Leverkusen 2-3 Dortmund: Dortmund exploit the space in front of Leverkusen’s midfield, and in behind their defence

February 5, 2013

The starting line-ups

Both sides had spells of dominance, but Dortmund were more ruthless in the final third.

Sami Hyypia and Sascha Lewandowski named an unchanged side from last weekend’s 0-0 draw at Freiburg.

Jurgen Klopp had Mitchell Langerak in goal rather than Roman Weidenfeller, with Felipe Santana in defence rather than Neven Subotic – both decisions forced upon him. Otherwise, this was his first-choice side.

Dortmund started the game superbly, but came under significant pressure during the second half after Leverkusen changed to a more attack-minded formation.

Dortmund threat in behind

Dortmund were 2-0 up within the space of ten minutes, primarily because they successfully exploited the space in behind the Leverkusen defence. Although the home side weren’t attempting to press in the opening moments, instead seeking to contain before playing on the counter-attack, they seemed very prone to simple pieces of movement dragging the back four out of position, and other Dortmund players sprinting in behind.

In general, Leverkusen’s focus upon denying Dortmund space between the lines worked well – none of the three attacking midfielders found room to create, but Robert Lewandowski had a very good game – his movement towards the ball created the first for Marco Reus’ goal, and then he won the penalty for the second goal. Like Lima against Braga recently, the major reason for Lewandowski’s threat was his ability to stretch the defence in either direction.

Dortmund play in deep positions

But with Leverkusen’s midfield sitting back and trying to deny spaces between the lines, they were also troubled by the amount of time Dortmund enjoyed in deeper positions. This was partly a result of Leverkusen’s unusual formation – they almost play a 4-4-2 / 4-5-1 hybrid, with Andre Schurrle’s tendency to stay high on the left covered by Simon Rolfes’ movement towards that side.

But this leaves them without a number ten, and the flexible nature of the midfield makes it difficult for Lars Bender to move forward and press, for fear of leaving space behind him. Therefore, the two Dortmund midfielders enjoyed a huge amount of time on the ball, and there were two ways Dortmund exploited this.

First, it wasn’t uncommon to see Mario Gotze drop into extraordinary deep positions, past the two holding midfielders and into the zone you’d usually associate with a deep-lying playmaker. He rarely played long passes, but this helped Dortmund retain the ball (at a time when they were already 2-0 up, and happy to slow the tempo).

Second, Dortmund’s deepest midfielder – usually Ilkay Gundogan, could use his freedom to charge forward on the ball, doing this particularly well in the build-up to the first goal.

Leverkusen in behind too

However, despite Dortmund’s early lead, there was also a significant threat from Leverkusen. They also attacked by breaking in behind Dortmund’s high defensive line, particularly with Gonzalo Castro. He motored forward from a right-sided position twice in the opening stages – once in the first minute when he lofted the ball over the crossbar, then later on the counter-attack when he managed to completely miss the ball as he shot.

There was also Stefan Kiessling’s movement in behind – he was twice flagged offside in the opening 15 minutes, but Dortmund were taking a chance by using a high line, without putting great pressure on the ball in midfield.

Gradually, Leverkusen upped the tempo, pressed more and dominated the game – they ended up with 60% of possession. Schurrle became a threat when moving inside to become a second striker, causing Dortmund to be extremely narrow on their right. The positions of Jakub Blaszczykowski’s runs, for example, showed him to be acting more as a central midfielder than a right-winger:

This allowed Sebastian Boenisch (no 17) forward on the overlap to deliver a stream of crosses throughout the game – most notably a free header for Kiessling in the first half. Dortmund, on the other hand, offered little threat from crosses:

Leverkusen change

The second half line-ups

Leverkusen made an attack-minded substitution at half-time – Rolfes off, Sidney Sam on. Sam played on the right, whereas Rolfes had occupied a left-of-centre position, so this meant a change in role for both Castro (who moved left) and Schurrle (who became a left-sided second striker).

Equally importantly, Leverkusen upped the tempo. They’d started too cagily and their pressing late in the second half was disjointed and half-hearted. Now, they were truly the dominant force, attacking with an extra outright attacker and giving Bender more freedom to connect the side.

But Sam was the key player at the start of the second half. Dortmund appeared confused by his movement, unable to deal with his drifts into central positions, and in behind the defence – Marcel Schmelzer got into some terrible positions, allowing Sam too much freedom. Not only did this mean Sam got a couple of chances, it also opened up space for Daniel Carvajal to break into, meaning Leverkusen now offered a crossing threat from both sides.

At the back, Stefan Reinartz often dropped into the defence to become a third central defender, enabling Leverkusen to play out more effectively and allow the full-backs to push up – this had happened in the first half, but seemed more effective when Dortmund sat deep and narrow after the break. Eventually, the pressure resulted in goalscoring chances, and Reinartz was the unlikely scorer of both Leverkusen goals following set-pieces.


But the second half was about that concept coaches find it impossible to control – momentum. Leverkusen had utterly dominated the first 15 minutes of the second half, but having worked so hard to get back into the game, they conceded a remarkably cheap goal, because of an underhit backpass, within 60 seconds of equalising. Dortmund had silenced the crowd, and Leverkusen’s attacking was more timid.

Then Dortmund won a penalty following a foul on Lewandowski in the box (the second of the game) and Blaszczykowski had the chance to put the game beyond Leverkusen – but his miss gave extra confidence to the home side, and given the topsy-turvy nature of the game, it was a huge boost. Dortmund would have been better off not winning the penalty in the first place, as their sudden mini-control the game vanished, and Leverkusen poured forward once again.

In the end, it came down to quality in the final third – Leverkusen had further chances to equalise, most notably from a Carvajal cross to Schurrle – but they couldn’t quite find a way through for another equaliser.


A fantastic, open game that swung one way and then the other. Leverkusen actually managed over twice as many shots (27-12) but the ‘on target’ difference was minimal (8-7), suggesting that quality of finishing played a big part.

Perhaps the key thing here was how clever Dortmund were at exploiting space – the movement and positioning of Gundogan, Gotze and Lewandowski, three players along the spine of the side, was both unusual but logical and extremely helpful to Dortmund’s attacking.

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