Ever since the end of last season, or even since Ilkay Gündogan’s injury last March, Borussia Dortmund have struggled when faced with aggressive and man-orientated pressing against their defenders and midfielders. Why is that and what could be the solution?
In this article, we’ll be concentrating on Dortmund’s struggle offensively.
How to press Dortmund
First of all, we have to take a look at just how much Dortmund are struggling against pressing and which kind of pressing in particular.
This year’s BVB, when they play their usual 4-1-4-1, is particularly vulnerable when the lone number six, most of the time Julian Weigl, and the two central midfielders are marked tightly and teams try to close up the middle of the pitch.
Secondly, they struggle when being pressed high up the pitch in an aggressive manner.
Finally, it gets even worse when the opposing team stays horizontally compact while doing so.
Which teams pressed Dortmund?
So let’s have a look at Dortmund’s league games and put the teams in two categories. Group one is ‘aggressive pressing.’ Teams qualify if they fulfil two of the three criteria (close up the middle, high press, compactness). The other group fulfils only one or none and is called ‘passive defence’. Of course, the two groups are still subjective to a degree.
Here’s a look at it one match day at a time:
1. Mainz tried to defend Dortmund’s midfield with strict man-marking, although they didn’t manage to press that high up the pitch throughout the game, perhaps due to the temperatures in late August. Still, Dortmund’s midfielders Sebastian Rode, Gonzalo Castro and Shinji Kagawa were marked tightly and the team stayed pretty compact which puts them in the group ‘aggressive pressing’.
2. Leipzig pressed high up the pitch in intervals, kept two men around Weigl to pressure him, marked Mario Götze tightly and Rode as well when he moved into midfield. Stayed horizontally compact at most times, that equals ‘aggressive pressing’.
3. Darmstadt sat really deep in a 5-4-1 which created a 3 against 1 for Dortmund in build-up. Central midfielders weren’t man marked. They were almost automatically compact when defending that deep but it was still a ‘passive defence’.
4. Wolfsburg tracked almost every run of the central midfielders and tried to take Weigl out of the game with two strikers. They pressed high up in intervals and were relatively compact in Dortmund’s lucky win. They’re in group ‘aggressive pressing’.
5. Freiburg did press high in a few moments but had bad horizontal compactness and didn’t try to close up the middle of the pitch. ‘Passive defence’.
6. Leverkusen closed up the passing lanes to Weigl with their strikers and followed the central midfielders while staying compact and pressing high and aggressively. ‘Aggressive pressing.’
7. Hertha defended relatively deep, only very rare man-orientations but with good compactness. Still: ‘passive defence’.
8. Ingolstadt‘s intervals of high pressing were really short and they didn’t follow Weigl or the central midfielders man-oriented throughout the game. ‘Passive defence’.
9. Schalke left Weigl and the midfielders room in buildup and didn’t press high up the pitch often. They did have a good compactness but it’s still ‘passive defence’.
10. Hamburg were completely man-oriented and it resembled an old school man-to-man coverage. They pressed high up the pitch, too. Their bad compactness and individual errors cost them but they’re still in group ‘aggressive pressing’.
11. Bayern are left out of this because it fits neither category since Dortmund changed up their style.
12. Frankfurt kept two players around Weigl most of the time, marked Dortmund’s central midfielders man-oriented, pressed high and aggressively quite a lot, and stayed compact. ‘Aggressive pressing’.
Results have been mixed against both of those groups but let’s take a look at how Dortmund statistically fare against them:
The defining variable for middle or attacking third passes is where the pass receiver is situated.
Why are Dortmund struggling?
The statistics indicate Dortmund are struggling a lot more against aggressive teams, but why?
It has to be noted that it’s generally tough for most teams to play against aggressive pressing, but Dortmund made it particularly difficult for themselves this summer.
Tactical aspects aside, Dortmund lost three of their most effective players against man-marking and pressing in Mats Hummels, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Ilkay Gündogan. They could regularly destroy the structure of an opponent with a pass or a dribble, were great at offering passing options, and could keep a hold of the ball under pressure.
Dortmund bought Marc Bartra to replace some of Hummels’ passing and dribbling. Bartra showed great promise at first, created a goal against Wolfsburg with a run and pass and a few chances against aggressive teams like Leipzig.
