Borussia Dortmund had a busy summer. Tactics blogger halbraumrandale takes a look at how losing three key-players might affect Thomas Tuchel’s strategic approach this season.
Thomas Tuchel was furious after Borussia Dortmund’s cup final defeat to Bayern. He had chosen the wrong penalty takers, as he explained, and BVB lost in the shootout – but something else seemed to bother him even more: “In possession, we fell far short of our ambitions.”
His team were unable to dominate Bayern through passing and “struggled much more than in the second Bundesliga match [against them]”. It didn’t seem to matter much that the game had been even; Tuchel insisted on the possession-based playing style which made the season much more successful than anyone could have expected.
Now, about three months later, such aspirations would sound inappropriate: in Mkhitaryan, Gündogan and Hummels, Dortmund “have lost their best player, their most important player and their team captain”, as Lars Pollmann has rightly pointed out.
The trio – alongside Weigl and Kagawa – formed the core of the team. Their departure implies strategical changes: BVB will have to break with the idea of dominating their opponents no matter what.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has a unique set of qualities. Next to obvious attributes like his speed, shot, dribbling, and defensive skills, he is an extremely clever and creative player: he quickly understands structures on the pitch and improves them. This is why many positions suit him: he can play on either wing, in the halfspaces or in the centre as a number 10 or 8.
After he left to Manchester United, Dortmund tried to sign Karim Bellarabi. The Leverkusen player resembles Mkhitaryan: he poses an equal offensive threat and is even better at dribbling, though he is less of a playmaker. Bellarabi is a solid defender, too, and could play as a right wingback in the 3-2-4-1 formation used in the Rückrunde, in addition to his more natural role as a right-winger with a back four. Leverkusen, however, did not accept the offer.
André Schürrle was the next player to appear in media reports. The left-winger thrives in counter-attacks in open spaces where he can use his pace – quite the opposite of Dortmund’s patient build-up, where the BVB players generally find themselves surrounded by opponents.
He would be particularly unsuitable as one of the number 10s in the 3-2-4-1 formation: he’s neither creative, nor comfortable in tight situations. He might be able to play as a left wingback but there is little reason to bench Marcel Schmelzer to do so. In short: Why André Schürrle? – you may add a couple of question marks.
At first glance, the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3-hybrid used in the Hinrunde suits Schürrle more, but the wingers play in the halfspaces under Tuchel, thus move inside in possession rather than staying close to touchline. Whenever Dortmund had too many linear and direct players on the pitch last season, their ball circulation became sluggish and easy to defend against.
Ilkay Gündogan kept those attacks on the right side of the pitch alive. His awareness, quick dribbling, and smart passes reduced the pressure applied to his team-mates. Particularly against man-oriented and/or high-pressing opponents, his movement and the one-twos he initiated helped the team. Gündogan is a rare kind of box-to-box midfielder: he can sit deep, next to a number 6, to build-up play, while also feeling at home in a more advanced number 8 role, where he can use his abilities in tight situations.
By switching between these positions, he smoothly connects defensive and offensive midfield. On top of that, he can use his skill set in later stages of attacks, around the 18-yard box.
Like Mkhitaryan, Gündogan has not been replaced like-for-like. After rumours about Real Madrid’s Kovačić, very little has been written about possible replacements.
Moritz Leitner, who showed only infrequently that he might grow into Gündogan’s role, has just joined Lazio. Gonzalo Castro played a decent Rückrunde, but prefers a higher position to play more direct and risky passes. Nuri Sahin is too similar to Weigl to play both at the same time, while new signing Sebastian Rode, who improves Dortmund’s (counter)pressing, will “not disrupt Dortmund’s possession game too much”, but he won’t be able to replace Gündogan.
Neither will Mario Götze, who can link the number 8 and 10 role like Kagawa, but not improve the transition in build-up. Therefore Weigl, sadly, seems to be only player to clearly lead Dortmund’s ball circulation in central midfield.
