Bundesliga 2019/20: Borussia Dortmund vs Schalke- tactical preview
In case you hadn’t heard, the Bundesliga gets back underway this weekend, with the game that kicks the weekend off being the small matter of a Revierderby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04. Dortmund sit just four points from the top of the Bundesliga, having seen a resurgence in from after the winter break, where they scored 29 goals in ten games. Schalke meanwhile, have had a fairly opposite season, in which they started very well and seemed to dwindle as the season went on. Following the winter break, Schalke won only their first of eight games, meaning they haven’t won a game since mid-January and only managed four goals in eight games. Despite the contrast in form, it’s worth remembering neither team has played for a long period of time, and so drawing conclusions from this is difficult. In this tactical analysis, we will look at the tactics both teams may use in the game, and look to give some insight into how each team will set up to exploit the other, including Schalke’s pressing and Dortmund’s build-up.
Following an inconsistent start to the season, Borussia Dortmund switched their build-up strategy and began using a back three in a 3-4-3, which ultimately led to them becoming a more possession-based side. Back threes are a useful way to overcome presses, simply because they allow for more coverage of the backline, meaning they allow for players to distance themselves apart more, and therefore the opposition press is stretched. This example here against Freiburg sums up the advantage of a back three well, with Freiburg’s one-man press up front unable to cover three centre backs. This, therefore, engages the nearest player in the second line of the press, who jumps out to press the left centre back. This, in turn, increases the space for Dortmund’s left wing-back.
This then, of course, has an effect on the rest of the team, with the full-back forced to press the wing-back, and the rest of the backline forced across to cover space.
We can see their general structure in possession in this image here, where again the second line of the opposition is occupied and played around. We see the back three with Łukasz Piszczek as a wide right centre back, a midfield four and a front three, with Brandt dropping into the half-space to receive from the wing-back.
It is this pass to the wing-back which causes the majority of problems for the opposition, with the height and positioning of the player making them difficult to occupy. Dortmund’s wing-backs don’t start extremely high, and instead remain in distance of the centre backs, in order to receive these passes which stretch the opposition. The benefits of freeing this wing-back are the player’s ability to access the half-space, which is usually occupied by one of the front three or an arriving central midfielder. Within two touches, Dortmund can access the half-space, and so it is important that either the wing-back is not allowed to receive, or that the half-space is controlled. This becomes more difficult when central players look to use their positioning to create space, as we can see later in the analysis.
Dortmund can be fluid around their use of the half-space as we can see below in the build-up to a goal against Werder, whose defending is shocking, to say the least. Here the forward moves to provide the width, while the wing-back now makes a late run to occupy the half-space in behind the defence, where he receives the ball and crosses for a goal. Witsel here also provides depth which allows them to counter-press in these areas, something they do very well.
One example of this manipulation I discussed is the midfield box concept, which Dortmund use occasionally due to it naturally fitting the positioning of a 3-4-3. The two central midfielders stay in central areas and look to occupy their central midfield counterparts, while the back three and wing-back stretch the opposition lines with their width. While the centre and wings are occupied and the central defender is on the ball, the half-space again can be occupied. Here Emre Can scans to check the positioning of Jadon Sancho, before keeping his run central and opening space for a diagonal pass.
We can see a good example of this is in the build-up to Dortmund’s second goal against PSG, with again Hummels on the ball and Can remaining central, opening the half-space for a dropping Gio Reyna to receive.
It’s worth noting also that if Dortmund fail to play through you, if given time they can play over you, as they did on several occasions against Köln. As a result of all of this, they are a difficult side to press and defend against, hence the goal tally.
How do Schalke usually press
Before we consider how Schalke may press in the game, I think it’s important to consider how they usually press, as this will certainly play a part.
For the majority of the season, Schalke have played in a 4-3-1-2/4-diamond-2, pressing high and intensely and suffocating teams with pressure. We can see an example of their basic pressing scheme below, with the widest central midfielders responsible for pressing the full-backs. Schalke’s pressing and counter-pressing stifled Dortmund’s build-up in the first fixture early in the season, when Dortmund built using a back four and a pivot.