Unfortunately, he had slight injury as well as defensive problems and couldn’t make those incisive plays often enough. The same goes for all the other centre-backs in the squad. A possession-orientated team could do well with elite ball-playing centre-backs and Dortmund currently don’t have one. Problem No. 1.
The second, and arguably most obvious problem, is the lack of central midfielders with good decision-making under pressure and the technical ability to execute those decisions. Raphael Guerreiro has shown glimpses of it and, other than that, only Götze can do it regularly.
Götze, however, is also needed in the attacking third and that’s where he’s at his best. Castro struggles quite a lot under pressure and Rode even more so. This is why we wrote about the possibility of signing Mahmoud Dahoud in winter.
Tactical problems are in part personnel-related problems, too. Last season, BVB had a structure which made it harder for opponents to nullify the buildup. If Weigl was covered closely, Hummels was there to make a run or play a pass through the defensive lines, if both were covered Sokratis or Bender still had Gündogan available for an easy pass.
This season Bartra or Matthias Ginter can’t make those runs or passes regularly enough and Sokratis’ outlet is usually Castro, who struggles under pressure himself. This way Dortmund can’t get the ball into the final third on a regular basis.
In quite a few games BVB also had both their full-backs and wingers stay wide which made it easy to isolate them against the touchline. One example from the Leverkusen game shown below.
— Jens Schuster (@jensschuster_de) 2. Oktober 2016
Another glaring deficit is Dortmund’s pressing and counter-pressing. The positional play offensively isn’t as good as last season, which doesn’t only hurt BVB in possession. When losing the ball it is often the case that nobody is able to apply instant pressure which allows opponents to counter-attack and break up BVB’s attacking rhythm.
Sometimes the positioning isn’t even the main problem in pressing, though. In parts of the season Dortmund had a laughable intensity defensively, which could have mental reasons or simply physical fatigue.
The many rotations of Thomas Tuchel have often been discussed as possible reason for Dortmund’s struggle. Defensively there might be some truth to it, however, offensively these rotations seemed necessary or forced, and without Guerreiro in midfield they struggled whatever the lineup was.
We can’t ignore the fact that discussing rotation without knowing the player’s data, who is hurting or tired, and which players trained badly is very hard to do.
Since quite a few problems are personnel-related a few possible solutions are as well. Both a great ball-playing defender and a pressing-resistant central midfielder would be useful.
Another option would be to allow centre-backs to make more vertical runs, since that worked quite well last season and at the start of this season.
In the example below, Bartra can run at Wolfsburg’s midfield unmarked, Julian Draxler and Maximilian Arnold then have to shift their attention to him which enables Guerreiro to make a run ending up in a goal.
In this situation Weigl covers the space Bartra vacates to stay defensively solid in case the ball is lost. Playing a similar back three as they did at the end of last season would mean even more of a safety net for centre-backs to take some risks. Especially Bartra could thrive in the role as a wide left centre-back, just as Hummels played the position last season.
Usually, opposing teams don’t attack centre-backs as viciously as Weigl and the other midfielders throughout the game so that would open up space and could possibly disrupt the opponent’s structure.
Another option, as shown in the graphics above, would be to play Guerreiro as false wing-back. Weigl and Castro are man-marked but Guerreiro moving inside creates a numeral advantage against the pressing and Götze, who is great at finding spaces between the lines, could be open in the half-space. If Götze and Dembélé switch places here, they could also create a relatively easy one-on-one for the great dribbler.
And lastly, which isn’t as much a solution but more a glimmer of hope: Dortmund do find ways to create chances against high pressing, they just don’t always turn it into goals. See the example below.
xG map for Frankfurt – Dortmund. This could have been a very different match if BVB cash in one of their many chances at 0-0. pic.twitter.com/HFtE92Omnf
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) 26. November 2016
Also, Marco Reus looked good after coming back from injury. With the squad almost fully healthy and the upcoming winter break, the team has some time to gel. Which is particularly important since teams tend to get better on the training ground more so than during games and, in the short term, the return of Guerreiro could be a big help as well
It’s not all bad for Borussia Dortmund but it’s still far from good. For now, they simply have to stay in touch with the top four until the winter break.