Borussia Dortmund – Tottenham Hotspur 3:0
Thursday night treated us to the biggest game of the mid-week European fixtures as the top team in England travelled to the second-best team in Germany in what had the potential to be an excellent Europa League match-up. Tuchel elected to field a near-full strength side whilst Pochettino, who seemingly values his chances at a Premier League title more than the value of the Europa League, opted to start with a rather depleted line-up.
First team regulars such as Harry Kane and Mousa Dembele were rested to the bench as Spurs lined up with quite a weak XI including a double pivot pairing of Ryan Mason and Thomas Carroll. Over the course of the game they were clearly outclassed by a much stronger Dortmund side which was in a number of a result of this imbalance of quality.
Dortmund Maintain a 5-Chain
Tuchel decided to again use a 5-man defensive line as we saw against Bayern as Piszczek again played a centre-back. Durm returned to the right side of midfield after a fairly strong performance against Bayern whilst Schmelzer acted on the opposite side.
However the man-oriented outwards movements which were such a big component of their defensive scheme against Bayern were not to be seen. This change from Dortmund is hardly surprising as it shows the tactical adaptions Tuchel made in preparation for Guardiola’s side. Compared to the movements of Lewandowski and especially Müller, Spurs made much fewer dropping movements so the man-oriented mechanisms were not to be seen.
Another big difference to the 5-chain against Bayern could be seen during Dortmund possession and developed midway through the first half. Against Bayern it was a much more orthodox 3-chain in the deepest line, with some slight forward movements from the two side backs but generally for counterpressing purposes or playmaking.
Around the 30th minute against Spurs however, Piszczek increasingly started making forward movements down the right during possession within Tottenham’s half. Durm acted higher than his counterpart on the left and in some particular scenes even made inside movements through the right half-space and the space behind was open for Piszczek to move into with some more advanced movements in the opposition half.
Spurs Attempt to Isolate Dortmund’s Right
From the start of the game Spurs showed their intentions in their pressing as they looked to force Dortmund to build through the right of their structure to then isolate them. This is not dissimilar to Bayern’s defensive plan who also had the same strategy at the Westfalenstadion on Saturday.
Generally, Pochettino’s side pressed in a 4-4-2 shape which could equally become a 4-4-1-1. Chadli and Eriksen acted as the two central pressers and were focused on stopping Dortmund from building through Weigl. Eriksen in particular would often position himself closely to the German 6 whilst Chadli could move forward and use cover shadows to a similar effect.
In order to invite Dortmund to their right this 4-4-2 often became an asymmetrical 4-3-3 shape. Onomah dropped into the midfield line whilst Son moved higher t0 join Eriksen and Chadli as Spurs covered diagonal passing lanes to invite Dortmund to the wings. Against this shape, Piszczek would often move wider to offer as a passing option whilst Son would sit off of him to leave him open on the touchline. Once the pass was made however, the away side looked to close out the space as quickly as possible to then isolate Piszczek by the sideline.
As I mentioned in my match analysis of their draw to Bayern on Saturday, Piszczek isn’t a strong playmaker and cannot orchestrate build-up in the same way that Hummels does on the left nor can Durm demonstrate the same intelligence of Schmelzer. When Piszczek received the ball, he was often disconnected from Durm as his teammate would not support him whilst the Polish defender’s passing ability isn’t strong enough for him to play out of these situations.
On a more overall perspective, Pochettino’s pressing scheme also showed some other striking characteristics. Typical of a Bielsa-disciple, they were heavily man-oriented which more often than not was a bad thing as they struggled to have a clear shape whilst they were opened up quite easily through Dortmund’s combination plays. Because of these man-orientations there were many permutations of the original 4-4-2 shape, Onomah could be seen positioned almost as a 5th defender whilst the midfield took on a number of shapes throughout the 90 minutes.
Furthermore, the man-orientations were a factor in their lack of defensive access upon the first line being beaten. Particularly through the left half-space, Hummels was rarely under heavy pressure and he could use his passing range well. Within the Spurs midfield, Onomah was often focused on covering Schmelzer whilst Mason was also occupied with his own responsibility in covering Castro. The two were reluctant to move out and press Hummels and the Dortmund players further forward were able to find open gaps to receive penetrative passes from the centre-back.
Aside from the effect of the man-orientations there were some other issues with the Spurs press. Perhaps the two most important was the lack of intensity in their ball-oriented shifts, which were emphasised when Dortmund switched the ball as the defensive block simply didn’t react with enough speed.
Dortmund’s Build-up Improves
However after the initial 10 minutes of the game, Dortmund began to overcome this defensive scheme through relocating the ball to the opposite side with some effective switches across the defensive line. They were able to safely move the ball away from the right where Spurs’ were pressing and instead develop through the left where the home side are much stronger.
This was in no small part down to the presence of Weigl. The young midfielder had an excellent game as he displayed an intelligence rarely seen at his age and in these situations he was important to connect the structure horizontally to the opposite side. One of the strategical limitations of the flanks is that they’re so disconnected from the opposite half of the pitch however through Weigl’s intelligent positional play, Piszczek had good support to shift the ball away from the right.
