Bundesliga 2020/21: Borussia Dortmund vs Schalke – tactical analysis
Borussia Dortmund put on an impressively dominant display in the first Revierderby of the season, coming out as 3-0 victors over Schalke in this Bundesliga fixture. Having lost 3-1 to Lazio in the Champions League a matter of days beforehand, Borussia Dortmund dusted themselves off, changed a few personnel and their formation, and put on an outstanding performance where they never looked like losing their firm grip on the game. Manuel Akanji and Mats Hummels scored either side of a superb finish from Erling Haaland, whilst the home side registered 75% of possession to boot.
Lucien Favre has experimented with his starting XI this season, and this continued in this fixture. Opting for a 4-2-3-1, a formation he had played with in pre-season, Favre moved his side away from their well known 3-4-3, and both Raphael Guerreiro and Thomas Meunier played in slightly more disciplined roles either side of Hummels and Akanji in the backline. Thomas Delaney was pushed forward into midfield where he partnered Mahmoud Dahoud in a double pivot, with Julian Brandt in the 10. Gio Reyna and Jadon Sancho occupied the wings whilst Erling Haaland played as the lone centre-forward.
As for Schalke, they played with a back five to deal with Dortmund’s front three, as they had done in their 4-0 loss to Leipzig at the beginning of the month (who also played a 4-2-3-1). Malick Thaw, Salif Sane, and Matija Nastasic made up the central three with Kilian Ledweig and Bastian Oczipka either side of them. In midfield, Omar Mascarell anchored a midfield three with Amine Harit and Nabil Bentaleb either side of him, whilst Rabbi Matondo and Goncalo Paciencia were partnered up front
Schalke’s initial defensive shape
With their back five, Schalke looked to use the wing-backs to press Dortmund in the wide areas, whilst the front two of Matondo and Paciencia were instructed to sit narrow and close to the midfield three.
We can see this in the image below as Ludewig pushes up far and wide to press Raphael Guerreiro, whilst out of shot, the rest of Schalke’s back five squeezed across accordingly.
In doing so, Schalke looked to pin back Dortmund’s full-backs and crowd the centre of the pitch, forcing both Sancho and Reyna to play wider rather than operate in the half-spaces closer to Haaland.
In theory, this is a simple and obvious idea. Not only would they force Sancho and Reyna wider, but also prevent Brandt from receiving the ball in central areas too.
Schalke’s defence played a high line to ensure there was no space created between themselves and their midfield, however, Dortmund have excelled in the past against teams playing a high line, with Haaland and Sancho in particular, having thrived on through balls played behind these defences before. Neither quite managed to exploit the high line excessively throughout, and that was down to the pressure put on Dortmund’s ball carriers during build-up play.
Not only can we see evidence of this in the image below, but we can also see how compact Schalke were both vertically and horizontally. As it turned out Dortmund were quite happy to use the width of the pitch and Schalke’s defence struggled to contain them, with the hosts managing to get 18 shots away over the contest. Below we can also see Felix Passlack running inside from his wide starting position to latch onto a direct pass over the top of Schalke’s compact defence.
Dortmund’s response to the compact shape
Dortmund’s overall attacking shape was pretty fluid, and regardless of Schalke looking to prevent them from playing centrally, Favre’s side were pretty resolute in imposing themselves on the game and still looked to play through the central channel when it suited. Nevertheless, throughout the game what we saw from Dortmund’s possession play was their focus on manipulating the shape of Schalke’s back five, predominantly by exploiting Schalke’s wing-backs pressing in wide areas.
Below we can see that Thaw has come across to pick up the highlighted Brandt, whilst Ludewig has pushed forward for Schalke to support his front two and ensure Raphael Guerreiro is unable to get time and space on the ball. Yet this suited Dortmund. Brandt played with the freedom we’ve come to expect for him and from his position in the 10 he moved forward to support Haaland, dropped deep to receive possession centrally, and dropped out wide to find space on the wings.
Looking at Dortmund’s shape in the image above we can see that Meunier and Brandt are giving them the width, allowing their front three to play closer together, whilst Reyna has in fact dropped into the 10 space vacated by Brandt. Both Reyna and Sancho did this sporadically throughout the game and in doing so ensured that Dortmund always matched Schalke’s midfield three in the central channel, allowing Brandt to move where he saw fit. It also meant Schalke’s midfield three had to stay disciplined, and whilst they sought to win the ball high, they always had to be aware of Sancho or Reyna dropping into the space behind them to receive centrally.
Knowing the wing-backs were going to push high, depending on the side which Dortmund had possession, Brandt could shift over to the same wing. If Schalke’s defence didn’t react and press him then he was a viable passing option. Otherwise, his run would bring the widest centre-back across with him, leaving enough space to find Haaland with a direct pass from the back line. On top of this, we can see how flat Schalke’s back line is here, with both Haaland and Sancho playing on the shoulder of their markers.
Dortmund’s build-up in their 4-2-3-1
Whilst they played with a back four, Dahoud and Delany would frequently drop into the back line to give Dortmund a back three during the build-up. With Schalke pressing with a front two, this would give Dortmund a numerical advantage in the initial phase, however, the home side weren’t overly strict on this and there were times where Akanji and Hummels were trusted to break Schalke’s pressing front two by themselves.
Fortunately, the width provided by the full-backs ensured it was possible to play out. It became a game of cat and mouse to an extent. Schalke wanted Dortmund to play wide to their full-backs where Schalke’s defence could shift across as a compact unit and frustrate their opponent, but Dortmund were also very aware of this, and often used their full-backs as decoys to create the smallest amount of space centrally for them to penetrate with forward passes.
