Borussia Dortmund have struggled domestically this season. The question is have domestic teams figured out to how to counter Dortmund’s style of play? Constantin Eckner provides us with a few options the German club can try to shake things up tactically.
Borussia Dortmund picked up their first points since September in when Jürgen Klopp’s team beat Borussia Mönchengladbach, thanks to Christoph Kramer and his ridiculous own goal. However, the struggling German powerhouse won just a battle, and it will be a long way to obtain the spot in the table they would’ve targeted when the Bundesliga season started. On the other hand, Dortmund’s roster depth promises interesting systems and approaches.
Against 1. FC Köln last month, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and İlkay Gündoğan took to the field together in a league game for the first time – Shinji Kagawa and Marco Reus as well. Together with old war horse Sebastian Kehl as balance player, Klopp might fielded the strongest midfield cast on in the club’s history, in any case since he is in charge, even without Mario Götze. Aware of their own quality and under the pressure of a losing streak in the domestic competition, Borussia boosted a very ambitious possession game with great fluidity playing a 4-2-3-1.
They focused on the right defensive half-space while building up attacks. Mats Hummels and Sokratis moved slightly to the right side, while Gündoğan or Kehl periodically occupied the gap left behind by left-back Kevin Grosskreutz. The centre midfield was set-up in the same manner as in Dortmund’s most successful season in recent years, the 2011-12 campaign. However they failed to achieve the same level of success and left gaps. Kagawa often filled that space, and appeared centrally. Reus and Mkhitaryan adapted themselves to the movements in the centre and often pushed into a half-space; especially Reus, who played nominally as left winger, moved sometimes into the right half. However, despite the high quality Dortmund lost to Köln.
Nevertheless, Klopp has many options to field different formation and therefore, his team can adapt to various situations and opponents. Dortmund are defined by their ability to press and to counter-attack though. It is always intriguing to see what formation and what processes in this certain formation are contained in Klopp’s match plan. BVB tried numerous alternatives in the pre-season friendlies, but these have not been used for a while, most notably within the first matches after the signing of Kagawa. However, new options arise with the return of most of the injured players. What are the alternatives to a conventional 4-2-3-1 formation?
4-3-1-2 – Aggressive midfield diamond
This formation is an interesting option because of a high degree of flexibility and diverse possible roles. Reus and Aubameyang could be an extremely dynamic striker duo, providing runs in behind the defence between the centre-backs and the full-backs, or can move to the wings and can also trouble both a back four and a back three. Against a defence with three men, the gap between the centre-back and full-back or the zones behind advanced wing-backs would be areas to focus. Against a back four, both forwards could deal with the entire defensive line and move between the centre-backs and full-backs.
Kagawa as no. 10 could bring on his entire genius in the ability to press, occasionally going up front and man-marking the opposing deep-lying playmaker. Depending on the strategical focus, they can attack directly or steer the opponent towards one side through a narrow positioning of the three offensive players. Mkhitaryan and Gündoğan (or Oliver Kirch) as asymmetrically acting midfielders alongside the deeper positioned Kehl (or Sven Bender) would take care of the half-spaces and initiate counter attacks. Gündoğan (or Kirch) provides the ball circulation, Mkhitaryan the verticality and the occupation of attacking spaces. Even a very aggressive variant with Gündoğan between Mkhitaryan and Kevin Grosskreutz or the returning Jakub Błaszczykowski is conceivable.
4-3-2-1 – Asymmetry all over the park
Against St. Pauli in the German Cup, Klopp fielded a shifted midfielder line with Kagawa playing as a right inside forward. He and Reus stood behind Ciro Immobile in terms of pressing, or Reus pushed forward, while Kagawa remained in a vertical line behind Immobile in the right half-space. Grosskreutz played as a left half-back very deep and wide though. He oriented himself to the centre of the midfield and formed an asymmetric line of three as Kehl occupied the middle. This forces the opposing team either to move to their right side where BVB could press or to try long range passes on the left where Kagawa, Mkhitaryan and the right-back exercise extreme pressure. Such tactics can also be applied in reverse for strategical reasons.
