continuing with the successful 4-3-3 formation. Tobias Strobl, usually lined up in defensive midfield, took the position of center-back Elvedi, who missed out due to an injury. This brought central defensive midfielder Christoph Kramer was back in the starting lineup after recovering from an injury. Last but not least, Patrick Herrmann was brought into the starting formation for Ibrahima Traoré on the right wing.
Dortmund pressed in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Marco Reus behind striker Paco Alcácer in the attack. Although an injury forced the Spanish striker to be replaced in the first half by Mario Götze, the press did not change. Compared to Gladbach’s system with only one striker, Dortmund’s formation provided one more attacker. This enabled Favre’s team to quickly counterattack after winning the ball. With their fast winger Jadon Sancho and the combinative Raphael Guerreiro, Dortmund were well weaponed for transition moments.
Dortmund’s press in a 4-2-3-1 formation against Gladbach’s 4-3-3 system.
After a few minutes of aggressively pressing Gladbach in their own half, Dortmund reduced their pressing intensity. The home side did not actively press the central defenders. Rather, they used pressing triggers to start a more active way of defending. For instance, whenever one of Gladbach’s fullbacks received the ball, Dortmund’s winger started the press. With Reus shifting towards the wing, and striker Alcácer preventing Gladbach to switch sides, they forced Hecking’s side to make mistakes.Moreover, Dortmund pressed any Gladbach player who attempted to progress up the pitch.
One of these situations led to the first goal of the match. Center-back Louis Beyer lost the ball against Reus who tracked back the run of the young defender. By quickly transitioning from defense to attack, Dortmund was able to penalise this mistake. After quickly getting into the penalty box of Gladbach, right winger Sancho was capable of outplaying an opposition fullback and scoring from an acute angle.
Gladbach’s long possession phases without any reward
The match was characterized by long possession phases as both teams had high pass completion rates. However, this statistic was influenced by non-threatening circulation of the ball by both sides. In theory, the offensive strategy of Gladbach was to retain possession, progress up the pitch and create overloads on the wings.
Midfielder Christoph Kramer stayed centrally in front of the center-backs, attempting to overplay Dortmund’s first pressing line with simple passes. Dortmund’s playmaker Marco Reus tried to prevent the holding midfielder of Gladbach to receive the ball. Using his cover-shadow, When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played. Reus shut down the central passing option. Therefore, Gladbach played a lot of square passes in the buildup phase. To retain possession, the center-backs switched sides with the help of goalkeeper Yann Sommer. However, Gladbach was stuck in their own half most of the time.
This passmap is the perfect illustration of Gladbach’s problem: stuck in their own half.
The most promising attacks resulted from long balls of central defender Tobias Strobl. Strobl either played a diagonal ball to Herrmann on the right wing or a long ball to left winger Thorgan Hazard. Nevertheless, shortly after these passes, Dortmund was able to retain possession as Gladbach missed supporting players in the offense. Gladbach’s attackers were not able to keep the ball which made the progression of supporting players impossible.
Furthermore, both wingers were positioned high up the pitch during the possession phase. They often moved into the halfspaces, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. creating space on the wings. Florian Neuhaus and Denis Zakaria played as advanced midfielders, and occasionally occupied these spaces. As Dortmund’s fullbacks had to defend Gladbach’s wingers and advanced midfielders, Gladbach created a spare man. However, due to a good press of the home side, Gladbach was rarely able to play passes into these areas.
Last but not least, all offensive players of Gladbach had a wide range of movement. Situationally the ball far winger The far side is the side of the pitch where the ball is not. would move towards the other side to create an overload on the wing. With both advanced midfielders and both wingers on one side, Gladbach tried to outnumber the opposition. Right before half-time, Gladbach was able to successfully execute this strategy. Herrmann outplayed two defenders on the right wing. With the help of Hazard and Zakaria, they were able to break Dortmund’s defense. To finish the attack, Zakaria served a cross to central midfielder Kramer who scored the equalizer.
Dortmund’s struggles against vertical compactness
Borussia Dortmund seemed to have issues with breaking compact low blocks. Just like they did in their previous match against Düsseldorf, Dortmund struggled to create chances from open play when their opponent defends very low.
Gladbach used a rather passive defensive approach to prevent their opponents from creating goal scoring opportunities. The set up a low block A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. in a 4-5-1 formation. Wingers Thorgan Hazard and Patrick Herrmann defended in a deep position in their own half.
Dortmund were deprived of two crucial ingredients to get their offense flowing: space between the defensive lines or space behind the last line. Therefore, Dortmund circulated the ball around the opposition block for long periods without getting any closer to the goal of Gladbach. Whenever Dortmund played passes into Gladbach’s block, one of the defending central midfielders was able to force Dortmund to pass the ball back or even to a turnover.
Dortmund’s 4-2-3-1 formation in possession against Gladbach’s deep 4-5-1 block.
Such a deep and defensive stance obviously has a price. Only pressing with one striker, Gladbach lacked passing options in transition moments. Although their striker Alassane Pléa occasionally received the ball in counterattacks, there were no further attackers supporting him. As the wingers defended far in their own half, the Gladbach striker could only play back passes into midfield. This allowed Dortmund to quickly counterpress and regain possession.
In the second half, Dortmund succeeded to lure Gladbach to press. That tore the defensive lines of Gladbach apart, meaning the distance between defense and midfield increased. The offensive trio of Sancho, Götze and Reus was able to make use of these open spaces. Sancho utilised his pace and dribbling quality to quickly get to Gladbach’s goal. With a well timed pass, Götze then assisted Reus who scored the second goal for Favre’s side.
Dortmund’s passmap shows strong links all across the formation, but a lack of true offensive penetration.
Gladbach’s desperate attempts to threaten Dortmund’s goal
Being just a single goal behind, Gladbach coach Hecking undertook some changes to gain more penetrating power up front. Firstly, left winger Hazard changed positions with striker Pléa. Playing as a striker, Hazard often supported Herrmann on the right wing. The tall Frenchman Pléa moved into the penalty box in the meantime. Although his heading ability made this approach a promising one, the crosses of Herrmann were too inaccurate to reach his teammate.
During the final stage of the game, Hecking even changed the formation of his side. Hazard played as a second striker next to Pléa, and fullback Johnson moved on the winger position. This created a more offensive 3-5-2 system. However, all of these approaches failed and Gladbach was not able to threaten the opposition goal.
Dortmund secured another big win, even though they did not convince in terms of chance creation. Due to a well-structured press and thanks to the genius of big talent Jadon Sancho, Dortmund created just enough for the win. A high efficiency in shot conversion allowed Dortmund to take the win and keep distance to their haunters – Gladbach and Bayern Munich.
Gladbach could not finish their fabulous first half of the campaign on a high. Being pinned deep down in their own half, Gladbach was not able to beat Dortmund with counterattacks. Moreover, Gladbach failed to retain possession higher up the pitch. Lacking presence up front, they rarely threatened Dortmund’s goal. Despite this loss, Gladbach can still be satisfied finishing the first half of the season in the top group of the Bundesliga.
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