Borussia Dortmund Team Analysis
Borussia Dortmund is one of the largest teams in Germany, a country known for their attacking-first style of football, BVB is known to embody this. In February of this year, Marco Rose and the rest of his staff confirmed that they would be switching Borussia clubs next season, moving from Gladbach to Dortmund. Taking over from Edin Terzić, now the club’s technical director, who had just won Dortmund’s first major trophy in a few years. While this may have been unanticipated when taking the job, this heightened pressure on Rose to be successful. With him, Rose brought a team of innovative coaches like René Marić and Alexander Zickler. This piece will look to investigate all aspects of their play, including how players fit the game model and training sessions used in the process. It should act as both a ‘BVB 101' for people who have never watched the team, as well as my most in depth analysis of anything ever.
In the past few years, Dortmund have become well known for their ability to develop some of the most talented young players into some of the best players in the world. One of the most striking examples of this was with Ousmane Dembélé who BVB were able to profit well in excess of £100,000,000 off of. Since then, most seasons have come with the exodus of a major player to enable continual squad development and reinvestment; this season was no different.
Among the list of departures was Jadon Sancho, arguably one of the best players in the world at the time of leaving and an integral part of the attack. Along with Sancho’s departure was Dortmund veteran and fan-favorite Łukasz Piszczek. Despite being well into his 30’s, Piszczek contributed in massive ways across the board last season under Terzić. His departure was purely for age reasons, leaving for free to return to his boyhood club. The final two major departures last summer were Thomas Delaney, who moved to Sevilla for a meager fee, and Leonardo Balerdi, a young center-back whose time at BVB just never seemed to work out.
On the arrivals side, BVB worked with Rose to bring in a few players that would make major impacts on the game model that he would create (and I’ll explain today!) with his new team. The first and most important has been Gregor Kobel, a goalkeeper from Stuttgart who was well known for his “sweeper-keeper” style of play. Moreover, he’s confident in possession: whether that be receiving, playing passes, or bringing a ball under control. The other marquee signing of the summer was Donyell Malen, a versatile attacker known especially for his quick feet. Despite not playing at his best so far, he’s demonstrated his strengths in taking a quick, accurate shot, as well as his physical attributes. Marius Wolf returned from loan to be a depth piece who can play multiple positions all across the pitch. Marin Pongračić, a player Rose and long-time assistant, René Marić, know from their time at Salzburg, joined from Wolfsburg on loan. He provides more cover at the oft-injured CB position.
To truly understand a game model, one must first start with the players that play for a team. Most managers would agree that the players strengths determine a game model, and it is abundantly clear here with Rose, that those ideas are in play. I also want to review each player for people who don’t watch the team, touching on positions they’ve played, quality, and some small key traits. I’ll start with goalkeepers and work my way up to the front line. (This is mostly for people who don’t know the squad well, feel free to skip past it if you do.)
Gregor Kobel: As mentioned previously, he’s a sweeper-keeper style goalkeeper. One of his most impressive traits is not just his willingness to come off his line, but his confidence when doing it. Rarely does he hesitate. In terms of shot-stopping, he hasn’t quite been one of the best in the world, but few can file any grievances at this point. He’s been impressive in possession too, demonstrating a willingness to act as a 3rd CB in possession (seen later) and willing to play a multitude of passes.
Hitz, Burki, and Unbehaun haven’t played a match for the first team. They’re all solid shot-stoppers, but their hesitancy to come off the line has dropped them all down a step for Rose.
Mats Hummels (CB): Despite getting up there in age, Hummels is still ol’ reliable for BVB. His speed has been a massive detriment to him these days, but his ability on the ball is still up there with some of the best in the world. He’s known most for his long ball ability, as well as being very strong in the air.
Manual Akanji (CB): A speedy center-back, Akanji has been known to struggle with defensive traits a bit, but in the past 12 months he has established himself as one of the best in the league. Capable in and out of possession, Manu has become a staple in BVB sides.
Dan-Axel Zagadou (CB): Another BVB youngster, Zagadou is a fan favorite among many. He is very reminiscent of Hummels, a dominant air force, strong dribbler, and excellent at passing. So much so that in the last match against Leipzig, Rose was willing to play him as the 6. This was his first game of the season, returning from a long-term injury. This type of problem has followed him since joining BVB, frequent injuries have hindered consistent game time.
Marin Pongračić (CB): Still only 24 years old, Pongračić is a player that still holds a high amount of upside, but hasn’t quite matured as expected. After getting knocked down in the Wolfsburg hierarchy, BVB were able to get him on loan for cheap. While he’s been far from the best player on the pitch when playing, he plays with confidence both in and out of possession and someone Rose is willing to sub or start depending on the match plan.
