How Thomas Tuchel transformed Borussia Dortmund’s attack – tactical analysis
Thomas Tuchel’s tenure at Borussia Dortmund from 2015 – 2017 was marked by numerous ups and downs. While some in Dortmund would describe him as a tactical genius, responsible for the best football the Schwarzgelben ever played, others would be more critical. However, when looking at the numbers and the tactics that he implemented, one can barely argue that he had a quite remarkable time at Dortmund with some outstanding performances.
When the former Mainz coach took over after a disappointing season under Jürgen Klopp, he was smart enough not to change everything radically. Instead, Tuchel built upon the principles that his predecessor left behind while implementing his own elements on top. Other than Klopp, Tuchel put more emphasis on positional play and defined structures in the build-up. And as it turned out, he was quickly able to teach those elements to his team.
In this tactical analysis, we will examine how Thomas Tuchel reinvigorated Borussia Dortmund in the 2015/16 season and point out how he transformed their attack into one of the most entertaining sides across Europe.
In terms of formation, Tuchel didn’t change much compared to his predecessor. Especially at the beginning of his tenure, he usually lined his team up in a very fluid and flexible 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 shape. This resulted in many asymmetric structures that allowed his players to constantly form triangles to always have several options in possession.
Tuchel found his preferred starting eleven very quickly. His back four usually consisted of Marcel Schmelzer, Mats Hummels, Sokratis, and Lukas Piszczek. At the beginning of the season, Piszczek was frequently replaced by Matthias Ginter, who had a very good start to the season.
In front of the back four, Tuchel trusted 19-year-old Julian Weigl, who was signed from 1860 Munich just before the season and surprised everyone around with his intelligence and serenity. Weigl’s main tasks were to support the build-up and secure the offensive movements of the advanced midfielders Ilkay Gündogan (when fit) and Shinji Kagawa or Gonzalo Castro. The “wings” were occupied by Marco Reus and Henrik Mkhitaryan while Aubameyang was the lone man up front.
One thing to note about Tuchel when it comes to lineups and systems is that he’s a very flexible coach, who likes to adapt his tactics to the oppositions’ strengths. Because of that, against Bayern and more frequently in his second season, he tended to opt-in for three at the back to facilitate the build-up and strengthen the protection against counter-attacks.
As indicated, Tuchel’s numbers in Dortmund are in many ways outstanding. The former Mainz coach achieved the highest win-percentage of all BVB coaches ever with 61.8%. What’s probably even more remarkable is his unbeaten run at home in the Signal-Iduna-Park. In two years at Dortmund, Tuchel’s side didn’t lose a single match at home in the Bundesliga winning 24 and drawing only seven. Not only at home, his team performed very dominant with an average ball possession of 64%.
Looking at the Expected Goals numbers of his first season, it becomes even more impressive with a consistently strong attacking output. In the 2015/16 season, Dortmund created chances worth 78.84 NPxG – by far the most in the league before Bayern Munich with 70.22. They were less creative in his second season but still amassed a very good amount of 69.60 NPxG.
What stands out about their attacking output is not only the absolute total number of Expected Goals but also their Expected Goals-value per Shot. While the average club amassed 0.11 xG/Shot in 2015/16, Tuchel’s side had an average xG of 0.153. To put that into context: The second best-team averaged 0.126 xG/Shot. This underlines the creativeness of Dortmund’s fluid attack and their ability to create high-quality chances.
When we look at the other side of the pitch, the numbers don’t look bad either, yet not as good as they did offensively. They conceded 34 goals over the season although those chances were actually worth only 26.15 (+penalties). That being said, the downside was more the quality of the chances they allowed than the amount in total. They only allowed 7.14 shots (2ndfewest) but at an xG/Shot of 0.123, which was the fourth-worst figure in the league.
However, in total Dortmund had the best Goal Difference across the whole league according to the Expected Goals-metrics – even better than Guardiola’s Bayern side. The graph below illustrates that and also the extreme dominance of Bayern and Dortmund in relation to all the other clubs of the Bundesliga in 2015/16.
At the end of the season, the table looked very clear considering Bayern were ten points ahead of Dortmund. However, the numbers suggest that, with a bit of luck, it could have turned out differently.
Having seen the numbers of Dortmund’s season, it’s time to take a look at their offensive approach and figure out why they were so good.
Examining the build-up of Dortmund, there were some clear patterns that the players put into practice very early on. The build-up consisted of the two centre-backs and was usually supported by either Weigl or Gündogan. While Weigl liked to do it through the left half-space, Gündogan usually occupied the right half-space.
However, although their movements were quite similar, their actions with the ball were different. While Weigl rather coordinated and circulated the ball, Gündogan was more in charge of actually progressing the ball. Therefore, it was mostly Gündogan who dropped from his 8 position. Another reason for that was the left centre-back Mats Hummels, who had the playmaking abilities to penetrate the opponent’s first line of pressure. His counterpart on the right side, Sokratis, was, and still is, rather defensive-minded and less useful in the build-up phase.
In the example below we can not only see Gündogan dropping deep into the half-space but also the narrow position of Dortmund’s wingers, who occupied the half-spaces between the lines and pinned the second line of Gladbach to open space for the full-backs on the flanks – but more on that later.
Another component of Gündogan was his ability to dribble past an opponent if got attacked. This allowed him to beat the opponent’s first pressing line, dribble diagonally into the centre and create various opportunities to progress the ball further up the field.
