Bundesliga MD 24 Preview: Bayern vs. Dortmund
For Borussia Dortmund, the season so far has not gone to plan. After 23 matchdays, Dortmund is only in 5th place in the Bundesliga – 13 points behind Bayern and, even worse, eleven points adrift of RB Leipzig. Wolfsburg in 3rd place have built up a six point cushion already, while Frankfurt in fourth place seems still within reach with only three points ahead.
12 wins, 3 draws, 8 defeats – Dortmund’s season resembles a rollercoaster ride. At some point they tried to stabilize the journey by a change in the coaching position. Edin Terzić succeeded Lucien Favre, who had been just over two years in charge. With four wins from the first five games, including a brilliant second half in a 3-1 victory against rivals Leipzig, he in fact at first seemed to get BVB back on track.
But the same as before, the highs and lows continued to alternate under Terzić, too. In the six games that followed, the team managed only two victories and suffered two stinging defeats against rivals Leverkusen and Gladbach. Nevertheless, there seems to be an upbeat mood at the club now ahead of the clash against FC Bayern. Of the last five matches, Terzić’s team has won four and drawn one. In addition, they have reached the semi-finals of the DFB-Pokal, and, with the 2-3 away win in Sevilla in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16, they are well positioned to reach the quarter-finals.
The tenor of the discussion has changed again. There is talk of an upward trend. The Sevilla game in particular has been seen as a turning point, because the Spaniards had been in good form prior to that. In a way, Terzić himself initiated the umpteenth turnaround of the season. At the beginning of his tenure, he changed the team’s formation from Favre’s back three to an almost classic 4-2-3-1 as his first order of business, but after a series of failures, he showed adaptable by switching to a 4-3-3. His flexibility was repaid at first. With two number 8s, Dortmund have more presence between the lines and can also counter the opponent’s (gegen-)pressing a little better.
One player whose performances have been particularly encouraging of late is Mahmoud Dahoud. Until the round of 16 match against Sevilla, the midfielder had been largely confined to the sidelines, playing only two games over 90 minutes. In the last four games, he was on the pitch for an average of 86 minutes per game (without injury time). It is also interesting to note that, apart from the Supercup match against Bayern, Dortmund this season have not lost a single competitive match when Dahoud was on the pitch for more than 45 minutes. 10 wins and 1 draw may not be a sufficient basis for a conclusive assessment, but with him in the team obviously finds it easier to build up the play.
In fact, building up has proved a big problem of Dortmund: Neither under Favre nor Terzić has the team managed to consistently create high-quality chances in possession. The strong attack often gets rolling only when sudden spaces arise in transition or the opponent makes an unexpected mistake. Otherwise, Dortmund is very dependent on flashes of inspiration by Mats Hummels or Dahoud.
Yet the team’s potential is huge. In Raphaël Guerreiro, Dortmund have an outstanding left-back who can pose problems for any team in the world with his inside drive, passing quality, and surging forward runs. The Portuguese is undoubtedly the best left-back in the Bundesliga because he hardly makes any mistakes, cleverly directs the game from the wing, and poses a constant goal threat. In addition, there is little doubt that Hummels, despite all the criticism in recent years, is still an outstanding build-up player. And then there are Jadon Sancho, Marco Reus and Erling Haaland, who is perhaps the only striker in all of Europe who regarding his overall impact on the game and his goal involvements can currently keep up with Robert Lewandowski. This three-pronged attack is very flexible on the move and able to ask huge questions of the opposing defence.
However, all these individually supreme pieces of the puzzle do not manage to fall into place all too often. Good phases with a high tempo, many runs in behind, and a skillful give and go are followed by strangely passive stretches. This is also because there is a lack of link-up players in midfield who, like Dahoud in his stronger moments, take control of and direct the game in possession.
Dortmund still do not seem to have found their center. There is no coherent philosophy and style of play that unmistakably bears their signature. Instead, they are always waiting for the team’s standout players to come up with moments of magic, often not even satisfying their own demands. And so it would not be surprising if Dortmund’s rollercoaster ride were facing another downward slope soon.
Based on Dortmund’s last six Bundesliga games at Bayern, the downturn is likely to start on Saturday night. 3 goals for and 26 goals against accompanied by sometimes resounding defeats speak a clear language. And yet, in view of the recently growing confidence, Dortmund will hope that they can finally end the negative run in the Allianz Arena this time.
A critical key to success: Erling Haaland. The Norwegian is currently scoring at will and is involved in almost every attack of his team. Haaland is a force of nature, because he not only scores and prepares goals, but also possesses incredible speed and agility despite his big frame. Many are rightly calling him Europe’s commanding striker of the coming decade.
But Dortmund’s strengths are not only due to Haaland, especially in transition. Sancho, who has recently recovered his form, and Reus actively support him. Sancho’s goal against Gladbach in the DFB-Pokal last week is a good example of how they do this. With just a few touches, the whole team managed to get in behind the opponent’s defensive line. It often takes less than seven seconds for the opponent to be forced into an undefendable counterattack from what started out as a chance for them.
