Dortmund 2-1 Real Madrid: Dortmund press as a unit and expose Essien at left-back
Dortmund bounced back from their weekend disaster against Schalke to record an important victory.
After Saturday’s disaster against Schalke, Jurgen Klopp returned to something approaching his first-choice formation and XI, although Jakub Blaszczykowski remains unavailable.
Jose Mourinho selected his expected starting XI. With Fabio Coentrao, Marcelo and Alvaro Arbeloa all out, Sergio Ramos and Michael Essien were at full-back. Sami Khedira only lasted twenty minutes before being replaced by Luka Modric.
This match took a while to get going, with the first half ruined by a combination of a slippery pitch and the players’ apparent poor selection of footwear. Once they changed their boots at half-time, it was an excellent game.
There were basically two key features of the match: the pressing, and Real’s weakness at left-back.
This was more of a “German” game, based around pressing and quick transitions, than a “Spanish” game, which tends to be focused upon ball retention. Both sides are more suited to such a contest – there is no better counter-attacking side in Europe than Real Madrid, but they fell down tonight because they didn’t press as a unit, and because they didn’t have the initial burst to get past Dortmund’s closing down.
The game was 4-2-3-1 versus 4-2-3-1. Dortmund’s strategy was to stand off the Real centre-backs and pressure the ball when it was played into the midfield or full-backs, so Xabi Alonso dropped very deep, as he often has this season, moving between the centre-backs to receive under no pressure. He often found it difficult to play forward passes, though, partly because the Real full-backs remained very defensive; Essien plainly isn’t suited to playing at right-back, while Ramos surprisingly uncomfortable out on the right, despite having regularly played that position over the years.
Therefore, Alonso’s distribution was generally simple and his teammates didn’t cope well with pressure. Pepe may not have been closed down directly, but gave the ball away cheaply when playing the ball forward to midfielders who were pressed – the opening goal being a fine example.
The departure of Khedira was a huge blow for Real – after a fairly static start to the game, it was the German’s injury that handed Dortmund the initiative, as Modric played in broadly the same position but didn’t have the same energy and mobility. When Alonso dropped deep into a position where he was closed down by Mario Gotze, Modric often found himself alone in the midfield zone against Sebastian Kehl and Sven Bender. He wasn’t able to get past both to launch quick attacks, and Angel Di Maria was a better option on the right. The Argentine played some audacious, nearly-brilliant balls in behind the defence with the outside of his left boot, and his deep, narrow positioning helped Real pass the ball out of defence quicker. Still, Dortmund were pressing as a unit and won the ball close to goal.
With Kehl and Bender around Modric, the free man was, in theory, Mesut Ozil. Dortmund dealt with this by keeping compact and using a high defensive line, with Mats Hummels often darting out of the defence to deal with him. The problem came when Ozil dropped deeper into midfield, where it seemed the Dortmund players weren’t prepared for his movement into that zone. Real’s equaliser came when Ozil received the ball in a deep position, then knocked a great pass over the top for Cristiano Ronaldo. Roman Weidenfeller darted off his line early to make the finish relatively simple, and a through-ball behind Dortmund’s high defence seemed the natural route to goal for Mourinho’s side.
Dortmund right v Real left
Ronaldo was part of the game’s second key battle, which was happening down Real’s left. At the weekend, Essien performed well against Celta Vigo at left-back, but here he was overrun by various Dortmund players. Robert Lewandowski drifted right, but the main threat came from Marco Reus and Mario Gotze doubling up against him. They alternated positions, but both enjoyed the huge amount of space between Ronaldo and Essien, with Alonso not the best coverer, picking up a yellow card in the second half for a clumsy tackle.
The situation was mildly concerning for Real in the first half, but became an all-out problem area in the second. Ronaldo’s gameplan, as always, is to stay high up the pitch and look for quick attacks – indeed, his goal came precisely because of his aggressive positioning, and for as long as he continues to record outstanding goalscoring figures, his defensive performance won’t be questioned.
However, this was much like Portugal’s second half problems against Denmark in Euro 2012, when Ronaldo constantly let Lars Jacbobsen past him, the right-back had all the time he liked to cross the ball, and Denmark got back from 2-0 down to 2-2 following two right-wing crosses (although they eventually lost 3-2). Considering that Real’s left-back, Essien, isn’t even a natural left-back, it was surprising that Mourinho allowed this situation to develop.
Even before the winning goal, Lukas Piszczek had already created two fine chances at the start of the second half. First he pulled back to Gotze, who hit a tame shot at Iker Casillas, then cut back an identical to the edge of the area for Bender, who fired over. There was, quite obviously, serious danger in that area of the pitch for Real.
You can pick the bones out of the goal in various ways – should Casillas claimed the ball? Should Rafael Varane made it his? Positionally, however, it’s notable that both Alonso and Modric have been dragged all the way over towards the left of the pitch to help protect Essien – in the end, Gotze dribbles through to the byline and crosses the ball into the dangerzone – with Modric and Alonso out of position, no-one is covering the edge of the box.
Mourinho was surprisingly passive with his use of the bench. Modric had come on early, while Gonzalo Higuain replaced Karim Benzema in a straight swap – but Kaka and Jose Callejon remained on the bench as Real only used two substitutes, and Dortmund remained reasonably comfortable.
This was an excellent performance from a Dortmund side that could have collapsed after the derby defeat. Back with their favoured formation and reliable combinations across the pitch, they played their familiar high-intensity game, but also adjusted their strategy to find Real’s weak spot – the left-back zone.
As Dortmund concentrated on exploiting Real’s weakness, Mourinho didn’t attempt to patch it up with extra protection. In the majority of games Real can get away with Ronaldo staying that high up, but not with Essien there, and not against a side of Dortmund’s quality.