How Leverkusen Exposed Rose’s Midfield Diamond…To No Avail – Tactical Analysis

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Borussia Dortmund are heading towards one of their worst seasons in years, and it is in large part due to the tactics of their new manager – Marco Rose. But quite confusingly, they continue to grind out wins. Rose has set his team up to play in a diamond midfield formation, that suits one single player in the squad, and nobody else, yet somehow they’ve escaped complete desperation two weeks in a row. The Black & Yellows currently sit second in the table as things stand, three points off the top, but they are very lucky to be anywhere near that.

midfield imbalance

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Borussia Dortmund’s organization in midfield has again let them down. In previous matches, Mahmoud Dahoud played at the base of the midfield three, with Axel Witsel as an auxiliary centre-back. Dortmund searched and scoured the market for any sign of a defender on the final day of the ransfer window, and found one in Wolfsburg’s Marin Pongracic. The Croatian defender is a decent defender, but very much a hard hitting one, rather than one stellar in possession. So he’s not exactly a Dortmund player, and only has the potential to add to the myriad of mistakes they make by being overzealous with their aggression.

But Pongracic’s arrival allowed Witsel a return to midfield, and pushed Dahoud further forward on the left. This could have presented Dortmund some benefits in possession and in transition, if played correctly. Ultimately they could have been more of a double pivot, kept more of the ball for purposes of switching play, and allowed themselves greater ease in transition through greater positional caution (see teams like Chelsea). Unfortunately, Rose played it so incorrectly. Dahoud was often the one pushing forward into advanced roles even more than Julian Brandt. That meant that when Brandt or anyone else lost possession, Dortmund were left with the slowest defensive midfielder in the league to recover in transition (Witsel), an even slower Julian Brandt, and a hilariously slow back-line that only Manuel Akanji is capable of holding together with any form of solidity. That presented BVB with a hopeless set of problems on the break, where they were hit time and time again by Leverkusen’s quickness and power. Patrik Schick was adept at finding space in behind the back-line, and making his moments count. He could easily have won a penalty or two off the back of Pongracic’s shoulder, and scored a magnificent goal after Dortmund were wrongly convicted of a crime moments earlier. That is…their go-ahead goal was ruled out to a foul, but that foul took place before Leverkusen had a moment to clear their lines from the situation and fluffed it.

We now take this moment to take a deep breath.

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So now let’s examine this problem even deeper. Let’s say that Dortmund do want to keep more possession and switch play and look like they did toward the end of Edin Terzic’s time in charge, with Dahoud dictating everything. This is impossible in the current set-up, because their is virtually no width in the team. Verticality always has to be the first option, and then the fullbacks can push on and look to create from wide areas. So Dahoud instead of being a real orchestrator, is instead meant to be the player screening passes into the opposition’s number ten, and helping in that first line of defense in transition. It’s a good role for him because he’s positionally disciplined and times his tackles decently well, but he’s much better at it when the engine that is Emre Can is alongside him. That’s a major problem, because Emre Can hasn’t been given his chance under Rose, and they sold Thomas Delaney – the other player like that, to Sevilla.

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Then you have Raphael Guerreiro pushing forward to join the attack, alongside a left central midfielder who also wants to push up with the attack. What you get is a lack of compactness from Manuel Akanji and Marin Pongracic, as Akanji shifts slightly out of position to track the opposition’s right winger (since Guerreiro has disappeared like a ghost), and Pongracic doesn’t react to track the striker.

That means when you are virtually any Bundesliga team in the league, a.k.a. excellent on the break, you are guaranteed goals against the Black & Yellows.

diamond shape…who is it for?