On Saturday night, they will definitely be able to bring these qualities to bear, as they match perfectly the weaknesses Bayern have shown in recent weeks. But to force those transition situations, Dortmund need more intensity and aggressiveness out of possession. Almost all of the defeats in the past encounters with Bayern had in common that, from a certain point on, midfield control was surrendered to the opponent without a fight in addition to being pinned back at the back.
This is partly due to how the offensive players close down their opponents. Under Lucien Favre, they often seemed to accompany their opponents. Pressure through positioning, but not through pressing. This is also often the case under Terzić. However, if the opponents have the quality not to be impressed by Dortmund’s presence, this gives them decisive seconds.
With David Alaba, Joshua Kimmich and Jérôme Boateng, Bayern have three build-up players who rarely make serious mistakes. But when it does happen, the opponents often know how to pounce on this. Reus manages 17.9 pressures per 90 minutes with a success rate of 35.9%. Compared to Thomas Müller (19.3 and 35%), Bayern’s one man pressing army, these are not bad figures. However, his running routes are not always optimal and he could still improve in terms of the aggressiveness and consistency of his running.
Yet the differences in pressing between both teams only become really clear when comparing the other players:
Dortmund puts more emphasis on winning the ball in midfield and in the defensive third. In the Bundesliga, Dortmund have a total of 749 pressures in the attacking third – 306 fewer than Bayern (1055). In midfield the difference is much smaller (1355 to 1440), and at the back the figures are almost identical (794 to 805).
Against Bayern, it can be a problem for Dortmund if they do not constantly put the creative and running-intensive midfield of Kimmich, Goretzka and Müller under stress. If, however, they manage to force turnovers against these players, they suddenly have a relatively short and open path to Manuel Neuer in front of them, which – as they have proven several times – they are capable of using clinically. Even though Sancho, who has had a big impact on his team’s play recently, and Gio Reyna will be missing, Dortmund have a lot of quality in attack.
But Dortmund must by no means rely only on their skills in the game without the ball. Over 90 minutes, they threaten to let a game like the one tonight run away from them if they do not manage to push up and cover their opponents consistently. If they do not, Bayern’s quality at some point will find its way through Dortmund’s defense, and the unavoidable result will be a game on one goal.
One antidote is ball control. Dortmund and Bayern have roughly the same amount of possession this season (around 58%), but in the last few encounters the values were usually clearly skewed in favor of Bayern. Dortmund have always had their best phases when they have managed to free itself from Bayern’s pressure by controlling the game. Mats Hummels will play a decisive role in this, as will Dahoud. Both have the quality to break up moments of pressure and shift the play to the far side.
And that is precisely where Bayern have their biggest defensive problems. They exert almost irresistible pressure near the ball by keeping the spaces extremely tight. But if the ball then gets to the far side of the pitch, for example through lateral shifts, the opponent often has a couple of unopposed seconds available to cover a lot of ground going forward.
Precisely because Bayern’s pressing is not always as efficient as Flick would like to see at the moment, such shifts of the play can be a suitable weapon for Dortmund in addition to hitting the opponent in transition. Against compactly defending Bielefeld, Dortmund were able to gain significant ground after a lateral shift several times. Bayern, however, will give them less time to execute their actions. Additionally, the fact that Guerreiro is out is a hard setback for Dortmund. The Portuguese already proved in the reverse fixture that he can render Bayern’s pressing ineffective with clever runs and combinational play. Nico Schulz does not come close to compensating for this loss of quality, especially in possession.
In addition to tactical aspects, the much-vaunted question of mentality will be a crucial factor. In recent years, Dortmund have always began well in the Allianz Arena, but usually got irrevocably rattled as soon as they conceded the first goal.
If they want to seriously challenge Bayern, they have to stay true to themselves and stick to their match plan. For that, captain Reus has to take responsibility and constantly push his teammates on when they threaten to yield to Bayern’s pressure.
The debate about mentality problems will stay with Dortmund for a long time, regardless of the outcome of the match tonight. But with a win against Bayern, the season could take another turn for Borussia Dortmund that no one had on their radar a few days ago.
As already mentioned, Dortmund are not known as a team that keep the pressure on the opponent’s build-up play up throughout the game. There will be moments when the Bayern defense will face 2 to 3 Dortmund players at once, but if they manage to resolve these situations calmly and patiently, Terzić’s team will quickly drop off by a few metres.
If that were to happen, it would be a success for Bayern. If Dortmund sit a little deeper, Bayern have more time to find ways to get past their opponent. For Hansi Flick, the return of Müller and Goretzka is extremely important. With their runs, they open up valuable spaces for Kimmich.
Then it is all about link-up play. Dortmund are not impenetrable despite their compact 4-1-4-1 formation and a recent reduction in goals against. Especially left and right of the holding midfielder there are often open spaces of which Müller and Goretzka should take advantage. If the number 8s are drawn out of position, Dortmund occasionally take too long to close the resulting gaps. Reus has a lot of pressures in the statistics, so he puts the opponent under pressure again and again. But at the same time he often allows the opponent to draw him out of position. Then, instead of keeping an eye on the spaces behind him, he closes down the opponent proactively. This can be an opportunity for Bayern, especially because Reus does not always carry out his pressures with total conviction and is thus frequently caught between two stools.
