Sauharda Karki writes a detailed tactical analysis about the UEFA Champions League match that ended Dortmund 1-0 Sporting.
The home side started the game with their regular 4-1-4-1 formation with Weigl as the midfield anchor and Adrian Ramos leading the line.
The second half saw a slight tweak in tactics from Tuchel. The team started the half with an unorthodox role for Guerreiro on the left side, a tactical aspect that we have seen Tuchel experiment with at other instances this season.
Beyond the 70th minute mark, Dortmund switched to a 5-4-1, matching their opponent’s shape.
The visitors were set up with a quite intriguing formation – a 5-4-1, and although they maintained a passing/possession friendly shape through the game, the shape did have both defensive and offensive ramifications.
Visitors Sporting managed an 84% pass success rate, a 10% improvement from when they played Dortmund at Home (74%).
The Risky Sporting High Press
It was evident from the start that the Sporting defensive approach was aimed at preventing Dortmund from building from the back by applying pressure to the back line in advanced areas of the pitch. The approach aimed to force the center backs to play the ball long and take their chances dealing with the aerial balls with their 3 center backs. The Sporting team did deal with most aerial duels.
The pressing succeeded in the initial part of the first half, forcing the center backs into either passing towards or in front of the keeper, or making long passes.
The problems with the approach came about because of the team shape. With Ruiz and Martins coming narrow to press the back line, the Dortmund fullbacks were left in plenty of space to connect play to the midfield. As the half progressed, the Dortmund center backs began to push the ball to wide areas rather than hoofing it long, resulting in most of the team’s initial buildup taking place in wide areas.
The Midfield Conundrum
With Sporting opting for a 5-man defense, the question right from the start was about how the team’s midfield pairing of Cesar and Carvalho would fare against Dortmund’s 3-man midfield.
The high-press approach did no favors to Sporting’s midfield battle. Perhaps as part of the approach, Cesar was assigned to press Dortmund anchorman Weigl. This left William Carvalho in isolation against the two other Dortmund central midfielders.
With Carvalho stationed at right central midfield, he was often seen marking the left-central midfielder, Castro, leaving Gotze in acres of space on many instances in areas between the sporting defense and midfield lines. Moreover, Cesar was often positioned in very poor areas in the defensive phase, allowing Dortmund even more offensive build-up through the right half of midfield.
One such instance saw Gotze start off unmarked in the space in front of the Sporting back line, soon linking up with Pulisic to create a great chance, which came off the bar.
After Adrien’s introduction in the second half, the Sporting midfield looked a lot more stable in defense and showed an improved passing in central areas.
Guerreiro’s role and Tuchel’s ‘experiment’
After the introduction of Schurrle on the right flank in the second half, Guerriero was seen moving from left back to central midfield areas on numerous occasions – a tactical tweak we have seen Tuchel make before in their loss at Leverkusen.
There were many occasions in this period where the left flank was left open for Sporting wide-players to exploit. With left-back Guerriero in a more central area, Schurrle was seen tracking back to cover the flank.
This experiment lasted for about 20 minutes, during which Sporting enjoyed what was perhaps their best phase of the game. With the tweak not working, Tuchel was seen asking Guerreiro to revert to the orthodox fullback role, and introduced Piszczek and Rode, changing the shape to a 5-4-1 at approximately the 70th minute mark.
Sporting CP managed to register over half of their shots (6 of 11) during this 20-minute phase. Four of those shots came in a brief 5-minute span between the 47th and 52nd minutes.
Sporting’s wing play
Aside from long-range efforts, most of Sporting’s offensive approach was wing play. A lot of the play was concentrated to the right flank. Youngster Gelson Martins was at the heat of the action, along with right wing back Schelotto.
Along the left flank, Ruiz was seen drifting centrally and positioned narrower and deeper, often drawing Ginter centrally to allow left back Zeegelar to get behind the Dortmund defence. Sporting did pose a threat at times along the flanks.
However, perhaps anticipating the approach, Dortmund did a good job in closing down players in wide areas, committing both in number and in tackles. Sporting also looked like they were missing a proper goal threat to get to the end of crosses resulting from their wing play.
Problems with the Sporting back line
All eyes were initially drawn towards sporting having committed an extra number to the defensive line. After weighing the pros and cons, the 3 central defenders proves to have been surplus to requirement and perhaps should have not stuck through the entirety of the game.
With just a lone striker to deal with through most parts of the game, the center backs were often stationed zonally and adequately spaced. Ironically, even the extra number failed to prevent the lone striker from scoring at the end of a cross. This further strengthens the modern notion of how a balanced mixture of zonal and man marking is still superior to an additional number in the back line in most scenarios.
Among the three centerbacks, Semedo’s role was rather intriguing. Alongside bringing up the ball from the back in offence and slotting close to the midfield line in buildup, he was also seen coming off the line in defense, mostly for either closing space or making aerial challenges, most of which he won.
The general consensus would be that an extra defender helps negate spaces better. What many forget is that poor positioning in a 5-man back line can ironically lead to more space to exploit. With the left centerback off position, the left wing back was drawn narrower to pick up midfield runners, allowing for space along the right flank for Dortmund’s right back to take advantage of. Ginter made a good use of these spaces, proving a threat with his crosses.
The win saw Dortmund qualify from the group stage of the Champions League and the score-line may as well have been prettier. The team looked sound defensively, with the defenders and anchor Weigl providing a composed and resolute display at the back. Another glimpse of Tuchel’s tactical experiment with Guerriero was seen, which did not seem to produce a positive outcome for the team.
The visitors managed to get a fair share of possession of the ball. Sporting have been good at retaining the ball, with the highest average possession in the Portuguese league so fart his season. A rather mediocre performance from Cesar and Luc Castaignos did no favors for Sporting’s efforts on the night. Adrien’s return seemed reassuring for the team, and youngster Gelson Martins looked dangerous on the flank. Overall, the visitors did put on a decent passing and wing play display.
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