Ciro Immobile: Dortmund's new penetrating force
Ciro Immobile has joined BVB. What sets the Italian league’s top goal-scorer apart and how does he fit into the Borussia system?
Yet another center forward enters the mix. BVB has broken away from their obligatory key players (remember: Frei, Sahin, Kagawa, Götze) and is using a slightly different style. Ciro Immobile fits the strategic development of the last couple years. In the same way that they have added more vertical, dynamic, and wide ranging players by going from Götze to Mkhitaryan, and Kagawa to Reus, the Italian is a more aggressive and direct striker than the creative Lewandowski.
Physique and penetrating power
Ciro Immobile could be an import from the ‘90s. His game stems from his physical impact and is more reminiscent of Klinsmann, Riedle, or Batistuta, than Villa or Benzema. In a 1v1 he is difficult to control because of how snappily he can use his blend of speed and robustness in combination with his good timing. He is very assertive with the ball, especially when the opponent isn’t compact, as his moderately clean technique and agility is no longer a consequence when he has more space to work with.
His tactical rhythm is also beneficial to his penetrating strength, enabling him to focus heavily on breakthroughs and directing his movements goalwards. Circulating the ball is not his forte, but he’s always looking for ways to get into the box. He of course has good finishing, with his head and both feet, and is strong at finishing balls in the air. In 1v1s against the goalkeeper he is very calm and confident in his decision making.
His greatest quality is his movement. He has a good feel for attacking structures, supporting with brief overloads or evasive movements, and then breaking into good spots in the penalty area with excellent anticipation. He not only chooses good routes and adjusts his timing well with his teammates, but also runs these routes very often. Thus, he belongs to a group of penalty area strikers that are characterized by a high willingness to run and remain active up top, and not just wait for the final ball. Sometimes it is really awesome stuff, such as his 2-0 goal against AS Livorno in March – ever seen a better, more effective movement?
Touchline orientation fits Dortmund’s offense well
Interestingly, Immobile tends to make very evasive runs from the left wing, looking to move diagonally from there towards the center forward position or to break through with the ball in a 1-v-1. It was exactly these movements that Lewandowski forced last season, which didn’t really suit his skillset. In this manner, however, Reus and more especially Mkhitaryan were better involved, as they were able to develop more Dynamik going into the penalty area and the direction of their combinations were more goal oriented.
Nevertheless, Lewandowski’s rather slow rhythm was no longer ideal for Dortmund’s conversion to the new system . Immobile, however, with his proactive orientation, should blend in well with the structural and dynamic actions of Mkhitaryan, Jojic, and Aubameyang.
In addition, his movement in the penalty area could fit in very well: he frequently drives into the outer areas, as he feels it easier to break through there than in the more heavily defended center. But, because of this, he can have somewhat awkward and tight shooting angles. The danger zone in front of the goal can then be filled dynamically by other attackers; an area where no one is better composed than Mkhitaryan.
Aggressively finds space on the counter
Immobile shows his qualities most clearly on the counter-attack. He shifts extremely quickly and selects paths that are very difficult to defend. He either moves powerfully into open space on the wing or cuts in behind the defensive line. In these deep runs he frequently crosses over diagonally so that he binds multiple defenders and enables easier passes.
His basic position at Torino was usually inside left – as is typically the case with the BVB center forwards. So he can easily dodge left on the counter, which fits Borussia’s needs nicely: by moving inside left he creates space into which Reus can dribble and possibly overload with Mkhitaryan. This also pulls the game away from Aubameyang’s side of the field, enabling him to set up his long sprints down the right wing.
In transition, Immobile switches more often in the midfield zones than in the final third. When the game is on the halfway line and the opponent is spread out, he calls for balls and drives into the gaps with his athleticism. His unique skills are so convincing here that his technical weakness is not as much of a consequence. He dribbles the spaces with a skillful distance to the opponent, so that he can often provoke side attacks and then become available for a pass. In the counter attack he has his best passing moments: against very high lines he can occasionally surprise with powerful through balls. Against deep-lying opponents he does not have this creativity.
Inconsistency in ball handling and decision making
His actions on the ball are one of the weaknesses of his game because he lacks consistency. Especially when occasionally falling back into the space between the lines he lacks, despite good approaches, the genes of a number ten: he calls balls very cleverly in promising open spaces, but then is completely focused on the way to the goal. If the opposing six is supported, he can be carried away by the hectic shorthanded dribblings instead of play the resulting spaces. In the box this makes sense, but at the midline, he has too many turnovers. Every now and then he tries stupid long-range shots from 25 meters and more. The “shoot-from-anwhere!” mentality is perhaps good, but these shots just do not go in, and usually end up in the enemy regaining possession.
His layoff game is similarly mercurial. He occasionally creates some excellent stuff with his first touch. He can use the dynamics of passes well, sometimes freeing himself with his back to the enemy even by lobbing it over himself. However, he hasn’t mastered the technical elegance consistently. With layoffs he often jumps forward. He can also often be pushed to the outside and can then only play the wing, instead of keeping (as Lewandowski mostly does) to playing as a forward or in the center.
In general, his second touch is sloppy. Due to his rather low agility and mediocre coordination he is sometimes sloppy at controlling balls and can thereby let them go short. If the opponent seeks access at these moments, he often loses the ball. It is also problematic that he usually refrains from shielding the ball backwards with his body, which Lewandowski dominates so outstandingly. He brings a better side of his physique in the running duels in combination with his speed.
