Scramble Tactics – How Borussia Dortmund came back against Malaga

You see this scenario all too often in football.  A team trails or needs goals in the dying minutes of a game.  Coaches throw on the additional striker or instruct their center-backs to play in the opponent’s box and wait for long balls or crosses to come in, hoping for the right bounce or opportunity to strike.  What Jürgen Klopp and Borussia Dortmund did in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Malaga was similar of course with a very interesting variation worth deconstructing.

Klopp’s improvised tactical adjustment

There are some scenarios you just can’t predict or prepare for before matches and most coaches probably want to avoid the kind of scenarios Dortmund encountered against Malaga.  Eliseu’s goal eight minutes from time changed the entire narrative and structure of the match.  Klopp had to react and react quick.  Whether it was premeditated or improvised, he made changes that would ultimately allow Dortmund to pull off one of the most dramatic comebacks in German football history.

Klopp had already brought on an extra striker in Schieber before and Sahin in midfield to keep the ball for the remainder of the match but Malaga still coped well enough to keep Dortmund out.  Malaga goalkeeper Caballero had an outstanding match but with time running out Dortmund needed a more direct path to goal.  Malaga smartly packed it in in the middle and pushed Dortmund wide enough to restrict access to Lewandowski and Schieber.  No way through the middle, no way through from out wide and needing two goals to save the season. That’s where Klopp came in.

The 3 Center-back Solution

Klopp probably hoped not to have to use Mats Hummels against Malaga, the center-back still just returning from injury and not 100% fit.  Yet Klopp named him in the squad and had him ready on the bench just in case and the decision paid off big time.  Hummels is known for his accurate balls out of the back and is an integral part of Dortmund’s dynamic attacks.  In many games, Hummels becomes a Pirlo-esque deep lying playmaker who is free to distribute at will.

Long ball strategy paid off for Dortmund vs. Malaga
Long ball strategy paid off for Dortmund vs. Malaga

With Malaga’s defenders winning most aerial duels both Subotic and Santana were told to go and stay forward, with Sahin dropping into defense when necessary, while the unfit Hummels was the last man launching long balls into the box in the last 10 minutes of the game to great effect.  Hummels’ ball out of the back is what led to Reus’ equalizer as Malaga faced a barrage of accurate launches out of Dortmund’s own half.  At that rate they were bound to miss a clearance or pick up Dortmund players, who by that point were flocking the box.

Lewandowski drops outside the box

Usually in dramatic scramble scenarios strikers are instructed to stay in the box and wait for service.  A great benefit of having a technically capable and mindful striker like Lewandowski is that he can serve multiple functions.  Lewandowski has already played off the striker for Dortmund in the past and against Malaga he became their de facto playmaker in the dying minutes of the game. Usually the player to latch onto through balls, Lewandowski picked up many balls near the halfway line and used his great acceleration to run at the heart of Malaga’s defense.

dortmund tactics vs malaga 2

This was also a great alternative to going wide and crossing the ball in, as they so unsuccessfully did earlier in the game.  Despite the hectic nature of the match in the end, Dortmund’s ability to switch between launching balls out of the back to running at Malaga’s defense played a part in unsettling them.  The chaos of the matchwinner was also in some part a byproduct of Dortmund’s commitment to throw numbers forward but do it in such a way that it caused uncertainty in the back for the Spaniards.  Whether intended or improvised by the players on the pitch, it helped Dortmund a great deal.

We should still acknowledge that there are so many intangibles in football that a little bit of fortune almost always accompanies comebacks like this, whether that means the right refereeing decisions, the ball bouncing the right way or players simply being in the right place at the right time.  That said, a lot of the time teams and players create their own luck and against Malaga Klopp made the right changes and the players adapted accordingly, enough to pull off a comeback that will live in the memories of millions of football supporters world wide.

Header courtesy of Alex Livesey/Getty Images

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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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