Written by Matthew Mak
The Bundesliga returned in the weekend with a huge clash – Borussia Dortmund hosted Borussia Monchengladbach at the Signal Iduna Park. After a 90-minute battle, Lucien Favre’s team won the game by three goals to nil.
Despite the unsatisfactory results, I don’t think the game was bad from Gladbach point of view. In fact, Marco Rose has tried some intriguing tactics to make things happen, but some details went wrong. This tactical analysis is dissecting the approach of Gladbach in this game.
Key attacking players in the previous campaign – Marcus Thuram and Alassane Plea were left on the bench.
A flexible build-up
Although it was a 3-4-3 on paper, Rose’s team would never dogmatically stick to the formation. Instead, the team has shown high flexibility in the build-up phase to circulate the ball. Against Dortmund, who seldom pressed high and merely setting in a midblock, Gladbach found themselves with spaces to play out from the back.
The initial setup of the system could be a back three, but the wing-backs were given the freedom to occupy the wide zone. This would free the wingers into the half-spaces, even though they were occupying different heights. Hoffman, who was responsible for the attack, would drop more often. On the contrary, Wolf liked to attack depth and make runs behind the lines.
When Dortmund tried to apply pressure, Gladbach were unwilling to give the ball away by playing long without purpose. Therefore, ball circulation was needed in the defensive third. In some extreme cases, Sommer was a part of the back four. This time, Bensabaini was the left-back in the example below.
On most occasions, Sommer connected plays from one vertical half to another. This shortened the distances of passes, lowering the risk of being intercepted. Also, the stretched shape bought more spaces for each player respectively. The opponents would need to travel huge distances to access the target, like Jadon Sancho on Ginter here. More time and spaces were given to the ball receiver.
However, this extremely fluid and wide back three also has a disadvantage. When giving the ball away, it was difficult to counter-press instantly as the shape was big. Gladbach suffered in some key moments against Dortmund’s counter-attacks, hence, conceding goals in this phase.
In addition, the build-up shape and system of Gladbach were fine, but better execution was needed to do more harm. The ball was given away sloppily, because of – passing to the wrong foot, closed body, slow or suboptimal decisions and losing the second balls.
As suggested in the above analysis, Gladbach’s wingers operated asymmetrically in the offensive organizations. Wolf, was quicker, attacking spaces behind the line more often. The left-winger – Hoffman, was more like a false-winger and tended to roam his positions.
The below heat map has shown the activity of Hoffman throughout the game. Clearly, the Gladbach #23 was not only hugging the touchline, but also moving narrowly to the centre. Apart from involving in the wide zone, Hoffman also appeared at the half-spaces.
The movements and positioning of Hoffman was a tactic to gain superiorities at the midfield. In the build-up, sometimes the left-winger operated as a temporary pivote as an extra option. Also, connecting switch of attacking flows from the right. The below example demonstrated one of the functions of Hoffman, who linked plays and released Wendt for a cross.
On top of adding an extra man, I guess Rose and his coaching staff expected Hoffman to draw either Emre Can or Thomas Meunier out of position. Sometimes Wendt provided the offensive height and attacked the backline when Hoffman dropped. However, it seems Dortmund were not being affected by the reversed directions of runner. Gladbach would need better timing and starting positions of runners to create the dynamics, as well as more synchronized movements.
Using direct plays to attack spaces behind the defence was also a strategy of Dortmund today. These attacks mostly relied on paces of Wendt and Wolf on both half-spaces. Stindl also dropped to the midfield, but similarly to Hoffman’s move, the Dortmund backline was not affected. The impacts of these patterns were hugely limited.
After the break, Rose has tweaked the tactics slightly to attack the opponent. On Ginter’s side, who was a false centre-back, played more directly to the right flank.
In the late stages of the game, Gladbach switched the formation to a 4-4-2. Patrick Herrmann carried instructions and step onto the pitch. Apart from progressing through Lainer’s ball-carrying, the team also tried exploiting spaces between the lines to construct an attack. Either striker – Plea or Thuram would drop as an option, then, looked for a wide pass for the full-backs. However, the dropping player were not fully fit. Sometimes they tried to turn, which was difficult while some passes to the wide zones are misplaced.
