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Tactical Review (UEFA Champions League): Borussia Dortmund 2 - 2 Real Madrid

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Zidane and Tuchel cancel each other out.

Borussia Dortmund v Real Madrid CF - UEFA Champions League Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

Borussia Dortmund’s High-Octane Offensive Tactics

Real Madrid drew 2-2 with Borussia Dortmund in a high-octane affair that was largely driven by Dortmund’s pace of play. Bursting from the blocks with the intent of taking Real Madrid by surprise, Dortmund absolutely dominated their opponents with lightning quick passing, supremely intelligent movement, and excellent inventiveness.

Dortmund’s attacking play was especially brilliant in the first half, as they completed 79.2% of their passes in the final third.

Weigl was at the heart of this perfect attacking structure, as he positioned himself astutely behind his attackers and became the heart of Dortmund’s offensive soul. He broke apart Real’s defensive blocks with ease and quickly recirculated possession to the other side of the pitch (when he found no route for penetration) to force Real into defensive transition (aka a moment of weakness).

Julian Weigl completed 57 passes at a 100% accuracy in the first half.

In order to take advantage of this passing machine, Thomas Tuchel had Castro and Guerreiro constantly drop into pockets of space behind Real Madrid’s midfield. This allowed them to combine to create lethal passing combinations in front of the Los Blancos’ box.

Raphael Guerreiro camped out in zone 14 for most of the match.
Gonzalo Castro joined Guerreiro in zone 14 to overload the Real Madrid center back and create a passing triangle (Castro, Weigl, Guerreiro).

But it wasn’t just Weigl’s passing into Real Madrid’s cracks that allowed Dortmund’s attackers to thrive in zone 14 - his deep positioning also played a massive role. With Weigl’s teammates having full confidence in his ability to distribute the ball effectively under pressure, Guerreiro and Castro were afforded the luxury of pushing high up the pitch as attacking midfielders in order to create a constant overload in the center and play havoc with Real Madrid’s defensive organization.

In this way, Dortmund created vicious passing triangles that tortured Real Madrid throughout the game.

Real Madrid’s Poor Defensive Structure

Even though Dortmund deserve all of their offensive praise, things were certainly made easy for them with Real Madrid’s often miserable defensive structure. Even when sitting back in a deep block, Los Blancos struggled to close off spaces in front of their center backs (where Guerreiro and Castro were darting into). This is why you often saw Ramos and Varane “recklessly” charge out of position to engage in a dangerous challenge that could expose the team.

Some of this could certainly be put down to the lack of a natural defensive presence in midfield, like Casemiro, but even he would have only done so much. There was a fundamental defensive compactness issue that allowed Dortmund to so easily cut through Real Madrid’s center. Los Blancos’ midfield was almost never positioned close enough to their back-line, and neither of the trio of Modric, Kroos, and James took up the responsibility (or were even defensively aware enough) to close down the gaping hole of space behind them.

This issue was exacerbated by the mind-boggling decision to use James as a pressing trigger in the center of the pitch, creating a defensive 4-4-2 (with Ronaldo and Bale sitting wide in order to be a counter-attacking threat) that left gaping holes in the halfspaces and through the center. Even when James dropped deeper, he did little to cover the spaces, which is not surprising, since he never provides defensive balance with his positioning (and it is simply unfair to expect him to do so when he is played out of position).

Real Madrid also tried out the press they had been practicing in previous matches, but it completely fell apart upon encountering Tuchel’s press-resistant machine. Using only two to three players to press the wings, and with no other support from the rest of the team, Dortmund simply combined in close proximity to avoid Real’s pressers, before shifting play to the other side of the pitch where no pressure existed.

Anatomy of a Play: Dortmund’s Attack vs Real Madrid’s Press & Compactness

As you can see, Real try to press Dortmund on the wing, as they build play from their goalkeeper (the black arrows represent Ronaldo and Benzema’s original trajectories), but because the action isn’t supported by the rest of the team, Weigl simply dodges the press by playing through the center.