Mats Hummels facilitated Dortmund’s build-up, especially when the midfielders, Weigl and Gündogan in particular, were under pressure. He has great vision and excellent passing abilities: his laser passes frequently break the opponent’s lines.
In the Rückrunde, he had a special role. As many teams press in a 4-4-2, we often see a defensive midfielder dropping between – or next to – the centre-backs to outnumber the two strikers. One defender then often advances with the ball, many times urged towards the outside of the pitch, which, in most cases, leaves only passing options on the respective flank. In Dortmund’s 3-2-4-1 formation, the centre-backs, and especially Hummels, are positioned wide already, in the halfspaces or even on the wings .
That way, they can turn inside and find better passing options. Hummels could thus use his strengths, and even advance higher up the pitch when the attack was in the final third. He has been replaced by Marc Bartra, who is a lot faster than Hummels but is not as impressive in his build-up play, although he his still a very solid passer. It will be important to find out how he will develop with regular playing time, which he didn’t have at Barcelona.
Dortmund’s build-up play has been weakened by the transfers. Although players like Sven Bender and Sokratis Papastathopoulos have improved their passing skills under Tuchel, a back three doesn’t seem to make sense on a regular basis as none of the defenders is, as of now, outstanding on the ball. It’s interesting to note that Michael Zorc tried to sign Ömer Toprak, who is an excellent defender but whose play-making abilities do not outclass those of Bender or Sokratis.
And as Bellarabi, like Toprak, has stayed at Leverkusen, there is no natural right wingback in the squad either – although Felix Passlack might grow into that role. It would have been possible to stick to the 3-2-4-1, though, had Dortmund bought versatile, creative and agile players for the centre-back position.
Joël Veltman and Samuel Umtiti, to give just two examples, were mentioned by Constantin Eckner (link in German). Dortmund missed opportunity to improve their build-up even further, as they couldn’t find an adequate replacement for Gündogan.
High-pressing teams troubled Dortmund last season. As the transfers have weakened the build-up, this could become more problematic. BVB could take advantage of many opponents’ (deep) midfield press in the Bundesliga.
The centre-backs could often play out safely from the back into midfield. Tuchel immediately improved the ball circulation and players’ positioning, which made it easier to advance as a team against such sides.
Also, overloads and shifts of play were very effective in the course of the attacks: BVB made the opponents shift to one side of the pitch before using the space on the other flank. In the final third, lobs from outside the 18-yard box and cut-backs by the advancing fullbacks lead to a high number of goals.
While many clubs struggle in tight spaces, Tuchel did particularly well against compact defences. Only a few teams like Ingolstadt, Leverkusen, and Bayern tried to keep Dortmund from advancing to the halfway line.
They either used a high midfield press, which often left Sokratis as the only free player, or pressed even higher up the pitch. As BVB’s central midfielders are crucial to their build-up, it makes sense to use man-orientations against them to make the transition into the second third extremely difficult. Hummels, Gündogan, and Mkhitaryan will be missed the most against these opponents.
Thomas Tuchel will by no means drop possession-based football, but he will (have to) use a more pragmatic approach in some matches, which he only did rarely in the 2015-16 season.
After losing 5-1 to Bayern, Dortmund opted for counter-attacks against Mainz in November. Similarly, they did not try to outplay Leverkusen, but instead fielded Ginter and Bender in midfield to cope with compact midfield duels in February. The current squad suits different styles.
While a good number of players still fit possession-based football, others could thrive in fast attacks, too: in Dembélé and Schürrle, BVB added pace to an already fast offence of Reus and Aubameyang.
Therefore, as Schwatzgelb.de have suggested (link in German), we may see more of the “real Tuchel”, who once made massive changes between games at Mainz. The task at hand is certainly a big one, and Tuchel will have many aspirations – but maybe not quite the same ones he had three months ago.