Miles Olusina writes a detailed tactical analysis about the DFB Pokal final that finished Eintracht Frankfurt 1-2 Borussia Dortmund
German giants Borussia Dortmund squared up against Niko Kovac’s unfancied Frankfurt side in the DFB Pokal final, who surprised many with their unexpected cup run despite coming up against lesser opposition for most of the tournament. As expected, Dortmund were overwhelming favourites after their decent 3rd place finish this season under Thomas Tuchel in what would ultimately be his last game at the helm.
The game was nowhere near as straightforward as many would have predicted, with the absence of midfield maestro Julian Weigl proving very pivotal as Dortmund often struggled in the build-up phase and were unable to maintain possession for large stretches of the game. In the end, a stellar performance from the outrageously talented Ousmane Dembele proved to be the difference as Dortmund took home their first trophy since 2012.
Eintracht Frankfurt (5-3-2): 1. Hradecky // 22. Chandler, 15. Hector, 19. Abraham, 5. Vallejo, 6. Oczipka // 25. Medojevic, 11. Gacinovic, 10. Fabian // 17. Rebic, 9. Seferovic
Borussia Dortmund (3-4-2-1): 38. Burki // 5. Bartra, 25. Sokratis, 29. Schmelzer // 26. Piszczek, 28. Ginter, 23. Kagawa, 13. Guerreiro // 7. Dembele, 11. Reus // 17. Aubameyang
Substitutions: 56‘ Tawatha (Medojevic), 72‘ Meier (Chandler), 79‘ Blum (Fabian) // 46’ Pulisic (Reus), 46’ Castro (Schmelzer), 76‘ Durm (Bartra)
Goals: 29‘ Rebic // 8‘ Dembele, 67‘ Aubameyang
Dortmund’s build up struggles
As stated earlier, Dortmund somewhat struggled to experience a stable phase of possession, a common problem the side face when they are forced to play without Julian Weigl in the 6 role. The imminent arrival of Gladbach playmaker Mahmoud Dahoud should go some way to alleviating the burden on Weigl; however they were forced to start youngster Matthias Ginter, who although is a talented player, does not understand the role nearly as well as Weigl.
For much of the game, his movement was lax and did little to provide vertical passing options to the centre backs in the buildup phase. Too often, he allowed himself to be easily cover shadowed by the Frankfurt forwards who had little trouble blocking vertical passing lanes into midfield.
Here, we see Sokratis receiving possession from Schmelzer in centre back with very little pressure and an infinite amount of time to pick out a pass. However, due to cover shadowing from the Frankfurt forwards, he was forced to resort to hopeful long balls into the RB-CB channel to Marco Reus. This inability to create stable positional structures had detrimental effects on their transition game also, as their structure did not allow them to defend compactly against the opposition counter attack.
As they were unable to progress possession through the midfield, they were forced to go more direct. This involved Aubameyang dropping deeper into the half space while Dembele moved wide, dragging the defender with him to open up a direct passing lane for Aubameyang to receive possession.
The passivity of the centre backs in possession also played a role in Dortmund’s inability to circulate the ball through the midfield. Often when they received possession, they played the ball predominantly across the backline without doing much to force ball oriented movements from the Frankfurt forwards and create space between the lines of pressure for the more advanced Dortmund players.
The image above of Sokratis in possession highlights the inability of the Dortmund centre backs to create space between the lines for the midfielders during the game, in this case Ginter. Sokratis has the ball and is contemplating what decision to make but is typically stuck without any forward passing options. A solution to this would have been to dribble forward with possession of the ball. This would provide the space needed for Ginter, as the Frankfurt forward would press believing he has access, without taking into account Ginter on his blind side.
With his focus primarily on the ball in this phase, he will no longer be focused on cover shadowing Ginter and he will be able to move out of the cover shadow, creating a free passing lane for him to receive from Sokratis.
Of the three centre backs, only Marc Bartra did this on occasion, driving forward when he had the necessary space in order to free up the 2 wingers/10s in Dembele and Reus. He was instrumental in helping Dortmund’s back 3 break the lines on the rare occasion they were able to do so, due to his wide passing range.
Bartra, here drives with the ball which attracts pressure from Marco Fabian. Pulisic, at 8, senses the movement trigger as he is aware that Bartra has space and is looking for a pass. As Fabian moves up to press, Pulisic drops deeper into the half space bringing Hector with him, which created space for a vertical, penetrative run from either Kagawa or Guerreiro.
Frankfurt’s man orientations
Despite predominantly deploying zonal marking, as with most top level teams in Europe, Kovac’s men chose to focus their defensive structure heavily on individual players within the Dortmund team. They maintained their compact, adaptable shape with 5 defenders while still rendering key opposition players ineffective. This was done through a range of different techniques, predominantly though cover shadows and outright man marking in the case of their 3 centre backs.
