Mixed fortunes for Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen on Matchday 4 of the Champions League

Dortmund overcame their European demons and earned their first win of the Champions League campaign against Greek champions Olympiakos. It was a more “European” performance from a Dortmund side whose frenetic style had very much cost them in previous matches. Coach Jürgen Klopp adjusted his side’s tactics and the results helped reinvigorate a seemingly irreclaimable Champions League campaign.

Leverkusen on the other hand stumbled in Spain and put their own European adventure in a rather precarious position. Their defensive shortcomings cost them yet again despite a respectable performance and once again highlighted Leverkusen’s split personality this season, putting what could have been safe passage into the knockout stages in doubt.

Borussia Dortmund 1 – 0 Olympiakos – Klopp’s tactical changes pay off

Klopp hinted the possibility of a few tactical changes ahead of the match but concealed the details of those changes. It was a must win match for a Dortmund side that has struggled to carry their domestic form into Europe. Even worse, Klopp had to go into this match without the in form Sven Bender who made way for Leitner to receive his first start for Dortmund this season. Kagawa was also benched in favor of Grosskreutz. Most glaring of all was Klopp’s decision to go with a 4-3-3 instead of his 4-2-3-1, the first time Klopp has deviated from his preferred formation. The change would prove crucial.

Klopp's new formation paid dividends.

Dortmund would still play their trademark attacking football but would do so in a more cautious manner. The primary goal was not to compromise defense for attack, something they found out the hard way in their last two matches. Perhaps not troubled by their duty to defend Dortmund played with more security and were able to score the first (and only) goal of the match in the 7th minute. Götze moved out to the left, pulling three defenders with him, and laid the ball off to Grosskreutz, who had come inside, and blasted the ball from 22 meters into the top left corner. A more confident Dortmund took control of the rest of the match but could not quite get the crucial final pass when approaching the Olympiakos goal. Leitner, who put in a good shift in his first start, had a couple of chances from long range and Lewandowski had perhaps the best chance to double the lead after pouncing on a mistake from Holebas on 60 minutes but only hit the post from a tight angle. Not without its flaws though, Dortmund did present Olympiakos with several chances but their defense was up for the task this time around and did enough to preserve their first clean sheet.

Completed passes, noting Kehl and Leitner's influence.

Not the most glamorous match, it did raise some notable talking points. Most notable, Klopp’s 4-3-3 made Dortmund more vigilant and less prone to giving the ball away, a feature of their game that had been sorely lacking so far. For once, Dortmund gave the ball away fewer times than their opponent (73 to Olympiakos’s 88) and had a majority of the possession, albeit by a small margin (51% to 49%). Because Götze, Leitner and Kehl played so close to each other their retention improved drastically. Dortmund completed 286 passes tonight, nearly 30 more than their opponents. While only a negligible margin, it does leave room for improvement and indicates a move in the right direction. Their center backs were also not burdened with the lions share of play. Kehl and Leitner had more of the ball and completed more passes (combined 134 and 78) than Subotic and Hummels a drastic aberration but also a sizable relief. Lastly, whereas Schmelzer and Piszczek normally play a prominent attacking role for Dortmund they were more reserved and sat back instead of bursting forward at every turn. It was the kind of caution and restraint that has come to characterize play in the Champions League, something that Dortmund are still finding their way around.

Valencia 3 – 1 Bayer Leverkusen – Familiar problems for Dutt

Leverkusen were fortuitous to come back against Valencia two weeks ago after being thoroughly outplayed in the first 45 minutes. This time they were not so lucky and were made to pay for their poor defending. Although a better performance across 90 minutes Leverkusen still lack the balance needed to do well in Europe. Dutt continued to rotate and started Castro at rightback while fielding Friedrich in the center instead of Reinartz. Kiessling started up top instead of Derdiyok with Ballack supporting him.

Formations and key movement.

