Without taking away completely from Hertha Berlin’s brilliant defensive performance this past Saturday, Dortmund did make it extremely difficult for themselves as Jürgen Klopp’s men lost their second match of the season and first match at The Signal-Iduna Park since last season’s opening defeat to Leverkusen. The Press and fans alike are already starting to push the panic button as Dortmund has gotten a mere seven points from the first five matches and currently sit in the second half of the table. For a side that won the league so convincingly last season surely they would be expected to compete with similar fervor again or at least get better results and play the same fluid attacking football that won over so many purists across Germany and Europe. So what exactly is happening at Dortmund? Is it too premature to even debate this as a serious matter? After all they started in the most promising fashion possible with an emphatic victory against Hamburg.
In pre-season they did not seem affected by the departure of influential midfielder Nuri Sahin, nor of Lucas Barrios’ absence due to a long-term injury. Manager Klopp publically declared they will continue to play the style he developed last season and encourage his men to play with the same attitude that saw them display the most exciting brand of football in the Bundesliga. So why have we not really seen this so far? Although they are missing players like Barrios and in the match against Hertha, the very important Mario Götze, the two biggest factors that may guide us in the path to the right answer are the absence of Nuri Sahin and Klopp’s failure to address Dortmund’s lack of tactical contingencies.
Sahin: THE Key Man
Arguably the biggest talking point going into the season was Sahin’s departure, whether or not Dortmund would be the same without him and how Klopp would replace such an influential player. Many argued that he was just one of Dortmund’s important cogs and would not be missed in the long-term but the truth remains the team’s tactical identity was very much defined by Sahin’s presence in the heart of the midfield.
In simplest form, Dortmund played a pressing and frenetic brand of counter-attacking football built from the back. Defenders Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic thrived on playing a high line that allows them to quickly release the ball to the overlapping fullbacks or into midfield. Dortmund’s breaks happened within seconds and were near impossible to stop, such was the pace of their counters. It worked because the individual quality of each player came through the entire season. There was a deep understanding of what Klopp demanded and an extreme efficiency and selflessness in its execution from every single player. It wasn’t a system that relied particularly on one single player to have an outstanding match. It is also the primary reason why it is so deceiving to think Sahin’s departure was not as crucial as some seemed to have pointed out and it remains the popular opinion, even among big portion of Dortmund’s fanbase.
This however belies the important fact that at the most fundamental level of any functioning system lie key players that serve as the base or reference point for that system and it is those players that makes it function at its purest. In this case, it was Nuri Sahin. He brought an element of experience, despite his age, he acted as the spiritual leader of the club and the tactical anchor all in one.
The high defensive line functioned particularly well because the midfielders ahead of Subotic and Hummels were able to offer the space and coverage needed. When the two pushed up to release the ball, Sahin or Bender dropped and created a triangular shape. More often both would drop and create a flexible rectangular shape that allowed a safety net of retention so even when pressed there was always an extra man to take pressure off the defenders. The main man here was Sahin because he was predominantly good at playing a retentive brand of football. He functioned mainly as a deep lying playmaker, someone who would collect the ball and be responsible for getting it out to Dortmund’s primary playmakers as well as occasionally making runs forward to shoot. And here lies the most important part of Sahin’s game – the ability to maintain possession in the most crucial stages of the match and thus controlling not only the tempo of Dortmund’s attack but the tempo of the match in its entirety (something Dortmund have struggled with quite a bit this season)
This role is extremely difficult to play precisely because it demands a lot of one player. Not many are given the responsibility to perform this secondary role. Players like Xavi and Paul Scholes are the closest examples in recent times. They are primarily creative players who sit deep and function as the metronomes of their respective sides. Gone are the days of pure harassers and defensive midfielders who are mainly responsible for cutting our counters and chasing players. Modern football emphasizes possession football more thoroughly as its primary mode of defense. Scholes and Xavi collectively edit the game, seeking out the best position to sit when the others receive the ball to take pressure off their teammates. When they receive the ball they look to the safest zone to progress the ball retaining possession without losing momentum. It is a defensive component in its most explicit form but implicitly it is the most attack-minded element of playing the modern game because it allows and encourages a precise and thought-out fluidity. The retainer’s passing and creative abilities are inherent – there is no need to lay it off to a teammate as counters/build ups can happen right away. In this sense Sahin performed dual roles and was THE key player in linking up defense and attack. Without him, Dortmund can function against most sides as they did toward the latter stages of last season and in the matches they have won so far this season but there is a distinct lack of cohesion to the side as a result when the retainer is removed from Klopp’s system.
