Borussia Mönchengladbach – Borussia Dortmund: Frantic Football Falls Gladbach’s Way (4-2)

After twelve consecutive defeats, Mönchengladbach have finally beaten their fellow Borussia team. In a chaotic, fast-paced, and open game, Marco Rose’s team adapted after strong Borussia Dortmund counterpressing got them in front. Once taking the lead, Gladbach exposed Dortmund’s poor ball circulation and inflicted further punishment for a huge win.

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.

With domestic campaigns not going according to plan, Gladbach and Dortmund met a point apart and a lot to prove, in this grudge match for Champions League places. 

Gladbach’s reliance on their irresistible transitions has grown stronger, as their ability in the buildup has not carved open teams as efficiently as last season. Nonetheless, Marco Rose has remained as pragmatic and versatile as always, whilst his team has still only lost three times throughout the Bundesliga campaign. 

Although the hosts went into this game, losing every match to Dortmund since 2015, now was probably the best time to smash that record. Edin Terzić’s attempts at steadying the ship has hit more choppy waters, even if wins over Wolfsburg and Leipzig has seen them well within the top four talk. But as recent results indicate, the return of Erling Braut Haaland doesn’t spell out victory, drawing to Mainz, before losing to Bayer Leverkusen.

Rose made three changes to his starting eleven that beat Werder Bremen in midweek, with the return of Ramy Bensebaini, Denis Zakaria and Lars Stindl. Giovanni Reyna was dropped to the bench, as Julian Brandt kept his position in the team, after scoring his first goal of the season. Thomas Meunier being replaced by Mateu Morey was Dortmund’s only other change.

Early Gladbach momentum

Gladbach hit the ground running early, having the ball in the back of the net after forty seconds, but ruled out for a questionable foul within the Dortmund buildup. Their strong start can be accredited to their flexible forward line and ability to find them with direct passes once the opposition shape is distorted.

Denis Zakaria was deployed between the center-backs, mostly behind them when Gladbach were circulating the ball, which is something that Rose has installed before in these big games. With three in the backline, angles opened for Matthias Ginter and Nico Elvedi to make such passes, and Dortmund’s 4-2-3-1 shape, out of possession, opened space on the shoulders of the double pivot. Two central midfielders next to each other.

6th minute: Nico Elvedi is capable of passing directly to Jonas Hofmann, thanks to Gladbach’s 3-4-1-2 shape tilting their opponents and Hofmann dropping into open space on the shoulder of Emre Can.

Both Jonas Hofmann and Lars Stindl dropped into these positions, which attracted Dortmund to collapse onto the player in possession and further open space around them. A chance for Hofmann after six minutes highlighted Dortmund flaws and Gladbach gains, able to shortly combine in the second phase of the attack, before Hofmann’s shot from range was turned around the post by Roman Bürki.

Gladbach’s early momentum eventually paid off by breaking into transition and baiting Raphaël Guerreiro into making a foul. From a set piece, Hofmann’s delivery was perfect for Nico Elvedi, unmarked inside the area, to head the ball past the goalkeeper.

Frenzy action favors Dortmund

After the first goal, the tempo of the game was drastically increased. Neither team had long spells in possession nor built a mass of passing sequences between them, instead, Gladbach consistently attempted to transition when they could, whilst Dortmund aimed to counterpress and advance in broken play.

Reasons for the frantic game state would come from both team’s buildup structures being fairly poor at getting their sides into the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. Once Dortmund sat in a more conservative 4-2-3-1 structure, threading the ball through the lines became more challenging for Gladbach, whilst turning to both Hofmann and Stindl to bridge the gaps. Hofmann often dropped to the right of the double pivot, whilst Stindl roamed around the center and left halfspace, 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 the 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. which left Alassane Pléa as the only option to make runs in behind.

Meanwhile, Dortmund’s buildup shape created a huge disconnect between the double pivot and the attackers, with very little movement, between the lines, to provide a passing lane. In the construction phase, Terzić’s team were heavily channel-orientated, which needed Jadon Sancho and Julian Brandt to drop infield, to provide progression. With both buildups limited, when Dortmund possession would breakdown, this is when the frantic and organized play would kick in.

Gladbach can slice opponents apart when transitioning from the middle third, but from deeper proved to be challenging against a strong Dortmund counterpress. After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. This is where they got back into the game, turning the ball over before Rose’s team could shift into gear, catching them out of shape and making space for their incredibly fluid attackers.

21st minute: Player positions when Manuel Akanji turns the ball over. Raphaël Guerreiro is able to drive forward with the loose ball, before linking with Jadon Sancho who assists the goal.