Raphaël Guerreiro (LB): One of the most consistent performers at BVB, Rapha, as he is often called, is an integral part of the attack. He is confident in all areas of the field, an excellent dribbler, and an even better passer. All that said, he certainly leaves a bit to be desired defensively.
Nico Schulz (LB): Mostly a LWB, he is similar to Guerreiro in that he is attack oriented. The main difference though is that his strengths lie mostly in pace in the overlap, and his ability to get into dangerous positions for crosses.
Thomas Meunier (RB): Unsurprisingly, Meunier once again is similar to the rest. Mostly an attacking full-back, Meunier has thrived under Rose. He is adequate defensively, quality in the air, but mostly compensated for by his excellent crossing.
Felix Passlack (RB/LB): Another attacking minded full-back, Passlack has demonstrated his ability to fill-in when crisis happens. He’s pretty quick and good with both feet, but is slightly below the level of the rest of the team. He can be error prone (as seen vs. Bayern) at times, but being in those matches is more of an unfortunate reality than intentional.
Axel Witsel (CM): One of the most calm presences in the side, Witsel is known for being a “good at all, bad at none” type of player. He’s a great ball-winner, solid aerial threat, and does well on the ball. Could improve progressive passing somewhat though.
Emre Can (CM/RB/CB): One of the most versatile veterans in the squad, Can’s combative style provides a nice foil to the rest of the team. He’s an intense ball-winning midfielder, confident in the dribble, but not a fantastic passing range and can, at times, make errors in defending.
Mahmoud Dahoud (CM): One of the best surprises of the season, Dahoud’s really come into his own. On the ball there are almost no qualms to have with him, defensively he is still a bit small but that is rarely meaningful against the smaller, quick Bundesliga oppositions.
Jude Bellingham (CM): I’ve personally run out of superlatives and descriptors for this 18 year old sensation. He can do every single thing you want from a midfielder, and I don’t think we’re far away from putting him up there with the best in the world. His dribbling, passing, defending, leadership, everything about who he is as a player has impressed this season.
Giovanni Reyna (CM/Forward): In a shock turn of events, Reyna spent some time deeper as an in 8 his few minutes pre-injury. He has been excellent, similar to Bellingham, his combative, youthful style of defending is great. Almost no problems on the ball, at times he can be weak both in the air and in the tackle, but it will come with learning a new position.
Julian Brandt (CM/Forward): Similar to Reyna, Brandt has spent some time deeper this season (and a lot of time forward) and has played well. Quality on both sides of the ball, Brandt has been important cover for injuries and coming off the bench.
Marius Wolf: Despite not quite being up to the quality required of a title challenging Bundesliga team, Wolf has slotted in at a lot of positions this season and played adequately.
Marco Reus (CM/Forward): Similar to Reyna/Brandt, Reus has spent some time this season slightly deeper. The heartbeat of the team has begun to lose his legs a bit, but none of his technical quality has dropped. It is still abundantly clear to all watchers that Reus is still one of the most talented players in the league, and it’s been great to see him get over injuries later in his career.
Thorgan Hazard (WB/Forward): A tenacious, high pressing winger, Hazard has been a great addition to the side for each BVB manager lately. His intense work-rate and malleability has allowed Rose to play him as deep as FB, and as high as winger.
Donyell Malen (Forward): One of the new signings on the list, Donyell Malen is an inside forward/striker whose quick feet make him threatening in the final 1/3. He hasn’t quite gotten it going yet this season, but once he finds his form, I’m confident he will be one of the best attackers in the league.
Ansgar Knauff (Winger): The best way to describe Knauff is a golden retriever puppy. Ridiculous amounts of energy and pace every time he steps on the pitch, but refinements could be made to decision making and execution, but that comes with age, as he’s only 19. Will certainly get more gametime in the coming year.
Youssoufa Moukoko (Forward): 16 year old Moukoko’s adaption to the professional level has been nothing short of impressive. He doesn’t look a day younger than 20, plays with immense maturity and strength. It will take time for him to adapt to speed and continue to improve his technical level, but he’s had some great moments already.
Steffen Tigges (ST): One of the names most people won’t know, 23 year old Tigges is one of the young additions flying under the radar. With a very similar skillset to Haaland (he’s even a lefty too!), it’s becoming clear that as he adapts to the level, he will be a Bundesliga level striker.
Reinier (FW): On loan from Real Madrid, Reinier has never really gotten anything going at BVB. He’s gotten more game time this season but is yet to show much of his talent besides being one of the best pressers on the team (in very limited minutes).
