Borussia Dortmund’s recent issues
Borussia Dortmund finished the first part of the season in disappointing fashion. The Schwarzgelben scored three consecutive draws in the Bundesliga before going into the winter break, confirming that they are still heavily struggling with the losses of Mats Hummels, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Ilkay Gündoğan. Yet the departure of these three superstars has not solely caused Dortmund’s recent issues.
Thomas Tuchel has a few top-notch prospects on hand—particularly in the attacking department—but BVB need more than the raw talent of Ousmane Dembélé or Raphaël Guerreiro in order to consistently dominate their Bundesliga opponents. Following a 1-0 win over rivals Bayern Munich in mid-November, Dortmund lost to Frankfurt, beat Borussia Mönchengladbach, and drew with 1. FC Cologne, TSG Hoffenheim and FC Augsburg.
At first, it seemed as though Tuchel’s side recovered from a terrible month of October, where they failed to win a single league match. But at the end, Dortmund were not effective enough in different phases of the game, which cost them points over and over again. The most important weaknesses of the team in recent matches included:
- Inappropriate build-up structures
- Ineffective spacing in midfield
- Inconsistent movement at the back
Looking for an opening
Since the away match at Frankfurt, BVB had 58 per cent ball possession on average, per Squawka. Normally, Dortmund looked like they were completely in control, but in fact they were one bad touch away from losing the ball and conceding a goal. The likes of Frankfurt and Cologne figured out how to defend the Schwarzgelben in their first phase of the build-up.
Especially when BVB tended to play short passes to Łukasz Piszczek or Erik Durm on the wing, it became rather easy to shut down all passing lanes within an instant. And even if that did not happen, the options Dortmund’s full-backs or wing-backs had were limited. A diagonal pass attempt to move the ball to a winger was how Dortmund continued the build-up, thus when entering higher zones opponents could put pressure on the ball-receiver and intercept the subsequent layoff pass attempts. Dembélé in his new role as an outside-in striker, however, can offer a stronger threat because of his ability to maintain ball possession even when he is outnumbered in small pockets. His quick combinations with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could be a key to create more goalscoring opportunities in upcoming months.
As an alternative to build-up plays through the wings, Dortmund occasionally tried to advance down the middle. Against Frankfurt, for instance, Julian Weigl tried to initiate attacking plays by moving through the middle or playing the ball behind the opposing midfield line. And if the ball reached Mario Götze or Gonzalo Castro, Dortmund looked dangerous. But the risks Weigl took in those situations was fairly high. Plus, you should not be forced to pull out high-risk ground passes every time you want to enter the space in between the opposing lines. For a team like Dortmund, there have to be various ways to bypass the first and second block.
Yet Tuchel apparently set up systems in which both higher-positioned midfielders were far away from Weigl and the defenders on many occasions. Stretching the own formation and leaving a big gap between the lines hurt Dortmund’s ability to move the ball across central zones. The big gap was usually caused by Götze’s positioning, who, for whatever reason, often stood too wide to the left when playing as the second centre-midfielder against both Hoffenheim and Augsburg. During the home game against Augsburg, Götze started as a left-sided midfielder, which left Weigl on his own and resulted in the 21-year-old having to cover too much space. After a while, Tuchel ordered Götze to move back which improved Dortmund’s build-up play and counter-pressing ability significantly. Götze and Weigl created small triangles in cooperation with the centre-backs and therefore offered more and safer passing options.
Otherwise, by letting the ball circulate around the opponent’s first block the team neither became dangerous offensively, nor were safe from turning the ball over when getting outnumbered at the touchline. Add to that Roman Weidenfeller’s ball-playing weaknesses, with the veteran replacing the injured Roman Bürki from mid-November until the winter break, and it is apparent that especially Dortmund’s system that includes a back five needs strong involvement of both centre-midfielders in the build-up.
That said, BVB showed glimpses of improvement when the right wing-back in a back-five system moved up the pitch early on and allowed the right-sided centre-back to go wide. Thus the three defenders could play around a two-man block and set up short advances through the half-spaces, as it was seen against Hoffenheim. Julian Nagelsmann’s side narrowed the pitch by pushing the own back line forward, which then forced Marc Bartra, the most offensively ambitious centre-back, to play deep passes after advancing a few yards. In other matches, however, a free defender who is able to push through the half-space can usually be helpful to disrupt the opponent’s defensive structure.
Wild and flustered in defence
All issues in the attacking department aside, Dortmund went behind in seven consecutive matches across competitions before the winter break. Some might point to Weidenfeller’s errors which surely made things worse, but there is more to BVB’s defensive struggles. This season so far, they have not been able to establish a high press that is intense and sophisticated enough to force early turnovers and an effective counter-pressing strategy due to the aforementioned stretched formation when they were on the ball.
This inevitably led to many situations where Dortmund’s defenders had to try avoiding opposing breakthroughs at the offside line. Unfortunately for them, they often made wrong decisions or had clear communication issues. Concretely, when defending transition or counter-attacks, at least one centre-back rushed forward with the intention to stop the ball-carrier while exposing a lot of space, as Dortmund’s defence had not set up a mechanism where an advancing centre-back is protected by fellow defenders who slightly move towards the gap. Especially when employing a back five this kind of mechanism has to work as the possibility of dynamically protecting the central zones is one of the essential advantages of having an additional defender in the middle.
As explained in our analysis of RB Leipzig, Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side, for instance, is very goal-oriented in their defensive approach, as opposed to a strategy where a team intends to cover a bigger portion of the offside line. Dortmund’s defensive concept looked rather half-backed and their man-oriented scheme relied on the defenders’ individual quality, which seems risky given the performances players like Matthias Ginter and Bartra deliver at the moment.
In case opponents broke through Dortmund’s back line and had the chance to deliver cross passes, BVB tended to neglect the space at the edge of the penalty area, as too many players moved into the box or went into man-to-man coverage mode. This issue has been weakened Dortmund’s defence for seasons and is nothing new, though. Not every problem arose within the last few months, yet most of them did.
Granted, questionable refereeing decisions and frequent injuries did not help Dortmund’s chances to close the first half of the season on a high note. Nevertheless, structural problems are mostly responsible for mediocre performances and therefore the loss of points. Tuchel could make tactical adjustments and try to increase the team’s defensive intensity during the winter break. Apart from a viable centre-midfielder to fill the Gündoğan gap, Tuchel can choose from a variety of players and fill roles flexibly, which allows him to employ different systems.