December 11, 2017

BVB Bulletin: Consider the Longball, Ye Damned

Another 0-0 draw for Borussia Dortmund. Another two points lost. Another brutally organized opponent stopping, clearing, and ultimately preventing BVB from mustering more than a couple decent chances.

And another week of mid-table habitation for Dortmund lies ahead, as our club sits at 10th in the table with a GD of 0 (31 goals scored and 31 allowed).

The game’s best chances for a goal occurred during the 1st half. With a better first touch, Köln’s new signing Deyverson should have chipped Weidenfeller for a goal inside the opening two minutes. Dortmund’s best chance occurred at 25′ when Aubameyang missed a header. Köln’s keeper, Timo Horn, certainly contributed to Dortmund’s challenges, but honestly he wasn’t forced to make many difficult saves, even after blocking around half of BVB’s shots.

Rather than a being foiled by a keeper with superhuman strengths, Dortmund faced problems elsewhere on the pitch. Again, BVB faced an organized defense, as Köln were perhaps even more effective than HSV a week ago.

The Billy Goats held their shape remarkably throughout the match. Although defensive shape itself doesn’t equal good defense, Köln’s shape mesmerized in an almost aesthetic fashion. In the past, I’ve argued that formations in football don’t exist as static placeholders for players during matches, but this truth didn’t apply to Köln on Saturday. The visual outlines of Stoger’s 4-4-2 formation were very crystal clear throughout the match.

On the whole, Köln mostly defended its side of the pitch, while Dortmund vainly attacked. For the 3rd week in a row, the heatmaps are striking:

heatmaps of BVB versus 1.FC Koeln on Matchday 25
On the left, BVB resemble a possessed angler fish chasing, on the right, a smaller fish. (Courtesy of WhoScored.com)

On the left side of this image, you can see a very striking wedge cutting into the midfield, illustrating Dortmund’s inability to break through in the central midfield. Instead, as in the HSV match last week, BVB’s attack was funneled along either flank. This pattern meant that Dortmund settled for many crosses into the box (25 total were attempted) and BVB attackers were usually outnumbered 1-to-2 when the ball arrived.

Hence the BVB attack was mostly toothless.

Shinji Kagawa was a synecdoche of Dortmund’s fallow attack. As BVB’s primary central attacker, Kagawa’s passing and dribbling abilities were severely hampered by the crowd of physical (and bigger!) Köln defenders:

Shinji Kagawa passing chalkboard versus 1.FC Koeln
For Kagawa, we wonder: where have all the good times gone? (Courtesy of Squawka.com)

For Shinji, the match must have been especially frustrating: no key passes, incomplete passes around the box, and a lack of any influence on the attack. As we saw in Hamburg last week, BVB’s attack is pretty toothless when it can’t develop through the middle of the pitch, especially the central attacking third. Moreover, Köln stole a page from HSV’s tactical notebook by marking Kagawa out of the match. Have other Bundesliga clubs taken note? As Shinji goes, so goes BVB, right now I think.

On the whole, Dortmund couldn’t get through, behind, over, or even around the Köln defense, which shifted to the left, right, or back and deep as needed. However, I must mention the stellar defensive work from Dominic Maroh – my man of the match – he stifled many a dribbling run into his box, challenged attackers off the ball, made solid tackles, and broke up passes. A defensive menace.

Consequently, Dortmund’s shot chart looks pretty bland, as the club only managed 10 shots and the on-target shots were fluffy:

Dortmund's bland shot selection chart from Saturday's match against Köln. (Courtesy of Squawka.com)
Dortmund’s bland shot selection chart from Saturday’s match against Köln. (Courtesy of Squawka.com)

Bleh. Dortmund’s 10 shots were the club’s lowest tally at home all season.

So what did Köln do with the ball? Not much. The Billy Goats only possessed it about 38% of the time; however, lately this tactic seems to work wonders against Dortmund, if it’s paired with the proper supplementary tactic of clearing the hell out of the ball down the pitch, just as HSV did last week. Köln mostly seemed to follow HSV’s script, bypassing any type of build up from the back in favor of aerials and longballs.

Consider the longball, and be ye damned, Dortmund:

BVB vs. 1.FC Koeln; Koeln's total passing chalkboard
The Billy Goats’ passing chalkboard is streaked with much “red rain” (incomplete longballs) from Saturday’s match. (Courtesy of Squawka.com)

Through bypassing their own defensive third – or even the midfield! – Köln forced BVB into slower build up play. Consequently, the Billy Goats drove that defensive wedge into Dortmund’s midfield (as we saw in the heatmaps from the match), funneling BVB’s attack to the flanks. This strategy prevented Dortmund from recovering the ball during transitional play deep in the opponent’s territory, or from intercepting opponents’ passes, or challenging opponents’ off the ball in the dangerous territory. Essentially, Klopp’s gegen-pressing is bypassed through this longball strategy.

In back-to-back matches, BVB have struggled mightily to break opponents down through slower build up play. Dortmund’s “zip” and speed have vanished, because HSV and Köln haven’t given BVB opportunities to use these traits. In both cases, longballs from the back and organized shifts in defensive play have been Dortmund’s undoing.

Now the question is whether or not Juventus will mimic HSV and Köln in Wednesday’s upcoming Champion’s League match. On paper, the situation is ripe for imitation: Juventus nurse a slim 2-1 goal lead. So why not simply try to stifle Dortmund?

Well, this rhetorical question (plus implied answer) isn’t so simple. First, I find it difficult to imagine Juventus playing all eleven men back in deep defense. Can you imagine Tevez, Morata, and Vidal confining their movements like this? Or, perhaps even more impossibly, can you imagine the box-to-box racer (with immense skills), Paul Pogba doing this? I can’t.

But imagination’s limits don’t win football matches.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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