Eric Devin provides a detailed tactical analysis about the Champions League quarter-final first leg that finished Borussia Dortmund 2-3 Monaco.
Borussia Dortmund (3-4-2-1): Roman Bürki; Lukasz Piszczek, Sokratis, Sven Bender (Nuri Sahin 46′); Matthias Ginter, Julian Weigl, Raphaël Guerreiro, Marcel Schmelzer (Christian Pulisic 46′); Ousmane Dembélé, Shinji Kagawa; Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
AS Monaco (4-4-2): Danijel Subasic; Almamy Touré, Kamil Glik, Jemerson, Andrea Raggi; Bernardo Silva (Nabil Dirar 66′), Joao Moutinho, Fabinho, Thomas Lemar; Radamel Falcao (Valere Germain 85′), Kylian Mbappé-Lottin
While an intriguing match on the pitch, any assessment of Monaco’s 3-2 win over should be poorly received without mention of the incidents preceding the match, and indeed whether it should have gone ahead on such short notice. Undoubtedly UEFA felt the pressure of both teams’ already difficult schedules, but more effort should have been made to make sure that the mental state of the Dortmund players wasn’t unduly compromised. At this point, one might be tempted to say hindsight is 20-20, but there should at least be the hope that the Champions’ League’s organizers have learned from their mistake, should they be faced with another incident.
Missing Marc Barta as a result of the bombing of their bus, Dortmund were forced to alter their tactics. Many pundits, including this one, had thought Thomas Tuchel would opt for a 4-1-4-1, with Julian Weigl deployed in a holding role and Ousmane Dembélé and Christian Pulisic played wide. Missing Bartra and thus robbed of an orthodox centre back the Dortmund boss instead opted to play with three at the back, a system he has used frequently this season, albeit with mixed results. The system itself wasn’t necessarily the problem, though, but more of how Tuchel populated it.
Here, we see the initial formation, variously labeled as a 3-4-1-2 (as seen here) or a 3-4-2-1, depending on whether one viewed Dembélé, playing in what amounted to a free role, as a partner to Aubameyang or playing behind him. Sokratis is the only natural centre back, and Lukas Piszczek and Sven Bender, more of a fullback and a defensive midfielder, respectively, play on other side of him. Even though Bender and Piszczek aren’t generally used as centre backs, they are capable enough as part of a three; the issue was more of Tuchel’s choice of wingbacks.
Matthias Ginter and Marcel Schmelzer are decent enough players, both with multiple caps for the German national side, but their ability to add to the attack, either as an orthodox fullback, or as a wingback, is limited by their pace. Had Erik Durm been available, he would have been a good option, likewise Felix Passlack, but Tuchel was understandably wary of trusting the teenager in a match of this magnitude. In addition to the lack of pace of the wingbacks, Guerreiro and Kagawa were both limited in their involvement going forward, as an overly attacking mindset from that pair would have left Weigl outnumbered on the counter. Thus, Tuchel’s initial approach, as a result of the personnel he used was handicapped by a lack of width in attack (note how narrow Ginter and Schmelzer are in the above image) and a similar ability to control midfield.
Monaco played their normal 4-4-2, but with a more fluid affect than is usually their wont. With Joao Moutinho starting in place of the suspended Tiemoué Bakayoko, there was a more elastic approach to the formation, with Moutinho getting forward as a ball-carrier and Fabinho sitting deep to protect the defense. The formation at times almost resembled a diamond as Lemar and Silva played more narrowly than usual, with Mbappé operating more centrally, as opposed to cutting in from the left per usual. These small tweaks were imperative in allowing Monaco, without the dynamism of Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé to drive play from the fullback positions, to control midfield, even as they didn’t dominate possession.
The two attack-minded fullbacks’ absences also presented a challenge for the back four, and once again, Jardim got things right from the off. Almamy Touré can be every bit the attack-minded, dynamic fullback that Sidibé is, but that is less the case with the veteran Raggi, who replaced Mendy on the opposite flank. Wanting to create balance and solidity, Touré thus sat very deep, by his standards. He did get forward on several early occasions, but generally played in a similar position to Raggi.
In addition to sitting deep, Touré and Raggi also played very narrowly, as these images show. In the first image, Guerreiro tries to play in one of Dembélé or Aubameyang. With each pacy forward effectively double-teamed by a pair of center backs, space was thus at a premium. The first image also shows an incredible amount of space on Monaco’s flanks, and ample opportunity for the two Dortmund wingbacks to run into it (white arrows), but the reticence of Ginter and Schmelzer to get forward made it easy for Monaco to keep their shape.
The second image shows Monaco’s entire back four, once again very compact, shifted to the right side of the pitch. This ability to shift laterally while staying compact allowed Monaco to better cope with Dembélé and, to some extent, Kagawa. As the two Dortmund players’ roles were somewhat undefined, that reciprocal flexibility made it easier for a Monaco defense not noted for its pace to absorb their freer roles. Note, also, how deep and narrow Ginter is here, even though a reverse ball would leave Raggi and Lemar stranded. Tuchel would later seize on Monaco’s narrow back four, but in the first half, chances were far and few between for the hosts.
