Tactical analysis 1. FC Koln Borussia Dortmund 1-3 Bundesliga

1. FC Köln – Borussia Dortmund: Second Half Adjustments Help Dortmund to Comeback Victory (1-3)

Dortmund were uninspiring for most of the first hour of the game as their usual setup seemed unsuited to break through 1. FC Köln’s pressing. At sixty minutes though, Favre brought on Julian Brandt and Achraf Hakimi, and switched the formation,  which helped Dortmund’s possession game. They eventually came back to win, with the substitutes having a significant influence on the game. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

Dortmund started the 2019/20 season in impressive fashion. After beating Bayern in the DFL-Supercup, they recorded a 5-1 victory at home to Augsburg as four second half goals gave them a convincing result after going behind in the first minute. New signing Julian Brandt was able to get on the scoresheet in that game as a substitute. There is justified optimism around the club following Brandt’s arrival in the summer alongside the likes of Mats Hummels and Thorgan Hazard, as well as Paco Alcácer making his loan deal permanent. 

For this game, Dortmund made just one change from the lineup that beat Augsburg last week, with Roman Bürki replacing Marwin Hitz as goalkeeper. This meant Brandt remained as a substitute while Hazard lined up in attacking midfield in their familiar 4-2-3-1 formation alongside Marco Reus and Jadon Sancho, with Paco Alcácer leading the line as striker. 

After being promoted as 2. Bundesliga champions last season, Köln began this season with a 2-1 defeat away at Wolfsburg. They lined up in a 4-1-3-2 formation with a forward pairing of Anthony Modest and Jhon Córdoba, who was nOt in the matchday squad against Wolfsburg.

Köln’s high press from a 4-1-3-2 formation against Dortmund’s 4-2-3-1 defensive setup.

Dortmund’s possession problems 

Dortmund looked to build from the back in their 4-2-3-1 shape. They would often create a back three in buildup however, as one of the central midfielders dropped in with the center-backs. This was usually Witsel dropping in between the center-backs or to the left of Hummels. 

Köln meanwhile took up a 4-1-3-2 shape when pressing Dortmund. Birger Verstraete would take up a defensive midfield role, while Kingsley Schindler, Ellyes Skhiri and Dominick Drexler played in a line of three in front of him. 

The positioning of Schindler and Drexler did not necessarily ensure compactness in pressing for Köln. Aside from not always retaining close distances with Skhiri in the central role, they were also often playing on the same line as the central midfielder. This made Köln’s line of three in midfield rather flat, and in theory more susceptible to line breaking passes. A more common pattern would be a midfield diamond in pressing, where the wide midfielders would usually be in slightly deeper and narrower positions to cover the spaces either side of the deepest midfielder. 

Accordingly, there were large spaces around Verstraete, which Dortmund might have been able to exploit with good occupation of 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 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. and center. However, they were somewhat lacking in this department. These vulnerable zones within Köln’s shape were occupied inconsistently by Dortmund’s attacking players, with the wingers often staying wide along with the fullbacks. 

As a result, Dortmund struggled to make meaningful breakthroughs against the pressing of Köln, as their occupation of key areas was only achieved sporadically with occasional smart movements from the likes of Sancho. Overall, their possession game left much to be desired for the first hour or so. 

Köln take the lead with little possession 

Köln consistently had a low share of possession in the match. They ended the first half with just over thirty per cent possession, but also 1-0 up thanks to a set-piece goal. Drexler was able to give Köln the lead after half an hour with a simple header at the back post after Skhiri’s near-post flick-on from a corner kick. 

Their strategy in possession was partly the cause of their smaller share of possession as they usually sought to play direct and pick up second balls higher up the pitch. Schindler and Drexler would often push relatively high alongside the forwards when they had the chance, creating a high presence behind Dortmund’s midfield line. 

Dortmund adjust, Brandt changes the game 

With Dortmund 1-0 down and struggling to create, it was clear early in the second half that changes were necessary. Dortmund coach Lucien Favre firstly opted for two substitutes at the hour mark. Achraf Hakimi would replace Nico Schulz at left back, while Brandt would replace Weigl in midfield. The introduction of Brandt shifted Dortmund towards a 4-3-3 shape, with Witsel as the number six, with Reus and Brandt ahead of him, while Sancho and Hazard played on the wings. 

After the introduction of Julian Brandt, Dortmund shifted to a 4-3-3 formation.

Intuitively, Dortmund now having two advanced midfielders would be a good adjustment, as they could occupy the spaces either side of Köln’s defensive midfielder outlined earlier. However with Dortmund’s change of shape, Köln also changed shape, moving into a more orthodox 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 shape against the ball, giving slightly stronger coverage of the zones Brandt and Reus would be occupying.

The introduction of Brandt had probably the largest influence on the game. 

He did not just stay between the lines, he also dropped into deeper areas to use his playmaking abilities from there too, and as such Dortmund could still appear as a situational 4-2-3-1 shape at times. His dropping deep was also useful due to the fullbacks of Dortmund mostly continuing to hug the touchlines, so the spaces around Witsel could become somewhat empty at times without Brandt or another attacking midfielder dropping in to give an extra option in the second line of buildup. 

The 4-3-3 shape still improved Dortmund’s occupation of the central zones though, and they found themselves pushing Köln further back into their own half, and retaining the ball better in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. Brandt’s influence has already been mentioned, but it is worth emphasizing, as his creativity and ability to initiate combination plays in the final third was key to Dortmund being able to bring higher tempo moments of buildup play that they were not able to find previously. 

It was Jadon Sancho who finally found the breakthrough for Dortmund in the seventieth minute with an impressive left footed strike from an angle just inside the box after a short corner from Hazard. Dortmund continued to pile on the pressure and finally were able to get themselves ahead with a few minutes of normal time to go as Hakimi’s back post header found the net from Łukasz Pizczek’s cross. 

After going ahead, Dortmund dropped deeper and into more of a 4-4-2 shape again, with Brandt now acting alongside Witsel in a double pivot. 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. As Köln pushed for an equalizer and left themselves more open, Dortmund were able to finish the game off with a third goal. This time it came from a counterattack, as Sancho found acres of space in behind the defense and squared the ball to Alcácer for an easy finish for 3-1. 


Dortmund’s possession game in the first half was not too impressive against a decent, yet exploitable, Köln press. The second half changes improved things, although the structures in possession still weren’t always great. The game demonstrates the importance of Sancho and Brandt in particular as two players who will carry a lot of creative responsibilities for Dortmund this season especially as their attacking game leaves something to be desired on a team tactical level with sometimes weak occupation of the center. 

Köln made a good effort and were rewarded by their goal in the first half. They struggled against Dortmund’s attacking talent on an individual and group level as the second half progressed though. 

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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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