The bottom line from Saturday’s der Klassiker in Dortmund was that low contributions from BVB’s forward line, as well as some errors in midfield, prevented Dortmund from coping with Bayern’s midfield display, e.g. Thiago Alcantara’s strong presence in the half space. Thiago’s connections enabled ball circulation to advance from the back line to the wide and center areas, as well as continuously managing to exploit the vacated space across Dortmund’s 6 territory.
Dortmund fielded a 4-2-3-1 shape, but since Shinji Kagawa was often found moving around the 10 space and occasionally dropped into the 8, Dortmund also resembled a 4-1-4-1 basic shape. In their progression, Dortmund tried to access the space between Bayern’s back line and midfield line with Kagawa being the nominal 10; thus, the Japanese international often received the passes played into this space. The home side found it difficult to generate good access from such plays, partly because Bayern’s defensive overload was very successful, but also because of some positional errors made by the Dortmund midfield that granted Bayern the advantage in transitional situations. In the back line, Marc Bartra, Marcel Schmelzer, Sokratis, and Ömer Toprak filled the back four with Roman Bürki in goal. Up front, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang played as the center 9, flanked by Andrei Yarmolenko on the right and Christian Pulisic on the left.
On the other side, Bayern played a back four consisting of Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba at full back and the Niklas Süle / Mats Hummels duo in the central area. Next, Javi Martinez acted as the nominal 6 and occasionally dropped into the back line to occupy the gap between both center halves, particularly when Süle-Hummels were positioned too far from each other. At 8, Bayern had the supreme Thiago Alcantara, as well as James Rodriguez. James and Thiago each played slightly different roles, as the former was slightly higher and occupied the 10 more often than the later, who principally covered the space behind the explosive duo of Kingsley Coman / Alaba on the left side. The Spanish midfielder also managed to initiate many valuable attacks from the middle third, particularly from the left half space. Coman, as usual in Heynckes’ system and especially compared to Robben, was more of a “needle-player” whose playing area was in the central area. Coman often shifted into the half space or center to pick up a pass from Thiago. Finally, in the last line, Lewandowski often acted as the target man. He received deep passes (from Hummels) and held the ball, as other attacking teammates joined in.
Bayern’s Resistance against BVB’s High Press
In the initial press, Aubameyang and Kagawa occupied the first line, trying to push Bayern’s first line to one side. This way, the near 9 could isolate the opponent’s ball-side center back close to the touchline, while the far side 9 blocked the passing lane into Bayern’s far-side center back or keeper Sven Ulreich as well. Thus, Dortmund’s press was a heavily man-oriented one. Two wide men covered Bayern’s fullbacks: Castro either marked James, or sometimes situationally marked Martinez, depending on Kagawa’s positioning. Meanwhile, Julian Weigl man-marked Thiago (more on this match-up later, which provided issues for BVB).
Against such a high press, Bayern smartly played many deep passes into their last line. Both Ulreich and Hummels played such passes. Many of these long balls resulted in ball recovery for Dortmund. However, Bayern were just able to benefit from these opponent ball recoveries when Lewandowski managed to make a backward flick on to James or Robben, who usually formed a mini-triangle between the deep-pass target (Lewandowski), supported by two players (Robben, James) around the ball sector.
At times, with help from Coman, who moved into the last line and acted as 9, Bayern were able to generate more stable possession sequences. For example, after a deep pass, Bayern managed to claim a second ball. With Coman lurking near Dortmund’s back line, Lewandowski was able to drop deeper and drag one of BVB’s back line players. An overload by James, Robben, and Thiago enabled quick interplay for Bayern, thus evading the BVB press, then switching the ball over to the far side.
In general, such a high press by both sides, and the reactions the pressing, made play rather chaotic, meaning players were frequently competing in tight spaces, which forced much poor decision-making (e.g. clearance after clearance). These failures, in turn, made it difficult to have a proper reference point for the next action (e.g. space occupation, second ball reference points, etc). Mostly such situations continued with either side (who won the second ball) playing a backward pass into the deeper line, as the positional structure in more advanced spaces was not ideal for progressing into the opponent’s area.
However, this shortcoming didn’t mean Bayern were unable to create chances. Of course, the quality in Bayern’s squad is enormous and was the crucial element in dealing with Dortmund’s pressing play.
Mats Hummels was one of the best performers in this edition of der Klassiker. The world champion made many penetrative passes, which disrupted Dortmund’s man-oriented press. For instance, Hummels was able easily to make 1-2 steps horizontally to deceive the frontal press, as well as playing the ball into the 6, 10, or the area behind Dortmund’s block, thus exploiting the open space. For Bayern, the other standout performer was Thiago Alcantara. As mentioned earlier, Thiago the in half space was a crucial element in terms of Bayern’s attacking progression. Thiago’s presence not only enabled Bayern to exploit BVB’s man-oriented press with a through pass into any temporary space, but also with his positioning, which dragged the likes of Weigl from BVB’s central midfield, as well as opening up space across from BVB’s defensive line.
On occasion, Thiago and James also dropped in the half space between BVB’s center back and fullback. This drop back not only helped advance the ball, but also intentionally disrupted Dortmund’s man-oriented approach, thus helping Bayern’s deep area to evade BVB’s press.