Below we can see how both Raphel Guerreiro and Meunier are about as wide as they can be as Hummels has possession, whilst Delany has dropped in to create a back three. Brandt is out of shot, playing close to Haaland at this point, but to ensure that Schalke’s midfield three have to stay alert, Sancho drops in himself to stop Dahoud from being isolated.
As the phase progresses slightly we can see how Dortmund’s shape is perfectly positioned to exploit Schalke’s own. Whilst there is a lot going on in this picture, we can make sense of it easily enough.
Firstly, the full-backs remain wide, even as Delaney moves out of the back line and joins Dahoud and Sancho as a midfield three. Akanji and Hummels have been trusted to play out by themselves past Matondo and Hummels, and the width and depth of their full-backs makes this possible. However, both Schalke wing-backs are poised to press the Dortmund full-backs, and this creates some interesting opportunities further forward. Due to the vertical compactness of Schalke’s formation and Sancho luring Nastasic forward away from his back three by making his run into his own half, we can see that there are three Dortmund attackers technically being marked by just two Schalke defenders.
Whilst Haaland is central, we can see Reyna is on the left wing, in space (and potentially ready to be in even more if and when Ludewig presses Raphael Guerreiro), whilst Brandt is ready to loop his run in behind Sane. It’s also worth noting that yet again Dortmund left the 10 space vacant, as much to leave space open should Haaland or Brandt want to drop in, but also to make Omar Mascarell’s role relatively void and encourage him to push forward and leave space between himself and his defence.
As much as Dortmund value possession, they are also a direct side and enjoyed opportunities in this game from more direct passes over the top and through the gaps of a stretched Schalke defence.
Dortmund created space in the half-spaces too during their build-up and did so with one of the full-backs (in this example, Meunier) initially starting in a narrow position. In central midfield, Dahoud played deeper than Delaney generally, but regardless of who sat deeper, we saw the pivot staggered like in the image below for plenty of the game. Dortmund’s shape is focused on playing down their left-side, and so Schalke responded accordingly by shifting across themselves. Roman Burki, would instead play to his right and they would seek to break the lines quickly using the half-space.
As Akanji received, Meunier dropped completely out wide, showing for the ball, and in doing so attracting the attention of Oczipka who looked to close the space. Meanwhile, Dahoud looped around the back of his marker, pushing forward.
Sancho again would drop into the midfield area where he could receive directly in the half-space with Dahoud immediately inside.
Although this pattern wasn’t always successful, it was an interesting way to play out against a compact, high press and potentially create space to play through the centre of the pitch after a direct pass through the half-space.
Dortmund’s attack and their well-worked set-pieces
Dortmund’s attack played with such fluidity and intelligence in their movements, and their manipulation of Schalke’s defence was evident throughout the game.
Just as in the build-up phase shown above they looked to create space with decoy runs, they did so inside Schalke’s half too. Below, as the pass is played to Raphael Guerreiro, Delaney instantly looks to push forward in the half-space, taking his man with him and opening a diagonal passing lane into Haaland.
As Haaland dropped deep looking to receive, he too was able to bring his marker forward as well, and we can see how Sancho was aware of this. Had Schalke’s defensive line been slightly higher here, we may well have seen Raphael Guerreiro attempt the instant ball over the top to the winger. However, throughout the game, Haaland was able to draw a defender forward with him and leave space for Reyna and Sancho to dart in behind.
The combination play in the opposition half was excellent too, particularly when Dortmund played inside. Truthfully, it had to be pinpoint due to the numbers Schalke committed around the ball as they looked to crowd the central channel. Below we can see how a quick sequence of one-touch passes allows Haaland to play an inside pass to Delaney just outside the Schalke box.
It’s worth noting how narrow Schalke were, despite having a back five, and Dortmund used this to their advantage. These quick, tight combinations in small spaces drew Schalke even more narrow, and Dortmund’s full-backs were able to arrive late. Below we can see how Reyna has engaged Ludewig and allowed enough room for Delaney to slide in Raphael Guerreiro on the left-flank.
Yet Dortmund were most dangerous from their corner routines, which was something they had clearly worked on, and they were rewarded for doing so, scoring twice from them.
Below we can see how Dortmund looked to cram the six-yard box with an influx of players, whilst there is barely anyone attacking from the edge of the box.
Dortmund looked to overload the six-yard box and then play short corners where they could quickly overload Schalke’s out-of-balance defenders and advance the ball inside with their sharp combinations once more.
Below we can see how Brandt loops towards the corner from his starting position inside the six-yard-box and receives a pass behind the two Schalke defenders.
He instantly returns the pass inside to Raphael Guerreiro who gets a shot away, whereupon Akanji scored from the rebound.
By overloading the six-yard box Dortmund created enough space inside the 18-yard-box where they could quickly work the ball into a shooting opportunity with enough space to get a shot away.
They did this on a number of occasions but mixed it up with direct balls into the box straight from the corner too, albeit from a similar set-up.
The third goal came from a corner where Dortmund were able to draw all of the attention towards the front post and allow Hummels to simply move relatively unmarked to the back post where he had an easy header.
We can see in the image below how both of the Dortmund attackers starting inside the six-yard-box dart towards the corner-taker and in doing so take all of Schalke’s defenders who started in the six-yard-box out and towards the ball with them.
With all of this happening in front of him, Hummels stole in behind the commotion to head home the overhit cross.
After a disappointing midweek result, this was exactly the pick-me-up result Dortmund needed to get themselves back on track. With five games played, they are level on points with Bayern Munich and just one point off of the leaders RB Leipzig. Although it is early days, this result has only piled on the misery for Schalke, who sit in 17th place with one point. There was little for Schalke to really look at as a measured improvement in this game either and it will be back to the drawing board for Manuel Baum and his team.