Every once in a while, you get a surprise in the UEFA Champions League. Sometimes, it is a very small team outperforming expectations. Sometimes, it is a big team that will win against an even bigger fish. During the 2012/13 season, Borussia Dortmund fell into the second category. Germany’s reigning champions were facing Spain’s reigning champions, Real Madrid. A chaotic two-legged semi-final tie dumped Real Madrid out with a 4-3 on aggregate. In this piece, we will focus on the first leg in Dortmund where the German side won 4-1 thanks to four goals from Robert Lewandowski.
As you can see, both managers decided to keep their usual 4-2-3-1 structure. However, Mourinho, because he introduced Luka Modrić in midfield, made Real Madrid’s formation look more like a 4-3-3 rather than a 4-2-3-1 during the game. This was something that cost them massively, as they didn’t have a passing outlet in the middle of the pitch.
Klopp kept the same front four as usual with Marco Reus very close to the advanced midfielder Mario Götze. Gundogan was acting as a box-to-box. He either offered a threat by pushing higher up the pitch or stayed deep to make the play from there.
Both teams preferred to use a quick counter-attacking style but Dortmund managed to beat Real Madrid thanks to two or three tactical tweaks we will talk about throughout this analysis.
Although Dortmund only had 47% of the ball during the game, they still were able to keep the ball ticking for a decent amount of time during positional attacks.
Dortmund decided to have their full-back high and wide. Firstly, it allowed them to stretch the opponent’s midfield line but also to play in a high line. This high line is crucial when you want to make your counter-press, which was Dortmund’s key strategy. Indeed, it will reduce space between each of your line and you will be able to apply pressure quickly once you lose the ball.
The width available when you attack allows more space to penetrate in the middle of the pitch. It can open passing lanes and help for ball progression -this is often why full-backs are tasked to be wide. Adding to that, if you pass the ball to them and your opponent presses your full-back, a passing lane will appear in the middle. It could be very dangerous if your full-back can reach his teammate infield as his teammate will get more time on the ball and a numerical advantage is created.
We will now see all of Dortmund’s principles in a sequence of play which lasts around 15 seconds.
Firstly, Dortmund prefer to build with two centre-backs in order to commit more men forward. It will help ball progression as it is likely that a player will be without any opponent marking him.
If they can’t reach someone infield, they will try to find their full-backs. Above, you can see both cases can’t happen. Most teams will decide to play long but Dortmund like play on the ground.
This is why Gündoğan is tasked to drop deeper to form a back three – it will create a diamond with Dortmund’s second defensive midfielder. As you can see below, the diamond opened a passing lane to the defensive midfielder.
Another benefit of having a back three in the build-up is the risks you can take. Although you won’t have an extra man in midfield, you will be able to take more risks to bypass your opponent’s first line as you will still have three defenders as defensive cover.
Finally, when Gündoğan got the ball, Götze drew an opponent and Gündoğan was able to pass it to his right-back. Another opponent was drawn. They did it quickly enough to make sure Götze can receive the ball without any pressure and space to drive forward. Thus, ball progression was achieved.
The German side was as compact as possible by playing a high-line. It helped them both on and off the ball. On the ball, they were able to stretch their opponent’s midfield line to find passing lanes infield. We will now focus on their shape when they didn’t have the ball.
Dortmund’s defensive strategy
Dortmund’s approach was to quickly press the opposition after losing the ball in order to regain possession. This concept is called “Gegenpressing”.
Klopp’s idea is to recover the ball within less than five or ten seconds whilst the opposition is still disorganised as they have to transition from their defensive shape to their offensive one.
If it is done properly, you can recover the ball and according to where you are on the field, you can either sustain pressure in your opponent’s half by a positional attack or make a quick counter-attack to try to score a goal.
Throughout the game, Dortmund’s gegenpressing was almost perfect. Their goal was to enable ball progression through the middle and their press was part of the strategy. Once they lost the ball, pressure was applied to the ball-carrier who was forced to make a mistake. They recovered the ball in less than ten seconds. This is highlighted below.
If Madrid progressed the play further forward, Dortmund decided to do man-marking in midfield and applied pressure on the ball-carrier to force the ball back. The ball often got back to the Real centre-backs and Dortmund were able to start their defensive strategy once again.
If they couldn’t recover the ball quickly enough, Dortmund decided to defend in a 4-4-2 shape with Götze and Lewandowski as their first defensive line. Both forwards were tasked to close the middle. In order to do so, they weren’t pressing the centre-back.
As a result, the opposition had to make long balls which were easier to recover for the German side. When they didn’t play long, the Madrid centre-backs were playing with their full-backs.
Once the ball was played in wide areas, Dortmund’s wide midfielders or full-backs were tasked to step in to close space on the outside. As Dortmund were compact in the middle, they didn’t have to worry about being exposed there.
It also forced Xabi Alonso to drop deep to receive as he couldn’t get the ball in between the lines. This way, Dortmund were able to cut Madrid’s biggest asset for ball progression in the first and second phase.
