After narrowly missing out on the 2018-19 Bundesliga title by two points, Lucien Favre was always going to have a tough time rebuilding his Dortmund team to the point where they would be capable of fighting for the title again. The first half of the season saw some troubling times for Favre and his team, as they ended up drawing far too many games that they should have won. With defensive issues abound like never before under his reign, Favre knew he needed to change something and it was clear that simple personnel tweaks weren’t making a big enough impact. Instead, the French manager tweaked the formation, changing his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 into a fluid and creative 3-4-2-1. Since the formation change, Dortmund have been back on top of their form and are now well and truly back in the title race. Here is a tactical analysis of Lucien Favre’s new system and style of play with Borussia Dortmund.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-4-2-1
Last season, Borussia Dortmund accumulated 76 points over the course of 34 games, playing the tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. But for whatever reason, this season the 4-2-3-1 was just not working. The lack of a recognizable striker and the need to position Marco Reus in the number ‘9’ role instead got much criticism from pundits and media, but those watching Dortmund week in and week out will likely point to the struggles of the back four instead. Truth be told, Mats Hummels and Manuel Akanji were shockingly bad in the first half of 2019-20 and Favre took far too long to bring Dan-Axel Zagadou and Lukasz Piszczek back into the fold. Since moving to a back-three, Hummels has needed to do less defending and has been given the freedom to do more play-making instead, which has certainly been his greatest strength since returning to the club. But he’s been next to the steady head of Lukasz Piszczek who remains an absolute Dortmund legend with his performances this season at age 34, plus the youthful and defensively solid Zagadou who just turned 20. Zagadou was quite possibly Dortmund’s best centre-back last season, had one shockingly bad game against Bayern Munich and was dropped from then on. His omission from the team in the closing weeks of the season was possibly an underrated part of Dortmund’s Steven Gerrard-esque slip in the closing stages of the title race. The trio of Zagadou, Hummels and Piszczek are not your perfect back-three but they do seem to have a growing understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and they have been a major reason for the recent run of form. Since Dortmund have returned to that back-three with those three playing the most pivotal role, the Black and Yellows have won 10 games, tied one and lost one. That is an incredible record and it has skyrocketed them firmly back into the title race after taking a while to get going this season.Embed from Getty Images
In front of that stellar back-three are arguably the two best wingbacks Dortmund could have ever asked for in the silky smooth dribbler Raphael Guerreiro and the energetic playmaking superstar Achraf Hakimi, who is only 21-years of age. Hakimi and Guerreiro have arguably been the life-blood of Dortmund this season and without them, this 3-4-2-1 formation undoubtedly would not have been able to achieve such great success.
In between the two wing-backs, Axel Witsel and either Julian Brandt or new addition Emre Can have also been essential to the success of the formation. As always, Witsel has been the tempo-setter that makes everything tick and the tough tackler wrapped up in one. Emre Can has provided something completely different since his arrival in January. He’s been the complete engine of the team and has brought that Thomas Delaney level of fight and spirit back into the squad. But Can will do very well to keep Julian Brandt out of the lineup for long, who has been such a key play-maker and driving force for the Black and Yellows this season. Down the flanks, Favre’s positioned Thorgan Hazard, with 5 goals and 10 assists this season, and 20-year old Jadon Sancho, who you could make the argument for being the very best player in Europe this season, having accumulated 14 goals with 15 assists. Up front it has been a mix of two players: new arrival Erling Braudt Haaland, who has broken all kinds of records with his 9 goals in 8 matches to start his Bundesliga career, and the club captain, Marco Reus, who has probably been Dortmund’s most significant and consistent player again this season, with 11 goals and 5 assists. What a team. This 3-4-2-1 formation truly suits the players Favre has at his disposal so well. The only problem for the French manager now will be figuring out how to get Marco Reus and Erling Haaland into the same team, especially with much midfield competition also occurring between Emre Can and Julian Brandt. So with that, now let’s get into more of the tactics behind the formation to make everything come together.
