Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Dortmund – tactical analysis
It was a game of a few moments of quality. The xG scores of Wolfsburg’s 0.37 to Borussia Dortmund’s 0.57 paint a good picture, where there were only three shots on target the entire game, two from Dortmund, and one from Wolfsburg. The xG dynamics of the game show long periods of time where there was little goal threat whatsoever.
However, Dortmund took their chances, with Raphaël Guerreiro continuing his goal-scoring form in the restart of the Bundesliga, whilst Jadon Sancho came on and showed his ball-carrying prowess, driving from the half-way line to inside the 18-yard box, before slotting in Achraf Hakimi to his right for yet another assist.
It wasn’t a great attacking performance by either side, obviously, but Wolfsburg were particularly disappointing. Wout Weghorst had a first half to forget, failing to successfully hold up the ball and bring his teammates into the attack at any point, but admittedly his service wasn’t great either.
The quality was shown more out of possession, particularly in the case of Dortmund, who shut out Wolfsburg and made it very difficult for them to find forward passes of any real danger.
Wolfsburg opted with a 4-4-2, with Marin Pongracic and John Brooks at the heart of defence whilst Daniel Ginczek partnered Wout Weghorst up front. Wolfsburg were flexible within this formation, and in possession used a 3-4-3 with Maximilian Arnold dropping into the backline allowing full-backs Jérôme Rousillon and Kevin Mbabu to push up, whilst Renato Steffen inverted and Admir Mehmedi pushed a little higher to get closer to Weghorst and Ginczek.
Dortmund, of course, played a 3-4-3, with Manuel Akanji playing with Mats Hummels and Łukasz Piszczek at the back. Thomas Delaney and Mahmoud Dahoud continued in central-midfield, and Erling Haaland led the attack, supported by Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt either side of him.
They interestingly showed elements of a 3-5-2 in possession, with Hazard playing closer to Haaland as Brandt was given the freedom to drop into central midfield where he saw fit, to provide an extra passing option.
A measured defensive approach from both sides
Neither team are known for sitting back, and although neither side has the most intense PPDA in the league, it was interesting to note that both teams were happy to sit back and attempt to frustrate the other. Dortmund have the players to hurt teams if they are given space to drive forward, and are therefore dangerous on the counter-attack. Hakimi’s goal came from Sancho driving from the half-way line into the 18-yard-box in a matter of seconds. As much as they wanted to stop Wolfsburg from playing centrally, they knew by dropping back, they could hurt them on the quick break. Wolfsburg’s approach seemed less this way inclined, and more so to prevent Dortmund from playing centrally and breaking the lines by playing straight from their back three into the likes of Haaland and Brandt as they are so fond of doing.
From the word go, Wolfsburg looked to stay as disciplined as possible when out of possession to prevent central passing options for Dortmund. They sought to leave little space between the lines and pressed with a front two or a very narrow front three, with both Arnold and Xaver Schlager tucked neatly in behind.
They played with a hybrid of a back three and back four during this with Kevin Mbabu really playing between the two and pushing up when needed. However, the vertical compactness of the side meant this was no difficult task for the right-back.
The midfield two were so tight and flat that Dortmund were able to exploit this, specifically Brandt, and I will detail this later on.
Dortmund were very impressive in keeping a disciplined defensive shape themselves, frustrating Wolfsburg with only a few lapses in concentration – not bad for a Dortmund defence!
Defensively their 3-4-3 became a 5-4-1 with Haaland acting as the first line of press. Similarly to Wolfsburg, they were compact both horizontally and vertically.
There was an excellent example of their defensive principles in action in full flow near the end of the game. Wolfsburg worked the ball into a wide area and Hakimi quickly pushed up from the back five to allow his midfield four to stay central and not create gaps in their midfield four that Wolfsburg could potentially play through.
Compared to Wolfsburg they showed a greater ability to stagger their midfield line to prevent opportunities to find space in between the lines as Brandt did so well for Dortmund throughout the game. We can see all of this in the image below as Hakimi pushes up and Delaney drops a little deeper ensuring no Wolfsburg player can receive between the lines.
Wolfsburg move out of the wide positions and the ball-carrier drives across the pitch. Sancho follows him to ensure he doesn’t have time to pick a pass, whilst also closing off his side of the pitch, allowing Hakimi to drop back into defence. As he does this his midfield teammates stay compact once more and Delaney reads the threat so well. Schlager (highlighted in green) could potentially receive the pass in between the lines and Delaney pushes up to close this passing lane off once more and ensure Dortmund’s midfield maintain a stagger and aren’t caught flat.
We can see how this passing option is now closed off due to Delaney’s pressure.
Finally, Wolfsburg are forced to work the ball wide. Hazard pushes up to pressure the ball-carrier whilst Delaney drops back in to pick up Schlager once more, and joined by Akanji they are able to prevent the successful forward pass and win back possession.
How Brandt created his own space
Very quickly, it is worth mentioning how Brandt thwarted Wolfsburg’s compact defensive shape to receive the ball in space in between the lines or in midfield itself. Playing in a left wide-forward position suits Brandt perfectly. He is able to leave his marker and come into midfield, where he can receive in space and can either look to progress the ball with a dribble, which he is particularly good at, or use his excellent passing range to continue the attack.
