Borussia Dortmund – Union Berlin: Disappointing Dortmund Get The Job Done Again (4-2)

Two of the Bundesliga’s Champions League contestants clashed on Saturday in what might have been the weekend’s Topspiel on paper, but never promised to be an overly exciting game considering both teams’ recent performances. Ultimately, we did see a lot of goals between Borussia Dortmund and Union Berlin, but both sides’ showings left a lot to be desired.

Tactical analysis and match report by Neel Shelat.

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After the late heartbreak (or bottlejob depending on how you look at it) of last season, Borussia Dortmund looked quite a bit of the pace at the start of the new campaign. Although they managed to stay there or thereabouts relatively to the league leaders early on in the season, most of their performances in matches were really poor by their standards. The Champions League provided a good indication of their level, as they failed to score completely and picked up just one point from two games.

On the contrary, Union Berlin’s table position was perhaps a little too harsh on them. Make no mistake – they too do not seem close to the levels they achieved last season but they have been a little unfortunate as well – particularly in the Champions League where they conceded very late goals to lose both of their matches. In any case, they too had a lot of room for improvement going into this match.

Borussia Dortmund lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation yet again, with Gregor Kobel in goal behind Marius Wolf, Mats Hummels, Nico Schlotterbeck and Julian Ryerson. Felix Nmecha partnered Emre Can in midfield, whilst Donyell Malen, Marco Reus and exciting English youngster Jamie Bynoe-Gittens supported Füllkrug in the attack.

Union Berlin stuck to their old reliable 5-3-2 formation, so goalkeeper Frederik Rønnow was protected by a defensive line of Christopher Trimmel, Danilo Doekhi, Leonardo Bonucci, Diogo Leite and Robin Gosens. Aïssa Laïdouni, Alex Král and Janik Haberer made up the midfield, whilst Sheraldo Becker joined soon-to-be German international Kevin Behrens up front again.

Dortmund’s poor possession-play

One of Borussia Dortmund’s biggest issues from a tactical point of view so far this season has been their incredibly uninspiring possession-play. They have spent very long periods in many matches keeping a large chunk of the ball but hardly looking threatening in the final third, and that proved to be the case yet again in this match.

In the first half, Dortmund kept well over 70% of possession but could only manage a measly three shots from open play – all of which were terribly low-quality chances worth no more than 0.03 xG individually. Union Berlin are perhaps the best low block team in the Bundesliga, so they easily protected the center in their own half and happily let their opponents circulate the ball aimlessly.

Borussia Dortmund’s passmap from the first half shows a lot of circulation across the back with next to no incision – just as Union Berlin would have liked.

Perhaps the most shocking part of it all was just how unconfident they were in their own buildup. Union Berlin are one of the least intense and consequently least successful pressing teams in the Bundesliga, yet their simply high block setup against goal kicks spooked Dortmund into going long from the get-go.

6th minute: Union Berlin’s basic high block setup against goal kicks causes Dortmund to immediately go long from the keeper without even trying to build out.

This theme from goal kicks continued throughout the half and really symbolized Dortmund’s possession-play, which seemed completely devoid of direction and confidence.

Set-pieces set the tone

Despite all of our lamentations about the poor possession-play in the first half, the period definitely did not lack goalmouth action. The chief sources of it were set-piece situations, which both sides have excelled at from an attacking point of view so far this season.

Füllkrug opened the scoring seven minutes in by turning in a corner after his initial attempt was kept out, to which Gosens quickly responded by heading a Trimmel delivery home. A few minutes later, Union Berlin celebrated what they thought was a go-ahead goal from a wide free-kick situation, but Král was found to be offside. The hosts too had such a goal ruled out soon thereafter, so the two teams were going stride for stride in set-pieces.

Union went on to take the lead before half-time thanks to a VAR-awarded penalty, which Bonucci convincingly dispatched. Neither side had really done enough to deserve two goals, but of course, no one would have complained of taking a lead into the break.

Second-half switches save the day for Dortmund

There can be many criticisms of Edin Terzić’s work at Borussia Dortmund, but he has mostly tended to do well with in-game tweaks. They have saved the day on many an occasion for him, so this was yet another case to add to the list.

At half-time, he replaced Bynoe-Gittens with Julian Brandt and changed his side’s structure in possession. The two center-backs’ passing angles were quite limited by Union’s two strikers, so he asked Emre Can to drop in between them for good and form a slightly triangular back three behind Nmecha. This also freed up the fullbacks to push forward, so they were now among six attack-minded players looking to deal damage in the final third.

Can’s deeper position in the back three also enabled the center-backs to carry the ball forward to trouble Union’s block. This proved quite handy in the lead up to the equalizer, which involved Hummels carrying forward and getting the ball across to Schlotterbeck via Nmecha, after which the ex-Freiburg defender unleashed an absolute rocket.

49th minute: Both of Dortmund’s center-backs advance forward with Can left as their deepest player, leading to Schlotterbeck equalizing with an absolute rocket to the top corner.

Having become better-equipped to progress the ball, Dortmund began to pose much more of a threat in the final third and could attempt twice as many shots from open play in the second period. Half of them went in, so they went from being 1-2 down to 4-2 up and winning the match relatively comfortably in the end.

There was little to separate the sides apart from Borussia Dortmund’s better and luckier (in equal measure) finishing,


Once again this season, Dortmund have won a match where they looked quite unconvincing for large periods. That – and Terzić’s positive in-game adjustments – is probably the only positive they can take from the start of the season, so they will need to take their play up a notch on the other side of the international break if they are to seriously partake in the title race again.

Union Berlin, meanwhile, might feel a little hard done by again. They did their job in the first half with a solid defensive performance and a lead but were undone by an absolute wondergoal and a deflected strike for Dortmund’s fourth. Surely, this rotten run of seven consecutive defeats cannot continue for much longer, so they should recuperate in this break and keep doing what they do best on the other side of it.

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