Pressing traps and defensive organization
Defensively, Rose also prepared the tactics to limit Dortmund’s offensive organization. The team was defending with clear objectives, and the home side did not have a lot of opportunities through positional plays.
The basic setup of Gladbach was a 5-2-3 midblock, defending near the halfway line and not pressing the ball. Wing-backs were not marking the wing-backs tightly, as this was a pressing trap which I am going to explained below.
Give the midfield battle was merely a 2 v 2, but things could go complex if a player dropped, such as Giovanni Reyna appearing behind the midfield. Consequently, Gladbach would be under a numerical deficit with few numbers at the midfield. Therefore, the Gladbach wingers should have stayed narrowly to shadow half-spaces, even the back three was matchable.
As an example, Hoffman shielded the player behind to block central access. Only after this job was done, the winger could follow-up the pressure of strikers to press the wide centre-backs.
If the front three were not pressing high, Gladbach enjoyed a numerical superiority at the midfield (e.g. 5 v 4). Passes to the centre were risky because the likes of Nehaus and Kramer were always trying to intercept.
Consequently, some attacks of Dortmund were developed at flanks because of slow tempo of the attack. This was also what Gladbach wanted the opponent to do, as the away side would cram and overload that ball area. Given the close proximity of players, Dortmund found themselves difficult to escape in tight spaces.
In some cases, Dortmund have fallen into the pressing traps of Gladbach, Rose’s side won the ball in the attacking half. Before initiating the press, the pressing player should have checked his surroundings – confirming the availability of teammates and positions of opponents. One of the pressing triggers was the closed body of receiver, like Axel Witsel below. Kramer read the situation and immediately pressed from the blindside, forcing a wide pass.
Therefore, the wide player subsequently was trapped, being double or triple pressed by Gladbach. This was a reward after pressing with numbers and reasonable distance of defending players.
Another point to note was the control of Gladbach wing-backs to Dortmund. To set the trap, Rose’s wing-backs would never mark the targets tightly before the ball has been passed. Just like Wendt has kept his distance from Meunier here.
Another example here, Wolf has followed-up Stindl’s press to approach Dan-Axel Zagadou. Again, it was attributed from a lateral pass of Matt Hummels. The pressure from Wolf has speeded up the rhythm of play, forcing Zagadou to pass. This time, Jude Bellingham was a bait. Soon, he was surrounded by Gladbach players and being dispossessed.
Also, note Hoffman’s positioning below. To improve compactness and add an extra man into the midfield, the far-side winger must stay narrowly at the midfield. In this case, Hoffman was marking Witsel so Kramer could commit himself into pressing Bellingham.
Moving on, the counter-attacks of Gladbach was quite good in this game, though not many of them were converted into great opportunities. However, in terms of the ability to reach Dortmund’s half or even penalty zone, the tempo was quick and difficult to defend.
Stindl has most recoveries (3) in Gladbach’s front three, but this was a small figure when comparing to Ginter (12), Bensabini (11), and Nehaus (8). This was a result of pressing traps, the task of the front three was to lure Dortmund into the trap. When the ball was won by the midfielders, the attacking players could join the attack instantly.
For example as shown below, Hoffman tackled Witsel and the ball fell into Kramer’s feet. The midfielder did not hesitate a moment to play a vertical pass to the front three, Gladbach were inside of the Dortmund box.
As the game went on, Dortmund gained advantages in numbers as Gladbach’s pressing energy dropped a bit. This included without applying pressure in the defensive half and losing compactness. These were dangerous situations as Gladbach also suffered numerical disadvantage at the midfield.
Apart from the offensive organizations and defensive organizations, Gladbach also has mixed performance in the transitions. Some conuter-attacks successfully entered the penalty box of Dortmund, but none of them were resulted in clear-cut opportunities. I also briefed the difficulties to counter-press in the above analysis, and the individual performance in defensive transitions were not good enough. Physically, Dortmund outplayed Gladbach despite the away side won more duels, a clear example would be the goal of Haaland.