This leaves Tuchel’s men with an incredible amount of space to exploit to their left (note that the use of James as an advanced presser leaves him totally incapable of tracking back in time).

Dortmund take advantage of the space and leave Real Madrid’s entire midfield behind them. Gotze cleverly exploits the total lack of vertical compactness by darting into the space behind Modric and Kroos.

The ball is played into Gotze just as a supporting runner arrives, creating the devastating triangle that will advance Dortmund into the final third.

Instead of trying to find Castro with a risky flick, Gotze plays the ball back to Guerreiro who finds Castro immediately.

With Real Madrid’s midfield still left for dead, Ramos steps up to stop the Dortmund attack.

With Ramos beaten, Modric has no other choice but to foul the man on the ball and give Dortmund a dangerous free kick (one that Navas barely keeps out).

This sort of disastrous pressing and complete lack of compactness, troubled Madrid throughout the game and is something that Los Blancos have failed to improve on since last season.

Real Madrid’s Offensive Tactics vs. Dortmund’s Defensive Tactics

Real Madrid’s saving grace was Zinedine Zidane’s simple, but effective, plan to rip Dortmund apart on the counter. Probably fully aware that Dortmund were especially weak at the back with Ginter in place of Bartra, Zidane instructed his side to coil back (apart from the bursts of bad pressing) and strike with speed down the flanks.

Borussia Dortmund employed a counterpress to stop this, pushing their defense up to create an insanely high back-line. But it failed to stop Madrid’s attack consistently enough thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo.

Dortmund completed 6/8 tackles in Madrid’s half.
Dortmund completed 5/10 of their interceptions in Madrid’s half.
Dortmund completed 9/16 of their fouls in Madrid’s half.

The Portuguese forward’s off-the-ball movement was utterly brilliant, as he dropped deep into his own half to overload the press, before springing upfield to create a viable passing outlet to release pressure.

Ronaldo’s off-the-ball movement was brilliant.
Ronaldo received the majority of his passes in his own half.

Once this happened, Dortmund’s ultra-high back-line became completely exposed, allowing Real Madrid to match each of Dortmund’s chances with one of their own.

This forced Dortmund to be more cautious in the second half, as evidenced by the drop in their possession figures and attacking third passes in comparison to the first 45 minutes.

Dortmund’s passing accuracy in the final third dropped from 79.2% in the 1st half to 74.2% in the 2nd half. Dortmund also experienced a drop in number of passes attempted and completed in the final third in the second half.

This suited Madrid, as they used more of the ball to create excellent chances before scoring a goal, but their last minute concession cost them the three points.

Overall, Zidane’s attacking tactics made the match very even, with Dortmund barely edging the expected goals battle by 0.03. Thus, even though Madrid can understandably feel hard done by with a draw, it was probably the fairest result on the balance of play.

Bits & Pieces

Ronaldo was the man of the match. Aside from his off-the-ball movement, he scored a brilliant goal, created the chance for Real Madrid’s second, completed 3 out of 6 take-ons, and drew 2 fouls.

Aside from one unlucky almost own goal, Varane responded to his critics with a solid defensive performance that kept Aubameyang in check.

Keylor Navas was at fault for Dortmund’s opener, but it is easy to forgive him for that, considering he made 8 saves; many of which were brilliant.

Benzema had a poor night: he slipped when Ronaldo played him through the entire Dortmund defense, scuffed a shot from a good Bale cross, and failed to score from a brilliant Ronaldo cross. Despite one or two occasions, his usual link-up play was also missing.

Danilo had a mostly good game at left-back, but Ousmane Dembele turned him inside out on a couple of occasions.

Julian Weigl had a brilliant game, as he was the main force behind’s Dortmund’s attack, whilst having to cover for a back-line that was much too leaky.

(All statistics & charts taken from whoscored.com and fourfourtwo statszone)