If Bayern find the right balance between quick, overwhelming attacks, deep runs and composure in possession, it will be difficult for Dortmund to bring their specific strengths to bear.
Recently, Niklas Süle has taken delight in a more offensive interpretation of his new right-back position. Against Dortmund, it is to be expected that Flick will again rely on a protection of consistently three players at the back, which means that Süle will enjoy less time living out his new-found offensiv drive.
The question is, however, whether that will be enough. Dortmund’s attacking quality will confront Bayern with many challenges, especially, but not only, because of Haaland. In theory, to counter this, Bayern could consider a switch to a back three or five.
In doing so, Bayern could kill two birds with one stone: They would have better protection in the wide positions when their pressing is not effective, and when both full-backs push up. They would not need to deviate from their usual style of play and still have better protection at the back. If necessary, it would also be possible to quickly switch to a more conventional 4-2-3-1.
Flick’s pressing is designed to lure the opponent either to the wings or to the engine room (Kimmich, Goretzka and Müller) in the center, where they then are pressed aggressively. Both would theoretically also be possible with changing to a back three. This could even increase the pressure on the flanks because the wing-backs could take more risks.
A major disadvantage would be that Bayern would have to reorganize their offense and forgo a natural offensive player, unless Flick were prepared to use Gnabry, Coman or Sané in the wing-back position. Clever shifting can compensate for this loss in terms of positional play, but it is a different matter whether a full- or wing-back gets the ball or a true attacker or attacking midfielder. Especially in the case of Süle, who has had a few good offensive moments recently, but whose strengths lie more in defense. Flick would therefore lose some of the offensive power with such a change.
The biggest problem, however, might be that Bayern have not yet been able to extensively practice playing in this formation. The change form a back four to a back three is not one that should turn everything upside down, but some running patterns would be unaccustomed for the players. It would be a risk that could lead to the team making mistakes, which in turn would play into Dortmund’s hands.
So Flick will very likely rely on what has worked in recent weeks, sometimes more, sometimes less, but almost always successfully. The team will feel most comfortable putting Dortmund under pressure with familiar running patterns. Nevertheless, it will be exciting to see what ideas Flick will come up with to cancel the triple threat of Haaland, Sancho and Reus. If they defend man vs. man at the back, there is a considerable risk of conceding goals.
Flick’s dilemma, then, is that he has to keep two things in mind that are difficult to combine: high pressure on Dortmund’s ball carrier, as well as a good backwad protection to avoid getting into awkward one-on-one duels with Dortmund’s offensive players.
He must inevitably make the decision whether he will try to compromise or go all in. There is little or nothing in between. Tertium non datur. Anyone who has observed Flick in recent months should have no doubt that he will prefer going all in. His philosophy of football does not allow for half-hearted measures. When Bayern lost the odd big game under Pep Guardiola, he was accused of too much adaptation to the opponents, which ultimately was seen to have led to a diminution of their strengths and possibly even unsettle the players.
A rather bold, but not entirely unfounded thesis. Flick perhaps represents the other extreme on this scale: marginal adjustments only, constant focus on one’s own strengths and unconditional adherence to what his team has already proven they can do to extremely good effect. Mind you, both descriptions are an exaggeration. Both coaches are probably located much closer to the middle of this scale than they are sometimes said to be. And yet this may explain a significant difference.
Flick can therefore be expected to send out his Bayern team with the central objective to kill Haaland’s chances before they even arise. Extremely high pressure in central midfield, high defending full-backs close to the ball, and preventing targeted through balls behind the back line by quickly closing down the ball carrying opponent. Flick undoubtedly has good reasons for sticking to this plan. The quality of the execution will be one of the deciding factors in how the game ends.
Both teams know each other inside out. Both have the qualities to ask the opponent difficult questions. Although both Dortmund and Bayern have similar ball possession figures in the league, their playing styles are quite different. Bayern want to crush their opponents with a high, intense press and are prepared to take risks in defense. Conversely, Dortmund may be more impenetrable in defense, but in return they often fail to put their opponents under pressure in midfield and during build-up.
Both teams possess mesmerizing potential in attack that can produce a spectacle at any time. Consequently, there have been many goals in the direct encounters in recent years – albeit usually very unevenly distributed.
The consensus opinion is that Bayern are favorites. Although Dortmund have picked up speed in recent weeks and the record champions always offer something, the experience of the last few years is that Bayern have always been there against Dortmund when the chips were down, even when they were going through a weaker phase. For both teams, the clash points the way ahead. Dortmund need a win to keep their sights on Champions League qualification. Bayern, on the other hand, may have already lost their lead in the standings when the game kicks off at 8:30 pm, in which case they will be hell bent to regain it – or, if not, even extend it.