Borussia Dortmund 1 – 2 Schalke – Klopp’s tactical experiment backfires on derby day

by Cristian Nyari

Schalke came out on top in the 141st Ruhr derby and got their first win at Dortmund in over three years. Afellay and Höger got the goals for the visitors against Jürgen Klopp’s makeshift Dortmund whose tactical changes and Lewandowski’s second half goal were not good enough or able to compensate for their poor start to the game.  This was Dortmund’s first loss at home in 13 months and puts them 5 points behind their rivals. Even worse, the defending champions are now 12 points behind league leaders Bayern München.

Lineups and Tactics

Coaches usually don’t use big matches like this to experiment but Klopp boldly departed from his 4-2-3-1 in favor of the surprising and almost archaic 3-4-3.  He was without Schmelzer , Gündogan, Götze and Kuba who were all out with injuries but none of the team’s absences necessitated or hinted at a dramatic shift in tactics.  Still, Klopp fielded a three man backline for the first time in the league with Bender joining Hummels and Subotic in defense, Grosskreutz and Piszczek the wingbacks and Leitner and Kehl supporting Perisic, Reus and Lewandowski up front.  After giving up a late goal against Hannover before the international break and with Real Madrid looming in the Champions League midweek Dortmund wanted a positive result and had plenty of incentives against their bitter rivals.

Huub Stevens made no changes from the lineup that soundly defeated Wolfsburg 3-0 on the last matchday, starting only Unnerstall in goal instead of Hildebrand.  Unlike Dortmund, their formation remained the same and that stability and continuity would ultimately given them the edge in this game.

Klopp’s formation change left tons of space for Schalke to exploit

The Match & Analysis

The first half was marked by Klopp’s curious tactical experiment or tactical calamity rather.  Dortmund never got to grips with Schalke and struggled to compensate and adjust to their new formation.  Stevens admitted after the game that Klopp’s changes took him by surprise but it certainly did not seem to affect his team’s performance because Schalke started the better side and remained so for much of the first half.  It took the visitors just 14 minutes to open the scoring when Farfan whipped in a trademark cross from the right but Bender’s clearance fell to Afellay on the left whose volley beat Weidenfeller at the near post.  Afellay was a bit fortunate that the ball bounced off the post and into the right direction but the goal was indicative of Dortmund’s problems in this match.

Piszczek and Grosskreutz were caught between defending and attacking and with a stationary backline Schalke were presented with ample space to counter.  And with Kehl the lone player in defensive midfield Dortmund struggled to keep possession and constantly turned the ball over in their own half.  In fact, Borussia Dortmund have averaged at least 55% possession at home this season.  Against Schalke in the first half they barely got to 45% at best and Schalke’s goal was the first they conceded at home in the first half in 30 games.  The chances Dortmund did create were few and far between and relied more on individual quality carving them out than the great collective player Dortmund have come to be known for.  One of those chances came in the 36th minute when Lewandowski played Reus through on the left but his shot was saved by Unnerstall. That is as much as Dortmund mustered though in the first half.  Klopp needed to adjust and adjust quick or face a humiliating loss against their rivals.

Fortunately for Dortmund Klopp realized that his three man backline didn’t work and adjusted after the half hour mark, setting Piszczek at left back and Bender to the right.  Grosskreutz pushed up and Leitner fell back but just as Dortmund were trying to settle themselves the worst case scenario came true three minutes into the second half when Schalke doubled their lead with a picture perfect counter attack.  Another careless turnover in their own half invited Holtby to play a delightful through ball to Höger who had found a hole in Dortmund’s defense and was one-on-one with Weidenfeller to score his first goal of the season.

Still in shock Dortmund nearly conceded another when a ball was flicked on to Matip who stood just two meters from an open goal but sent the ball over the bar.  Just before that Klopp brought on Schieber for an uninspiring Perisic and gave young Leo Bittencourt his debut in place of captain Kehl. The 4-2-3-1 was now in session again and Dortmund had their best spell around the hour mark and found their way back into the game when Lewandowski flicked the ball past Unnerstall following a Reus free kick.  Dortmund continued to seek the equalizer and left themselves inevitably exposed.  In the 71st minute Afellay had a chance to get his second when Schalke broke quickly but Weidenfeller came out in time to clear the ball.  Desperately seeking an equalizer, Klopp brought on center back Felipe Santana in the final minutes as a makeshift striker but it was too little too late.

It was a mountain to climb after the second goal.  Dortmund had not come back from a two goal deficit in over 300 matches and were constantly readjusting throughout the match.  First to the initial formation change, then to a backline they had never used before and finally chasing the game against the run of play. It was not until Bender was restored to his usual position in the center that Dortmund started to match Schalke’s presence and aggression in the middle.  Up to then Kehl and Leitner were rarely involved and too much of Dortmund’s play was oriented out wide where Piszczek and Grosskreutz were double teamed.  By the end of the match Dortmund had won only 43% of their duels, their lowest total since March, 2009.

It is difficult to ascertain just what Klopp had in mind with this formation change.  Schalke only use one striker, making an additional defender superfluous for Dortmund and depriving them of a player in the middle where Schalke’s biggest strengths lie. Klopp admitted after the game that they only got going once they readjusted the formation which begs the question, why change what worked so well in the past?  Considering the fact that Dortmund ended up where they could have started it makes the initial changes appear unnecessary.

The result was not all down to Klopp’s tinkering though.  Schalke got everything right and exploited Dortmund’s weaknesses brilliantly.  Stevens’ decisions proved the right ones whether it was trusting Unnerstall in goal or leaving the aggressive Jones out in such a big match.  Schalke’s midfield was especially good (winning nearly 60% of their duels) and dominated Dortmund in a way they very rarely are dominated.  Holtby added to an already impressive season with another outstanding performance, doing well to anticipate Dortmund’s plays and initiate his own including his great assist for the second goal.  Höwedes also kept a tight lid on Lewandowski and won a match high 21 duels and defended well as a team during Dortmund’s resurgence.

Final Verdict

Dortmund were victorious in their last four Ruhr derbies in the league but Schalke’s record in Dortmund is actually quite impressive. This is their sixth win in Dortmund in their last ten games.  The biggest worry for Dortmund now is that they are 12 points behind Bayern, a margin that no side in league history has made up to win the league.

With 17 points after 8 matches Schalke have had their best start to a season in 15 years and will go into their big Champions League match against Arsenal with the kind of confidence Dortmund would probably wish they had at the moment.

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Author: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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