Two of Germany’s giants met on Saturday as Bayer Leverkusen hosted a free-scoring Borussia Dortmund at the Bay Arena. The clash pitted two of the most progressive tacticians in world football. Roger Schmidt’s Leverkusen were looking to carry on with their 3:2 win against Mainz last week while Dortmund were looking for their fourth successive win in the Bundesliga.
Thomas Tuchel started with his usual 4-1-4-1 formation.
Swiss Roman Burki started in goal. Captain Marcel Schmelzer was given a rest after the midweek clash against Real Madrid, new signing Raphael Guerreiro started in his place as a left back with Lukasz Piszczek being deployed as a right back. Marc Bartra failed to recover from his injury, which he picked up against Wolfsburg, Ginter once again started alongside Sokratis as the two centre backs.
Julian Weigl was used as the lone pivot in midfield. Mario Götze was also given a rest, with former Bayern Munich midfielder Sebastian Rode playing alongside Gonzalo Castro, who spent 14 years at Leverkusen before coming to Dortmund last season.
Ousmane Dembele and Christian Pulisic, two of the most talented wingers in Europe started in the two wing positions, feeding the lone front man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Roger Schmidt on the other hand, plotted an interesting 4-4-2 formation.
Bernd Leno was kept in goal but Lars Bender was interestingly given the nod ahead of Wendell in the right back position while teenage Benjamin Henrichs started as the left back. The defensive pairing saw young Jonathan Tah partnering alongside Omer Toprak, a constant subject of a move to Dortmund in the summer.
The solid midfielder pairing of Charles Aranguiz and Kevin Kampl sat in central positions with Julian Brandt and Hakan Calhanoglu positioned relatively wide.
The injury of Finnish forward Joel Pohjanpalo meant Admir Mehmedi, being deployed further forward alongside Mexican superstar Javier Hernandez.
A lesson in pressing?
Even with the 4-1-4-1 formation, Thomas Tuchel’s side opted a different and interesting positional structure with Raphael Guerreiro’s false fullback movements to pair alongside Weigl in midfield. Lukasz Piszczek also moved a few metres infield to form a three chain defensive line, which made the structure look like a 3-2-2-3.
The wide positioning of the two wingers meant the Leverkusen fullbacks would get occupied and thus couldn’t be used in an advanced pressing situation as they so often do and the three-man defensive chain, gave Dortmund the advantage of having an extra player for their usual buildup. However, Roger Schmidt’s men had other ideas.
From the usual 4-4-2 shape, Leverkusen produced a brilliant collective midfield pressing but most of their solidity, however, was due to the excellent coverage of the front two. The plan was not to actively press the Dortmund backline in order to stop their buildup as the defenders were free to circulate the ball against them. But the front two in Javier Hernandez and Admir Mehmedi excellently blocked the passing lane between the defenders and the respective Dortmund midfielders behind them.
Dortmund clearly lacked the laser passing of someone like Marc Bartra in this situation as either of the three defenders in Sokratis, Ginter and Piszczek, are not known for their passing abilities and Tuchel’s men clearly struggled to get the into the midfield channels.
At times, they did manage to break the first line, the constant backward pressure from the Bayer midfielders made it extremely difficult for Dortmund to access the midfield.
When the ball shifted into the wide position (in their own half), either of the two wide midfielders moved up to press the side backs whilst having the passing lane through to the winger and the side back blocked by their cover shadows.
Calhanoglu’s movements were quite useful for Leverkusen in this situation, as he often joined the front two when pressing from the right side whilst Brandt usually stayed deep with Mehmedi moving across.
The movements of Calhanoglu and Brandt also forced the Dortmund wingers to drop much much deeper, causing disconnection between them and the advanced midfielders (And Aubameyang of course) and eventually, they’d get isolated among the relentless pressing of the Bayer midfielders.
The above touch-map suggests how the two Dortmund wingers were pegged back into their own half thanks to Leverkusen’s brilliant coordinated pressing. Pulisic and Dembele combined had a total of only 81 touches in the game with both being dispossessed of the ball seven times.
In the end, the systematized pressing from Roger Schmidt’s side was too much for this young Dortmund team and the two goals from Mehmedi and Chicharito marked off a comprehensive victory for Bayer Leverkusen, based on their excellent midfield pressing.
The win takes Leverkusen to sixth in the table, just two points off the Champions League spot whilst Dortmund fail to capitalize of Bayern’s draw against Cologne, they fall behind Hertha and drop down to the third spot with 12 points.