DFB Pokal 2019/20: Saarbrücken’s path – team analysis
With all the adversities that happen at the moment all around the world, it is unknown how football seasons will wrap up and that’s one of the many negative things taking place right now. Before it all stopped, we have witnessed the glorious run of German fourth-tier team Saarbrücken in the DFB Pokal, as they came all the way to the semifinals leaving some Bundesliga teams behind them. The likes of Köln and Fortuna Düsseldorf were the teams that have lost to this non-league side, along with Karlsruher who are in the 2. Bundesliga, so their achievement is quite big and can be seen as one of the biggest surprises in recent German footballing history.
The main thing that needs to be pointed out when talking about Saarbrücken is that they were aware of their quality in the matches against tougher opposition and were giving their best not to lose those duels, with a shred of hope that they could score. As that was their initial idea, they relied mostly on the defence, which was expected to be seen from a non-league team, but they did it on a very high level.
Although they had issues in some moments and got lucky in some situations, they performed to an extremely high level of defending in the majority of situations, transforming their initial setup depending on the team they had against themselves. Their manager Dirk Lottner usually went into matches with low 4-4-2 block which was open for changes if the opposition transforms its ideas throughout the game.
They tend to keep their lines close and not let the opposition feel comfortable in the central corridors of the pitch. Saarbrücken’s tactics are not that focused on pressing players with the ball but waiting for them to make a mistake after which they go into fast transitional attacks with main threats coming from the flanks.
The 4-4-2 tactics often changed in those matches because they wanted to prevent opponents of playing through the middle and trying to close down the passing lanes towards the strikers, leaving the flanks and crosses the only solution for the rivals. That transformed their setup into the 4-1-2-1-2 formation against Düsseldorf since they wanted to have a numerical advantage over their midfielders who were pointed out as the main threats in that game.
Even though the second striker cannot be seen in the image, he was always close to the action and between the opposition’s centre-backs closing down the potential backwards pass which will possibly allow them to switch side. That led Saarbrücken to press mostly on the flanks in the situations like the one above where they had a half-passive 3v1 position against the player with the ball. They weren’t that aggressive and were just directing his actions in order for him to make an error which from time to time opened a good counter-attacks for them.
The key for their success is the shortage of space for opponents between the lines which they created with their low block and with their lines staying really close to each other. Midfielders have good communication with the defenders and they are always in the five to ten meters away from them which makes it almost impossible for opposing team’s creators to find the room in the gaps.
Here we can see the perfect example of their well-positioned lines as they try to stick close to one another guarding the opposition’s main threats with ease. Rivals get the chance to pass around the block or to move forward with long balls which is easily stopped due to good air-game Saarbrücken has along with in-box security.
Also, they are always trying to position all of their players behind the ball making it as difficult as possible for the opponents to penetrate through their lines. This setup can be seen as the „non-league 101“ since they just tend to crowd the edge of the box area with men – but in a good shape – in order to disallow other team’s creation in the dangerous zones.
Once again their defensive tactics transform the shape but keep the discipline asking for the opposition to come higher and leave the wide space behind their backs for them to exploit in the potential counters. Strikers’ roles were to drop lower and play their part in the low block, but they have often been late to do so, so they performed full-speed runs to get in the system and disrupt opposition’s flow.
The last modification they used in their defensive tactics was the hybrid 5-1-3-1 formation they played against Köln in the second round of the German Cup. Saarbrücken adapted themselves to the opponent’s setup in that duel trying not to have a numerical disadvantage in any parts of the field, playing 1v1 defence against them in the worst-case scenarios at the time.
As we can see, they’ve once again closed down the through the middle action and left Köln with circling as their only option. Close-positioning of midfielders and defenders disabled the passes towards the centrally positioned players and made Saarbrücken’s structure balanced. From those setups, they also tried to endanger the other team’s goal through the transitional attacks that were led by the wide midfielders who had the support of the wing-backs and striker, and most of their goals came out of those situations.
As it is mentioned earlier in the analysis, Saarbrücken mostly relied on the „tough defence-fast transition“ fusion, trying to defend their goal at all costs firstly and only if that task is fulfilled going for the counter-attacks at full steam. Their counters mostly weren’t happening with full manpower since there were only three or four players finishing those actions after their team has won the ball.