Bayern’s first goal started from the middle third where the triangle of Hummels, Javi, and Thiago beat the press before Thiago found Coman in the space between Dortmund’s back line and middle line. Next, Coman moved through the half space, opening up space for Alaba to run into and receive the pass from the Frenchman. After a failed cross and a gegenpressing movement by Coman on Weigl, the ball was won back then played by Thiago to James, which ended with Robben opening the score 0-1 to Bayern.
The second goal came from Thiago, who played the ball in the half space, finding the free man James. A pass to Robben followed by a pass to the on-rushing Kimmich on the wide area resulted in an assist by Kimmich to Lewandowski.
Dortmund’s Possession Issues against Bayern’s Press
A similar orientation was also seen in Bayern’s press. The difference, however, was that Bayern’s press was more flexible. Since Lewandowski was only the nominal 9, the player who helped him to press Dortmund’s first line depended on the position of the ball, as well as the development of the situation. For example, either James or Thiago stepped out of the middle line to press Dortmund’s center back with James doing this defensive work frequently. At times, if necessary, the winger would also get into Bayern’s last line to press Dortmund’s first line.
Although Dortmund often found it difficult to to create clean access forward with the ball, at times they created promising situations by managing to exploit Bayern’s press. For example, in the 12th minute, BVB established a midfield diamond to cope with Bayern’s press around the central circle. After a short combination, BVB were able to create space for Aubameyang behind Bayern’s back line. A backward pass to Sokratis and the positioning of Kagawa enabled Dortmund to play a deep pass into the space behind Bayern’s block to Aubameyang. However, some very good defensive anticipation by Süle blocked Aubameyang’s shot, ending this sequence with a throw-in for Dortmund.
One thing was interesting to mention here. Even though Dortmund accessed Aubameyang with that deep pass, if we take a closer look at the positional structure there was a minor issue that (in the future) might cause problems for Dortmund. Here’s the problem: Sokratis, Weigl, and Kagawa all occupied the same vertical line. Because of Dortmund’s attacking model to penetrate through the space between the opponent’s line and access depth in the last line, a diagonal lane would instead offer many benefits for accessing the said depth. Also an underlying principle relevant here is that the positioning of one player shouldn’t block the passing lane to the higher ground:
An alternative build-up structure for BVB in such situations is a diagonal lane from Sokratis to Castro used at the right time and with passing speed. From Castro, the ball then could be played to Kagawa. The important point here being that, when Castro passes to Kagawa, no player is positioned within the passing lane from Castro to Kagawa. Why is this important? Well, in this situation, when Sokratis has the ball on his feet, Aubameyang starts his run by occupying the central area while Shinji Kagawa was staying in the near half space. With this taken into account, a diagonal pass would have enabled Kagawa to receive the ball while his body is facing toward Aubameyang. Should they have managed to create such a positional structure, Dortmund might have created something like what is shown in the diagram below:
However, it’s important to underline here just difficult the actual situation was for BVB, let alone in such an intense rivalry match. However, for Bosz it would have still been worth trying this alternative, given that spatial occupation has been one of Dortmund’s issue throughout this season so far. By improving spatial occupation, Dortmund might avoid many other problems, which stem from this more fundamental issue.
Overall, particularly during the first half, Bayern’s middle-block arguably managed to block easy access for Dortmund’s progression. In many occasions, we can see how Bayern’s block could make a strong ball-oriented shift, making it hard for Dortmund to play through. This Bayern spatial compactness also forced Dortmund’s players to stay out of the block. For example, should BVB players have insisted on overloading the space between Bayern’s pressing line, the available space would have been too small to use.
A scene from the 20th minute was an example of such a dead end for BVB. Here, Weigl tried to improvise by dribbling into the block, but Bayern’s compactness stopped him. This example illustrates a larger positional problem facing BVB under Bosz’s so far. When Weigl decided to make a forward run, it also meant he abandoned his post and role as the support player for an attacking overload, which also meant that someone had to swap with him and occupy his vacated space in case of Bayern created a counterattack off a resulting turnover. Castro would have been the ideal player for making the switch; however, he seemed to lack of tactical communication with Weigl, perhaps demonstrating that Dortmund’s players are not prepared for such situations. As a result, BVB’s spatial occupation was sub-optimal, thus negatively impacting their gegenpressing overall. Routinely, James and Kimmich managed to reclaim possession. A simple short passing combination between Kimmich and James managed to meet Martinez, which then led to a Bayern attack, directly facing Dortmund’s last line of defense without any protection from the 6. (Weigl)
Dortmund in the Second Half
In the second half, Dortmund were better, which can be attributed to two factors, arguably. First, BVB’s man-orientation itself in some occasions dragged Bayern’s players wide, which, of course, created bigger gaps in the half space. Second, the wonder kid, Christian Pulisic, displayed just how good he was with his dribbling, some of which occurred in the half space, creating after beating the first wave of the opponent’s press.
Once again, the Bundesliga is the Bayernliga. Of course, this name suggests that the league belongs to Bayern alone. Three points taken from the Signal Iduna Park is a huge morale booster for the Bavarians, which definitely legitimizes “the return of Bayern” narrative, along with the return of Jupp Heynckes. Without underappreciating the role of Hummels and other players, Bayern’s midfield display was remarkable and greatly contributed to this important win.
Tactically, the pressing game of both sides left some room for improvement. Some work is needed for both sides. The European campaign will continue to demand more from either side than was displayed in this der Klassiker.
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