Written by Matthew Mak
In this midweek, UEFA Champions League quarter-finals are played. One of the interesting games is the clash between Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund. The last meeting of these two clubs were nine years ago, managers and players had changed, only Marco Reus and Mats Hummels had played for the guests at the Etihad before.
The black and yellow were having a disappointing season so far. In the Bundesliga, they struggled to secure a place in the top-four so far, newly losing to another contender – Eintracht Frankfurt at the weekend. No one expect Edin Terzic’s side to beat the best in England, but their fighting spirits in the game should be applauded.
Apart from mentally not giving up, Terzic also had a good plan to nullify the press of City. Even Pep Guardiola admitted the build-up of the opponents were difficult to defend. Hence, in this tactical analysis, I specifically cover how the positional structure of Dortmund had outplayed the press of City to a large extent.
Lineups & general idea
Key players of City were rested in the Leicester City game on Saturday. Fortunately, Pep could have a squad without many injuries affecting his selection. He decided to play without a striker, putting Bernardo Silva at the centre. Also, Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan, Joao Cancelo, and John Stones returned to the starting lineup.
Terzic made a surprising choice as starting Ansgar Knauff over Thorgan Hazard and Giovanni Reyna. The 19-year-old youngster started as the right-winger. At the midfield, Thomas Delaney was dropped as Emre Can played with Jude Bellingham and Mahmoud Dahoud. Thomas Meunier struggled to maintain the standard has let Mateu Morey Bauza starting the game.
The first image gives an idea on Dortmund’s positional structure against City. In their offensive organization, they were able to create numerical superiorities on different part of the pitch through the use of tactical concepts: pinning, manipulating, stretching the width, creating decisional dilemma.
To better outline several overloads on the pitch and understanding the situation in different perspectives, I highlighted zones with various colours to show the setups.
Yellow: 3v2 overload at the centre – Hummels+Manuel Akanji+Can vs Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. The centre-backs spread very wide to stretch the front duo of City, creating the free player in the process to start an attack.
Red: 2v1 wide overload outside. The City wingers would initially be staying at half-spaces to shadow the vertical passing lanes. They would use the curve-runs to cut the passing lane, try keeping the ball inside. The positionings of Raphael Guerreiro and Morey were very good in this game offer sufficient angles for the centre-backs to pass. Then, they could exploit wide zones and bring the ball forward.
Blue: 3v2/2v1 overload at the central circle. Knowing City pressing in a 4-4-2 with only two midfielders, it was possible to create an overload. If Rodrigo Hernandez stepped up on Can to make the yellow zone 3v3, Gundogan would be isolated against Bellingham and Dahoud. The advanced midfielders of Dortmund did not drop easily in the game to make sure they were behind of the midfielders of City. In addition, Erling Haaland would also drop into the zone to release players behind. The physical strength of the Norwegian wonderkid was a huge asset to link plays, City centre-backs suffered a lot when required to defend spaces in front, including the Reus goal.
White: To make sure the wide spaces are free, Dortmund need to fix the positions of City full-backs. Therefore, their wingers would stay high and slightly inclined to half-spaces, pinning Walker and Cancelo with them. Because of these behaviours, when Dortmund full-backs bring the ball forward, the opposition would be late to press.
Zone yellow – 3v2 to create free player
In the following sections, in-game examples are included to explain the above situations clearer. The first is about how read the overlapped zones and the benefits created by the structure.
The first image shows blue, red, and yellow zone altogether. In yellow zone, Hummels and Can attached the two players of City, allowing Akanji to pass the ball without instant pressure and with spaces. You could see Silva was trying to shadow Can, this mindset would slow him down to press Akanji.
In zone red, Foden was conservative to step up and press Akanji as he was highly aware of Morey. The Dortmund right-back stayed high enough and behind of the City left-winger. The pass angle of Akanji was difficult to close given the large distances to travel, if Foden pressed, there was a risk that Morey would receive behind him, being the free player to advance the ball.
