Why Dortmund are so bad in defensive transitions

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Any time Borussia Dortmund look like they might be in with a shot of challenging Bayern for the Bundesliga title, they go and mess it up with an abysmal performance. Marco Rose’s time in charge of the Black & Yellows has been characterized by a series of questionable tactical decisions (to say the least), and an utter lack of desire to fix the team’s most pressing defensive concern – their disastrously poor positioning, speed and aptitude in transitions. After the club’s shocking 5-2 loss to third place Bayer Leverkusen, we take an in-depth look at why Rose’s Dortmund are so poor in defensive transitions, and what they can do to fix this.

LACK OF A DOUBLE MIDFIELD PIVOT

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Marco Rose has persisted throughout his time at the club with variations of a 4-1-4-1, 4-1-2-1-2, and some degree of stability in the 4-2-3-1. Only one of these formations positions a second defensive midfielder in the team, and even their 4-2-3-1 rarely looks like a double pivot, as it’s often Jude Bellingham who is the second man in midfield. The Englishman’s technical quality and enigmatic engine are best used further up the pitch, and Rose has recognized this. But despite this awareness, the German has rarely played Bellingham in the midfield line of three, instead playing him as an attack-minded member of the double pivot. This gives the team more of a 4-1-4-1 look, which only compounds their problems.

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Having a single defensive midfielder in a team is not a problem for managers who know how to coach their team effectively through defensive transitions. Clubs like Manchester City, Liverpool and Real Madrid all play with a single pivot in midfield, and have achieved wonders doing so. All three clubs are exceptional at condensing space, and moving as a unit. But for a club like Borussia Dortmund who deploy nonsensical tactics, it means they only have one player sitting in front of the back-line in transition, leaving themselves incredibly vulnerable. Unfortunately, Dortmund don’t really have a defensive midfielder capable of adequately screening and covering in transition. Axel Witsel’s legs have completely gone since his achilles injury last year, Mahmoud Dahoud doesn’t cover ground exceptionally well, and Thomas Delaney was sold to Sevilla. Their best midfield engine in Emre Can has been in and out of the team this season due to injuries of his own, and injuries to the club’s centre-backs. Then you have players like Jude Bellingham and Julian Brandt who work in midfield, but show their best production when they have a solid defensive base in behind. Combining all of these factors together, it’s shocking that Rose hasn’t deployed a double pivot more regularly this season. Eden Terzic had much success last season in a 4-3-3 that positioned Can alongside Dahoud, and allowed Bellingham to be the adventurous one.

With a single pivot needing to cover so much ground, and so much space out wide vacated by the fullbacks, Dortmund’s decision to persist in this manner is puzzling. Rose should consider playing Can or Witsel alongside Dahoud, so that the team can have some stability in numbers when they lose possession. Reinforcements at defensive midfield are also needed in the summer to get the best out of players like Jude Bellingham and Julian Brandt further forward. We suggest the club look into the potential player to club fit with FC Koln’s Ellyes Skhiri, Brighton’s Yves Bissouma, and Marseille’s Boubacar Kamara. As we’ll discuss in this article, a defensive midfielder is not the most pressing need in the transfer market, but it would be important to helping Rose get back on the track.

LACK OF SPEED AT THE BACK + DEFENSIVE MISSES

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Dortmund’s defensive concerns are compounded by the fact that they want to play attack-minded football, with almost zero regard for what might happen if they lose the ball. They leave massive holes out wide, which can be exploited over and over again by teams deadly in transition (like Leverkusen). Seoane’s men scored nearly every single one of their goals from transitions down their stronger right-side, where they utilized pace and power ahead of Raphael Guerreiro’s advanced position down Dortmund’s left. When you add the fact that Manuel Akanji is the only one with any bit of pace anywhere in the back-four, you get a team that can’t cope with anything that’s happening at speed – which is exactly what transitions entail. Luckily, they still have a defensive beast in Mats Hummels, who can help the team do much better, but the German hasn’t stayed fit for long spells this season.

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What Mats Hummels lacks in pace, he makes up for in defensive positioning, size and stature. He’s an intimidating centre-back, and times his challenges well. The German is also a natural leader and organizer, helping others position themselves to overcome the team’s lack of pace. Hummels simply allows Guerreiro to be more adventurous, and perhaps Rose to play another more advanced player down the left, knowing that the team still have one of the best defenders in the league in behind. But he doesn’t have much in the way of pace, and neither do any of his replacements – from the ‘why is he playing centre-back’ Axel Witsel to the ‘why did Dortmund sign him’ Marin Pongracic to the ‘will he ever stay fit?’ Dan-Axel Zagadou. When the German isn’t in the team, you get the lack of pace, without any of the good attributes. It’s a stuttering mess that the Black & Yellows not only can’t cope with, but make no attempt to cope with.