Recently though, Schalke have turned to different shapes to press in, including a 4-2-3-1, and most notably, a 5-4-1, which they used against Bayern and against Hoffenheim, both sides who use a back three when building up.
We can see this 5-4-1 press being utilised here, in which they tend to sit deeper in a mid or sometimes low block before putting pressure on. In the game against Hoffenheim, the striker would usually be used to press or cover the pivot, while the winger would press the widest centre back, seeking to prevent a pass entering the wide area. Schalke’s backline was able to be much more aggressive as a result of having an added player, and so the full-back or centre back could follow markers to restrict space.
We’ll now move onto how Schalke can look to limit Dortmund’s build-up through pressing.
How to limit Dortmund’s build-up
In my opinion, pressing high against Dortmund would not be sustainable or particularly sensible. It’s unclear what the fitness of the players will be like after an extended break with no matches played, and so I do not expect Schalke’s press to be as intense as usual. For me, I don’t expect Schalke to use their 4-diamond-2 formation, simply because of the way it interacts with a 3-4-3. With the wing-backs providing maximal width for Dortmund and a back three stretching the front two pressers, a narrow formation with large pressing distances to the wing-backs would not be ideal in my opinion. As a result, I feel as though the two most likely options for Schalke are the 5-4-1 or a flat 4-4-2.
The first option is one which Schalke are not unfamiliar with, and is one which has been tested successfully against Dortmund by other teams. PSG pressed in a flat 4-4-2 at the Parc Des Princes in their UEFA Champions League second leg against Dortmund, and found success using the following pressing scheme. The front two press the nearest centre backs, while if needed the formation jumps to a 4-3-3, with an emphasis on not allowing the wing-backs to receive the ball in this situation after switches in play.
We can see here, the strikers can press the nearest two centre backs effectively, while the ball near central midfielder can cover the half-space, and the ball far midfielder can press the nearest player (Emre Can). As a result, Dortmund struggle to progress in this area, and rely on working the ball from one side to the other quickly in order to disrupt the strikers’ ability to press in this way. Dortmund want a player from PSG’s second line pressing their back three if possible, as this frees a player in Dortmund’s own second line.
We can see an example of these switches of play, where the two nearest centre backs quickly look to switch the ball to force a winger to press a centre back. This forces PSG to shift across quickly in order to occupy space and gives Dortmund access to Jadon Sancho on the wing, as well as other players in advanced areas. It is therefore vital that Schalke either limit Dortmund’s opportunities to switch, or that they can cover ground quickly to prevent Dortmund engaging their second line. However, as we can see, Dortmund themselves don’t shuffle across too well, and this will be something they also need to work out. We can see here PSG’s press was not too intense and they also sat slightly deeper when needed.
Here when no pressure is applied, Dortmund perform a nice movement to penetrate. Sancho drops deeper and is followed by the full-back, something which had to happen at times when Cavani couldn’t apply pressure and the half-space was not protected. This left space in behind, and here Hakimi rotates into this space vacated by Sancho and actually gets free and delivers a cross that flashes across the six-yard box just in front of Haaland. It is therefore vital you get across to apply pressure without the second line being manipulated, or that you adjust accordingly. Here, Neymar could cut the lane to the half-space and allow Bernat to press the wing-back, where Neymar would then have to drop to protect the half-space from Sancho’s likely forward run.
Potential trap in a 4-4-2
One potential trap which could be used by Schalke, which was also partly inspired by some of PSG’s play, is the temporary use of a 4-4-1-1 to close off one side of the pitch, preventing these switches of play. We can see this trap outlined below.
One striker drops deeper nearer to an opposition central midfielder, while the ball near striker presses and covers the half-space with their cover shadow. With the wing-back also partially covered, the ball will be played into the central defender in the middle. Once the ball is played into here, the deeper striker can jump to press.
The striker can then press while limiting this players ability to play to the far side, therefore forcing the player back to where they received the pass from. This prevents the need for the second line to engage and can prevent those switches in play which allow access to the wing-back.
