Tactical Analysis : Bayer Leverkusen vs. Borussia Dortmund

Written by Liam Lam

Leverkusen was hosting Dortmund in BayArena on 19th January 2021. Before the game, Leverkusen has not won in the past three league games, Peter Bosz was determined to bring Leverkusen back to their winning form. On the other hand, Dortmund was still leading by their interim coach, Edin Terzić. Both teams had 29 points while Leverkusen was sitting at the third place, one place above Dortmund with a slightly better goal difference. This was an important game that could determine their final positions in the league.

This tactical Analysis will analyse how Leverkusen set their defence up and adjusted it to deal with Dortmund and we will also take a look into the defensive issues of Dortmund.

Lineups

Leverkusen put 4-1-4-1 on paper and they have rotated their starting eleven comparing to the weekend game with Union Berlin. In the defensive line, Wendell and Lars Bender were replacing Daley Sinkgraven and Aleksandar Dragovic at the left and right full-backs positions. Jonathan Tah and Edmond Tapsoba were at the centre. In the centre midfield area, Julian Baumgartlinger and Kerem Demirbay were replaced by Charles Aránguiz and Florian Wirtz, who was back from injury. They were playing next to Nadiem Amiri. Both Leon Bailey and Moussa Diaby continued to play on the wide area. Lucas Alario was replacing Patrik Schick as up-front.

For Dortmund, they put 4-2-3-1 on paper and they made two changes comparing to their last game with Mainz 05. Starting at the back, Raphaël Guerreiro was on the left, Manuel Akanji, who replaced Dan-Axel Zagadou, was partnered with Mats Hummels in the centre; and T. Meunier was on the right. Thomas Delaney was replacing Emre Can to play alongside with Jude Bellingham as a double pivot in front of the defensive line. Julian Brandt and Jadon Sancho were deployed at the wide area, and Marco Reus was playing behind Erling Haaland.

Defensive setup and adjustment of Leverkusen

Leverkusen came to this game with a clear plan where they changed to 4-2-2-2 when defending. Dortmund was building up at the back with a 2-4 setup. Leverkusen was forcing Dortmund to start their build-up through Bürki. They used a man-marking system by pushing one of the midfielders forward to limit the passing options of Bürki in their build up stage.

Once his nearby options were closed out, the nearest player would apply pressure on Bürki to force him to launch long ball forward. This had happened 5 times within the first 15 minutes of the game.

Leverkusen took advantage in the fourth time. They regained the possession and initiated a quick and simple counter-attack and successfully took the lead with 1:0. Bailey collected the second ball with no one near him. He made a through ball to the right, targeting Diaby, who was cutting into the spaces between Guerreiro and Hummels. The gap between them was too huge as Guerreiro was caught out of position. He pushed out wide and forward to get ready on the far side and he did not move towards the centre to narrow down the spaces.

Dortmund adjusted their formation in the build-up stage by pushing Bellingham forward instead of using a double pivot midfield at the centre. Since Leverkusen was still using a man-marking method to defend, Dortmund could create a 2v1 situation in the centre by moving Brandt into the centre area.

It was difficult for Aránguiz to cover the whole spaces as he had to mark Bellingham. Dortmund became more vertical which made the presses from Leverkusen easier to be bypassed. When the presses were bypassed, the defensive line of Leverkusen was exposed and became vulnerable.

Leverkusen changed their tactics into forming a mid-block as 4-1-4-1 instead of pushing high up. They substituted in Demirbay, sitting in between the defensive and midfield line to mitigate the spaces and provide more protection to the defensive line.

Demirbay would also fill into the spaces between the centre-back and full-backs to make sure the defensive line stay as compact as possible. The full-backs could press more aggressively on Dortmund’s wide players and the two centre-backs could stay closer together.

BVB defensive issues

At the start of the game, Dortmund was pressing very high up and applying a lot of pressure to Leverkusen’s back line. They were pressing narrowly, and they had successfully dispossessed them to create a few chances. The below example shows Dortmund was pressing on the wide area where they had closed down all the passing options of Tah. Reus dispossessed Aránguiz and started a counter-attack outside the Leverkusen’s box.

However, the aggressiveness had dropped. They started to defend in the middle third as 4-4-2 of which Haaland and Reus were sitting up-front while Reus was standing slightly deeper to block the passing options in the midfield of Leverkusen.

The problem of Dortmund’s defence was leaving too much spaces between the line for Leverkusen to exploit. In the below example, Dortmund’s front line was pressing on Leverkusen’s back line, but the midfield and defensive line did not push forward to follow. This left too much spaces between the line for Leverkusen to exploit. Tah made a long ball forward and we could see Leverkusen’s players standing in between the lines and they were unmarked. The spaces was too huge that neither the defenders could go forward to defend nor the midfielders could drop fast enough to defend.

The other example shows Tah made a vertical pass that penetrated through the front and midfield line of Dortmund. Wirtz dropped deep and beat the two players of Dortmund to collect the midfield, He made a pass to the left side and bypassed the whole midfield line of Dortmund.

Counter-pressing issue

We could see the defence of Dortmund was lacking compactness and intensity where they left too much spaces for the opponent and their own players who were not standing close to each other. It would be difficult to recover the ball and regain the possession in the transition quickly. The first goal happened when Bürki made a long ball to the right side. Bailey was standing close to Wendell and he recovered the second ball. We could see Meunier dropped deep and did not stand close enough to compete for the second ball. At the same time, Bellingham and Meunier were too far away to stop Bailey to progress the ball and made the assist.

The below example could show the difference between Leverkusen and Dortmund when they were counter-pressing to recover the ball. The first picture shows Sancho was receiving the ball and he was surrounded by four Leverkusen’s players. They dispossessed Sancho and the ball was at Amiri. We could see that there were three Dortmund players. They did not apply pressure on Amiri but instead, they dropped back. If they were dropping back, they could not maximise their cover-shadow to block the passing options behind them. This would expose the spaces behind them and let Leverkusen to find pockets.

Remarks

Leverkusen started well but their weakness was exposed during the game. Peter Bosz solved it with substitutions and change of formation. However, what separated these two teams were not entirely the formation and structure, but the basic principle when they were defending like compactness, intensity and spaces. The formation and structure were just tools to help them perform in a more efficient and effective way. Dortmund was clearly missing some of the basic principles when defending. They have to find it back in order to get back to their best.

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