Team Analysis: Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund
Four games into the 2015/2016 Bundesliga season and Borussia Dortmund sit at the top of the table with a 100% record, 15 goals scored and just 3 conceded. Under the new management of Thomas Tuchel, the former-Mainzer has rejuvenated a side who looked lost just a matter of months ago with Jurgen Klopp.
Just how has the prodigal coach turned Die Schwarzgelbe around?
Firstly we must cast our eyes to the season gone where Dortmund were, albeit, shortly at the foot of the German top flight. Many 0-1 and 0-2 losses highlighted the tactical deficiencies which plagued the side in Klopp’s final two years at the club. Especially with the ball, BVB looked to be without organisation, both in structural terms as well as strategical let alone tactical.
Although such sudden improvements in the possession game are very surprising and impressive to say the least, it is somewhat explained when in the knowledge of Tuchel’s methodology.
Throughout his sabbatical after leaving Mainz in the May of 2014, the 42-year-old Bavarian coach went under the tutelage of Bayern’s Pep Guardiola, seemingly with a focus on the application of the much-discussed on SV – juego de posición. The footballing philosophy which translates to positional play from Spanish is a structured positional guideline which provides a team to organise themselves on depending on the position of the ball.
For some excellent reading on the subject, here are two articles already written on Spielverlagerung:
Before the international break I, with the support of fellow-SVer CE analysed the majority of Dortmund’s matches which I will link below:
Tuchel has designed his team in a shape which could be interpreted as either a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1.
Roman Burki has been the main goalkeeper behind a defence which has seen some change. Mats Hummels and Marcel Schmelzer have featured consistently though Neven Subotic, Sokratis and Ginter have all featured at right centre-back whilst Ginter and Piszczek have both taken on the right-back role so far.
The midfield has been much more consistent however with Weigl, Gundogan, Mkhitaryan and Kagawa all being ever present in the 4 Bundesliga matches so far.
Julian Weigl, a new signing from 1860 Munich in the summer is at the base of the midfield and uses his strong positional intelligence to support the team’s structure. This is particular the case through the left half-space where he is most commonly acting. To his right is Ilkay Gundogan who is at the level of one of the best central midfielders in the world currently.
Shinji Kagawa is central in the trio ahead of the pivots but is oriented more towards the left half-space with Mkhitaryan on the left. The two combine well in a brilliant partnership which has become key to the majority of attacks. On the right is Marco Reus though the winger is rarely actually positioned there, instead moving towards the ball and combining with the other two attacking midfielders on the left.
Leading the line is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who has also fitted well into Tuchel’s system. The Gabonese forward has 5 goals in 4 matches in the German top flight as well as an assist to his name too.
Improved Positional Structure
A prime issue for Klopp’s Dortmund throughout the 14/15 season was their at-times extremely ineffective positional structure during possession, especially through the construction from defence. As I previously mentioned, they looked devoid of a guideline throughout numerous matches. The opposition were happy to sit back and let Dortmund create their own issues for long periods of the 90 minutes.
With seemingly no guideline to base a structure on, the co-ordination of the positioning was often completely missing which led to poor connections without effective staggering.
At some points, it became quite ridiculous as shown in the above image from MR’s aptly-named scene analysis; “Dortmund hates triangles”. With 4 players in a straight line down the middle of the pitch, BVB’s positional structure really is terrible with minimal connections through the centre and a great lack of triangles which are the foundation for all combination play.
The straight line is not the only issue for Dortmund in this moment. One case being that the wing-space is occupied by two players on each side. This makes no sense considering the lack of a presence in the half-spaces due to the awful central staggering which theoretically would result in a worse ability to move the ball horizontally through the midfield and thus – (bad, of course!) isolations occur.
With such poor shape in their building phase, the content of Dortmund’s matches last year was often largely Dortmund trying, and failing, to move the ball into the midfield. However because they didn’t have the necessary structure to do so, they simply couldn’t.
One of the key influences in Dortmund’s rapid improvement in this department is Tuchel’s implementation of a clearer positional framework which BVB work off of. It was no secret that during his sabbatical, the German was tutored by Guardiola and through this he has transferred some principles to the Westfalenstadion.
