Borussia Dortmund v Bayern Munich: European Cup final tactical preview

May 25, 2013

Probable starting line-ups

This will be the tenth time Dortmund and Bayern have met in the last three seasons.

It’s relatively rare for two sides from the same country to meet in the final – and rarely has a European Cup final been contested by two sides who know each others’ systems so well.

The head-to-head record between these two sides is interesting – for a while Dortmund had an impressive hold over Bayern, winning five consecutive matches, culminating in an astonishing 5-2 victory in last year’s German Cup final. That was a great demonstration of Dortmund’s strategy – they tracked opposition runners before springing past on the counter-attack, exposing the gaps Bayern left when pushing men forward.

Since then, Bayern have both improved and adapted. They are simply a significantly better side than 12 months ago, and they’ve also become tactically flexible. Their gameplan in domestic matches is about possession and patience, but in European contests they’ve been a little more reactive, with physicality a key feature. For all the anticipation about whether Bayern would attempt to out-Barca Barcelona, they didn’t really try to. They used height, power, and counter-attacked superbly, winning 7-0 on aggregate.

Against Dortmund this season, Bayern have had the upper hand. They won the Supercup at the start of the campaign, and won 1-0 in the German Cup with eleven shots on target to Dortmund’s one. The first league meeting finished 1-1, but Bayern dominated the game and were more content with the result considering their lead in the Bundesliga.

Regardless of the result, the pattern in these matches has been consistent. Bayern have dominated possession and Dortmund have played on the counter-attack. There’s no reason to think that will change here, although the continued absence of Toni Kroos means Bayern have less ball-playing ability than usual (although Dortmund are without their rough equivalent, Bayern-bound Mario Gotze).

This is a slightly unusual tactical battle – the only debate in terms of selection is whether Bayern use Daniel van Buyten or Jerome Boateng at the back, but this won’t significantly change the shape of the game.

Meanwhile, the coaches are in different situations in terms of formation and approach. Jupp Heynckes’ formation is obvious but his overall approach is not. In stark contrast, Jurgen Klopp’s formation might change, but his overall gameplan won’t.

Dortmund shape

Bayern Munich will certainly play a 4-2-3-1, Klopp has a decision to make about his shape. For the majority of the last three seasons he’s used a fairly standard, compact 4-2-3-1 with three midfield runners behind a centre-forward.

Bayern 1-1 Dortmund, December 2012

Against Bayern this season, however, he’s changed to a 4-3-3 / 4-5-1 for both the (only competitive) league fixture between the two, and the German Cup defeat. The difference between the formations might seem minimal on paper, but on the pitch there’s a significantly different feel to the side, with one extra player to help compete in the midfield zone, and one fewer attacking midfielder to storm forward on the counter-attack.

It seems a more defensive, cautious approach from Klopp, and a response to the fact Bayern are now extremely strong in the centre of the pitch since the arrival of Javi Martinez. The interesting thing about the league meeting was the fact all three Dortmund central midfielders seemed to be pressing Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger, rather than being concerned with Kroos behind – Kroos’ freedom became the key factor in the game.

Klopp will have considered the merits of both formations, but the absence of Gotze will surely encourage him to be cautious, and stay with a 4-3-3, which will probably mean Kevin Grosskreutz tucking inside as a third central midfielder, allowing Marco Reus to stay wide-left and Jakub Blaszczykowski to play out on the right. (The 4-2-3-1 would see Reus playing centrally, Grosskreutz left and Blaszczykowski right).

Lewandowski role

The 4-3-3 means Dortmund will play without a central attacking midfielder, their key creative player. That changes the role of Robert Lewandowski, who is accustomed to linking up with the number ten on the break – he can be isolated and starved of service when Dortmund play the 4-3-3, and it will be interesting to see his positioning.

Although primarily a penalty box man, Lewandowski is also capable of dropping short to link play, as he did impressively in the tie against Malaga. He won’t quite be a false nine, but he must give Dortmund a passing option in possession.

More than any other player, Lewandowski is the man who can influence the result with a top-class performance. Dortmund will have less of the ball, and will probably have fewer shots too – but if Lewandowski can replicate his performance against Real Madrid, when he scored four times from situations that were barely chances (aside from the penalty), Dortmund can win – more on that here


If Dortmund’s shape is the first key factor, the second is the level of pressing from both sides.

Bayern 1-0 Dortmund, February 2013

Dortmund became famed for their excellent pressing high up the pitch, but gradually Klopp has asked his players to press a little less this season in order to conserve energy. Dortmund probably won’t close down the Bayern centre-backs relentlessly, and will instead drop off, stay compact and put pressure upon the central midfielders.

Bayern’s strategy, judging from their attitude in previous Champions League matches, will be a hybrid – they’ll press high up when Roman Weidenfeller has the ball, in order to stop Dortmund building passing moves from the back…but once Dortmund have got the ball under control, Mario Mandzukic and Muller will drop back goalside of Dortmund’s midfield and become a compact unit.

There’s a good chance the game will experience a fast-tempo first 10 minutes – Dortmund imposed high-tempo spells at the start of both halves against Real – before gradually settling down and becoming a slower contest with Bayern dominating possession.

Gundogan v Schweinsteiger

On that note, Dortmund will probably look to pressure Schweinsteiger in the opening stages. Klopp will have seen how much Schweinsteiger struggled when put under heavy pressure at the start of Bayern’s away match against Juventus, and the German midfielder always seems to take a while to settle into the rhythm of the game (he was booked after two minutes of last year’s final, incidentally).

Dortmund have previously had great success in putting Schweinsteiger under pressure in deep positions, and they’ll look to replicate that here, with Ilkay Gundogan the key player. Schweinsteiger will probably need assistance from Martinez, who is effective at imposing his physicality on the contest in the early stages, before allowing Schweinsteiger to take control later when the tempo drops.

Reus v Lahm

Assuming Reus starts on the left, the second key battle will be his contest against Philipp Lahm. Clearly, with Gotze absent, Reus becomes Dortmund’s best counter-attacking weapon – and Lahm has an important role to play defensively.

However, if Lahm can get the better of this battle, pushing Reus back into his own third of the pitch and preventing him scampering forward, Bayern could cause real problems down that flank. Schalke demonstrated how to overload the right wing against Dortmund in an impressive 2-1 victory (granted, when Reus was absent) and if Bayern can get a third player towards that flank (most logically Muller, but considering how Bayern played away against Arsenal, it could be either of the central midfielders) they can dominate that side of the pitch and restrict Reus’ attacking influence.

That said, Dortmund might be pleased to see Lahm venture forward, because it would give them the opportunity to break into the space he leaves behind, as the did excellently in last year’s German Cup final. Unlike the midfield battle, this clash won’t set the tempo or change the feel of the game, but it will be a microcosm of how successfully the two sides are playing their respective strategies.


A more general question might influence the overall feel of the game – which manager is reacting to the other’s strategy?

Usually, you expect the possession-based side (Bayern) to play their natural game and the counter-attacking side (Dortmund) to adjust one or two things in response. However, Bayern’s flexibility means their European Cup strategy has been rather more reactive than their Bundesliga strategy, and against Arsenal, Juventus and Barcelona their strategy focused primarily on breaking up play before imposing their passing style on the contest later on.

A large part of Bayern’s run to this final has been about outrunning and outbattling opponents – but that’s the type of game Dortmund thrive in, with Bayern’s comparative advantage over them being about possession play. In that respect, Heynckes strategy will be more interesting, and more important.

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