Borussia Dortmund caused a slight upset (to some) on the weekend by beating the dominant Bundesliga champions FC Bayern 3:0. This was quite surprising as Pep Guardiola hasnt lost a single match with Bayern in the league (until Augsburg the previous weekend) & the team was breaking all sorts of records. This was no fluke though, BVB accomplished this dominant scoreline through intelligent defensive movement.
Importance of Positioning & Ball Circulation
Many believe (and most commentators) that Bayern play with too few defenders & thats why they are exposed on the break and concede goals, similarly to FC Barcelona. What most people miss is that having a small amount of defenders is not a huge risk at all, as long as you can press correctly.
To be able to press correctly & survive with only a few defenders, Bayern must be able to circulate the ball within the opponents half. Pep has said before that great positional play on defense comes from great positional play on offense, & a team should complete at least around 15 passes before their positional play in possession is good.
In possession, teams like to circulate the ball and move the opponents around, & when they finally take advantage of spaces they have opened by moving the opponent, it is usually played into a player who is attacking the opened space, while he has many pass/combination possibilities to penetrate through the defense (think of Messi’s wall passing sprees). A great spell of possession like that naturally offers many players on the possessing team in the same area. That is the key to a good press or gegenpress, having lots of numbers in a tight area to be able to close down the opponent immediately. If the ball is lost higher up and the gegenpress fails, the team who just lost the ball has extra time to transition backwards and stop a break, or the opponent will pass backwards if a counter attack isnt available, thus making it not very dangerous at all to play with a few defenders, as long as the circulation and positioning are great. This is the key to how BVB stopped Bayern Munich.
Dortmund Defensive Shape & Pressing
Similarly to how Dortmund set up their shape against Real Madrid in the second leg of CL Quarter Finals (Analysis of the game by Spielverlagerung’s MR here: http://spielverlagerung.de/2014/04/09/borussia-dortmund-real-madrid-20/), Dortmund again began their shape by purposely having their 2 forwards lopsided towards the left, leaving an open space on the right side of the field for Dante.
When the ball finally reached Dante, then BVB began their pressing, Hoffman would press Dante as Lahm would drop between the 2 centerbacks and the 2 fullbacks played as False Fullbacks & moved into Center Midfielder roles in possession.
This press was very flexible in terms of which players marked which players, so i will show 3 different scenes from the early parts of the game to demonstrate the variety of the BVB shape. As a team they performed space-oriented defending (closing down spaces near the ball) while having some man-marking aspects within the movement.
Neuer plays the ball out to Dante who is open, while Reus and Aubameyang roughly mark Lahm & Martinez respectively. Hoffman begins pressing while making sure Ribery is in his cover shadow. He covers Ribery while he is man-marked because if he didn’t Ribery could be used as a pass option that could allow different entry into the BVB shape. Mkhitaryan pinched inside while Kehl marked Rafinha & Sahin man marked Alaba, the false fullbacks. They made sure these 2 could not receive the ball and turn, because if they did then the Dortmund defense would have to drop much deeper as the Bayern player would then be higher up the pitch & have a view of the field so he could play a long ball over the higher line (pass possibilities/ranges become closer/more dangerous to BVB goal as he gained a view of the field closer to goal) , among other things. This would cause the defense to drop deeper & effectively ruin the press.
Gotze, Schweinsteiger, & Mandzukic were higher up the pitch but werent playable. Unlike the 3:0 Bayern win earlier in the Bundesliga season vs Dortmund, now Dortmund had Hummels in the back line. Bayern defeated Dortmund earlier in the season by having a much more direct approach to their 3 forwards & winning the long balls against Friedrich among others, because of Dortmund’s injury crisis earlier in the season. Grosskreutz, Sokratis, Hummels, & a more experienced Durm were much more competent in facing longer balls now & Bayern would most likely lose such a battle causing a transitional & open match, so they had to look more often for shorter buildup options.
Again Dortmund leave the defensive halfspace (& effectively Dante) open. Lahm plays a ball into Rafinha who is unable to turn because of the pressure, & he bounces the ball immediately out to Dante in space. Now Hoffman begins to press again while blocking Ribery, of course.
A variation here is that Schweinsteiger now dropped deeper in the midfield in the space a 6 would usually play. Now instead of just pinching in to protect his halfspace, Mkhitaryan man marked Schweinsteiger during the BVB press while Sahin marked Alaba & Kehl man-marked Rafinha.