Through the introduction of a clear guideline for positioning on a team-level, Dortmund have been able to adapt and improve at a faster rate than had Tuchel developed their positional game via a less structured approach. In juego de posición, through training the players are almost immediately provided with the guideline through which to organise themselves individually and collectively. On the other hand, through alternative training methodology this guideline is not present and the information for positioning is developed at a slower rate and from a lower level than it is in positional play. This is clear in the performances of Dortmund as their shape is already much improved from the dire showing of last season, which perhaps would not have been so rapid had Tuchel’s methodology been different.
Another is the presence of particular players in the system. After being signed from 1860 Munich, Julian Weigl has displayed excellent positional intelligence in his left-6 role from which he supports the Dortmund structured massively with formed connections and triangles. Often moving quite far towards the touchline, he is vital in the stability of possession – especially when the ball is in a weak area on the wing. Through creating these triangles, it is not often that Weigl is the direct beneficiary but one of the other 4 midfielders who possess better penetrative abilities. A key aspect of positional play is to generate the free player, who would optimally also be your best. In these triangles and connections it is Weigl who is opening up the passing lanes and allowing the likes of Kagawa and Gundogan to be the free player, as shown in the below image.
In the above scene, Schmelzer is becoming isolated against the Gladbach press against the touchline, however Weigl understands the situation and makes a mid-range movement from the centre to create the connection. The young midfielder facilitates the pass away from pressure whilst immediately creating a threatening situation against the failed press which now lacks stability. He finds Kagawa between the lines of midfield and defence. He now has a number of options to penetrate from this threatening position by using the strategical advantages of the half-space.
Mkhitaryan’s new role in the left half-space has him oriented towards supporting the positional structure and creating connections through this area of the pitch.
The Armenian has made an excellent start under Tuchel and in an interview, credited his performances to the new system which he has found himself in. On paper he is seen on the left wing of the ‘3’ of Reus, Kagawa and Mkhitaryan yet his orientation is much more flexible as he frequently moves away from the touchline. The role is often situational, as he takes up suitable positions from which he can improve the structure of the team by creating connections across the midfield.
Mkhitaryan and Weigl are the two main structure-supporting agents and both are active through the left half-space, playing a key role in the effectiveness of the possession game around this area of the pitch. With a much better positional structure, Tuchel’s side are capable of developing ball possession more effectively
With their improved positional game, Dortmund are also better in their valuation and occupation of space. In many of the matches last season, Klopp’s team were ineffective in prioritising valuable areas on the pitch and instead would often occupy areas of low value. They would then fail to access the vital areas in attack resulting in weak penetration in the final third.
On the football pitch, it is the wide spaces which generally carry the least strategical value. From these areas one only has 180′ of possible direction to play in due to the presence of the touchline. As a result, it makes it very easy to press the ball and that is why the majority of pressing traps are executed in the wide areas. Other issues are that it provides little access to other areas of the pitch – by being at one end of the pitch it becomes very difficult to access spaces which are horizontally far away. Then in the final third, there are few means of penetrating from wide areas which are efficient in comparison to the centre and half-space which are of much higher value.
Under Tuchel however, they are showing much greater intelligence in possession and value the different spaces correctly and according to the individual strategic benefits which they offer. For example, we rarely see the use of the wings until they’re rather deep in the final third (and then for cut-backs!). This suggests that Dortmund understand the weakness of such spaces in construction whilst knowing the touchline is more valuable higher up the pitch for a means of penetrating the penalty area.
Improved Construction of Possession
One of the worst areas affected by Dortmund’s poor positional structure in the 2014/2015 season was their build-up from the defence. They frequently were without access to the centre and couldn’t develop the ball with stability. Fortunately they always had the solution of Adrian Ramos in a flat 4-4-2.
A key aspect of the new build-up game for Dortmund is the Hummels – Gundogan axis. During build-up down the left side, centre-back Mats Hummels has the playmaking duties of moving the ball upfield by penetrating the 1st and sometimes 2nd lines of pressure. This role utilises the best of the centre-backs passing which is supported by the likes of Weigl and the team’s improved positional structure.