When the transitions were taking place, wingers routes were the ones between the full-backs and centre-backs but closer to the inside as they were the ones whose role was to engage the inside-defenders. The wide defenders of their team would go with the wider runs trying to provide width while the midfielders and strikers would run down the central-corridors in order to provide support.
The thing about those runs is that not all the arrows were ever happening at the same time. If one of the full-backs was going forward, the other one would stay put along with the winger playing on the side of the included defender – if number three goes high, number ten secures his position. Then, support was coming from the opposite side winger, and one of the midfielders who was in the best position at the moment, together with a striker who was always the main figure in finishing of those actions.
Their possessional attacks were mostly based on the long-ball action with striker(s) playing a huge part in play progress. Although those attacks weren’t happening that often, it was clear that their idea is to skip the midfield and go fast-forward to the players up top who would pull themselves out on the flanks or lower in order to be the mediators in the air-game.
In the picture above, we can see an example of flank action Saarbrücken most commonly tended to repeat with the central striker – or one of the two – driving wider and closer to the sideline where he was the target of long parallel pas from the wide defender. That was their most-used action since most of their attacks were flank-oriented and attackers often go wider to pull the defenders out of position and free up space for second-line run-ins. It needs to be mentioned that those scenarios happen more frequently when they play with the two men up top when one of them drifts wide, and the other stays put in the central corridor.
The other idea they have is to skip the action addressing the long balls towards the strikers who are good in the air who then head the ball directly to the flanks where one of the midfielders is aimed their run.
As we can see, striker lowered himself in order to come to reach for the long ball from his defender and midfielder attacks the space behind his back waiting for the ball coming from the header. Those motions often confuse the opposition and leave one of the two free to get the ball, as it isn’t unusual for the striker to just get the ball down to his feet and continue the action by himself. Also, the ball coming to the flank from striker’s header was often addressed to the wide defender who was overlapping so Saarbrücken has three possible options in this setup that they used to exploit.
Midfielders and full-backs’ roles
Saarbrücken’s positional play was also based on a huge inclusion of the wide-player, but with a great impact coming from the midfield. Although those actions were happening less often, they had a clear pattern of how they want them to play out with midfielders switching the sides of the play and full-backs and wingers exploiting flanks.
Once again, strikers had a space-opening role in those actions as they often came lower for the link-up which pulled the defenders out of position and emptied the space for others to run in. Their communication with lower teammates is on a high-level which can be seen in their rotations and pass game in the second and final third of the pitch.
In the picture, we can see how those actions used to happen, with offensive midfielder performing a „dummy run“ which opens up space for the striker to come to get the ball, and wide player exploiting the room that is broke free down the flank. The similar scenarios mostly end with crosses or return-balls, with offensive midfielder or the other striker as the main target.
Against Köln, Saarbrücken played with three at the back formation which was critical for their build-up. Even though they’ve used those tactics, none of the three central defenders wasn’t the one starting the actions, but midfielders used to drop in low-flank positions to get the ball and open the attack.
The situation above is the most common type of their build-up opening when the midfielders are included and Saarbrücken isn’t going with the long ball. From this position, midfielders often decide to dribble back inside and then to switch the action with good diagonal passes aimed towards the wide-players on the opposite side. That happens with or without the pressure from the opposition but is more likely to be picked if the fourth-tier team manages to create an overload on one side, focusing most of their players in the restricted area with a clear idea to enable isolation on the opposite flank.
As we can see, seven of Saarbrücken’s players were positioned near the action which forced the opposition to come close to them so they couldn’t get the ball through the middle in the situation with potential numerical superiority, which ended up as a bait for the defending team. Those action-switching passes allow Saarbrücken to play the transitive football down the isolation side and to perform actions in which they are most dangerous. Similar situations brought them time and again into the good goal-scoring opportunities, and finally helped them secure a duel against Bayer Leverkusen.
It is not a common thing to see a team coming from the fourth division come to play with the „cool kids“ and mess up their plans, but Saarbrücken’s path is what makes you love football even more. Their „non-league 101“ tactics are surely a symbolic part of their play, but they managed to bring their game to a high, close-to-professional level, which made it possible for them to continue dreaming.
This team analysis has shown you how the outsiders succeeded in their intention to pursue their goal of coming to the final of the German Cup, and now they have one more step ahead of themselves to do so. It will surely be the toughest yet since Bayer is a no-joke side for most of the European biggest teams, but it will also be quite interesting to see what Saarbrücken prepared for that duel and if they could find the way to go all the way to the last game of the competition.