March 23, 2017

How Hamburg Pulled Off the Double Against Borussia Dortmund

This season marks only the second time in 25 years that Hamburg have beaten Borussia Dortmund twice in a single Bundesliga season. Their 4-1 win in Dortmund marks arguably Thorsten Fink’s greatest victory since he took charge of Hamburg and epitomizes their progress this season following last year’s disappointing campaign. For Dortmund this was their biggest loss at home since September 2009 when they lost 5-1 to Bayern Munich.

So, how did Hamburg pull something off that most other clubs in the league can’t, or haven’t yet?

Neutralize Dortmund’s build up out of the back

When Dieter Hecking instructed Thomas Peckhart to isolate and press Mats Hummels in Nürnberg’s encounter with the defending champions earlier this season it completely disrupted Dortmund’s transitions out of the back.  Nürnberg got a much deserved point out of the game and for the first time created a blueprint as to how to approach Dortmund’s gameplan for the rest of the league.

Hamburg’s first win against Dortmund earlier this season ended their historic 31 game unbeaten streak (second best in league history) and as mentioned above, their second win was Dortmund’s biggest home loss in years.  Both wins came because Fink implemented a similar gameplan as Hecking did and having two strikers instead of one made it all that more effective.  Rudneves, and Son in Particular, pressed Hummels and Santana’s intensely. The striking pair had a combined 47 sprints in the game and a lot were directed at Dortmund’s backline.

Perhaps most telling of Dortmund’s troubles playing the ball out of the back is the fact that goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller had a match high 13 misplaced passes, a number rarely held by a team’s goalkeeper.  Hamburg’s motto was: press high and press early, win the ball back and hit them as quickly as possible.  It wasn’t counter-attacking per say, but a revised version of Jürgen Klopp’s famed “gegenpressing” philosophy where opposing players also choke the space around the ball more than just the player on it.

Match Dortmund’s Pace and Positioning

This is easier said than done of course.  The sheer dynamism and pace in Dortmund’s squad is unmatched in the league, but if any teams want to have a chance of keeping up and getting a result they have to try and at least keep up a similar tempo as the defending champions. In both matches this season, Hamburg did so brilliantly.

Dortmund are rarely outrun but Aogo, Rudneves and Rincon in particular matched the likes of Bender, Reus and Götze pace for pace.  Having Robert Lewandowski sent off didn’t help matters as it halted Dortmund’s momentum early in the game but Dortmund maintain the same level of intensity whether at full strength or not and Hamburg kept up admirably, even after they too had a player sent off.  The pressure also disrupted Dortmund’s usual passing game in midfield and resulted in nearly 22% of their passes to go astray, well below their usual average.

Dortmund and Hamburg's runs, distance covered, sprints, etc.  All matched and some even beat Dortmunds'.
Dortmund and Hamburg’s runs, distance covered, sprints, etc. All matched and some even beat Dortmunds’.

Instead of retreating like most clubs do against Dortmund, Hamburg’s back four pushed up nearly to the halfway line and Aogo, Rincon and Skjelbred pinched in to apply even more pressure on Kehl and Sahin, the latter of which had a very uncharacteristically poor opening to the game and gave away the ball more often than not.  It was a risk Fink needed to take though as too many teams sit and invite Dortmund to attack.  Fink instead took the initiative and was rewarded for it.

Average positioning of both defenses in the first half. Hamburg pressed even before they led.
Average positioning of both defenses in the first half. Hamburg pressed even before they led.

Fink exploited Dortmund’s lack of a Plan B

When Dortmund’s high energy attacking game works, it’s nearly impossible to stop.  When up against a team that presses in similar fashion they struggle to adapt.  It’s even more difficult when they’re behind and chasing a game as they had to against Hamburg for the majority of the game.  Instead of slowing the game down, absorbing some of the pressure and tiring Hamburg out, Dortmund continued to throw themselves recklessly forward.

It may have been enough in the past two seasons but more teams are beginning to figure out just how to approach Dortmund.  It’s also odd considering that Dortmund won their Champions League group by altering their style to suit the competition.  Gündogan’s absence became increasingly notable as the game progressed as they could have used his ability to retain the ball and play it out of tight spaces accurately.  Instead, Dortmund’s midfield scrambled and found it difficult to supply Götze and Reus with adequate service.

Hamburg deserves the bulk of the credit though because where Dortmund’s game lacked structure, theirs had it in abundance.  It was probably Hamburg’s most disciplined performance with every player playing their part to perfection. The midfielders carried the bite and aggression, the defense held their positions well and won the important duels and the strikers made the best of their opportunities.

It was a win Hamburg fans will never forget and it will now be interesting to see whether other coaches follow Fink and Hecking’s blueprints against Dortmund and whether Klopp will finally alter his gameplan in the league.

Header courtesy of dpa

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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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