In three of their four games now, Borussia Dortmund have persisted with a shape that clearly hasn’t worked. Their first game of the season was far and away their best, and involved a sort of lopsided 4-2-3-1 / 4-1-4-1, where Gio Reyna and Reus would float toward left wing in different moments. There’s even an argument that their right winger – Thorgan Hazard, was man of the match on the day. He hasn’t featured since, as Rose has instead persisted with a 4-4-2 diamond. The formation has presented the Black & Yellows with a puzzling mix of verticality and slowness in transition. With no wingers in the side, and Rose’s emphasis on pressing, you would think Dortmund would be excellent in transition. But they aren’t. They are slow, and the only engine they have in midfield is the one they want to push furthest forward. That would be the young 18-year-old Jude Bellingham, who is the only player able to benefit from this confusing system. What it allows for the Englishman is a box to box role that suits his energy and composure, and the ability to drift into different attacking spaces, whether they be left or right. Bellingham’s flourished with the ability to get forward in this manner, and scored 2 goals in 2 matches before his headed goal in this game was wrongly chopped off.

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The thing is…Bellingham also worked excellently in a 4-2-3-1, in a 4-3-3, and in a 3-4-2-1 under Edin Terzic and Lucien Favre. He’s just an excellent player who knows how to adapt his game based on the players around him. So it’s not as though this system is the best way to get the best out of him either. When you consider virtually every other player is affected by this, it’s confusing why Rose has persisted. Erling Haaland is pushed far too wide to the right in this system, Reus is constantly competing for space with those around him, Guerreiro isn’t able to get forward as much, and players like Meunier and Passlack are constantly targeted for their terribleness, given the closest central midfielder – Bellingham – is the one always pushing forward in attack. It really is a disaster for Dortmund, and one they desperately need to fix.

what about leverkusen?

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Bayer Leverkusen were excellent. Kerem Demirbay seamlessly dropped into a midfield two alongside Robert Andrich, instead of playing as the number ten, and constantly stationed himself alongside the two centre-backs in the build-up. This allowed Bakker and Frimpong to stretch the width of the field and get forward, where Paulinho and Diaby could invert and cause problems with their pace, in behind Dortmund’s gentle midfield. Patrik Schick, again, had excellent movement and buzzed around the pitch as he pleased. He made himself a nuisance for Pongracic during his BVB debut, and linked up well with Florian Wirtz in behind.

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From a defensive perspective, they pressed well and defended compactly, with Florian Wirtz floating up alongside Schick in the initial line of pressure 4-4-2 styled. Paulinho was the only major issue from a defensive perspective, as he showed a complete unwillingness to follow and track Thomas Meunier – a player significantly slower than him. The Belgian was then afforded plenty of room to carry the ball and deliver passes into the penalty area, which is the only side of his game at a Bundesliga level. A few silly mistakes cost them the game, but the overall defensive structures they had in place were sound.

But beyond that, Leverkusen look organized, like they had a clear identity, and to be honest, better than 90% of teams in the league right now. With a capable goalkeeper in Lukas Hradecky, a centre back pairing in Jonathan Tah and Odilon Kossounou who could still grown leaps and bounds, and a heap of young talents at their disposal, Leverkusen are heading in an excellent direction. Dortmund should take notes.


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Borussia Dortmund desperately have to figure out their diamond midfield issues, their slowness in transition, and their inability to get Erling Haaland involved in the ways they used to. Leverkusen on the other hand have less work to do to sort out their problems moving forward. Seaone’s side aren’t going to win the league, but they are in an excellent position to continue positively from this result and continue pushing for the top four. While they’ve won three from four, Dortmund should just sack Rose and get Edin Terzic back at the helm, where at the very least Terzic can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the team back to normality.

So there it is! Your weekly Dortmund analysis by Rhys Desmond! Be sure to check out the rest in this series listed below and follow on twitter @DesmondRhys and @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

analyzing every borussia dortmund game this season
  1. Borussia Dortmund 5-2 Eintracht Frankfurt – Tactical Analysis – Marco Rose’s First Game
  2. How Freiburg beat Dortmund…again – Tactical Analysis
  3. Dortmund grind out win, but remain terrible in transition – Match Analysis

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