In a lopsided affair, Borussia Dortmund were in control for the majority of the game and deservedly beat Leverkusen 3-0.
Dortmund lined up in Tuchel’s preferred 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 hybrid, with nine players out of Tuchel’s preferred starting eleven. Only Marco Reus and Lukasz Piszczek had to be replaced. Matthias Ginter and Jonas Hofmann took over their positions as right-back and right winger respectively. In Borussia’s goal Roman Bürki, who had a very good match on and off the line, returned after Weidenfeller’s stint in the Europa League. The centre-back pairing consisted of Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Mats Hummels, who seem to develop a better understanding in every game they play together, and both delivered an outstanding performance; more on that later. At left-back it was again Marcel Schmelzer, who was as solid as ever. In midfield Julian Weigl played as the holding midfielder behind Ilkay Gündogan on the right and Shinji Kagawa on the left. Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the left wing and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang upfront completed the lineup.
Leverkusen lined up in a 4-4-2 which often turned to a 4-2-4 while pressing. Stefan Kießling and new signing Javier Hernandez led the line, while Hakan Calhanoglu and Karim Bellarabi occupied the wings. In central midfield former Dortmunder Kevin Kampl replaced the injured Lars Bender alongside Christoph Kramer. Giulio Donati came in for the injured Roberto Hilbert at right-back and Wendell played at left-back. The centre-backs were Jonathan Tah and Kyriakos Papadopoulos, with Bernd Leno in goal.
Dortmund’s build up and Leverkusen’s pressing
Before the game it was expected to be a battle between Dortmund’s control of the ball and the chaos Leverkusen try to create without the ball, but Leverkusen weren’t as intense and risky with their pressing as most people expected them to be.
When Dortmund’s centre-backs were in possession Leverkusen’s front four (both strikers and the wingers) did position themselves high up the pitch, but rather than running at Hummels or Sokratis full speed they tried to occupy the passing lanes towards Weigl, Gündogan, and Kagawa and force Dortmund to play through the wing or hoof the ball upfront. Leverkusen were attempting to force Dortmund wide so the sideline would become an extra defender, as it’s easier to isolate an opponent on there rather than in the middle of the park.
Those tactics did, at least partly, pay off for Leverkusen as both Weigl (73) and Gündogan (79) had way less touches than their average. Bayer also managed to isolate Hofmann and Ginter at times, which resulted in them having rather bad pass completion rates. Hofmann only completed 56.3% of his passes while Ginter completed 68% of his, the two lowest figures for Dortmund players. Leverkusen had more problems isolating Schmelzer and Mkhitaryan on the left. Not only because both of them are individually more pressing resistant, but also because Kagawa often drifted to the left half-space to keep the ball circulation alive and connect the formerly isolated players with the rest of the team. Although a smart defender like Kramer defended rather man-orientated against Kagawa, the Japanese international was able to find the space between Leverkusen’s lines, keep the ball circulation alive, and make the right decisions more often than not even in tight spaces.
As well as not being as intense in their pressing as last season, Leverkusen also lacked compactness in the middle of the pitch. Kramer and Kampl defended Kagawa and Gündogan man-orientated, leaving a rather big hole between them and their front four when pressing. Nothing you would want against a centre-back with great passing ability like Mats Hummels. Bayer’s man-orientated defending approach caused them all kinds of trouble once Dortmund, mostly Hummels, were able to find a way to get Weigl and Gündogan into play.
Dortmund were very patient in their build-up. Particularly at the beginning of the game, they let Bayer chase the ball and tire themselves out. Once Bayer couldn’t cover all passing lanes and allowed Hummels or Sokratis to find Weigl or Gündogan, Dortmund immediately had a three against two situation in the middle of the pitch and it almost always led to a dangerous situation. Aubameyang was very clever at using the holes Bayer’s man-orientations created, as he would come deep to the number ten space or even number six space to receive the ball from Hummels and play nice lay-offs to the midfielders, who suddenly found themselves with a lot of space around them.
Dortmund’s game plan seemed similar to the games before: Hummels is the first playmaker, Gündogan and Weigl advance the ball past the first line, then Schmelzer, Kagawa, and Mkhitaryan overload the left half-space and try to break through or shift the ball to the right side. Especially against Leverkusen, who normally defend very ball-oriented, shifts of the ball seemed like the obvious choice to move them around. This was indefinitely harder with Bayer’s smart midfield pressing and intense counter pressing, but with Kagawa and Mkhitaryan moving ever so smoothly and intelligently between the lines it was still possible for die Schwarzgelben to keep up a steady and effective ball circulation.
Besides Mkhitaryan and Kagawa, the two centre-backs of Dortmund impressed most on Sunday. After Dortmund took the lead after about 20 minutes, the passing in midfield was worse and Leverkusen managed to win back more and more balls as a result. Luckily both Hummels and Sokratis delivered top notch performances. Both anticipated passes brilliantly while Sokratis had some peas for dinner, winning nearly every duel against Chicharito. Leverkusen’s two big chances in this game came from quick counter attacks, the only time that Hummels and Sokratis couldn’t make up for the mistakes upfront.
Dortmund are the real deal and Leverkusen look surprisingly weak against teams who have a clear plan in possession. It’s remarkable that Dortmund were able to win a game against a top Bundesliga club like Leverkusen so convincingly, especially without the services of Marco Reus and a mediocre performance from Ilkay Gündogan.