Erling Haaland: Few needs to be said about Haaland, but important to note the leaps and bounds made in both aerial threat and in his ability to play on the ball. That said, he’s been used for his speed running behind, strength has always been impressive, and his finishing is up there with the best in the world.
Now that we’ve reviewed all of the players, it should be pretty easy to transition into tactical things, and looking at how they suit the squad. Let’s get straight into it, starting with the defensive aspect of the game.
Let’s Talk Defense:
Man, this section is going to be interesting. I want to start with a warning before I get into it too much: ideas do not equal execution. Today what I’ll be looking to describe is the theoretical goals of Rose and Marić, but whether or not it is successful is purely reliant on players, and this season, the players have put themselves in a lot of bad positions. Let’s look at some defensive principles and see what they look to accomplish!
While formations are largely just telephone numbers (meaningless digits), they still provide value to understanding how a team is looking to defend in each given match. Dortmund have defended in a myriad of shapes that vary based on ball placement on the field. The nominal formations have varied from a 4–3–3, to a 4–1–2–1–2 (I will call it a 4-D-2), to a 4–2–3–1, to a 3–5–2. These impact the ways that the team press and the zones that they’re able to nullify, while the other zones they might struggle in. I could probably re-write this piece for every formation, so instead of doing that, I’ll touch on the trends across each while looking at differences.
First is the 4–3–3, which as Rene explained on Twitter, has been their primary formation in most matches this season. This generally defends pretty wide, and is often used when playing against an opposition who use a back 3/5 to help counter the natural width of those formations. The midfield in this formation is usually comprised of one 6, Witsel/Dahoud who act as an “anchor” in the midfield, while two 8’s pressure higher. This causes an immediate weakness in the build-up phase. The diamond gap between the 6, 8’s, and striker can be exploited by an opposition to receive and turn. This could be seen in the loss to Ajax, where Edson Alvarez was able to exploit this gap to receive, turn, or recycle if needed.
The 4–3–3 presses in a 4–3–3 shape, as seen above, and has a few main zones of excellence. First is the wide areas, where the 4–3–3 is particularly dangerous. The team presses from the inside of the pitch, to the wide areas. This creates a dangerous situation wide for the opposition where a combination of the winger, 8, and fullback can overload to win the ball back.
The 4-D-2 is the next formation to talk about, the one that everyone thought they were using. There’s an easy explanation to this: Rose’s 4–D-2 defends deeper with three up top as well. Generally, it has the same strengths. Those wide areas are places where striker, 8, 10, or fullback can all work to overload and win the ball. Main difference here can be seen in the opposition build-up phase, where the 10 (often Reus) will man-mark the opposition 6. A lot of teams in the Bundesliga will build with a single midfielder deep, or have the second member of their double pivot move high, making this an effective way to defend any sort of ball progression.
This is particularly successful against teams whose goalkeepers struggle to play accurate chip balls to the fullbacks, or teams who use that lone 6 idea. As the opposition finds ways to progress, the front line morphs into a flat 3 where the 10 splits the strikers.
The 4–2–3–1 has been used sparingly this season, but it’s usages in certain scenarios have been obvious. This formation specifically defends well in the second line of progression. By creating a four man forward line, the striker can defend the two center-backs, moving the ball wide towards one of the wide areas and preventing circulation. All that said, the differences between the two, (4–3–3 and 4–2–3–1) is pretty negligible and the formation hasn’t been used enough to truly come to many definitive conclusions. The 3–5–2 is the final formation used, and it’s mostly been used to account for missing players in attack like Haaland and Reus (see Gladbach match). Defensively it’s a good matchup in a man-oriented setup vs. another 3/5 back side, but the wide areas get overloaded here more frequently.
Across the board a few things become clear throughout each formation. The first and most obvious is that all of these defend in a chain of three, whether that’s the 10 stepping high to pressure a GK or staying low to defend the 6, they all have the same idea. This is often used to line up the amount of forwards with the amount of defenders, where a team drops in a midfielder to create a back three, so Reus steps forward. They also all have an emphasis on the wide areas. While they might not be the most dangerous places to win the ball, they’ve determined them to be the easiest place to. Each formation caters to that idea, setting up opportunities to win the ball in the wide areas.
Vastly more important than simply formations used is the principles conveyed to the players by Rose and Marić. From the front end of the attack, players are told to repress lost balls quickly to regain possession and to double down and isolate attackers. This is particularly common in the wide areas of the pitch, and in the center of the pitch after the first midfield line is broken.
These can be defined somewhat by zones, seen below. Although it’s not an exact science in this case, these red zones are specifically places where winning the ball is prioritized, while the blue and yellow are more focused on box defense and space/progression defense respectively.