An additional benefit which Weigl provided was his strong pressing resistance against the defence of Eriksen and Chadli. He frequently showed his dribbling ability to evade pressure with strong use of body feints to open space in the 1v1s of the man-orientation. Furthermore, his equally evasive movements also made him difficult to track as he was capable of both opening spaces for himself or alternatively, making room for the integration of Mkhitaryan or Castro.
— Tom Payne (@TomPayneftbl) March 11, 2016
As the first half developed, Dortmund’s building game became progressively stronger as they showed good levels of both penetration and stability – where in past performances only one of these has been achieved. They were consistently able to create and then find free men against the oppositional press, largely through good spacing of the defensive line as well as a clear numerical overload too. As Tottenham began to press with at most two players at a time, it became little challenge for Dortmund to overload the first line, particularly with the positional support of Weigl and it often resulted in Hummels having the opportunity to move forward with little problems.
After Dortmund developed a better control over ball circulation they began more oriented around playmaking through the left half-space as became such an integral part of their possession game. Hummels saw a large portion of the ball as the aforementioned free man as he was under little pressure to bring the ball out of defence and drive forward in front of a deeper Spurs midfield. From this area they made a number of overloads through the left which Tottenham struggled to deal with and a well-coordinated combination gave Schmelzer space to put in a cross for Aubameyang’s opener for the night.
Spurs were unable to maintain possession for any significant period of time as Dortmund counterpressed fairly well albeit without much challenge. The away side’s forwards were often forced deep into their block and clearances were constantly met with a Dortmund player sweeping up as they exerted good control over the rhythm of the game. Their strong spatial coverage was crucial to this point, as they were often positioned well to cover any clearances as they covered the width of the pitch effectively.
In my analysis of the Bayern match, I noted how Tuchel has adapted Dortmund’s build-up to become more stable at the expense of a less dangerous build-up which is now through wider spaces than before. In the past few weeks they’ve struggled to balance their build-up and recently is has been much more stable but their penetration has decreased considerably. Against Spurs however, they were able to maintain stability whilst frequently being capable of progressing the ball through oppositional lines of pressure by their stronger spacing and integration of Hummels which itself has come about from the more fixed shift to a 3-chain in build-up.
As the teams remerged for the second half we saw an almost instant change from Pochettino. Their defensive scheme became less aggressive and Eriksen retired to a deeper role than in the first half as another 8 in a 4-5-1 shape. It seems that the Argentine coach had the intentions of preventing an increasingly-threatening Dortmund from scoring again and take their chances with a single goal deficit back to the White Hart Lane. However this plan failed as their defensive access became even weaker with Son unable to stop Dortmund from progressing quickly during build-up.
As I mentioned closer to the beginning of this article we saw a difference in the role of Pisczcek in possession. The Polish full-back made many more forward movements compared to his role in their draw against Bayern. This progressed in the second half and Piszczek acted as a more orthodox full-back and the defensive line returned to a fairly standard 4-chain with Hummels and Bender acting as centre-backs. The resulting structure was a 4-3-3 as a front line of Reus, Aubameyang and Durm occupied the Spurs defensive line and Schmelzer and Piszczek stretched from the flanks.
The home side became more stability-focused as the game progressed and the scoreline stretched further in Dortmund’s favour. The trio of Weigl, Hummels and Bender (then later Subotic) brought great stability as Tottenham’s attacks were restricted unlike we have seen this season so far. In the later stages of the game, Dortmund switched to a 4-2-3-1 with the introduction of Kagawa and Ramos into the attack and continued to see the game out with an impressive security and control in possession.
Tottenham themselves made changes with Dembele, Kane and Lamela being introduced for Chadli, Eriksen and Son. Although the players coming off were strong in their own right, the trio being introduced have been strong for the Spurs this year and these changes seemed to reflect Pochettino’s perspective of the game. These switches brought about little change in the rhythm of the game and they failed to destabilise a solid Dortmund game, even with some smaller structural changes from the away side themselves.
xG map for BVB-Spurs. Answering the question, what if you had to play Dortmund but left your midfield at the hotel? pic.twitter.com/aWLdnoe5qM
— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) March 10, 2016
One of the biggest factors in the game was definitely Pochettino’s selection which resulted in an in some areas second-string side come up against one of the top five teams in the world. Dortmund would’ve still likely emerged winner against a more full-strength team but obviously the match-up would’ve been much closer yet this is now a hypothetical.
Let this factor take nothing away from Dortmund’s controlling performance however as they were excellent both with and without the ball. Tuchel’s side controlled the game in all phases from the 15th minute to the 90th with a particularly outstanding performance from Julian Weigl who continues to shine in the positional play-oriented system in Dortmund. To limit a strong side (despite absentees) in Spurs to just 0.2 xG whilst registering 3.5xG of your own is a truly extraordinary feat.