To fix this utter mess, restoring a second defensive midfielder into the team is essential. You can’t change speed over night, but you can change system of play. This should help the team overcome the lack of speed, even if that extra man is a snail, as it simply means more numbers are available to help. Dortmund should also be looking into their centre-back options for 2022-23 as the season progresses, including considering a move for the likes of Maxence Lacroix, Freiburg’s Nico Schlotterbeck, Nice’s Jean-Clair Todibo, and Frankfurt’s Obite Evan Ndicka.

ADVENTUROUS FULLBACKS

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Dortmund have always played with adventurous fullbacks, and it was a hallmark of the team’s success under managers like Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, and most recently, Lucien Favre’s 3-4-2-1. Marco Rose has gotten excellent production out of Thomas Meunier going forward this season, while Raphael Guerreiro has continued to look bright enough from an attacking perspective. Rose wants his fullbacks to get forward on the overlap in particular, with Guerreiro also likely to underlap. But their high position in attacking phases is not backed up by other players covering in behind. With both often going forward at once, the Black & Yellows are often left with a 3v3 situation at the back, with opposition teams immediately targeting the wide areas. Immediately, the centre-backs become disjointed as one comes across to cover the wide area, and new gaps open up for opposition speedsters to sprint into. Dahoud can’t cope with the pace, and Akanji often finds himself trying to do the work of four players as a result. He’s done that brilliantly this season, but one drop in confidence could see a reversion to his old ways, which seemed to be exactly what happened after he scored an unfortunate own goal in the opening minutes against Leverkusen.

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Dortmund have mitigated this concern in the past by switching to a back-three (Favre was an underrated mastermind), which naturally allows for more cover in behind the adventurous wing-backs. This also gets the best out of players like Meunier and Guerreiro, who have rarely looked convincing in a back-four throughout their careers. The second way that they’ve fixed this concern is through playing a double midfield pivot of Thomas Delaney and Axel Witsel (Favre), or Emre Can alongside Mahmoud Dahoud (Terzic). This strategy provides greater balance in transitional moments and a more seamless ability for centre-backs to stay central, as the midfield cover wide areas instead.

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Finally, it must be said that normally the Black & Yellows had the enigmatic Lukasz Piszczek. Even in the team’s run to the cup final and top four finish just last season, the veteran defender was essential. His defensive aptitude and appetite provided stability, and allowed a player like Raphael Guerreiro or Achraf Hakimi to get up and down on the other side. Mateu Morey looked like an excellent long-term replacement for the Polish legend, but horribly injured his ACL in last season’s run to the cup final. So when Piszczek announced his retirement at the end of last season, the Black & Yellows were left without their two best right-backs. Somehow, they invested in the likes of Marin Pongracic and Donyell Malen instead, neglecting the biggest hole in the team. Dortmund could do well with signing a new right-back in the vein of Leverkusen’s Jeremie Frimpong (who absolutely tormented the Black & Yellows this weekend), high-flying Aston Villa defender Matty Cash, or Ajax’s out-of-contract Noussair Mazraoui. Each would easily fit the attack-minded role, but perform better when defending 1v1, and crucially, they each possess the speed to match in transition. Without any new signings coming through the door, the Black & Yellows could also consider switching to a back-three in the meantime, with Emre Can joining the back-line. Had Rose featured a 3-4-3 against Leverkusen, the space out wide would have been a lot smaller, and so would have the score-line.

CONCLUSION

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Borussia Dortmund are an incredible, attack-minded team. But under Marco Rose, they look out of shape, out of structure, and a team of individuals. It’s one of the reasons why we chose to focus so much on individual players in our Rose analysis, and it’s one of the reasons why they are so disastrously bad in defensive transitions. So in this masterclass, we’ve explored some tactical tweaks, formational changes, and even a host of new signings the club could fix this massive concern. But ultimately, the biggest change that Dortmund could make would be in sacking Marco Rose, and bringing either Lucien Favre or Edin Terzic back to the helm. Rose seems completely unwilling to fix the problem, showcased no better than against Leverkusen, where they were exposed in the exact same way down Leverkusen’s right-hand-side over and over. Something needs to change, and perhaps it should be Rose himself.


So there it is! Why Dortmund are so bad in defensive transitions. Be sure to check out more of our Borussia Dortmund analyses this season listed below. Also be sure to check us out on social media @mastermindsite, via the links below.

You might also enjoy…

-> Marco Rose – Borussia Dortmund – Tactical Analysis
-> How Leverkusen Exposed Rose’s Midfield Diamond – Tactical Analysis
-> Dortmund grind out win, but remain terrible in transition – Match Analysis
-> How Freiburg beat Dortmund…again – Tactical Analysis
-> Marco Rose’s First Game – Tactical Analysis

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