It all starts with pressing angles and a supporting press, one of the things that Haaland is excellent at because of his size. He is able to directing the opposition to certain sides of the pitch simply with body shape. He rarely is instructed to press hard, but his body shape forces a pass to one direction or the other. His movement acts as a pressing trigger for the players around him, who are able to anticipate the next pass and press before or as the pass is made, rather than when it arrives.
The video above shows an example of how Haaland is able to direct the oppositions actions a certain way, and also conveys the next piece of this: pressing traps. Once the ball is played wide, it acts as a trigger for Schulz to press. Pongračić has already begun to slide to cover his gap, and in the end, Mainz had no where to play the ball.
It becomes more and more apparent that these pressing traps are BVB’s way to win the ball, and can be seen across all their formations.
This specific clip was against Bayern, where Dortmund were using the 4–D-2 to defend. Moukoko’s body shape guides the CB wide, which triggers Bellingham’s press. Reyna and Reus combine to mark the pivot, and the ball is won after Bayern run out of passing options. A slight tangent here: it’s likely the ball could have been won easier if Moukoko had pressed harder, or continued to shadow Sule, but it worked still.
Another variation on these pressing traps can be seen against Hoffenheim, where Haaland passively removes the option through the middle, forcing the CB to pick as a side as he drives forward.
After that is done, Bellingham and Meunier wait and watch to see if a pass will be made as Haaland pressures from behind. Collectively, all options are closed down (or made useless) and it forces a long ball which is covered comfortably by the back line.
An important piece of this Hoffenheim clip is not just the pressing trap, but also the way that the forwards are able to press somewhat softly. The standard rule of thumb is that if using a high line, you must secure it with an intense (and cohesive) press from the front. Once that first line of press is broken, you go into a regroup and dropping phase where teams are often most vulnerable. In Dortmund’s case, they’re able to remove the importance of the press because of Kobel. Throughout the season he’s demonstrated an immense confidence coming off his line and this allows a passive press, with a high line, which would normally get exploited with a keeper like Burki. (And did, frequently, looking at you guys Favre and Terzic.)
This section is missing one thing though, what happens when the team gets pushed back deeper? These traps aren’t always executed well, and that’s where mid-block and low-block defense comes into play.
Each one of the previously mentioned formations has some way that it settles into a slightly different shape, for example, the 4–3–3 almost looks like a 4–5–1 at times, where both wingers drop deep. At other times, it looks like a 4–4–2, where the ball-side winger drops deep to support his fullback. This is where “formations” become a bid muddied and it’s important to focus on the principles.
‘Fullbacks are the wingers job’ is the first point worth picking out. Especially in the high 4–3–3, the ball-side winger is expected to take care of the opposition fullback. If he begins to overlap, the water becomes less clear and the “defensive basics” begin to come into play. Things like passing off a runner to a teammate, covering vacated space and other things are all apparent. I don’t generally find that low-blocks vary their instructions per player, but more-so the overall ideas behind it.
One of those team ideas is the idea of isolating a player through pressing angles, and winning the ball back with intense pressing based on certain triggers. For example: intense pressure from the midfielders when a line breaking pass is played, or similarly in the wide zones when a player is isolated. There is very infrequently situations where BVB are back in their box defending the shot, shuffling from side to side. (Like United vs. City)
Miscellaneous Defensive Things and Changes by Opposition:
Some more position specific things can vary from opposition to formation, or are constant throughout. One of those constants are the behavior of the center-backs, who often man-mark the opposition forwards. This has resulted in multiple instances of balls played behind the defensive line where a defender (or a few) are caught out of place because they trailed the opposition forward like a duckling with it’s mother.
One of these variations can be seen within the 4–3–3 specifically. Often the 8’s will step up even higher than the wingers, and press the outside center-backs against a 3 back formation.
In this specific example below, Dortmund are using a slightly asymmetric 4–3–3, where Bellingham is slightly deeper than Brandt who somewhat interchanges with Hazard to defend that left side of the field. This was likely done as a way to match up with Sporting’s back 5, so that they could efficiently press in a man-oriented fashion.
Another obvious defensive change is within the 3–5–2 used. While BVB will sometimes find themselves man-marking the CB’s and 6 in a 4-D-2, this was more obviously intentional against Köln. This was likely due to Horn’s inability to play a lofted ball to his entirely unmarked full-backs.
This clip also demonstrates the way that forwards fill in each others gaps to ensure that passes are covered. Watch Reus specifically as Brandt moves to pressure the RCB deep. He moves to mark the 6, taking Brandt’s spot. It’s a small tidbit, but it is important coaching that ensures the running is meaningful.