With Dortmund’s two central-midfielders guarded so tightly, it left space either side of them for Brandt to ghost into from his further forward position. He was able to pick and choose when to drop in, seeing where the pockets of space were, and it allowed Dortmund a forward passing option from the back, using Dahoud and Delaney as a decoy in these instances.
By dropping into these areas he was also able to create space for himself. Wolfsburg’s right-back Mbabu was more likely to get pulled out to pick up Raphaël Guerreiro when Brandt dropped in, and with the ball with Akanji in the image below, Brandt moves back into his original space, looking for the ball over the top.
Wolfsburg’s lack of quality going forward
Wolfsburg struggled to really get a hold in this game, and much of this came from Weghorst’s inability to consistently bring his teammates into play.
In build-up, they did some interesting things with Arnold dropping in between the two centre-backs.
Similar to what we so often see from Dortmund they looked to create space centrally to create forward passing options. Whereas Dortmund look to do so in order to bypass the midfield and get the ball into Haaland, Wolfsburg were able to free up Schlager, who is a good ball-progressor, with Arnold bringing attention towards himself as he dropped in.
With the ball in wider areas, with Arnold dropping back, Steffen would drift inside with Schlager but there would still be space centrally. Mehmedi, Wehorst of Ginczek would drop into the areas either side of the midfielders to receive the pass, whilst looking to draw Dortmund’s defenders out of their backline.
I’ve mentioned Weghorst’s troubles and truthfully Dortmund did an excellent job on him defensively with Hummels, in particular, keeping him quiet.
We can see from the analysis of Wolfsburg’s long passes that Weghorst was clearly looking to receive them in the areas where he could potentially cause a mismatch against Piszczek, yet he managed to retain possession from just three of these eight passes.
He would drop in at times to receive, allowing Mehmedi and Ginczek to move into the space behind him, but Dortmund were so quick to close him down in these instances and not only did he lose the ball, but Dortmund could then seek to counter from these central positions, with Wolfsburg having players committed ahead of the ball and in wide areas too, as we can see.
A glimpse at the overall passing percentages of the teams show how Wolfsburg were unable to look after possession as well as the visitors, and although that’s to be expected somewhat as Wolfsburg’s average pass length was four metres greater than Dortmund’s, it’s also down to how well Dortmund did to stop Weghorst, Wolfsburg’s main passing outlet, from establishing himself effectively in the game.
Yet Weghorst’s threat brought Dortmund’s back three considerably narrow, and this did leave space either side of them between the back three and the wing-backs.
We can see this below as there are four players immediately around Weghorst challenging him for the ball, allowing him to slot the pass between Hummels the centre-back and left wing-back.
Dortmund’s back three could have been caught out from being so narrow on a couple of occasions and had they been playing against a more ruthless attacking side, this game could have ended differently. We can see another example of this below as the narrowness of their defence leaves space behind Akanji for Arnold to run into looking for the cross.
Dortmund’s threat from the right side
The deciding factor in this game was Dortmund’s considerable threat from the right flank with Hakimi and Hazard causing Wolfsburg man problems throughout. We can see in the image below that they favoured attacking down this side and that it created their best chances to, compared to positional attacks from the centre and the left.
They constantly looked to leave draw Rousillon out and attack the space behind the left-back as late as possible, then seeking to draw Wolfsburg’s centre-backs out of balance and capitalize on this by getting the ball into dangerous central positions inside the box.
We see Brandt taking advantage of the freedom provided to him, shifting across to the right side as Hazard drops out, successfully drawing Rousillon out with him, and playing Brandt in behind, leaving Haaland in a 1 v 1 situation centrally.
With Hakimi in support, they were able to successfully overload this flank in this move and get the ball behind Wolfsburg’s defence before pulling it back for Raphaël Guerreiro to score.
We can see another example of them looking to draw Rousillon out below as Hakimi receives and this time Haaland makes the run in behind. By doing so and bringing Brooks with him, he is able to create a huge gap centrally between the two Wolfsburg centre-backs.
They were a threat cutting in from this side too with runs. Haaland demands so much attention as a forward and is excellent at acknowledging this to create space behind him. As the direct pass is played through the lines into his feet, Hazard makes the run in behind whilst Brand makes the run in front of him where he can receive and could have potentially played in Hazard.
This threat from this side, predominantly from the aforementioned Hakimi and Hazard gave Dortmund enough of an attacking spark to overcome this Wolfsburg side.
This result was probably greatly appreciated by many a neutral Bundesliga fan across the world, for had Dortmund dropped points here it would have given the upcoming Der Klassiker far less importance. Dortmund are ticking along nicely in the restart and showed tactical flexibility in this game to drop deeper and frustrate Wolfsburg, something they were probably getting practice in for when they inevitably have to do it against Bayern Munich. Wolfsburg nevertheless still reside in sixth place, two points clear of Freiburg and Schalke as they aim to close out the season with Europa League qualification.