Moreover the build ups from midfield are exceptionally slower than they were last season directly because of this missing component. There is less focus and a sense of panic to whenever the team approaches the final third. This season there has been a greater emphasis to play in tight spaces but it lacks distinct purpose. Of course this has a lot to do with the fact that they are missing Barrios and Götze but it is telling also because it can be viewed as a direct result of poor build up due to the lack of cohesion in midfield.
Klopp: Failure to build on last season leaves Dortmund exposed
It was always going to be interesting to see how Klopp would build on last season’s success. Many questions were raised over the role Gündogan would play – would he replace Sahin directly or would Klopp re-adjust the system? Moreover, the weaknesses apparent last season – would they be addressed and exactly what would Klopp’s vision be with Dortmund in the European picture. The answer is really neither of these and in this tactical obfuscation lies the ultimate problem for Klopp and his men as we have been witness to so far.
For one, a major weakness last season was also one of their big strengths. As alluded to above, their frenetic counter-attacking style left many Bundesliga sides and fans alike with their collective jaws on the floor. They caught the entire league by surprise and it would be the major tactical identity along with an eager sense of pressing early on in games. When teams usually dedicate so much of their gameplan to a heavy collective attacking strategy, it is prone to creating many gaps. Great attacking sides are built on great defenses, and in Subotic and Hummels, Dortmund arguably have the best in the league and among the best in Europe. Klopp was obviously aware when bestowing Sahin with retentive responsibilities. In many ways it negated various attempts by other sides to take advantage of Dortmund’s high pressing and counter-style.
This season however they are without Sahin and without a true retainer. Gündogan appears to be mainly a box-to-box midfielder, physically astute and technically gifted but ultimately always looking to get forward as he did so well with Nürnberg last year. Klopp has asked him to play a deeper role but it is apparent that he does not play a similar game to Sahin at all. He works very hard and covers a lot of ground but his heatmaps indicate his primary zone of operation is always closer to the opposition’s goal whereas Sahin was content to sit back and absorb pressure deeper.
This has had its obvious fallout. The build ups are slower because Dortmund have a harder time collecting the ball in midfield. It is no surprise that Dortmund’s two losses to Hoffenheim and Hertha came when their midfield was at its absolute worst. Hertha coach Babel said in a post-match comment: “It was clear that the game would be won in the center, both CB’s and holding midfielders played great.” Babel and Stanislawski instructed their midfield to exert extra amount of pressure on Dortmund in the center of the pitch because once you negate that, it is invariably easier to expose every other facet of the side. Against Arsenal, the key battle also took place in midfield. Dortmund had far more advantages but looked completely disjointed in the center of the pitch – it is no surprise Arsenal’s best chances came directly through the middle, including the goal which was due to an individual mistake from Kehl but moreso because he was asked to play a role that he simply couldn’t have executed properly.
Another major talking point is Dortmund’s lack of tactical flexibility. In their opener against Hamburg, Dortmund absolutely ate Hamburg up in the opening hour but after three goals eventually became complacent. They passed the ball around lazier and generally looked more tired. However they still insisted on playing their overall gameplan: release early and counter directly. It did not work and Hamburg managed to get back into the match. Luckily the game ended soon after but it signaled a worrying component.