In this variant, which is used much less frequently than a 4-2-3-1, the reference point is space control. Dortmund can shift toward the effective playing space and try to occupy it, or the Schwarzgelben can lead the opposing build-up play. After the first passes, BVB overload spaces with respect to the position of the ball and the opponent’s short pass combinations would be destroyed by a lot of pressure.
4-4-2 or 4-1-4-1
Dortmund have also lined up in a 4-4-2 on occasion, against Anderlecht for instance. First and foremost, the team is relatively passive focusing on leading the opponent’s attacks, and controlling the space in front of the opponent’s centre-backs, while setting pressing traps on the wings and in the half-spaces – a rather standard way, but certainly with potential, especially if Klopp tries to provide stability during a certain period of the game. Furthermore, the physical effort could be reduced for a while.
To lure the opposing team to the wings, Dortmund can cover centre spaces by blocking these zones with a narrow midfield line, while both strikers do not attack the centre-backs or a deep dropping play-maker as shown in the graphic below. Thereby, both full-backs are the only free players. After an initial pass to one side, Dortmund could start to hunt the full-back. They could surround the full-back with the nearest winger and nearest forward who run toward the side line. Diego Simeone’s Atlético from last season serves as a perfect example of a team implementing this scheme.
Another practiced variant is a 4-1-4-1. With that system, a central midfielder moves forward. The centre forward can either block the centre-back or the second player in the opposing build-up structure, while the advancing midfielder would cover the opposing deep playmaker in his coverage shadow and would lead the build-up to one wing where they can be pressed.
The Creative Sphere
In addition to the line-up,where BVB set pressing traps, how high they use the press, how they vary their rhythm, and the aggressiveness of press are all important. However, it is not all about ball recoveries and interceptions. In the current Bundesliga season, Dortmund have an average ball possession of 54 percent, according to WhoScored. The Schwarzgelben are forced to dominate most of their matches, and, therefore, they can only use their ability to recover balls in parts. So, as far as Klopp is concerned, they need another style of play, contrary to what they are used to in many Champions League matches.
This leads to far-reaching changes in Borussia’s play structure. While a playmaker like Nuri Şahin has an inclination to drift freely throughout the midfield, other players attend to the structural balance between defence and attack. Especially the likes of Kehl, Gündoğan and Mkhitaryan interpret their roles in exceptionally complex fashion.
To provide a more possession oriented style, it is necessary that the wingers or wide players within a midfield diamond are inversely positioned. So, that they can start typical dribbles toward spaces between the lines. Moreover, they should make some runs off the ball around the flexible forwards. Thus, Mkhitaryan, Grosskreutz among other so-called wingers can set out as combination players in the attacking half-spaces when required. These attacking elements also add presence in the build-up play. This is a positive development compared to times when the forwards dropped deep. The likes of Mkhitaryan and Gündoğan should occupy and dominate these spaces, directing the passing forwards.
However, in the last season and partly in this season, they pushed their build-up play to the outside and were then forced into predictable patterns along the side-lines. Both wingers supported the full-backs, and played just simple combinations. A deep sitting opponent can defend such attacking structures with a normal tight 4-4-2 formation, and man-orientated coverage.
So, Dortmund need another strategy. At first, Klopp’s side could provide a calm ball circulation in their own third. Then, after taking stock of the pitch, Hummels or one of the full-backs could play a vertical pass into a tight space in the middle third. Kagawa, Gündoğan or Kirch can handle passes even under enormous pressure. Once Dortmund can find a gap, they should play fast through the open spaces. Otherwise, BVB should be able to play the ball back to the back four, and start a new attempt. Furthermore, their concerted strategy to counter press as intensely as possible and recover possession is useful, if one of the midfielders should lose the ball. After regaining possession, Dortmund could use well-known mechanisms of transition play. In summary it can be said, therefore, that Dortmund need to curtail the hectic nature of their play by providing a calm ball circulation. Moreover, Klopp’s side is able to ‘simulate’ their beloved counter attacking play with changes in speed, even though Dortmund are the dominating side within a match.
Written by Constantin Eckner