Without an as-good passing centre-back on the opposite flank, the penetration here is made usually by Ilkay Gundogan who drops into the right half-space from his right 8 position. The Turk-born German midfielder is currently playing as one of the best midfielders in the world on his exceptional return from long absences with injury, perfectly suiting Tuchel’s vision.
Another advantage of Gundogan’s presence in progressing the ball from the back line is his excellent dribbling ability. Often when picking up the ball in the right half-space he is confronted rather early by an opposing presser. His dribbling not only allows him to be resistant to such closing down but opens a window as a means to destroy the opposition defensive structure through beating his man individually.
In most games so far, Dortmund have found themselves up against a man-oriented defensive system. One of the numerous weaknesses for a scheme oriented around covering each opposition player individually is that a loss in a simple 1v1 situation can cause major issues.
Against man-marking, if the ball-carrier manages to dribble past his marker then he immediately becomes a free player. As the other defenders are occupied with other attacking players, the ball-carrier is generally without pressure and can easily create overloads without the presence of the man he has just beaten. As you can see in the above hypothetical scenario, the ball-carrier has beaten his man and as a result, the defensive structure immediately loses stability with a non-existent defensive access.
Because of this, Gundogan’s dribbling ability has been quite important in Dortmund’s development of possession through the right half-space. He is able to individually destabilise the defensive structure very quickly through beating his man.
A good feature of his dribbling itself is it’s often diagonal. Moving diagonally through the pitch, he is able to bypass defenders instead of working against them directly. As you can see in the above scene, Gundogan dribbles past his man and bypasses the left midfielder too whilst carrying the ball into a much lesser covered space.
The strengths of diagonal dribbling are a key reason in why Messi is so effective. The Argentine frequently runs diagonally with the ball instead of straight at the defenders and towards to the goal. As a result, he actually bypasses more defenders than he beats through dribbling around the main group of players (shaded). Once he is at the worse-covered side of the defensive block (red), it more easy for him to isolate individual defenders to beat as the majority of the opposition are now behind the direction of his run.
By dribbling diagonally from the half-space, Messi moves around the 5 shaded defensive players who controlled their space fairly well. He directs himself towards an area which is covered less well by the opposition block where he can isolate individual defenders which makes it much easier to penetrate through dribbling.
In addition, the movement of Gundogan is often against the dynamics of the opposition’s defensive movements (which are generally either horizontally or vertically). Because of this, it is more difficult for the opposition to directly challenge the ball and recover from the initial dribble, which often has already broken a line of pressure.
Another feature which is key in the improved construction of possession is their diagonal passing axis. From deep positions, the passing is very much oriented diagonally towards the half-spaces and centre of the pitch. Especially during build-up, we rarely see the wings being used as a platform to develop possession from, with passing generally made through the central 3 columns on the pitch.
This diagonal axis of passing also highlights the orientation of the entire possession game around the more valuable centre and half-spaces as everything is generally aimed to be focused around the middle and left half-space columns.
The diagonal passing is particularly effective in countering the pressure from the opposition. Pressing schemes are, for the most part, oriented horizontally or vertically and rarely do they move on a diagonal axis. Therefore, diagonal passing from the team in possession can be used to move the ball against the dynamics of the opposition press and thus can break the press and find space centrally much more easily.
The one exception was Dortmund’s two clashes against Odds BK in the Europa League. The Norweigan team looked to block the diagonal passing lanes through positioning their strikers in wide positions to block diagonal passes from wide areas to the centre. As a result, the only means of access to the centre in Dortmund’s first phase was vertically from an also central position.
For the building game, vertical passes are generally weaker (though somewhat situational) for a few reasons. Although they are most effective at gaining space upfield, they force little positional change from the opposition. Due to this, not only can the defenders prepare for the pass more effectively, meaning for better defensive access but the lack of a significant adjustment at the moment of the pass means that it can easily be defended against.
Obviously horizontal passes can also work to force the opposition to readjust their positional structure, however it gains no space. Because a diagonal pass also moves the ball upfield, it is much more difficult for the defending team to readjust because not only are the movements more complex, but the ball has usually already penetrated the block.