PLAYING OUT FROM THE BACKEmbed from Getty Images
Dortmund have had a multitude of interesting and unique ways of playing out from the back over the years, particularly under Thomas Tuchel where central midfielders were seen dropping in as part of a back-three. But under Favre and with Mats Hummels back in the lineup the team have certainly taken a more direct approach. Only 25% of Dortmund’s possession takes place in their own third, compared to 46% in the middle third and 28% in the attacking third. As you might expect, in build-up phases the left and right-sided centre-backs push wide to pick up possession, as the near-sided wing-back often comes closer to the play and far-sided wing-back gets high and wide. Typically possession has retained and circulated through two central players: Mats Hummels and Axel Witsel. They will look to spread the ball wide or forward if possible, with Hummels more capable and willing to go long and catch opposition defenders off guard with a stellar long pass. When Dortmund get the ball to wide areas in build-up, they often use players like Hakimi and Guerreiro to drive the ball forward and often work the switch of play only when higher up the pitch.
Once the ball has progressed into the attacking half, Dortmund are a team who remain fairly patient in possession, using the likes of Brandt, Witsel and Guerreiro to switch play. That patience always has a purpose though, as they engage in a direct, forward-thinking series of passing combinations. With Piszczek and Zagadou often pushing higher up the pitch to join in the fanciful combinations, numerical superiority has been something that Dortmund have achieved quite seamlessly.
GUERREIRO AS AN INVERTED WING-BACKEmbed from Getty Images
Raphael Guerreiro is probably the most tactically aware player Dortmund have at their disposal. Under Lucien Favre last season, Guerreiro fulfilled the role as the left winger and although he wasn’t the most flamboyant goal-scorer and creator, he played the role magnificently. Under previous managers, the Portuguese play-maker often fulfilled roles as a central midfielder or left-back, which is the position he played for Portugal when they won Euro 2016. He understands what is required of him in so many different positions and now in this left-wing-back role he has been able to practically transcend a multitude of different positions all wrapped up into one. Earnestly, it has been Guerreiro’s best run of form in a Dortmund shirt and the wing-back role suits both him and Hakimi so incredibly well as it allows them to cause more chaos in attacking areas. But Hakimi and Guerreiro attack in very different ways.
Quite frequently in attacking phases, the opposite wing-back in Achraf Hakimi will have gotten high and wide as Dortmund attack down the right. However, they will frequently look to play their intricate little one-two passes and work it over to the left, where Raphael Guerreiro is often found in central areas. The Portuguese wing-back will often join the fun of their combination play (more below) and look to create chances through the middle of the pitch. When Dortmund attack down the left, Guerreiro is more likely to stay wide, but can often can be found combining with the left-winger in moments of give-and-go’s before he finds himself in the middle of the pitch. His understanding of his position and role within the team is second to none and it has certainly been a big feature of Dortmund’s play worth noting.
ONE-TWO TOUCH PLAYEmbed from Getty Images
Another crucial factor to Dortmund’s attacking play in the final third is intricate little tricks and flicks primarily done through one-two-touch passing and triangular combination play in and around the final third. At any time, five to six players may overload one side of the field and connect with short and intricate triangle passes as they work the right angle for a shot or a switch of play. Players like Marco Reus, Jadon Sancho, Raphael Guerreiro and Thorgan Hazard all have the quality to do this and will often be seen combining together in small spaces. They are often very patient in looking for the right shooting opportunities and work these short passes to open up the perfect angle, through-ball for an unexpected runner or shot from distance. According to WhoScored? (2020), 89% of Dortmund’s passes would be classified as short passes, highlighting this element of their play in the attacking third. Their ability to pull these types of combinations off has always been a feature of their play with players like Marco Reus and Mario Gotze around, but it’s been taken to a new level of patience and intricacy under Lucien Favre. 62% of Dortmund’s shots come from inside the eighteen yard box, often with either through these types of short passing combinations or their quick counter attacking play.