The scenario above provides an example of the man marking deployed in the Frankfurt defensive scheme. It was particularly prominent in deeper defensive phases as individual players would aggressively mark a man while the player closest to the ball would apply pressure. The back 5 of Frankfurt would do this often, discouraging vertical passes from defenders and midfielders into the forwards by aggressively man marking players who looked to drop deep and assist the team’s ball circulation.
In the image above we see Ginter in possession, now at centre back, looking to progress play into midfield. Castro, now at 6, is unable to provide a vertical passing option as he is being cover shadowed by Rebic; while neither Dembele nor Aubameyang are able to drop and allow Ginter to play a direct pass into the forwards as both are being marked by the Frankfurt centre backs.
In the 1st defensive phase, their man marking was less aggressive as they focused more on remaining compact and occupy key areas of the field such as the centre and the half-space, restricting the movement of the Dortmund players into certain zones. That said, they still used cover shadows intelligently in Dortmund’s build-up as they opted not to press the first line of play initially, allowing the centre backs time and space on the ball while they blocked the passing lanes of the midfielders.
Their pressure tended to be quite passive for large spells as they sought to maintain organization and did not want to concede space between the lines; space which could have been exploited by the Dortmund 10s and Kagawa. They did become more proactive in their pressure in the latter stages of the first half, though as the Dortmund centre backs came under much more pressure.
Their press proved effective, not giving Dortmund the necessary space between the lines, as they remained compact and still maintained their man orientations, ensuring that the player in the line of pressure was still cover shadowed when they vacated the block to press the ball carrier. It ultimately led to their goal in the 29th minute when Seferovic was quick to apply pressure when one of the Dortmund centre backs was in possession after a 50/50. With little time to structure their defensive block, he had enough time and space to play in Ante Rebic who slotted past Burki.
Their man marking proved to be their undoing in the 66th minute as a vertical run from Kagawa was tracked by a Frankfurt midfielder. Guerreiro, in possession, sees the space now created by the movement of the opposition midfielder and moves centrally. Due to a lack of access from the rest of the midfielders, Guerreiro now has enough time and space to pick out Pulisic who is fouled by the keeper Hradecky, leading to a Dortmund penalty.
Dortmund wide players make the difference
With the compact structures of both teams making space in the centre hard to come by, the game was won and lost in the wide areas. Dortmund used their wide men Dembele, Reus and later Pulisic very intelligently in this game as they rarely functioned out wide, more so in the half spaces. This proved instrumental in creating space for the full backs but compensating for a midfield duo of Kagawa and Ginter, who were struggling with the overloads created by the midfield three of Frankfurt.
In the images above, as were shown before, they assisted greatly in providing a viable forward passing option in the buildup phase. In the first image, we see Dembele drawing away his marker in order to open up a passing lane for Aubameyang to receive the ball from Marc Bartra. In the second scenario, Pulisic drops deeper into the half space, giving Bartra an option as he drives into midfield. In addition, he forces one of the centre backs to move out of the block, creating the potential for a 3rd man run from either Kagawa or Guerreiro in behind the Frankfurt back line.
Their half space positioning was vital in allowing Dortmund to create the required positional structures for combinations as they often provided the link that the central players were unable to due to the opposition man orientations. When they did have stable possession, they often circulated the ball down the left hand side and looked to switch the play when the opportunity arose; provided that the Frankfurt defensive block had shifted allowing the sufficient space on the inactive side of the field.
This pattern of play led to the opening goal in the 8th minute as the ball was switched to Piszczek out wide from Marco Reus when the opposition block had completely shifted. The wing back Oczipka moves out of the defensive line to press but is oblivious to the blind side run made by Dembele in the half space. He receives the ball 1v1 and skips past centre back Jesus Vallejo, in typical Dembele fashion before firing the ball into the top corner to give Dortmund an early lead.
Relief for this Dortmund side, after winning their first trophy since their league and cup double in 2012. A sign of things to come surely for this talented young side who look more than capable of challenging Bayern Munich in the coming seasons; although they will have to do it without manager Thomas Tuchel who announced his departure shortly after the game, a fine way to sign off as Dortmund manager despite falling short of expectations in the league. Things look very promising indeed for this new generation of Dortmund players; with some of the world’s most talented youngsters in Ousmane Dembele, Alexander Isak, Julian Weigl and now Mahmoud Dahoud in the side, they have all the makings of a team who can not only dominate German football but European football in the coming decade.
An unfortunate defeat for Eintracht Frankfurt; who proved much of the doubters wrong by pushing Dortmund all the way in this final. Solid performances such as these are exactly why they performed so well in the Bundesliga also, pushing for a European place for much of the season, although ultimately ending in 11th place. A couple of improvements in personnel in key areas will surely see them challenging for Europe again next season.
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