Especially at the end of the season, Tuchel also deployed tactics, where Piszczek dropped deep to become the third centre-back. In these situations, it became particularly visible that Dortmund frequently morphed into a 3-2-5 or 3-2-4-1-shape in possession. This approach involved the other full-back, Marcel Schmelzer, pushing aggressively forward on the overlap to become a fifth forward and Henrik Mkhitaryan occupying the other flank. Dortmund’s central midfield had fewer duties in the build-up, instead offering passing lanes to break the first line.
Overloads and Isolation
One very powerful element of Tuchel’s positional play were wide overloads. Creating overloads on one side allowed Dortmund frequently to isolate a full-back on the other side by switching the ball to the under-loaded side. Especially at the beginning of the season, it was mostly the right-side who benefitted from this principle as Dortmund’s build-up was rather left-sided. Besides that, it also helped to stretch and manipulate the opponent’s defensive lines.
Let’s look at the first overload on the left side as Aubameyang and Kagawa moved to the flank. First of all, these movements allowed Dortmund to have depth on the side. What’s more interesting, though, is that it allowed Dortmund to manipulate Augsburg’s second line and stretched their last line. Due to Augsburg’s reactions, there was not only a free passing lane into the centre but also a huge gap between the full-back and the centre-back.
Here’s another example of these wide overloads. Dortmund’s central midfielders, Aubameyang, as well as right-wing Mkhitaryan, moved towards the left side. After Aubameyang passed the ball to Schmelzer, Ingolstadt’s winger tried to attack him and win possession. However, Weigl suspected this and when Schmelzer received the ball, he had already made a small movement to drop deeper and offer a passing lane.
When Weigl eventually received the ball, he had enough space to either play the ball to Mkhitaryan, who was positioned between the lines or immediately to full-back Ginter, fully isolated on the right. In this situation, he decided to pass the ball to the Armenian, who passed the ball on to Ginter.
A little side-note that’s not really visible in the picture: As Schmelzer played the pass and before Weigl even received it, Mkhitaryan had already looked to the right side to scan whether Ginter is in position allowing him to pass the ball on immediately. It’s just a quick look, but very effective and undermines the awareness that Tuchel triggered among his players.
The last situation emphasizes the isolation once more. Dortmund had just played from the left side to the centre and Mkhitaryan was in possession, ready to shift the ball to the right side. As soon as Hofmann the right-winger saw that he made a deep run inside behind Hannover’s last line. This pinned Hannover’s left-back and created space, which was exploited by Ginter again.
Through balls and deep runs in behind
Every team wants to get behind the opponent’s last line. However, in their approach to achieving that, teams differ a lot. With Tuchel it was obvious right from the start that he attaches great importance to this and has given his team clear guidelines. Over the season, we could see numerous goals where a chip behind the defence and subsequently a cross led to easy goals.
Below we can see an easy example of a deep run by one of the full-backs. Reus dropped out of the last line and simultaneously, Schmelzer made a deep run behind the last line. Wolfsburg’s right-winger lost track of Schmelzer and the right-back was confused whether he should follow Reus or drop deeper. In addition, we can also spot a huge gap in the centre of the pitch. As Dortmund’s central midfielder dropped a bit deeper, he pulled out Wolfsburg’s central midfielder from the second line allowing a passing lane towards the attackers. Therefore, instead of the long ball, Hummels could have also played into the gap, where Reus would have enjoyed lots of space to dribble towards the last line.
Let’s look at another sequence further up the pitch as Gündogan had received the ball in a central position. We can see that the opponent’s right full-back was confronted with two Dortmund attackers, who both started a run from behind. As he concentrated towards the more central player, Mkhitaryan received the ball in the space as he was positioned a bit wider.
What followed after the through pass was another typical feature of Tuchel’s Dortmund: The low, driven cross from narrow positions.
The last image of this section illustrates this feature again and further undermines the influence and importance of the full-backs. Once again, it’s the right-back who made a run from behind and allowed Aubameyang an easy finish after the cross.
Another strength of Tuchel’s BVB were quick counter-attacks. Reus, Mkhitaryan and, of course, Aubameyang were one of the quickest attackers around and allowed Tuchel’s squad to turn defence into offence within the blink of an eye.
The example below consists of very bad defending, but it still emphasizes some of Dortmund’s structural elements when counter-attacking. As Schmelzer won the ball on the left side, Aubameyang dropped deep to receive the ball and pulled out the opponent’s centre-back. Instead of playing the ball to Mkhitaryan on the left, the Gabonese passed the ball to Gündogan – utilizing the principle of the third man. Dortmund’s wingers immediately started their runs behind the last to exploit the gap behind the pulled-out centre-back.
The same principle could be seen against Bayern as Mkhitaryan attracted and pulled out a centre-back while Aubameyang tried to exploit the gap in behind.
As this tactical analysis has shown, Thomas Tuchel had implemented a flexible and very entertaining attacking style at Borussia Dortmund with some key principles. His focus on positional play and clear structures were instantly visible and the players clearly benefited from this. He has taken many players to a whole new level, most notably Henrik Mkhitaryan, who probably played the best season of his career. Even though his second season was characterized by lots of difficulties and also external influences, Tuchel’s tenure at Dortmund was overall a great success. He not only further developed the team and implemented new things, but also won the DFB Pokal in his second season at the club.