Tactical Analysis: Bayer Leverkusen’s Smart Defence and Borussia Dortmund’s Poor Connectivity

An earlier loss to RB Leipzig saw Borussia Dortmund struggle against a compact high-block system. By applying a high-block press, RB Leipzig managed to isolate Weigl from ball circulation and blocked his access through the center. Additionally, it also evident that Tuchel doesn’t seem to have a real solution for this problem, which brings us to BVB’s Matchday 6 loss at Leverkusen.

Under head coach Roger Schmidt, Leverkusen is well-known for its intense playing style both on and off the ball in all phases of play. Again, Thomas Tuchel’s side came up against a 4-2-2-2/4-2-4 pressing shape, which had already given BVB so much trouble in the earlier away match against Leipzig.

BVB Lacked Ideas against Schmidt’s Press

Roger Schmidt, as ever, fielded a 4-2-2-2/4-2-4 basic shape initially. His plan was clear: force the opponent’s ball circulation to the wide areas. Dortmund’s circulation was not only forced wide, but also resulted in again isolating Julian Weigl, who was preventing from directly getting involved in the build-up.

Isolating Weigl from his teammates has become a successful plan used by various BVB opponents. This time, however, Tuchel played with 3-at-back as the first line of build-up against Leverkusen’s initial press.

Leverkusen’s initial press vs. BVB’s 1st phase of build-up play.

Dortmund started in attack out of their own back, as you can see in the graphic above. In BVB’s 2nd line, were Raphaël Guerreiro and Weigl. In the last line, Dortmund played Christian Pulisic and Ousmane Dembele on each flank, Sebastian Rode and Gonzalo Castro on each half-space, and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang in the center.

To deal with these three lines, Schmidt’s boys basically applied pressure in the form of a 4-2-2-2/4-2-4 shape. But this basic shape shifted as the ball was played into BVB’s right area. Initially, Leverkusen’s midfield-four applied positioned-oriented pressure. But as B04’s shape was adjusted slightly, this orientation changed. On the other hand, B04’s near-side wide-men were fairly man-oriented with a bit of spacing between the upper line lower line players.

For example, the near-ball winger moved up to block access to Weigl and Lukas Pisczek should the ball be passed to either BVBer. Additionally, B04 also adapted its last-line, as the ball-side fullback moved slightly wider to keep tabs on the opponent’s winger.

Why Tuchel plotted two players in between Leverkusen’s 2-2-2 press might be explained by his goal of splitting the focus of Leverkusen’s first-line and “wide-10.”  As we can see in the graphic above, by moving toward the right half-space, Weigl established a possible triangle formation between himself, the near-winger (Christian Pulisic), and the near-10 (Sebastian Rode).

This movement also gave BVB another flexible option. For example, if Piszczek managed to reach Weigl with his pass, the ball could be played immediately to Pulisic, who in turn might ruin Leverkusen’s spatial-compactness around the ball-side corridors and open up a chance to access Rode, who occupied the near half-space. In the graphic above, the green arrows on Rode and Aubameyang were the indications of movements they could make to occupy ideal areas to receive deep-passes.

But in many situations against B04’s press, this didn’t happen.


Well, Dortmund made it hard for itself. First, there was the problem of the distance between the 2nd line and the upper-one(s).  There was a huge gap between the Weigl-Guerreiro chain and the players in the last lines. This huge gap eliminated connectivity through the midfield and provided BVB with no clear access for progression.

Second, Leverkusen’s pressing itself played a very huge role in this victory. When Piszczek tried to reach Weigl, Admer Mehmedi, Hakan Calhanoglu, and Charles Aranguiz isolated the young midfield in crowded 3-vs-1 situations. The passivity of Rode and Castro to help out made it even hard for Dortmund when this happened, as both central midfielders didn’t adapt their positioning to the situation. This made the gap getting even bigger and the connection between the 2nd and the upper-lines was completely gone, which happened over and over for BVB

For example, when the ball reached BVB’s half-back, Leverkusen’s wide-10 would press him intensely with vertical support from the near-6. By moving higher up, Leverkusen’s number 6 automatically left some space behind, but this wasn’t a (big) issue, as Dortmund’s near-CM was not ideally positioned for being involved in build-up play by providing a vertical-option to the vacated-space.