Zone blue shows a 2v2 situations with Dahoud and Bellingham staying behind Rodri and Gundogan. Both Dortmund players were clever to position on the blindside of midfielders and at spaces to receive the ball. If Rodri moved forward to press Can in this scenario, Gundogan would be isolated in this zone alone. Hence, it was a decisional dilemma for City as they must choose to reach numerical equality in which zone.
This is a similar situation. In zone yellow, Akanji could bring the ball forward without confronting any pressure because of the positional setups. De Bruyne and Silva were closer to Can and Hummels, distancing with the right centre-back. This was the impact of the 3v2 overload in the first phase.
In red zone, Foden might want to press Akanji but he was not trying to get too high. Morey’s positioning was clever as he was behind Foden.
Zone red – low full-back to overload
We focus more on zone red in this section to show how Dortmund use the full-backs to advance the ball into the build-up. It was the safest routine as wide spaces were opened, City players mainly stayed inside to avoid central penetrations.
The first image shows how Dortmund were able to use the 2v1 overload in red zone to escape the press from City. Since Pep’s troops only have limited numbers to press in the opposition half, players were defending large spaces, they needed to travel huge distance to access the targets.
The spacing issues created by Dortmund players’ positionings were the greatest trouble. On this occasion, when Mahrez tried to press Hummels to gamble the pass from the keeper, he was easily eliminated as the real option was Guerreiro instead. By effectively staying behind of the City wingers, Dortmund full-backs always created positional struggles in the 2v1s.
This image shows situation after the full-backs received in zone red. Usually, the wingers were already eliminated as the centre-backs absorbed them in the first phase. So, Mahrez in the screenshot was unable to catch Guerreiro as he pressed Hummels initially.
Yellow zone indicated large spaces for Guerreiro to bring the ball forward. The City right-back was missing as Reus simply manipulated Walker’s position. If Walker pressed Guerreiro, Stones would force to cover Reus, leaving Dias alone against Haaland, a situation Pep tried to avoid. City were unable to shut these wide spaces when pressing high.
Rodri might be a solution to cover these spaces. However, if he moved to close yellow zone, Gundogan would be left alone at the centre, considering Haaland or Dahoud were lurking around at the central circle, this would be unwise to give up spaces inside. Anyhow, City were always late to press the full-backs, Dortmund fully capitalized on these situations to develop the attack.
Zone blue – spaces behind midfield
The last strategical area was zone blue, where Dortmund intended to create options behind City’s midfielders. This was a good tactic, worked well in the first-half. Only Pep lowered the engagement line to place the midfielders deeper, City were safer in the second half.
However, City suffered a lot when the opposition exploited zone blues in the first half. The situations could be summarized by this image.
Guerreiro was free to bring the ball forward, which was attributed to the overload in zone red that was explained above. You could see Mahrez was at the half-spaces, unable to step up and stop the progression. Meanwhile, there were two Dortmund players behind Gundogan and Rodri, when the Portuguese left-back simply picked them, it was a 4v4 against City’s backline.
Walker could not step up to press Guerreiro as the winger has occupied him. It would be costly to leave Knauff behind. Meanwhile, Haaland occupied two City defenders (Cancelo and Dias on the far-side). Since Pep tried his best to create a 2v1 on the Norwegian striker, the defenders would not step up to defend spaces at the midfield for the duo in advance. Dortmund’s positional structure helped them to develop an attack again.
It was a very close game between City and Dortmund, the host merely won by one-goal thanks to Foden’s contribution. However, the guests had what they wanted – the away goal. Hence, there is still hopes to turn the tie around in the second leg. They would need plans to give Haaland the ball in favourable positions to convert the chances.
The tie is still alive, City would surely face huge pressure from Terzic’s side in Germany. Guardiola must come with better plans to nullify the attack of the oppositions based on his analysis of the game. Even the Citizens could reach the semi-final, the process would be difficult.