It is unlikely that a fatigued team will be able to display the same eagerness and cohesion in the latter stages of the game. Also, a team that relies so heavily on its primary gameplan needs an alternative when it has to close out matches and even chase them. Dortmund have had issues with the former last season and even moreso with the latter this season. Having to chase Hoffenheim, Dortmund threw everything forward but Hoffenheim remained sturdy and threw it back at them. Similarly, a very well organized Leverkusen and Hertha did the same, defending valiantly. Dortmund tried to play in tight spaces – oftentimes too tight and simply didn’t look to break through. It seems Klopp is hesitant to sacrifice the team’s primary gameplan, perhaps because it would alter or affect their effectiveness in the opening stages of a game. Still, in trying to repeat last season and competing on more fronts, particularly Europe, it seems absurd not to make any progressive tactical adjustments, let alone force the team to play the same when the key component and anchor is clearly missing.
In Europe last season, along with inexperience this was a major factor that led them to exit the group stages of the Europea League. This season it can have similar effects.
The best method presumably would have been to build on the retentive aspects of last year’s game and instructing the team to deal better with sides that are prepared against Dortmund. It is safe to say, some teams have caught up in the league and will not be so afraid of Dortmund as they were last year. A good manager must always be aware of this and act before their opponents can eventually outfox them as Stanislawski and Babbel have done so far. A great manager must not be afraid to sacrifice any bit of an already successful gameplan if he truly believes his players will be capable of pulling off something different and ultimately if it means the continuing success on a higher stage. The best teams have succeeded in recent times by being able to adapt constantly, whether it is bringing in new players or altering existing setups. Far from an anomaly though, I claim that this speaks more on a general trend in the Bundesliga.
Tactical Adaptability: The German Stalemate and Conclusion
There seems to be a general aversion to tactical innovations within the league itself. In a European context, you won’t find the Bundesliga to play systems that eventually become mainstays in European football. For instance, as the quality in Seria A has dropped and the continuing competition between it and the Bundesliga in terms of coefficients continue, The Italian league still finds itself to be the breeding ground of a lot of recent tactical developments and trends with teams such as Napoli, Palermo, Roma, Genoa, Udinese, and now Inter examples of teams daring to switch and evolve their usual tactical patterns. This isn’t the case with the Bundesliga as it has almost repetitively been behind the top tier leagues in this context. Until recently, many sides were still playing 4-4-2 formations and it was only in the past two seasons when that change became notable across the entire league.
Many Bundesliga managers want to build one strong system and put the pieces in place to last long-term. Schaaf at Bremen is perhaps the best possible example of this phenomenon. Since he took charge of Bremen they have been associated with free-flowing football, pleasing to the eye and never deviating from its attacking roots. However this proved to be their eventual downfall on numerous occasions, particularly in Europe when they were exploited constantly in defense. Schaaf’s failure to consistently adapt to the modern game has eventually had regressive consequences. Rangnick’s teams over the years, particularly Hoffenheim and Schalke now, are based on his Wenger-esque attacking philosophy but seemingly devoid of any defensive comprehension. So much of Hoffenheim was based on its attack that in its second and third season in the top flight they completely capitulated when the league caught up with them, failing to readjust completely. Last season’s Schalke under Ragnick was completely converted from the fitness-centric Magath-ian view to his attacking strategy, so much so that they ended up with a -6 goal difference in the league and conceding 9 goals in 4 matches in Europe compared to Magath’s 7 goals in 8 matches. Surprisingly even van Gaal’s retentive approach became Bayern’s primary gameplan before being seen too much of a departure from what the upper management wanted to see.
The pressure is now on Klopp to break out of this mold. This is arguably the most exciting German club to come along in a decade and many eyes will be on Dortmund this season in Europe but added pressure will also be on them to challenge heavily for the title or at least retain a Champions League spot. Many hopes are also placed on them particularly because they represent the next wave of German football ideology – a refreshingly attacking brand of football executed by young and exciting talent. If the debate regarding Klopp’s naivety in his fourth season at the club is indeed too premature and if this really is only temporary as the team will slowly but surely adjust, then the entire world’s eyes will be watching to see his next move.
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