This clip also illustrates an important point I’ve somewhat neglected which is that if the press is broken, the attempted narrowness of their pressing opens acres of space wide where a strong opposition is able to play out and stretch them. The failures of these two principles were on display against Ajax. While BVB struggled to press well, resulting in frequently wasteful running, Ajax’s ability to play through the press and play expansively was immensely difficult for them to handle across both matches.
Some Player Tidbits:
For a multitude of reasons, these tactics work well with this group of players. The first and main one is that they’re, for the most part, hard working players who are able to identify the correct moments to use their energy. Haaland for example may look like he’s hardly running, but the reality is that at all times he’s making intention decisions to shadow players across the field (see earlier clip vs. Hoffenheim).
Bellingham’s impressive ability to run constantly also helps with this. He rarely hangs his head, and if the press is broken, he immediately begins to position himself for the next steps to win the ball back. Hazard and Reus are both similar. Sample size was limited, but Reyna also showed this too, an impressive uptick in intensity since his previous cameo’s under Terzic and Favre.
Now we’re getting to the fun stuff. As seen in a majority of these previously mentioned principles, Dortmund’s mentality is driven on creating dangerous transitions that provides an opportunity for their players to thrive. Haaland and Malen are integral to this, as they’re both very good at finding and making runs behind the defensive line. Unlike previous seasons though, Dortmund have become drastically less transition dependent, and this section is must less important. I don’t even think a majority of their goals come off of transitions anymore the way they used to.
Many people would divide up defense into two separate transitions: defense to attack, and attack to defense. To an extent, I’ll be following that rule of thumb, but like all good game models, everything compliments each other.
Defense to Attack:
If executed properly, the defensive concepts discussed before will cause a lot of transition moments because of the locations the balls are won. This means that the “first action” immediately after winning the ball is important. Assuming the ball was won through one of the preferred methods, it is likely that the player on the ball will have a multitude of short range passing options right in front of him. This poses the first question for the ball-winner though. If the ball is taken off of a midfielder, it is more likely that the opposition defensive line is exposed, and a counter will be more dangerous at that moment. If the ball is won within their own half, BVB will be more likely to play the ball forward in general.
On the flip side, if the ball is won in the opposition half or in the central 1/3, the ball is more often recycled backwards to the defenders who are able to circulate before choosing a new direction of attack. (This can be seen in the viz above, with the shorter arrows centrally in the opposition half.)
If none of these options before are mentioned, the next option is “how can I combine to build forward?” As mentioned previously, the ball-winner will be presented with a multitude of options in front of him to play with. Choosing a forward option and making a run after playing the ball implies an immediate attack forward. An example of this can be seen below:
This specific clip is a great example for a few things. First, is keeping play tight to win the ball back and isolate the Frankfurt forwards. Second is the forward first mentality from Akanji, who immediately finds a midfield option in front of him without taking too much time to think about it. Finally, it is a great example of how players impact their game model. Bellingham and Passlack’s work to win the ball back the second time, before it lands at Haaland’s pace whose immense pace is able to isolate the Frankfurt defenders.
One of the more in depth pieces of each defensive formation is that each defensive shape alters the rest defense of the opposition, and more importantly, the positioning of BVB’s forwards. For example, in a 4–3–3, Haaland can often be isolated up top as the wingers track back. This makes transitions slightly more difficult because he lacks the support in Reus and Passlack seen in the last clip.
One final piece of the defense to attack section is the way that Haaland acted as an outlet. One of the important parts of ‘crisis’ defending, once the opposition is in the final 1/3, is to have an outlet. By having a dominant aerial and physical threat up top, BVB are able to clear their lines and move forward. This is certainly an area of improvement for him though, as he sometimes lacks the patience to wait for a pass, and struggles when pressed from the front at times.
Attack to Defense:
Known for their counter-pressing in Germany, BVB is no different to this idea. Immediately after losing the ball in most situations, the nearest man will frequently press hard. If isolated, a second man will often come and assist the press (see clip above.)
While this counter-press is happening, the rest of the team either works to get back into their positions, or look to aid in the counter-press. There is never a still body after losing the ball, whether this is the CB’s moving to mark forwards, or wingers looking to repress.
This also brings back the graphic from before (and now below again) that shows the level of press by zone. Particularly when the opposition gets into a threatening position in the central areas, the primary focus becomes box defending and attempting to remove a dangerous shooting position.