Additionally, in a vertical pass the ball is very commonly moving into the receiver with his back to the goal. If he is faced with immediate pressure then it will become very difficult for him to turn (unless the receiver happens to be Sergio Busquets) and they usually have to resort for a back pass and all threat is diminished. In the matches so far, the likes of Kagawa and Gundogan have sometimes done well in these situations by pivoting as the ball comes into their feet in order to face the opposition goal and control the ball in one turn. However this is not sustainable to consider a vertical pass a very good way of progressing the ball with stability in maintaining possession.
Left Half-Space Focus
In midfield, Dortmund have an orientation around the left half-space which is the source of the majority of the playmaking. The focus is mainly summed up by the individual presence of Kagawa who can be seen much more in the left half-space than the right. Here the Japanese 10 has much better support around him.
With Mkhitaryan, Kagawa, Weigl and Hummels all acting in or around this area of the pitch, Dortmund have many strong players here which makes for a strong occupation both numerically and also in qualitative terms.
As RM describes in a tactical theory article, there are many strategical benefits to be had in the half-space which are very important in Dortmund’s possession game.
The half-spaces support a diagonal passing game very well, due to the field of view available over the pitch, as well as the simple location on the pitch. If the ball is in a central position, then any diagonal passes will generally move the ball into a horizontally-weaker area (though some argument can be made that the half-space is superior to the centre, as in RM’s article). However from the half-space, diagonal passing can be made into the centre and opposite half-space (the latter usually for switching play) whilst due to body angle the ball-near wing is often disregarded. This emphasises the strengths of diagonal passing which has already been covered as generally the most effective pass.
Another advantage is the increased variability from the half-space. If the ball is in the centre of the pitch, then the nearest two columns are the half-spaces which generally possess the same strategical benefits and possibilities (assuming the defensive ball-oriented shift from a central position is equal to either side). However on the other hand, the half-space is sided by the centre and the wing – two very different spaces which have different values and possibilities. Considering this, the half-space has superior attacking variability due to the areas which are immediately flanking it. This causes issues for the defending opposition who have a worse chance of predicting play whilst they must be capable of preparing for different means of attacks at a single instance.
These are two key factors in the advantages of the occupation of the half-space, though for a full and in-depth understanding I recommend that you read RM’s analysis of the space after this article.
Dortmund are very strong throughout the left half-space not only due to the ability of the individual players involved in most developments, but because of the structural support. The involvement of three highly-intelligent players in Mkhitaryan, Weigl and Gundogan are key in providing the connections throughout this area. This is especially the case with first two whose roles highlight their strong team-tactical intelligence as they commonly occupy optimal positions to support the structure (although the influence of Tuchel’s juego de posición will also be key). Players who are so intelligent in supporting the rest of the team as opposed to individual actions are a rarity in football. The number of them is increasing though as the sport is becoming much more oriented to teams with the emphasis on strategical and tactical collective-harmony.
The strong spacing supports all collective actions as the likes of Kagawa and Mkhitaryan are no longer isolated in locally individual scenes where their skills are wasted. These two especially thrive on the co-operation with teammates in local combinations meaning they were often massively underutilised last season. However now, both players fit perfectly into Tuchel’s introduced system. As I previously mentioned Mkhitaryan even credited his excellent performances to the new system, whilst I imagine somewhat indirectly giving criticism of his role in the team last season.
From the left half-space, there are two basic routes taken to penetrate the opposition.
Firstly, the overloads can provide opportunity to isolate the right-back through switching the ball to the under-loaded side. Ginter has already scored from a situation like this and, although the defender isn’t suited with very good attacking-based skills, he has made a relatively strong start to the season whilst filling in for Piszczek, who has also impressed.
As I will come to explain shortly, it is usually the full-back who is involved in isolations due to the orientation of Reus which is quite unusual compared to a typical team practicing positional play.
Aside from the switch, Dortmund would look to break through using local combinations and overloads around the left half-space. With Reus being particularly ball-oriented, moving in from the right flank he would often come across to support the overloads. From this they can create fast combinations to disorganise the opposition or simply exploit the free man created from the numerical superiority.
Above, you can see Dortmund creating a very easy overload down the left touchline. This was done simply and supported by the passivity of Odds BK, whose right-back was particularly disengaged meaning Schmelzer could easily receive a pass and be free to drive forward down the left.