Notice it is about a 4v4 up top for Bayern against Dortmund’s defense. Any ball that was tried to these players was contested as a situational man-marking moment (for example Gotze dropped & Sokratis followed him). Dortmund’s defender would either win the long ball, or pressure the Bayern player, not allowing them to turn, while this was happening the rest of the Dortmund team recovered back and pressed the ball as well. So this was naturally a riskier decision.
Here is another situation where BVB forced the ball to the open Dante. This particular press led to Dante kicking it straight out of bounds due to the pressure & lack of options. Again Dante receives it, this time from Neuer who received the ball from Lahm under pressure from Reus and Hoffman presses while covering Ribery. Kehl marks Alaba this time while Mkhitaryan marks Rafinha who was in his proximity. Sahin decided to mark Schweinsteiger as he drifted into a space where an 8 usually plays & could possibly drop quickly to receive the pass from Dante & move the Bayern team up the pitch.
As you can see, which Dortmund player marked which Bayern players changed a lot just within the first 8 or so minutes. BVB’s defensive movement was most importantly based on condensing the space high up the pitch and man-marking short options, each player would naturally mark whichever short option was in their proximity due to the positional fluidity of Bayern’s players, who constantly switch around with each other. Marking shorter options is key to the press.
There are a couple common mistakes that could happen during such a press.
If Dante would receive the ball in his open space & Hoffman pressed while covering Alaba as the short option, Dante could immediately use Ribery as a wall or different form of penetration into the Dortmund shape. Dante could play a long ball into Ribery’s feet & he would immediately pass it inside to the open Schweinsteiger (or Alaba if Sahin drops off). This would effectively allow Bayern to turn and have space near Dortmund’s goal. Then Schweinstieger could either play a pass through, shoot, or he can keep the ball to circulate high up the pitch as they just successfully penetrated Dortmund’s shape and forced them back (which would lead to a good press & easier defensive transition).
If Dante received the ball open & Hoffman pressed normally while covering Ribery, but Sahin marked Schweinsteiger (deeper option) instead of Alaba, Dante could directly play a pass into Alaba to turn. Allowing Alaba to turn there would effectively take 3 Dortmund players out of their defensive shape, this would leave the BVB defense very stretched. Alaba then has many pass combination possibilities. Such a moment vs FC Bayern would be absolutely catastrophic with their quality. This moment would end up in either a goal, a good shot, or again Bayern pushing Dortmund into their own half & circulating the ball which would lead to a nice gegenpress most likely & an easier transition in defense.
While watching the game it would look dangerous to leave so much space between the BVB midfield line & BVB defensive line open during the press. But, even if you leave a massive amount of space behind your midfield, if the opponent can not play the ball there – is it truly dangerous to leave the space open? As you can see here, it is okay to leave the 6 space, or any space open for that matter if you can press correctly & not allow the opponent into that space (See piece on ‘Dead Spaces’ & the Option-Oriented defending of Swansea City by Spielverlagerung’s MR here: http://spielverlagerung.de/2013/01/03/die-spielzuge-des-jahres-laudrups-elegante-schwane/) This concept is similar to the idea of Bayern having only a few defenders. If they are able to press correctly & the opponent never has a chance to get into an advantageous position against such few defenders, is it truly dangerous? If a team clears the ball, the ball is probably inaccurate & wont find the forward against so few defenders, or it will be too hard – & Neuer the ultimate goalkeeper would sweep it up. A clearance with the correct accuracy & pace is extremely rare & Pep (& Dortmund for that matter) obviously will take their chances with that decision.
Klopp’s successful plan
In the end, Klopp managed to stop the buildup of Bayern Munich with his team’s defensive movement. Dortmund scored their goals in a transitional sort of setting (arguably not the first goal from the throw in, though it was a quick throw before Bayern entirely recovered). This transitional sort of game for them is obviously advantageous, they managed to stop Bayern’s effective ball circulation, blocked all the short options & didn’t allow direct circulation – which meant Bayern’s positioning for circulation high up the pitch was negated, they weren’t able to gegenpress efficiently, & it was more difficult for them to transition back as they naturally play with less players who predominantly focus on running back in defensive transition & stopping breaks.
In the end it was a great performance & a deserved 3:0 win for Klopp’s Dortmund