The yellow zone is mostly situational, at times like in the Hoffenheim clip, the goal is to use body shape to guide opposition. In other clips, like against FC Köln, pressing is intense even in the opposition 1/3. Most importantly is the wide zones, where the sidelines act as an additional defender and constraint to the opposition. This is why pressure is more intense here, they’re confined to a 180° view of the field.
These red pressure zones are also important because they’re directly derivative of the short passing mentioned a few times already. By keeping passes short, and combining with nearby teammates, the distance that you have to cover to repress the ball is drastically shorter.
In counter situations, these pressing zones are almost entirely thrown out the window. Usually the defensive line looks to delay until they reach roughly 20 yards from their goal, where they decide to engage. If there are no runners with the opposition countering, they’re much more willing to commit someone forward to engage immediately. (Pretty basic counter defending ideas there.)
Important Concepts to Both:
Across both situations, there are a few important concepts that overlap and play into each other. The first is this idea of playing within confined spaces to ensure that counter-pressing is possible. It’ll be talked about again in the next section (Attacking principles) but it is the most applicable here, where the ball can change hands quickly 3–4 times within a short period.
Outlets are also important, as the forwards/strikers provide a way for defenders to clear their lines in a panic/crisis moment, before building forward, whatever that might look like.
Let’s Talk Attacking:
Despite the fact that Dortmund are one of the top teams in the Bundesliga, a lot of the key concepts to their attack have already been touched on in the transitional categories, but there’s still a lot missing. This season so far, they’ve scored the second most goals in the Bundesliga with a total of 28, second only to Bayern Munich who never seem interested in slowing down. Struggles in the Champions League this season (like playing Ajax twice) mean I’m going to pretend those numbers aren’t happening, but the point is, Dortmund’s attack is pretty good.
Starting from the back, Dortmund have used the same build-up structure across the board in their build-up, even with variance in shapes. When deepest, like on goal-kicks, it resembles almost a 3–3 shape, where Kobel becomes a part of that back line. He is an adequate passer, does well under pressure, and creates a third man for the opposition to worry about in the defensive line.
Despite a myriad of formations being used, this shape stays constant throughout, at least at a lot of moments. For example, against Köln, BVB used a 3–5–2 defensive shape, while still creating a shape that looks very similar to the diamond in build up. This was accomplished through Hummels staying in midfield, and the wingbacks staying in their natural positions.
I’m including a second example of this from the same match because I think it’s really fascinating. Hummels in this instance steps out of the defensive line, and into the midfield where he receives and drives forward, similar to the exact behavior a 6 would make.
(Sidenote, I suspect that this action was partially influenced by good opposition analysis who recognized that there would be a gap between forwards at times that Hummels could exploit like this.)
The rest of the field varies a bit based on formation, many would call it a 3–2–5 shape, which isn’t incorrect, but I believe it loses some of the nuance of what they’re trying to do with midfielders, wingers, and wingbacks in each formation.
Build Up Principles:
As we progress slightly higher up the field, more players come into play than just the mentioned 3–3 build-up shape. First is the two midfielders, who float in the half spaces as a quick vertical option. For the most part, they rarely receive the ball, but they can be used in combination with the 6 and opposite 8 to create midfield rotations that create space to receive.
Some of these rotations, like the one seen above, create opportunities for the midfielder who rotates into the space to receive facing forward. Against a man-oriented opposition, like Hoffenheim, this is an immediately dangerous situation because it means the press has failed.
Dortmund are also able to progress similarly vs. other man-marking opposition through wide combination play. This patterns are designed so that when a player receives, they’re receiving the ball in a threatening situation. An example of this can be seen below, against another man-oriented side, Frankfurt.
One of the most important principles to these patterns is something that Marić himself has spoken about in a few interviews. Players are meant to have possible solutions at their fingertips, rather than being handed the solution without thinking.
“For me, [tactics are] definitely not a specific match plan with pre-determined sequences, situations, or moves,” Maric said. In my mind, tactics describe the sum of a team’s decisions about how they’re going to solve a particular situation. Tactics is, for instance, a player recognizing where and how he is being closed down but still managing to still see an available team-mate. And also how that team-mate has positioned himself in such a way to remain available, and then to receive a pass in the right place at the right moment. Ultimately, it’s a very simple process: on the pitch, you’re either protecting the ball, demanding the ball, or creating space. There is nothing else. Tactics is the mutual resolving of a situation through these actions by means of predefined playing philosophies, which correspond with the players’ abilities and their understanding of the game.”
Each one of these patterns is not meant to be an automatism, as much as they’re meant to be a “what-if” relationship between players and the ball carrier. Let’s take the example below to explain this better:
While this specific combination didn’t quite work out, it showed us the myriad of options posed to each player as they received based on common patterns.