If the ball is played directly from left centre back to right, it will have to be a long aerial pass, which should give the winger enough time to press across tightly and delay Dortmund, thus allowing for the strikers to come across again. Schalke’s winger could also gamble on this kind of pass and anticipate it, and therefore it is rare we see a pass like this.
Furthermore, when the ball does reach the wing-back, traps can be set around the central midfielder in the half-space with blind side presses. This structure also gives good counter-attacking opportunities, with two players still in advanced areas and in open passing lanes should the ball be won. It is these kinds of areas in which Schalke thrive, using the pace of players such as Benito Raman and Rabbi Matondo to exploit space behind the opposition. There is also potentially the opportunity to use the structure of the far central midfielder pressing the midfielder, while the nearest guards the half-space, which I showed in a previous example.
For example here, just after Schalke have won the ball back, Suat Serdar is able to sprint forward and progress the ball, while Benito Raman immediately moves to create an angle and attacks the space. He is then able to receive the ball and run on to score.
Again here we can see that rest offence, with Schalke again winning the ball in an advanced area through their pressing, and then immediately having passing options available, with three made available straight away for the ball carrier. Schalke are an athletic team who have players willing to run, and so this will be an important aspect of their game plan, even if they may not be able to keep the same standard for 90 minutes.
Another option Schalke have is the 5-4-1 which they have used in their most recent games. This system is less aggressive and would not allow the same counter-attacking opportunities as the flat 4-4-2, but does do a better job of preventing the half-space being penetrated, and is also much less intense.
We can see the theory behind it here, with the winger pressing the wide centre back while the striker looks to cover the ball near central midfielder. Although this forces the second line to engage, because there are more players within the backline, adjustments can be made. As a result, the ball is likely switched from side to side often by Dortmund’s centre backs.
However, this time, when the ball is switched, the opposite winger can move to press the widest centre back again, while the wing-back can step out to press the opposite wing-back, effectively creating a 4-5-1. Committing nearly every player behind the ball allows them to not be manipulated as easily by Dortmund’s structure, as players can mark tighter and still be covered by teammates. As mentioned though, if Schalke do win the ball in this scenario, it would be difficult for them to counter without any direct vertical option.
It would be more difficult to counter in this structure, but not impossible. Against Bayern in a 5-4-1, Schalke generated 0.65 xG to Bayern’s 0.99, and as we can see here, were able to generate some counter-attacks from their 22% possession. Bayern too use their wing-backs in very wide areas and are able to do this due to a central midfielder joining the backline to form a back three. As a result, Schalke’s counter-attacking threat came from the extremely pacey Matondo and Raman, who here after Schalke have just won the ball can immediately sprint into the space left by the wide wing-back. It then takes them nine seconds to generate a 0.15 xG chance, in which the ball is cut back to Raman who is about eight yards out. I also believe Schalke will come prepared with set-piece routines to look to exploit Dortmund, and vice versa, and I may be releasing some content on this shortly after this piece has gone out.
It is then of course up to Dortmund to counter-press to prevent this from happening, but a 5-4-1 will frustrate Dortmund and force them to take risks. If they need to overload the half-space, a central midfielder may move forward, and if Schalke win the ball in the right moments and can explode in transition like they do, they could hurt Dortmund. One lapse in concentration in terms of rest defence and Schalke can hurt you.
This analysis has been challenging to write simply due to the number of days since either team played, and the unknowns of football at this moment in time. In this tactical preview, I have sought to give an idea of what the game may look like, and also how both teams may look to set up against one another, with some thoughts from myself on how I would set up inevitably being involved. In summary, I expect Dortmund to have the majority of the possession in their 3-4-3 formation, with Schalke in a mid-block for most of the game looking for transition moments where they can counter-attack using their direct style of play.
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Starting with the Reiverderby in the German Bundesliga this coming Saturday, May 16 – Total Football Analysis will be bringing you live match commentary and analysis of Borussia Dortmund vs Schalke, kicking off at 14:30 UK.