Borussia Dortmund – Chelsea: Advantage Dortmund After A Close First Leg (1-0)

After a near-two-year absence, the Champions League knockouts returned to Signal Iduna Park. Borussia Dortmund tasted defeat last time out against English opposition in Manchester City, and were obviously looking to avoid a repeat whilst hosting Chelsea. They were able to succeed, but only at the end of a very close match.

Tactical analysis and match report by Neel Shelat.

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After a sub-par start to the season, Borussia Dortmund came back with a bang on the other side of the World Cup break. Leading up to this big Champions League knockout tie, they had six wins from six competitive matches in 2023. In fairness, their performances were not always up to scratch initially but seemed to be steadily improving.

Chelsea also had a poor start to the season, but the difference is that things have not gotten much better for them. In spite of spending truckloads of money on transfers in January, they came into this match with just one win from eight fixtures in the new year. In spite of these results, Graham Potter can get some sympathy due to the sheer number of new players that have joined the squad, but he needs them all to get into gear quickly.

On paper, Borussia Dortmund lined up in their usual 4-1-4-1 formation. Gregor Kobel was in goal behind Hannes Wolf, Niklas Süle, Nico Schlotterbeck and Raphaël Guerreiro. Emre Can operated deepest in midfield behind Jude Bellingham and Salih Özcan, whilst Karim Adeyemi, Sébastien Haller and Julian Brandt made up the front three.

Chelsea stuck to the 4-2-3-1 formation that yielded a draw against West Ham on the weekend, so Kepa Arrizabalaga had Reece James, Thiago Silva, Kalidou Koulibaly and Ben Chilwell immediately ahead of him. Enzo Fernández partnered Ruben Loftus-Cheek in midfield, whilst Hakim Ziyech and Mykhailo Mudryk flanked Kai Havertz and the slightly deeper João Félix up front.

Dortmund dominate possession but Chelsea threaten after turnovers

Borussia Dortmund kept close to 58% of possession in the first half, but Chelsea clearly looked like the more threatening side. Their defensive setup was the main reason behind that.

As they have been doing throughout the season, Dortmund employed a back three in possession with the deepest midfielder dropping in between the centre-backs. The question was whether they would use a 3-1-5-1 shape or a 3-2-5 shape, and the answer was a bit of both. Özcan always positioned himself in the second line, but Bellingham often dropped alongside him to offer an extra passing option.

Against this, Chelsea mostly defended in a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 medium or high block. They did not apply a lot of pressure on the ball when Dortmund’s back line had it, but did so after it was passed forward. In this way, they both restricted their opponents’ attacking threat and attempted to turn the ball over in dangerous areas.

3rd minute: Chelsea turn the ball over in a dangerous area after Chilwell follows Brandt and forces him to play a one-touch pass backwards, which is intercepted by Havertz.

Although the shot count at the break read 11-5 in the hosts’ favour, the Expected Goals scoreline of 0.55-0.80 provided a more accurate depiction of how the first half went.

Chelsea assume complete control except in the scoreline

Chelsea took things a step further in the second period as they not only continued to pose more of an attacking threat but also maintained much more possession than the home side. They were helped by the fact that Dortmund’s defensive structure had some issues too.

The hosts did look to press high against goal kicks but mostly dropped into a 4-5-1 medium block against sustained possession. They tried to be pretty compact between front to back, but they ended up leaving a fair bit of space between midfield and defense, which Havertz and Félix attempted to exploit. This space was opened up when Dortmund’s midfielders stepped up to press their opposite numbers when they received short passes from the back line in Chelsea’s 2-4-4 framework in possession.

47th minute: Can is pulled out of position as he closes Fernández down. Chelsea break into the box and win a corner at the end of the move.

Chelsea did manage to create some promising positions by breaking past the opposing midfield line, but they failed to do the all-important thing of putting the ball in the back of the net. Meanwhile, Dortmund did so with the one and only meaningful chance they got in the second half, which was created and converted by Adeyemi darting off from inside his own half on a counterattack after a defensive corner.

Kobel helps his side keep the advantage

Adeyemi might have scored the solitary goal of the match, but Dortmund’s match-winner definitely was their goalkeeper Kobel. He made seven saves in the match, including one deep into stoppage-time when he prevented Fernández’s curling effort from nestling into the top corner. About fifteen minutes prior to that, he had also done a decent job of smothering Koulibaly’s attempt after the second phase of a set-piece, which still needed to be cleared off the line by Can.

By such fine margins, Borussia Dortmund survived what was a real onslaught from Chelsea in the last twenty minutes of the match. The visitors attempted seven shots after the 75th minute, but a combination of good goalkeeping and poor finishing meant that they drew a blank.


Speaking after the game, Terzić admitted that his side had a lot to work on ahead of the second leg in London, but also praised the players for the spirit they showed. Indeed, this match was a continuation of the new-look Dortmund we are seeing in 2023 – a side that is showing real resilience both in being able to hold on to such leads and in fighting back in other matches.

Of course, Chelsea will be quite disappointed with the result given their overall domination in the match, but there are some positives for them to take too. This was one of their best performances in recent months, so it bodes well both for their home leg of this tie and other upcoming matches. Their much-changed squad is seemingly starting to click now, so they should be on the up.

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