Borussia Dortmund – Union Berlin: Change In Shape Sees Dortmund Take A Comfortable Win (4-2)

A late offensive surge saw Urs Fischer’s Union Berlin threaten to derail Borussia Dortmund, but the inevitable Erling Haaland came up trumps once again in a pulsating encounter at the Signal Iduna Park. The home side were aided by the visitors’ approach in defense, as they countered Union’s man-marking with smart movements of their own.

Tactical analysis and match report by Manasvin Andra.

Under coach Marco Rose, Dortmund has been a team that is offensively exciting but defensively suspect. For the first couple of weeks, this could be blamed on a lack of personnel, but there are hints that the manager’s all-out approach on offense has left the team depleted when it comes to defense. With a loss to Freiburg denting their title hopes before they could even materialize, this season is all about adjusting to Rose while preparing for a potential challenge in the seasons to come.

In this respect, the line-up was an exciting one, as Rose opted for a 4-3-3 shape instead of the 4-1-3-2 structure we have become accustomed to. Mats Hummels and Manuel Akanji made up the center-back pairing, with Raphaël Guerreiro and Thomas Meunier slotting in as the fullbacks. Axel Witsel was the defensive midfielder, flanked by Mahmoud Dahoud and Jude Bellingham. As usual the offense was spearheaded by Erling Haaland, who was supported by Marco Reus and Donyell Malen.

Union Berlin have been a solid and effective team under Urs Fischer, and the record reflected this coming into the game as they were yet to lose a game. The manager’s 3-5-2 shape offers security in defense, allowing the offense to play a bit more freely. For this game, we saw a 3-4-1-2 shape, with the defense comprised of Marvin Friedrich, Robin Knoche and Timo Baumgartl. Ahead was the double pivot of Rani Khedira and Grischa Prömel, with support from wingbacks Niko Gießelmann and Julian Ryerson. Levin Öztunalı played as the attacking midfielder behind the strike duo of Max Kruse and Taiwo Awoniyi.

Dortmund seizes the initiative

So far this season, Marco Rose has preferred a 4-1-3-2 shape, with Dahoud used as the sole holding midfielder and Reus playing at the tip of the diamond alongside Bellingham and Gio Reyna. While a risky structure on paper, it complemented Dortmund’s strengths well, since it demanded a hyper vertical style of play that was suited to players like Haaland and Reus. The problems emerged when the game slowed down against set blocks, and in Dortmund’s own defending against teams considered to be inferior. These factors led to the surprise loss against Freiburg, as well as the goal fest against Bayer Leverkusen that ultimately ended in Dortmund’s favor. Given this situation, it was interesting to see a clear 4-3-3 shape, as well as the welcome presence of Mats Hummels in the defensive line.

Union used a man-marking approach, with the forwards wpicking up the center-backs and Levin Öztunalı shadowing Witsel. The interiors in the shape were picked up by the Union double pivot, with the wingbacks in charge of controlling the progress of the Dortmund fullbacks. The three-man defense had to deal with Haaland, as well as wingers Reus and Malen who initially started from wider positions. For the first ten minutes, Dortmund probed the approach of the opposition, by gauging how Union responded to passes among the first line (particularly Akanji and Meunier).

Union matching up against Dortmund with their man-oriented approach.

This continued throughout the first half, even after Guerreiro had given Dortmund the lead. The goal was a stunner as a deflection saw the ball sit up conveniently for the fullback. There was little Union could have done to prevent this, but till that point, their approach had been reasonably effective. Dortmund was relying on wall passes to access Haaland as the third man, whose layoffs are key in getting Dortmund moving quickly and vertically.

Following the goal, Reus began moving out of his position on the right, drifting into the center and even going out to the left wing. Union following him accordingly left spaces on the right, which could be quickly occupied by Bellingham and Meunier. The right back in particular had plenty of space to get into, since the wingback had to tuck in and secure the central lanes. There were sequences where Reus came deep to collect and dragged a center back with him, which exposed the frailty of Union’s structure against Dortmund’s constellation of forwards. Despite not getting on the scoresheet, Malen was lively in interacting with Guerreiro on the left, and could cut inside on to his right foot with the left back providing the width.

Smart circulation on the edge of the Union penalty area allowed Meunier time and space to stand up a cross into the box, and Haaland’s movement to gauge the position of the defenders meant that he was in the perfect position to make it 2-0 to the hosts.

Second half sees increased attacking threat from Union

Given the defensive shape, a lot was being asked from Union’s double pivot and wide center-backs. The wingbacks either stopped the fullbacks from progressing or tucked in to form a back five when the ball was in advanced positions, but aside from that were not used too heavily. On the other hand, the double pivot had to keep track of Dahoud and Bellingham and also figures like Guerreiro who came inside, while the wide center-backs had to track Malen and Reus.  This diminished Union’s attacking threat, which was further hindered by Dortmund’s usual press.

Union against Dortmund’s 4-3-3 defensive shape.

Against the press, they sought to reach their forwards either directly or via the wingbacks. These efforts were largely unsuccessful, and were complicated when Dortmund sat off them and blocked the center of the pitch in a narrow 4-3-3 shape. Union had little attacking fluency in the first half, as their attacks were quickly broken up and converted into Dortmund opportunities. The second half saw the visitors score through a Kruse penalty, which was the product of the first successful foray the visitors had down the wing.

Following the goal, Union began to threaten more, though it seemed to be the result of the game state. With a two-goal lead, Dortmund could attempt to play it safe, and the slightly lax attitude as a result allowed Union time on the ball from which they could progress the ball. A flurry of substitutions and it was the recently introduced Andreas Voglsammer whose header from a corner kick gave Union some hope, but Haaland was there to secure the victory for Dortmund. A direct ball from Akanji saw the striker in a one-versus-one battle, and having spied the keeper off his line, the Norwegian lifted the ball beyond Luthe’s reach to seal the game.


In a recent article, the author Michael Cox noted that in defense, having a world-class center-back was an absolute necessity to contend for titles. It was fine if the partner is merely average; as long as the elite center-back is present, the team can win games at a sustainable rate. It is a matter of debate as to whether present-day Hummels belongs in this tier, but he is clearly the leader of this Dortmund defensive line. With him in the side and a change in shape bringing in more solidity, Rose saw out a comfortable win, though it must be noted that Union’s approach did not do them too many favors.

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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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