A German Take on Juego de Posición
With Guardiola being the most popular advocate of juego de posición, particularly in the online world of football analysis, juego de posición has become to be known with teams who dominate the ball. However it must be noted that the playing philosophy is far from exclusive to possession-oriented teams, Roger Schmidt’s utilisation of a positional grid being a prime example of this.
Presumably following his tutoring from Guardiola, Tuchel has made his own take on positional play, looking to accommodate typically-German characteristics in the final third.
A common feature of German football is an aggressive level of ball-orientation both in and out of possession. For the latter, this is a highly beneficial aspect as they close the usable space around the ball and facilitates a high intensity for strategical purposes. However on the other hand issues, particularly structurally, can form as it inhibits a team’s ability to access non-local spaces and tends itself to ineffective overloads.
Positional play, on the other hand, is a complete contrast to these features of a team in possession. The structural guidelines ensure a good spacing across a shape and best allow a team to maintain access to far-reaching areas of the pitch, meaning an attacking team can make the most out of the space allowed.
A prime example of this is their use of isolations following far-side overloads. Following build-up down the right, Bayern are looking to switch the ball to Douglas Costa who can isolate the opposition full-back in a 1v1. Due to the large horizontal distance which is required to cover, the positional structure must be effective in spacing and connections to allow the ball to move across efficiently.
In some of Dortmund’s worst performances last year, the opposition were sat very deep as Klopp’s side harmlessly passed without penetration around the defensive block. This can still be an issue for teams with positional play and therefore we can see a mix between principles of juego de posición and German football.
“They go back inside and Pep shows his players the video analysis. The images show that again and again they restart the play from the back in a manner which is predictable and sterile, an innocuous movement of the ball from side to side. The whole shape of the ball movement draws out a capital U. It is a horizontal trajectory which takes the team nowhere. The opponent can defend almost effortlessly because Bayern don’t break their lines.”
Taken from Marti Perarnau’s ‘Pep Confidential
For the first two phases of possession as Dortmund look to build from defence and then consolidate the ball in midfield, positional play characteristics take centre-stage. The positional structure provides stability with the use of overloads down the left and structural support from Weigl and Mkhitaryan.
Once the ball is in an aggressive position in the opposition half, we can see a shift in ‘style’ as the German characteristics surface. A prime example of this is Reus’ ball oriented movement from right-midfield during attacks through the left half-space. The forward shifts across to create the local overloads with Mkhitaryan and Kagawa which facilitates the high-tempo combinations synonymous with German football.
In ‘traditional’ positional play, it would be much more common that Reus would stay far wide in anticipation of the switch for an isolation for him to exercise his qualitative superiority.
This is an interesting twist on the standard attacking strategy of positional play. The stable and space-creating build-up provides a strong foundation for such combination scenes to be created, whilst the ‘German-style’ means of penetration makes the most of the excellence of the ‘3’ as well as the speed of Aubameyang.
Possession as a Tool, Not a Philosophy
A key component of positional play is the basis that possession must be used as a tool and not within a philosophy. The possession and circulation of the ball is used to manipulate the opposition’s defensive structure to disorganise them and open spaces for your own team to exploit.
“The objective is to move the opponent, not the ball.”
– Pep Guardiola
The idea of having a ‘possession-based’ philosophy is something of a big issue in English football, as teams look to possess the ball without a correct understanding of why they do so and how they should then use the ball. A key example being Liverpool who in the past have had a high possession stat yet a distinct lack of penetration only masked by the individual and supportive strengths of Suarez.
It would be easy to claim that Dortmund are now a possession-based team however I believe it would be more accurate to simply state that they are just much better at using the ball as their first weapon in attack. As opposed to their harmless ball circulation of the past season, they now move the ball sharply with a clear intention of destabilising the opposition.
That is not to say that they do not dominate the ball, which has been the case since the domination of Gladbach however the biggest change from last year is definitely how Dortmund use the ball.
Improved Attacking Tactics
One of Dortmund’s biggest issues was their lack of threat in the final third last season. A vital feature of this was their weak attacking tactics as they rarely were able to penetrate in an effective manner. Many high crosses from deep positions, many shots from distance and few chances created.
One key match in which this proved fatal for Dortmund was their home 3-0 defeat against Juventus in the Champions League. Against the Italian’s narrow 4-1-2-1-2, Dortmund aimlessly crossed from terribly-deep positions and had a minimal threat on Buffon’s goal.