All in all, Dortmund’s defensive strategy was almost perfect. Whilst not being too exposed, they were very effective at preventing Real Madrid to progress the play and they recovered the ball very easily. This strategy was still very demanding as Dortmund ran 5.4 kilometres more than Real during this first fixture, but it was worth it.
Madrid’s offensive patterns
During this game, Mourinho decided to change his formation and opted for an extra-midfielder in Modrić. Although Dortmund’s press was very efficient, not having someone to receive higher up the pitch proved to be the wrong strategy.
Indeed, below is Dortmund defending in their 4-4-2 shape. Lewandowski and Reus don’t press the centre-back and close passing lanes in the middle. Nonetheless, you can see that there is a big hole close to Dortmund’s central midfielders.
There, an advanced midfielder could have helped Madrid to progress the ball. Varane, who has the ball at his feet, is good enough to reach his target with a ground pass higher up the pitch. It would have helped their ball progression.
Varane’s ball-playing abilities and lack of an advanced midfielder is highlighted below. Gonzalo Higuaín, Madrid striker, had to drop deep to help ball progression. Varane reached him in between the lines.
But this issue was present during the first half. At halftime, Mourinho decided to keep three midfielders for defensive purposes but ordered Özil to play behind Higuaín. As a result, Sergio Ramos was tasked to be higher up the pitch offensively whilst Modrić often played as a Mezzala on the right side.
We could speculate that this made Madrid more exposed on the right and that is why they conceded three goals in the second half. Funnily enough, it couldn’t be further from the truth because Dortmund’s goals in the second half came from the right side.
The Madrid players weren’t accustomed to this rather new formation and they were very disorganised, which allowed Dortmund to be even more effective in their pressing. Below, we can see that Real Madrid weren’t compact enough.
If you aren’t compact enough, you expose yourself defensively as you will be far away from your teammates but you also reduce the likelihood of your team scoring a goal as you will have few passing options to pass into when you receive the ball.
Finally, we need to talk about Cristiano Ronaldo. During the 2012/13 season, the Portuguese forward scored 55 goals and provided 11 assists in 55 games. He won the Ballon d’Or that season. Therefore, it is interesting to see his role in this game.
Firstly, he asked for the ball a lot at the start of the game. The goal was to attract players towards him to find the free man. However, the plan didn’t exactly work because of Dortmund’s pressing.
Ronaldo adjusted his game and, instead of receiving wide, he decided to play high then drop deep to lure a Dortmund player as highlighted below. He dropped deeper and attracted the Dortmund right-back. Coentrão was then free on the left and took the overlap. Ronaldo passed it to him and had the time to adjust his cross.
Throughout the game, Madrid had to adjust their plan because Dortmund dominated them. This certainly wasn’t their intention, but they had to deal with it.
Cristiano didn’t necessarily cause a lot of troubles from open play but he still scored on a counter and one of his free-kicks was Madrid’s second-best chance of the game.
Dortmund’s offensive overloads
When they were attacking, Dortmund used overloads to create chances or to progress the ball. It even resulted in three of their four goals against Real Madrid. We will see it in this part.
When you overload a side of the pitch, your goal is to either have a numerical advantage on this overloaded side or to focus your opponent’s attention on the overloaded side in order to switch the play to the underloaded side.
When you use an asymmetrical shape in possession, you also have disadvantages such as struggling to sustain possession or being exposed on the underloaded side.
Dortmund never really had an asymmetrical shape but once they were in Madrid’s defensive third, their narrow shape allowed them to overload one side. Madrid reacted very well but they were still able to find players with time to deliver a cross.
Their narrow shape is highlighted below. It allowed Reus and Götze to interchange within the game, therefore confusing the opponent when it came to marking a player. As a result, one of them was often on his own close to Madrid’s box.
Dortmund had the benefit of an asymmetrical shape whilst not having the disadvantage of it, something Madrid struggled to deal with as it requires a lot of focus to mark all your opponents in such a tight area.
Below is another great encapsulation of Dortmund’s principles throughout the game. They overloaded the left side of the pitch without having a numerical advantage. However, the Madrid players were marking their opponent in the middle of the pitch as it is less dangerous to let an opponent free on wide areas.
When the Dortmund player got the ball to deliver a cross, he was alone and therefore increasing his time to deliver a good cross. Lewandowski was in a 1 v 1 situation in the box and scored the first goal of the game.
If they didn’t concede in a counter-attacking situation, Dortmund’s game could have been called perfect. Indeed, they were able to use their strengths whilst not being exposed by Real Madrid in the defensive phase.
Although Mourinho helped Klopp by not including a free-roaming advanced midfielder, like he used to do throughout the 2012/13 season, the German side were able to contain Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Özil very well.
Despite having less possession than Madrid, Dortmund were able to make 9 shots on target – 3 more than the Spanish side. It was a very solid performance which helped them reach the 2012/13 UEFA Champions League final.