- Forward looking for space to receive.
- Winger is wide and able to receive, body shape so he’s able to act as a ‘wall’ or a man where a pass can be bounced off of.
- Center-mid provides an option to turn out and switch play.
As each player received, he was presented with situations where he knew a teammate would be, and being able to resolve the situation in front of him. Anyways, the pressing shape/trap from Gladbach was perfect here.
Two quick points to mention about this build-up before moving further up the field: Akanji and Hummels are both excellent passers, particularly over the back line. This makes Haaland a constant threat, and teams are forced to honor these strengths from the two of them. This expands the spacing between lines as most teams play a high forward line, but are forced to drop their defensive line back further than they’d prefer to. Second point: the 6 at times acts as a decoy man. There are times where both strikers stay close to him (again think of the Hoffenheim clip) and it creates room in the half-space for a midfielder or forward to receive. I distinctly remember getting frustrated at Dahoud for standing behind or being around cover-shadows, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s actually something that can be beneficial.
Chance Creation and ‘Finishing’ Principles:
To be honest, I don’t like the idea of a ‘finishing’ phase, I think it’s awful terminology and you’re better off defining something by position on the field… not the point. Let’s talk about how Dortmund create chances after getting out of their half.
First is the idea of keeping play in tight spaces. I’m beating a dead horse by now, but in the final 1/3 especially, BVB keep play roughly in one zone to create chances for counter-pressing. This isn’t all defensive though. If you’re a team like BVB, it’s a pretty good bet that your players are good enough to play comfortably in these tight spaces. By using this method, you’re able to draw in opposition defenders, before finally finding the underloaded side of the field with an open man or create a 1v1 situation.
Accomplishing this though is much easier said than done. Players must always be moving and looking for new openings to receive in space, while being cognizant of the locations of rest of their team. They do this by creating triangles in those wide areas, where small movements can open up another pass once the ball carriers moves the ball on.
One of the parts that I didn’t touch on much yet is the idea of a ‘wide outlet’, which in my eyes, is one of the most important parts of this functioning attack. To illustrate this point, we’ll be using an example from the Leverkusen match, where Meunier assisted a Haaland goal.
The idea of keeping play in small spaces is apparent at the beginning of the clip, before Brandt finds a wide open Meunier on the right flank. With time to receive, open and cross, Meunier plays an inch perfect ball onto Haaland’s head to finish. This idea alleviates the stresses of continuing to play in those tight spaces, while also providing a dangerous scoring opportunity in the form of a cross, or a 1v1 like with the Wolf one above.
Timing when to send this ball out is imperative to its success, as the players are always there, but knowing when they’re free and when they can create a dangerous situation is hard. One of those risks is that these passes are full field switches, and with the entire team compressed into one area, losing the ball can (and has before) mean a hard counter to an exposed BVB backline. When executed properly though, there can be great effects.
Adding to the danger here for an opposition is that once Meunier receives in an underloaded zone, he’s quickly looking to play the ball back into an overloaded one before the opposition can react and slide across. At times, this can be seen as “useless width” where a player is standing on the opposite side of the pitch. I would contest that within reason this layer of width causes situations exactly like shown above.
Some other important parts of their play is specifically how Haaland and Malen play within the 4-D-2 specifically. Deeper in build up, Malen acts as a way to link play with the 10 and the rest of the midfield. Some would call this a ‘false 9’ although this often makes it seem like he never runs behind. These runs behind though are why they’re positioned on the sides they’re on. Malen, a right footed player, starts as the left striker, while Haaland starts as the right striker. Haaland has a very specific tendency to shoot from the deep, left-half space across his body. By playing as the RST, Haaland is able to make a diagonal run into the left half of the field, and receive a straight pass from his midfield or the wide areas. Malen is able to do similar on the right, although he has struggled to find these moments the way Haaland has. The shooting tendencies are reinforced in the data, as we can see common shooting trends in the team over the past two seasons, particularly the zones that Haaland shoots from in that left side of the box. The right side of the box is clearly less occupied this season compared to last, possibly influenced by the loss of Jadon Sancho.
Changes by Opposition:
I touched on this a bit in the build-up section, but Dortmund alter their building tactics based on opposition, whether that’s man-marking, finding a specific spot to exploit, or understanding their zonal marking schemes.
The most obvious example to me is the way that Dortmund were able to run up goals against oppositions who used a stricter man-marking scheme while having to change their tactics for teams like Freiburg who sit deeper and play zonal for most of the match. Check examples in the build-up section earlier for examples!