Without any doubt, BVB’s failure to adjust helped Leverkusen play its press comfortably without Dortmund’s players exploiting the vacated space.

Dortmund's inability to make use of the space behind Kevin Kampl.
BVB’s inability use the space behind Kevin Kampl.

After Leverkusen’s 1st Goal

10 minutes into the first half, Leverkusen took the lead. After the difficult time in the first 10 minutes, Dortmund made some alteration to their positional structure. Guerreiro occupied the wide left area, as the let-back, transforming the shape into a 4 back. In their build-up 1st phase, Dortmund’s full-back, particularly Piszczek, kept the distance remained relatively close to the first-line. Piszczek positioning created another problem to Dortmund. As he stayed too deep area, it in turn gave pressing access to Leverkusen which blunt the Yellow-Black build-up.

The identical approach be also taken by Guerreiro, but different to Piszczek, the Portuguese took longer distance (and higher space than Piszczek starting point) to BVB’s central defenders. Guerreiro positioning also offered more vertical option to Dortmund attack.

Along with that, the CM’s was seen to occupy deeper area tried to maintain the connection with the fullbacks. On the upper-ground, the guest’s winger tucked in to stay on the opponent’s half-space. The ball-side full-back would go higher up as the ball managed to progress and approached the opponent’s early-third. At times, Guerreiro stayed wide and attracted B04’s side-back while in the center a near #8 engaged to the opposite-team’s #6, which made some positive-impact to the progression.

And, that was also when the problem occurred for the host. It was a situation when Dembele had enough time and space to turn his speed on and roamed to the any available space.

Half-space for Ousmane Dembele.

As you can see, Lars Bender focus on Dembele (red-solid arrow) ruined (red-dash arrow) by a vertical move by Guerreiro (black-dash arrow) which created space for the French.

The Second-Half

Thomas Tuchel made  two substitutions. Emre Mor for Pulisic and Marcel Schmelzer for Castro. This changed the individual position again. Guerreiro moved to the #8 and Emre Mor to fill the right wing post. This injected the additional creativity they needed. With their individual ability, it was like Guerreiro and Mor had given a new fresh blood to both Dortmund central area and the flank.

With the mobility and spatial awareness, Guereiro and Mor Installed more powers to Dortmund play. The harmony of positional-rotation was better which sometimes managed to create space for the final-third penetration.


In the image above, rotation between BVB’s players created access for progression. Moreover, Rode, Marcel Schmelzer, and Dembele ran this same scheme in the right area.

However, Leverkusen displayed consistent intensity with high quality individual pressing-coverage, which was exactly the key for Leverkusen’s solid block, as these players covered much ground, enabling them to press opposition players from various areas. For example, in relatively passive situations, B04 generated interceptions as Dortmund’s players fell into pressing traps.

Kevin Kampl and Charles Aranguiz were the engine and back-bone of this pressing system. This midfielder-duo have impressive pressing abilities (i.e. distance coverage and intensity), which is supported by their very good ball skills (e.g. tactical dribbling), which helped make Leverkusen quite stable offensively and defensively.

Final Words

Leverkusen were very calm and stable in their defensive display. Against which Thomas Tuchel himself tried some tactical alterations, which were ineffective. Dortmund’s positional structure and the B04’s compact block made it very hard for BVB to create big scoring chances

Moreover, the Dortmund’s number 9 – Aubameyang in this case – was simply too passive in the face of Leverkusen’s press. This passivity itself reduced BVB’s compactness and connectivity as Dortmund was pressed between the lines.

Tuchel needs to address problems his side has in dealing with intense pressing if he is going to have any chance to win the Bundesliga or disrupt the hegemony of traditional clubs in the Champions League.

Will he? Let’s see.

The following two tabs change content below.
Ryan Tank is crazy about football tactics and crazy insightful when writing about them. Check out Ryan's site, ryantank100.wordpress.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ryantank100.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. UEFA vs the soccer leagues | US Soccer Players

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.