COUNTER ATTACKINGEmbed from Getty Images
Although the vast majority of goals that BVB have scored this season have come from the more patient build-up and one-two touch play, they also frequently score goals through counter attacking with the incredibly quick players that they have at their disposal, and Mats Hummels’ ability to pick out a longer pass. They don’t counter attack to the same extent that they once did under Jurgen Klopp, but it is certainly still a feature of their play. If they sense that they can attack more quickly and catch the opposition off guard without all of the intricate combinations, they will frequently do so through the middle with players like Reus, Haaland and Sancho, or down the right with speedsters like Thorgan Hazard and Achraf Hakimi. Even in this new era of Dortmund, it is still very much a frequent method of their play in attack. Under Erling Haaland this may also grow in importance as he has a tremendous ability to time his runs in behind and find open space in a way that Dortmund have not had since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLESEmbed from Getty Images
Dortmund are famously a team who love to attack. They are not necessarily known for their defensive fortitude and more than anything else, their failures in defense were the main reason why they lost the title last season by two points. However, in the 3-4-2-1, Dortmund have been able to close the space more quickly and look less susceptible to defensive errors. The back three quickly become a back five out of possession, with Witsel and Can/Brandt remaining compact in central areas. With Erling Haaland in the lineup, Jadon Sancho and Thorgan Hazard seem to come back more frequently to join what is very much a 5-4-1. Wingers quickly coming back during defensive transitions was a feature of Favre’s 4-2-3-1 formation, which would frequently become more like a 4-4-1-1 out of possession. However, an interesting distinction to this set-up is when Marco Reus is in the lineup. In these cases it actually seems to be Reus coming back more frequently in a 5-3-2, with the captain helping out in central areas and allowing Witsel and Brandt to stretch wider when required. In turn, Sancho and Hazard will stay higher and prepare to counter attack. This is also an important distinction to Dortmund’s attack when Reus is in the lineup, as he plays the number 9 role as something in between a false nine and a number 10. In this sense, the formation could be described as more of a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3 when Reus is in the lineup than the 3-4-2-1 when Haaland is the primary player to stay high in defensive transitions.
WHY NOT 3-4-3?Embed from Getty Images
You might be wondering why a distinction has been made by many, including myself, to call this formation a 3-4-2-1 rather than a 3-4-3. This is primarily due to the fact that when Dortmund attack, Thorgan Hazard and Jadon Sancho are rarely actually found in wide areas. They constantly swap wings and operate more like attacking midfielders or inside forwards than wingers. With this formation now being Favre’s preferred choice, it has actually brought out the best in both players, allowing them to be on the ball in areas of the field where they are likelier to score. Much of the width in Favre’s 4-2-3-1 formation came from the fullbacks anyway, so naturally now with Hakimi and Guerreiro having greater support in behind and therefore greater license to get forward, it now makes even more sense for Sancho and Hazard to drift inside. It is important to note that even though Jadon Sancho has technically started all of his matches as the left winger since the formation change, pass and touch maps indicate that he is actually found more frequently slightly to the right of the middle, with Hazard slightly to the left of the middle. Now this isn’t too much different than when Dortmund played the 4-2-3-1. They simply love to have possession of the ball in and around the eighteen yard box and dance around with it until the right moment. The distinction is instead in their ability to effectively achieve this goal with greater defensive support and cover more naturally provided in the wide areas from the wing-backs and wide centre-backs.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTSEmbed from Getty Images
The suspension of all football activity has been an unfortunate event for Borussia Dortmund as they were on a stunning run of form in the Bundesliga before the break. Favre’s newly introduced 3-4-2-1 has changed the way Dortmund play for the better, while simultaneously providing more defensive support, the area of the field in which they needed reassurances the most. The formation has given the likes of Achraf Hakimi and Raphael Guerreiro the freedom to go on and create more magic and has also given Jadon Sancho and Thorgan Hazard a necessary boost at a crucial time in the season. This formation suits the players and personnel that Lucien Favre has at his disposal tremendously well and it will be very interesting to see if they can continue to play to such great heights when the season comes to a conclusion.
Embed from Getty Images
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Lucien Favre’s incredible 3-4-2-1 formation with Borussia Dortmund this season. Although it might not end up being enough to recover from their early season struggles and win the title, the formation change has certainly provided this Dortmund team with an incredible tactical boost that has certainly been worth putting under the microscope.
Be sure to be back soon for another Tactical Analysis, as we take a look at Borussia Monchengladbach next week. Be sure to follow @mastermindsite on Twitter to share your thoughts on what other Tactical Analyses you would like to see. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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