Valencia’s opening goal is a bit symbolic of Leverkusen’s defensive jitters. Jonas scored the 2nd fastest goal in the competition’s history after just 11 seconds when he pounced on a backpass by Friedrich that was not cleared properly by Leno and instead delivered directly to feet of the Valencia attacker. Dutt said after the match that a backpass in a situation like that is simply not necessarily but it has come to represent the sense of disorder in Leverkusen’s backline this season. The biggest positive of the match was how well Leverkusen reacted to the early goal. They eventually settled into the match and created enough chances to eventually get the equalizer. After Toprak’s header came close earlier, Kiessling buried his on 31 minutes. Bender won the ball in the middle and played it out wide to Ballack whose pin point cross was met by Kiessling after the striker managed to ring free of Ruiz.

Won duels, showing poor performances from Leverkusen's backline.

Leverkusen have a good enough attack to compete in the Champions League but their defense leaves much to be desired. When Leverkusen get forward, which they did in larger doses in the second half, they inevitably play riskier game given the vulnerability of their backline. The trio of Jonas, Hernandez and Soldado was a task too tall for the Leverkusen defense. Friedrich and Toprak won only a team low 13 duels with Friedrich giving away the ball more than any other Leverkusen player (10). That discrepancy showed in the second half after Mathieu got behind Castro too easily and sent in a cross for Soldado to tip past Leno. Bender, Ballack and Schürrle made it a respectable performance for Leverkusen, all three playing well and Schürrle unlucky not to equalize after a valid goal was ruled offside on 70 minutes. The result was put beyond doubt five minutes later after Rami headed the ball in off a corner.

Final Verdict

As the conclusion of the group stage draws nearer both Leverkusen and Dortmund still have it all to do. Leverkusen still hold their destiny in their own hands and will bank on a win against Genk as well as a favorable result at home against Chelsea to get through. Their unnecessary loss against Valencia is not the most encouraging sign going forward with individual errors proving irreconcilable.

Klopp’s tactical readjustment might just be what the doctor ordered but has it come too late? Overall, they were more flexible in midfield and showed more variety in attack, all without compromising their defense. Dortmund remain unbeaten in the Champions League after leading at half time, a record that is sure to boost confidence. Unlike Leverkusen though, they will count on other results to aid their potential progression otherwise they may have to contend with another stint in the Europa League.

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari


  1. Thanks Niclas. I agree. Had the Schürrle goal stood who knows what could have happened. Then again, every time Leverkusen’s defense is under any kind of pressure they look about to concede so in that sense they’re continuously vulnerable.

    I also see Dortmund going into the EL, no way they are beating Arsenal in London but they have a better shot at that than the CL. Imagine a Schalke-Dortmund EL semi or final, wouldn’t that be brilliant?

  2. Hey,
    Very nice blog and it is cool to see that our Bundesliga is much appreciated in other countries as well.
    I agree with you on your analysis. Nonetheless, the wrongly disallowed offside goal in Valencia is certainly some kind of crucial point in Leverkusen’s game. The referee Eriksson actually was very good, but in this situation, hmm..
    As Schalke supporter, it is hard for me to decide whether I want to see Dortmund in the K.O. stage or not…coefficient is important, but …

    I imagine this:

    BVB-OM: 2-1; OLY-ARS:0-0
    ARS-BVB: 1-1; OM-OLY: 3-1

    –> BVB would be the 3rd, then they would join UEFA Europa League, I fear a duel Schalke-Dortmund :S

  3. Agree, beating Genk is the obvious necessity. Leverkusen will meet Chelsea at a good time as well, not looking too good lately but I think asking for a win there may be a bit too much. A draw today could have made things so much easier but that’s not typical of Bundesliga sides in Europe, is it?

    I think Dortmund will finish 3rd, which is all they can hope for considering how poorly they started. Not that bad though since they’ll be much better prepared for it than they were last year. Can actually go quite far there in my opinion, which in turn would also benefit Bundesliga coefficients.

  4. the key to leverkusen is Genk and a win for Chelsea. Beat Genk then by that time hope that Chelsea already have qualified so that in the last game at Leverkusen, they can play for a safe draw… 10 points for Leverkusen is the goal.

    For BVB, the next two games will be really difficult. OM can do enough to stifle them and hold them to a 0-0, while Arsenal are better this time around… BVB need at least 7 points to go thru… they already have 3… two wins is the maximum…

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