When losing possession, Gladbach defenders would turn very reactive, fixated on the player on the ball and not on the potential receiver. This is the dream scenario for one of the world’s best blindside movers, Erling Braut Haaland, who got on the end of a Sancho pass, behind Zakaria and finished past Yann Sommer. 

Dortmund’s second came moments later and in similar circumstances. Gladbach attempted to counter, with sharp interchanges, before Jude Bellingham tackled Florian Neuhaus to break the play. Bellingham joined the attack, and although Gladbach got numbers back, blindside movements from the center-midfielder and his fellow Englishman, Sancho, played through their opponents, before Haaland smashed the ball in the net to take the lead.

Rose changes shape 

Following Haaland’s second, Rose changed his team into a more familiar shape, to what we have seen Gladbach deploy in recent times. This involved Zakaria moving to the right of the double pivot, which formed a 4-3-3 shape in the high block and 4-4-2 shape in the medium block. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half.

It didn’t take Gladbach long to respond. Four minutes after going behind, Stindl’s low free-kick was palmed away from Bürki, straight into the path of the unoccupied Elvedi, to tap in from close range. Though the change of shape refined their transitional play, it didn’t stop the Dortmund cavalry from charging forward. With Gladbach players gravitating towards the ball, space would always be open on the right of the Dortmund attack, something that they failed to capitalize on when momentum was on their side. 

At the start of the second half, Rose’s team enjoyed the first few possession phases and were able to breakthrough Dortmund’s block, with some poor defending to further enable this. In possession, Gladbach center-backs would still push further out wide, balance maintained due to the double pivot in proximity of them. When receiving out wide, the winger on the side of the ball is encouraged to press high.

Dortmund were not coordinated when the winger was engaged, which opened space for Gladbach to move through. Though dealing with the first phase and regrouping, both Morey and Brandt were dragged infield by Hofmann moving the ball inside. This enabled Neuhaus to combine with Ramy Bensebaini, free down the left, who cut the ball back inside and past a rash press from Brandt, before curling the ball towards the back post.

Dortmund’s lack of inventiveness is punished

Once Gladbach had reclaimed the lead, the game state fell into Dortmund’s bog-standard 4-2-3-1 buildup, attempting to break the lines of an organized Gladbach block. Aforementioned issues made this a difficulty, as well as the change to their 4-4-2 system made Rose’s team better equipped when Dortmund played down the channels.

When building up, the double pivot of Emre Can and Bellingham are split asymmetrically, but not in a way that benefits the system. Can often moved to the left of Mats Hummels, which pushed Guerreiro further afield, but Gladbach were able to man-mark the potential receivers, whilst the lack of dynamism made it impossible for Dortmund to break their opponent’s defensive line.

Dortmund’s 4-2-3-1 shape is unbalanced and incapable of making progress, whilst Gladbach’s 4-4-2 medium block is better equipped when their opponents take the ball down the channels.

Bellingham operated further ahead of Can, able to operate across the field between Gladbach’s forward and midfield lines. Though Bellingham was better at making progression, the lack of short options and suboptimal positioning of the attackers meant that he was often reduced to moving the ball sideways, instead of penetrating through the lines. 

Both Marco Reus and Julian Brandt had phases where they operated as Dortmund’s number ten, but neither man was properly capable of linking the midfield and their influence in the final third diminished. Gladbach put the game past their opponents, as a result of yet another set piece, an excellent Neuhaus corner was met by substitute Marcus Thuram, who scored on his return.

Late substitutes further aggravated Dortmund’s disconnect in the middle. Bellingham was replaced by Youssoufa Moukoko, which resulted in Terzić rotating his team into a 4-1-3-2 shape. His final substitute saw attacker Steffen Tigges come on, which moved them into a 3-4-3 formation in the final few moments. Dortmund failed to create a significant chance, as Gladbach held onto their lead comfortably.


In many ways, this was vintage Marco Rose. Gladbach are always capable of adaptation, whilst following the same principles which has brought them so much success in a short amount of time. Despite this, it is still surprising to see them score three times from set-pieces, something which Rose himself sounded surprised about in his post-match interview. Nonetheless, this is a mega win for Gladbach, who move to fifth with Union Berlin next in the calendar.

The Dortmund dilemma appears to be growing. Stick with Terzić, and a crucial spot in the top four fades, or pull the trigger at a short-term solution, even if not ideal, to increase the odds. The role at Dortmund is an appealing one, but the club needs to make and support a decision soon if they are to stay in the European talk.

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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