Ferocity in Pressing
Of the ball he likes to use his pace. If he provokes square passes when attacking, he sometimes chases after them too far. Also on backpasses to the keeper he tries to sprint after them, which he was able to turn into some goals in Serie A. This gives the BVB more intensity and range in the first Pressing line than before. While Immobile is just average at steering the opponent’s body and expresses his willingness to run so far somewhat inconsistently, these are the general characteristics of a defensive game in the Italian league and one may assume that he will make rapid progress in this regard under Klopp.
What is somewhat more difficult to predict is his development relative to running up to his opponent and challenging for the ball. The latter is sometimes too aggressive, causing him to make unnecessary fouls. Last season he had eleven yellow cards, saw a yellow-red one time and was already missing on the ninth Matchday due to suspension (which in Italy is after four yellow cards). In the anlaufen he uses his cover shadow a bit oddly. Due to his rather slow tempo changes with his high base speed, he has a lot of access in the direction, but is not so good at reacting to passes along his sides. Occasionally he puts small, teetering turns in his runs. However, these are sloppy and unsettled and at times can irritate some opponents, but he will be outplayed by stronger passers sometimes unleashing switched balls. When that happens, as he presses out into broader zones, gaps can open up in the center.
His greatest defensive strength is potentially his backwards pressing in the half-spaces. He uses his good structural anticipation to run extremely long distances on the opposing midfielder’s back. Since then they partly do not see him coming, he can compensate for his lack of mobility better and sometimes recover the ball through his individual tactical skills very cleanly. This could be supplemented with Mkhitaryan’s pressing qualities excellently. The Armenian is also strong in the backward movement, but less focused on the recovering the ball, rather than strategic spatial control. Together they could bring both stability and aggressiveness to the front intermediate line. Especially for opponents who want to run a ball circulation through the six-space (#PepGuardiola), which is likely to be very unpleasant.
How acclimatised is the Italian?
On paper, Immobile could have a few teething problems in the Bundesliga. The reference to the nineties has already been mentioned and Immobile would sooner feel more comfortable in the classic defensive marking than the modern zonal defense system; that Klinsmann’s a bit extinct, is no accident. The German league is also very strong in this respect: almost all teams operate much more intensely and compact than most Italian teams, which are often very focused on defending off the ball. In this aspect, however, the Italians in the Bundesliga are superior and Immobile could yet prevail.
In this respect, it will be crucial which game situations Borussia bring on their new arrival. If Reus and Co. manage to get a lot of presence in the midfield offense and are attacking the penalty area, then you could see the efficiency of bringing on Immobile. He can also be expected to shine in counterattack situations, which makes him particularly interesting for Champion’s League games. However, if he has to handle long balls often, the Dortmunder’s dependability will suffer. If he attempts to drop back against deep-lying Bundesliga teams, he might even endanger Borussia’s stability. In this respect, the saying, “less is more,” applies to him well.
The fact that his efficiency is very dependent on his tactical environment is also reflected in his rather weak Goal Impact:
Ciro Immobile apparently signed at Dortmund. I’m not that convinced by this transfer. pic.twitter.com/5h5Qb5k46m
— Goalimpact (@GoalImpact) 29. Mai 2014
Integration into Dortmund’s development and planning
In this respect, the Dortmund have shopped around: with Adrian Ramos as an alternative to Immobile they have a much more stable performance in the passing game and the handling of high passes. Depending on which type of game one would expect against an opponent, Klopp can choose the more suitable alternative.
Both players are, nevertheless, impactful primarily as counter-strikers, and their greatest strengths lie in the penalty area and in transition. This illustrates the strategic direction of Borussia. As for the play-making qualities of the offensive player, BVB has downgraded constantly since 2012, making gains instead with respect to the physical qualities of movement and the intelligence of penetrating power. This is true not only for the specified transfers, but is also reflected in personnel like Leitner, Bittencourt and Aubameyang. Jürgen Klopp’s dream of the heavy-metal-transition team will be even more intense. In the meantime, the Barca dream (quote from around 2011/12: “We are going to develop a game with significantly more possession.”) seems to be done.
How to assess this, is a bit down to taste. It can be stated, however, that BVB was the strongest nationally, and their possession game was strongest, in the winning run late in Klopp’s first season, e.g. the first round of the championship season and in the final phase of the Double season. Players like Jojic, Kirch, Reus, Mkhitaryan and especially Gundogan could incorporate their ball skills in a more vertical rhythm. This would probably be Klopp’s ideal, which would also fit perfectly with BVB itself. The playing strength of the six is the more crucial point than that of the striker.
Finally, the Immobile transfer is also interesting if you look at the development of Julian Schieber. This is unique, as he is a very similar type of player and has technically and physically actually has a bit more exotic facility. His problem is mainly the over-committing, frantic movement and positional play. In this aspect, he could hardly continue to develop over the past two years. Now a similar striker has been brought in that is exceptionally good in this respect. One can perhaps interpret that Klopp had hoped to be able to teach Schieber those tactical aspects, but has abandoned this project and now purchased this quality instead. It is certainly less romantic. Let’s see how well it works.
N.B. Schieber was transferred to Hertha Berlin for 2 million euro on July 3, 2014.