They’ve also altered their tactics not just to suit an opposition, but to suit themselves. For example: before the Gladbach match, both Reus and Haaland got injured. In this event, Dortmund may have looked to play their normal 4-D-2 with Reus and Haaland up top to exploit the width of their fullbacks. In the end, Rose switched to a 3–5–2, which still had the aim of exploiting those same deep half-space runs, but it added players to the defensive line to change the way they build without Haaland’s and Reus’ abilities.
I don’t have much else to add to this in the conclusion section, but that I hope you enjoyed all of the tactical breakdowns that I’ve given. After this, if you have more interest in a match by match basis, I’ve created a Google Drive link that houses probably hours of tactical film organized by match and player, as well as training sessions. There is also a folder with all data visualizations used.
This next section will look at some of the training sessions found in the film they post on social media, but if you’re not interested in this, feel free to scroll to the bottom section with my closing comments.
Even though I’ve already wrapped it up, I’ve done some work already to research the way these things are trained. Although I am not a coach myself (yet), I thought that it would be very interesting to some to consider the drills that the team uses to work on these tactics. Considering the confidentiality of most of these training things, I’m going to assume that the videos on Dortmund’s YouTube channel intentionally exclude the important tactical bits. That said, the important themes mentioned throughout this piece are still apparent. I understand this material drastically less than everything else, but the goal is for me to learn through doing this, so if you have any feedback on the drills and my thoughts let me know!
Starting with one of the most recent inside training videos, the team participates in a very basic 5v2 rondo in a tight space. This essentially adds a fifth man in the center of the field whose moment mimics that of a center-mid. Important to note that this can improve the effectiveness of the rondo with regards to improving visual perception. Karl Marius Aksum wrote a great dissertation on this that I, admittedly, only read a part of. Generally the idea is that normal rondos restrict your vision needed to only a 180° view of the field, vs. the 360 view the player in the center must have.
This is also important for passing quickly in tight spaces. Rose and co. seem to have found the right distance so that it is difficult to connect passes, but if the tempo is kept high, it will be difficult for the opposition to keep up with and they’ll be caught running. I also found the way they pressed of note. About halfway through, Hummels steps to the ball, and Moukoko drops off to cover the passing angle. This results in him winning the ball.
In watching most of the “inside training” videos, it becomes clear that this 5v2 rondo is one of their most used, likely as a warmup for training. Pretty sure I’ve seen it in every one of the videos at some point. Size seems to vary, I’m not sure why. This could be due to opposition, or it could be related to periodization (some days throughout the week you want less sprints vs. more sprints) and more physical than tactically altered.
In earlier sessions, like in preparation for the match against Bielefeld, the rondo expanded slightly, giving more room for movement and receiving in the center. These camera angles don’t make my life easy but it looks like it was around a 6v3, maybe more, with more space. This larger space can almost create transitions for the opposition to figure out how to regroup and re-press..
The next drill is from the same session and is again very transition related. This game looks like a 3v3, but in a tight space and with goals. This means that the counter-pressing immediately topics come into play heavily, because Tigges finds space to get that shot off quite easily after the initial counter-press is broken.
One of the other variations I found on this was with Hazard playing as a “neutral” or a “+1” or whatever other term you’d like to use. In my (very minimal) experience, this is usually related to numbers in training rather than something very intentional.
If you’ve somehow read this entire thing, thank you for taking an hour out of your day to listen to all of these things I’m so passionate about. I have a hard time feeling proud of my work at times, but this is truly one of the first works I am proud of.
On that note: there are a lot of thank you’s in order. (All Twitter accounts will be linked on their names.)
Ronan, Harsh, Aaron, Rahul and Shake helped me out massively with the creation of a lot of these data visualizations. I thoroughly enjoyed working with them, and they’re all super talented. Shake’s developed a package called ggshakeR where a lot of these visualizations can be found, and you can learn to make them yourselves! (I will be doing that for my next project.) Thank you guys for patience and working with me on this!
I put well in excess of 100 hours working on this project (I hope it shows?) and it required a lot of mental support to keep going. I won’t run through every name, but I want to thank René Marić specifically for encouraging me and for giving thoughtful responses throughout my maybe small questions.
Along that same vein, to the groups of friends who continually verbally encouraged me like Luke, Cam, and Carl, along with Jamie who unintentionally supported me with his template, thank you guys also.
Some citations: that quote from René was from an article on Goal’s website. It’s a short interview, but he manages to pack loads of insight into his responses, and it’s worth reading. The final training videos were all taken from the BVB YouTube channel.
Lastly, to the pair of eyes that will never get to give me his thoughts, I hope I’ve made you proud. You never missed anything I did, and I know somewhere, you’re reading this.