That is not to say that Raggi and Touré were entirely uninvolved in Monaco’s attack. On the contrary, Touré frequently got forward with the ball at his feet, running by Schmelzer with ease. This allowed Moutinho, nominally playing on that side of midfield, to join Silva in taking a more creative role, either with his range of passing or with the ball at his feet. On the opposite flank, Raggi, lacking the pace of his fellow fullback, was more conservative, but his experience and recognition of how deep and narrow Ginter was playing was instrumental in Monaco’s second goal, turned into the hosts’ net by Bender. Here, the Italian runs into space as Lemar, with the ball, prepares to play the ball out to the flank. Piszczek anticipates his run with a desperate gesture, but can’t check Raggi himself as he is occupied with Mbappé. Thus, even though Dortmund have a numerical advantage here, poor marking by Ginter and a smart switch of play by Lemar allowed Monaco to cut them open.
Monaco also did well to organize their offside trap, knowing that the pace of Aubameyang and Dembélé could be dangerous against Glik and Jemerson. The Brazilian isn’t slow as centre backs go, but Glik is a player whose ability is predicated on his positional intelligence rather than his tackling. He did have a fine tackle off the feet of Aubameyang at one point early in the first half, but Monaco’s offside trap was crucial in the match’s early going, catching Dortmund off twice in the first half. Here, Piszczek tries to play a ball over the top to Aubameyang, but Touré and Lemar step up to see the flag go up against the lanky striker.
Things seemed to be going according to plan for Monaco, then, with a 2-0 lead at the interval, but Tuchel hasn’t been as successful as he has for a lack of flexibility. His substitutions at halftime, bringing on Christian Pulisic and Nuri Sahin, immediately addressed the team’s lack of thrust in wide areas, as well as their numerical disadvantage in midfield. The first image, from early in the second half, shows how that system worked. What had been a 3-4-2-1 now became a 3-2-4-1/4-1-4-1 hybrid, with Pulisic and Guerreiro playing as orthodox wingers and Sahin partnering Weigl in defensive midfield or aiding Kagawa as the situation dictated.
Sahin (center) works as a box-to-box midfielder, both tracking back to help Weigl and getting forward to aid Kagawa and the attack. Kagawa, on the ball here, is similarly free to be more of an attacking presence; his goal was a defined product of this switch, with the Japanese international now able to make runs from central midfield without sacrificing width (Guerreiro and Pulisic saw to that) or defensive cover. The changed role of Weigl was what allowed the system to be a hybrid, as the former 1860 man was able to not only facilitate the attack with his neat passing but also drop into central defense at times, partnering Sokratis and pushing Ginter and Piszczek wider.
Monaco were slow to adapt, as their defense (white line) remained deep and narrow until at least after Dortmund had scored, ceding the wide areas to Pulisic and Guerreiro. The Portuguese in particular thrived on the left flank, as he had struggled both with the defensive responsibilities and physicality on display in central midfield; after being one of Dortmund’s poorest performers in the first half, he was one of their best in the second.
Dortmund’s defense also looked sharper in the second half, despite conceding to Mbappé on the break. This image shows how the hosts could be solid with an orthodox back four, or more attack-minded with a back three and the midfield pushed on. Neither Ginter nor Piszczek are left backs by trade, but Ginter swapped flanks to take Bender’s place on the left side of defense, allowing Piszczeck to keep his normal place on the right. At times, though, the two were able to move wider when Monaco got forward. To accommodate this, Weigl, who has played on occasion in defense, would drop deep to partner Sokratis, creating more balance without sacrificing spacing in the middle of the park. While in possession, Weigl would push forward, allowing Sahin and Kagawa to join the attack as Ginter and Piszczek tucked inside.
Monaco did alter their shape eventually, but it made them very limited going forward. This image shows Thomas Lemar having dropped deep to track the run of Pulisic. Raggi has taken up a narrower position, and the overall effect makes Monaco’s shape more of a 5-2-3, with Mbappé and Silva playing off Falcao, but deeper. Moutinho and Fabinho remain the midfield axis, but the threat of Mbappé on the break as the youngster took a wider role was summarily diminished. Lemar was also booked early in the second half, which made his ability to jockey with the bigger Pulisic more limited as well.
All told, it was a match of two halves. Tuchel got things wrong from the off but made the right adjustments, with Monaco slow to react. Ahead of the second leg, Jardim will hope for the return of his fullbacks, so crucial to his team’s style, but will also have some idea of how to cope with Dortmund even in their absence. The potential return of Marco Reus (and Durm) could give Tuchel more options tactically, but even with the same set of players, Dortmund look to be slight favorites, even with Monaco’s three away goals.
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Eric Devin is an Oregon-based football writer. He writes about Ligue 1 for Get French Football News and Outside of the Boot.
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