Borussia Dortmund 1 – 0 Ajax Amsterdam – Did Klopp learn from last year and adjust his tactics?

Despite a missed penalty from Mats Hummels, a late goal from Robert Lewandowski gave Borussia Dortmund a much needed win in their Champions League opener against Ajax Amsterdam.  After a nervous first half Dortmund steadily improved and got the three points they wanted in what was already deemed a must win game in the Group of Death.

Lineups and Formations

Jürgen Klopp fielded his best possible lineup and hoped to shrug off their European disappointments of the past.  Reus and Götze started together for the first time in this match with Grosskreutz sitting out.  The rest remained the same following their convincing 3-0 win against Bayer Leverkusen over the weekend.  Frank de Boer fielded two former Bundesliga players in Ryan Babel and Christian Poulsen, both very familiar with the tremendous atmosphere at the Westfalenstadion. The only change in his lineup after their 2-0 win against RKC Waalwijk was Babel in for Schöne, De Boer perhaps hoping familiarity would breed success in this game.  Dortmund lined up with their usual 4-2-3-1 and Ajax, true to their heritage and style, with their characteristic 4-3-3.  There were a lot of lessons to be learned for Klopp following their two disappointing campaigns in Europe and all eyes were on Germany’s champions to see if they had indeed progressed as a team and were finally ready to perform to their abilities in Europe.

The Match

Unfortunately for eager Dortmund fans the first half did not quite turn out as they hoped as the same frantic play and squandered opportunities again reared its ugly head.  The same panic that caused their collapse against Marseille last year loomed heavy over the side as Gündogan’s giveaway in the 12th minute nearly led to an Ajax goal were it not for Weidenfeller’s quick reaction off his line. Some 20 minutes later a defense splitting pass again forced Weidenfeller out of his goal to clear a Boerrigter attempt, the follow up by Babel was luckily cleared off the line by Piszczek.  Dortmund were living dangerously and the chances they did create were either half chances or opportunistic at best.

Klopp’s halftime talk seemed to work however and Dortmund came out a bit more composed and ended up creating the better chances but not before Weidenfeller made another great save off a de Jong volley following an Ajax corner in the 48th minute.  It was from then on that Dortmund started turning it up another gear.  First Götze played Reus through with a wonderful ball but Ajax goalkeeper Vermeer too was quick off his line to block what should have been Dortmund’s opening goal.  The chance spurred the hosts on though and before the hour mark Götze’s run into the box drew a foul and a penalty.  Their hard work had finally paid off but Hummels’ penalty lacked any conviction and just like that Dortmund were back to square one.  To their credit though, they did not falter and persisted until the 87th minute when Lewandowski pounced on a hopeful header from Piszczek, controlled the ball with his first touch, turned and scored from 7 meters out.  It was a laborious but in the end deserved win.

Analysis

From the beginning it was obvious that there was a bit more caution to Dortmund’s game than in the previous two years.  Klopp has always insisted on playing his way but if last year’s failure to get out of the group proved anything it was that not even Dortmund are above adapting to an increasingly difficult and tactically demanding tournament.  Their struggle in the first half was a stark reminder that they still have a long way to go in terms of adapting to the hazardous terrain that is the Champions League.

One of the most glaring aspects of their failure last year was the distinct lack of a retention game.  It is arguably the most important factor in succeeding in Europe and Klopp’s number one priority. Dortmund are used to having the majority of the ball in the Bundesliga but we know by now the discrepancies between the two competitions and success in Europe starts with the ability to control games, especially games played at home.  The fact that Ajax had the lion’s share of possession (55%) and out passed Dortmund by almost 100 passes is a cause for concern.  The pass completion of their three central players is particularly noteworthy.  Kehl, Gündogan and Götze completed only 71% of their passes on average.  It’s in the middle that Dortmund have to significantly improve, not necessarily to quality from the group, but to be more comfortable in matches.

The Champions League aside, it was also the first time Reus played on the left with Götze back in the hole, something both the players and team will have to adjust to.  So far Dortmund have relied a great deal on Grosskreutz’s work rate and positional discipline on the left.  Whereas Reus’ tendency is always to cut inside and actively participate in all the play, Grosskreutz usually stays out wide and more importantly, he is acts almost like the team’s fifth defender.  In the Ajax game Reus’ role was never quite clear.  It was no surprise that Ajax’s right side was the more active and dangerous one.  Still, Klopp insisted on keeping Reus on the left even when Götze came out and Perisic brought on.  That’s not to say Reus won’t work out on the left but its still very much a work in progress.

Dortmund were also helped by an Ajax who at times showed Dortmund too much room in front of their defense, failed to adequately react to Dortmund’s build up and transitions from the back and were too sporadic in their attacks.  In the end, Dortmund’s persistence and energy paid off but the conditions will be very different against Manchester City and Real Madrid.

Final Verdict

A year ago they took a point in their group stage opener in a game that they should by all accounts have won.  While their nervy start hinted at a lack of progress a year later the result matters above all else, particularly in a group where their most difficult matches are still to come. In that sense you can argue that a year ago this game might not have ended in Dortmund’s favor but it did show that they are far from the finished product still.

Jürgen Klopp probably summed it up the best after the match:

It was an unbelievably intense game.  I thought we defended well over 90 minutes and continuously created chances. We continue to progress as a team and and we will continue to develop.  Still, there were a couple of things that we could have done better.  We always try to play our way, the results of which are not always the same, but today against our opponents that was the plan. We are very satisfied and it is definitely something to build on.

Next up is a trip to the Etihad to face Manchester City who will look to rebound following their 3-2 loss to Real Madrid in their opener.

 Header courtesy of süddeutsche.de

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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

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