Stefan Lichtsteiner even revealed after the game that their strategy was to protect the centre because they knew safely that Dortmund would be of little threat from the wings. This was particularly the case in Piszczek’s absence where Sokratis could not fulfil the lost ability in attack.
Now however, the long-distance crosses have been replaced with brilliant close cut-backs and the distance shots have made way for a controlled approach into the box through the previously-mentioned use of the ball to open the spaces.
From wide areas, making cutbacks into the box are by far one of the most effective means of chance creation. By passing the ball back from the baseline into space around the 6-yard box, a cutback is an effective delivery in that you can immediately cancel out the goalkeeper who is often near at the front post, allowing a forward on the ball-far side to make a baseline run for an easy finish.
Cutbacks also work against the dynamics of the defenders. Whilst the ball is being moved into a more threatening position, it automatically attracts more defenders so that when the cut-back is made, the ball is being moved into space whilst the defenders are moving in the opposite direction. Despite the shot being made in an extremely threatening area, the shooter still has time due to the defenders being unable to instantly change the direction of their run.
Collective Actions over Individual
Another key change in the attacking tactics is that the large majority of attacks are through the actions of a number of players working together as opposed to individual players making isolated attempts.
Last year it was common to see the likes of Mkhitaryan isolated on the touchline without players such as Kagawa nearby for him to work with. One of the Armenian’s biggest strengths is his collective-tactical intelligence to support teammates through his participation in combinations as well as improving the structure through his positioning. By using him in isolated attacks, BVB were wasting his key strengths.
Now, players such as Mkhitaryan are surrounded with teammates and the Armenian has been in his element since the first victory over Gladbach.
Finally I will look at the benefits of BVB without possession. Upon taking the job, Tuchel stated that his intentions were to maintain the clear strengths which Dortmund had under Klopp whilst developing and amending the issues. Despite the issues of last year, the strength of Klopp’s Dortmund cannot be understated and their excellence in (counter)pressing, intensity and counter-attacking were crucial in their Bundesliga double.
“Yellow spaces = approximately where the players would look to regain the ball back”
Tuchel has looked to continue these aspects of Dortmund, especially without possession. One could even argue that the improved positional structure has pushed the counterpressing to new heights, especially in comparison to the past two seasons. Because they have been more dominant with the ball, and are more able in controlling the opposition, Dortmund are able to lose the ball in more dangerous areas whilst the positional structure is spaced better to ensure a strong counterpress
With the poor structure of last season, their counterpressing struggled as the preparation in the build-up to losing the ball was insufficient and access was poor on the loss of possession.
In a shape where most attacks are individual and isolated from the collective, the resulting counterpress will follow suit and also be individual and thus ineffective. Now, under Tuchel, once they lose the ball, they have numerous good connections to supporting players all around which will then allow for them to make effective pressure on the ball immediately upon losing it.
With such effective counterpressing, Dortmund benefit from increased stability both in and out of possession. As the opponent is faced with immediate pressure it becomes very difficult to form a counter-attack and instead they often must retreat in fear of losing possession to the press in a dangerous area. Thus not only can Dortmund afford to have a more aggressive positional structure in attack but once they do lose it, a window of opportunity opens up to utilise counterpressing as a playmaker.
Although their opposition so far has been rather weak – a poor Gladbach side followed by lower-league Bundesliga teams, the improvements which Dortmund have made under Tuchel are significant. We must wait to see if Dortmund can maintain their brilliant start to the 2015/2016 season but it is highly unlikely that these performances are a temporary showing. Whilst we are being treated to excellent football already, it needs noting that we are still awaiting the return of Nuri Sahin whilst Park, Januzaj and Castro are all potentially strong additions to the system.
A big thanks is needed to GoalImpact for supplying the charts for the individual analysis. Using goal difference to find a player’s influence on his team’s performance, he has an extensive database with important objective evaluations of players providing interesting and much needed insights albeit at times stating the obvious – such as Stefan Ilsanker > Cristiano Ronaldo.
Although I have made reference to both throughout the article, I highly recommend MR and RM’s articles on Dortmund.