The German Bundesliga has long been regarded as one of the most exciting leagues in world football, which has been filled with high-speed contests throughout the years. Back in 2012, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were two of the best sides in Europe, who would eventually meet in the first all-German Champions League final that season. Today, we will look at their first-leg battle in Bundesliga that season, one that was surely not as prestigious but was truly a Bundesliga classic. This tactical battle set the stage for the fierce rivalry between the two sides in all competitions.
Bayern (4-2-3-1): Manuel Neuer; David Alaba, Holger Badstuber, Dante, Philipp Lahm; Javi Martínez, Bastian Schweinsteiger; Franck Ribéry, Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller, Mario Mandžukić.
Dortmund (4-3-2-1): Roman Weidenfeller; Marcel Schmelzer, Mats Hummels, Neven Subotić, Łukasz Piszczek; Sven Bender, İlkay Gündoğan, Jakub Błaszczykowski (nicknamed Kuba); Marco Reus, Mario Götze, Robert Lewandowski.
Bayern in possession
Bayern used a 4-2-3-1 in possession. The home side was quite versatile – they built up long or short with a rather equal proportion. When playing from the back, they built up with the back four and Martínez. Ribéry dropped much deeper than Müller to provide a passing option that could carry the ball effectively. Kroos and Schweinsteiger roamed between Dortmund’s defence and midfield.
Dortmund defended in a 4-5-1, with Lewandowski marking Martínez. They tried to keep a horizontally and vertically compact shape, orientated towards the ball. The analysis image below showed that the distance from their goal line to the defence was 30 meters. They wanted to reduce the pockets of space that the likes of Kroos and Müller could operate in. Dortmund’s defence was very close to these players, so they couldn’t receive passes between the lines comfortably.
Bayern could at first build up comfortably as Dortmund stayed in their 4-5-1 shape. However, when a Bayern player dribbled up towards or received the ball around the half-way line, a ball-near Dortmund midfielder would step out to press him. Each Dortmund midfielder was required to step out if a Bayern player was in their zone as demonstrated in the above image (winger: green box, sided central mid: orange box, central mid: blue box). This meant that Dortmund pressed intensely in the centre and half-spaces – the ball-carrier could be closed down by two Dortmund midfielders.
When a Bayern player was about to receive the ball, the assigned presser would rush to press him and only stopped chasing the ball-carrier when he made a pass, ideally a back pass. A Bayern back pass meant Dortmund would commit men higher to press, trying to force a long ball. Kroos or Schweinsteiger’s dropping movements would instantly be followed.
In the below example, Kuba stepped out, threatening to close down Badstuber. The centre-back passed the ball to Schweinsteiger. Bender instantly rushed at Schweinsteiger, meaning the midfielder was surrounded from all sides and had to pass backwards.
When Bayern tried to play on either wing, Dortmund instantly overloaded the ball side and pressed intensely. They showed a great work rate and organisation to maintain their pressing structure throughout the match. Though the defenders’ intense pressing could leave gaps in behind, Bayern couldn’t combine in tight spaces at Barcelona’s level to exploit these gaps, and the likes of Bender and Gündoğan – the two attempted a total of 15 tackles – showed great efforts to provide cover.
A solution that Bayern used to break through Dortmund’s press was inward dribbling from Ribéry (left) and Lahm (right). They often dribbled through two close Dortmund “assigned zones”, which attracted a few Dortmund midfielders and opened passing lanes towards the front players, who would then try to create chances through quick combinations. Ribéry was Bayern’s main source of disrupting Dortmund defence, completing 10 out of 17 dribbling attempts.
Here, Lahm’s inward dribble opened up line-breaking passing lanes towards Kroos and Schweinsteiger.
Bayern’s attacking midfield three showed smart flexible movements – which helped Bayern bypass Dortmund’s midfield a few times. The 4-2-3-1 structure allowed the attacking players to easily create triangles to combine. Here, Schweinsteiger moved wide, while Müller roamed from the centre to the half-space to provide a passing option.
Dortmund’s compactness and intense pressing made it very hard for Bayern to create long possession spells in their opponent’s half. They usually had to launch quick attacks after long balls or passes down the flanks and crosses.
When Dortmund committed many men forward to press, Bayern could progress with long balls, with their front players staying close to win second balls if needed. These passes bypassed the whole Dortmund midfield – which was pressing high – and could potentially create 3v3s. This tactic worked better in the second half, as Dortmund centre-backs began to lose more aerial duels and their midfield tracked back more slowly.
The below example is the incident that led to Bayern’s only goal. Ribéry launched a long ball towards Müller, who made a wonderful run from the right into the centre. There were immediately three Bayern players right in front of the box. Müller laid the ball off to Kroos, while Mandžukić made a distracting run. Kroos then beat Dortmund’s centre-backs to score from zone 14.
Dortmund in possession
Against a strong possession-based side like Bayern, Dortmund willingly conceded possession and looked to hurt the opponent on the break. Thus, they used long goal kicks. Should they lose the resulting aerials, they would counterpress intensely to win the ball back. Weidenfeller opted for long goal kicks towards the left, as Reus was much better in the air than Götze, and didn’t have to beat Bayern’s centre-backs. Lewandowski and Götze also came there to win second balls and combine short or counterpress, depending on the result of the aerial duels. Reus was actually the Dortmund player with the most aerials won (four), at 57% success rate.
In other situations, they liked to play short. They had Hummels, who’s more than capable of line-breaking passes. The defenders were supported by the dropping movements of the composed pivots, Gündoğan and Bender. Similar to goal kick situations, Götze often moved centrally to combine with Reus and Lewandowski, in which cases Kuba would move wide to provide width and support Piszczek. Dortmund’s front players were quite flexible in their movements, aiming to overload certain areas to combine short.
Bayern defended in a 4-1-4-1. They used situational man-marking: Mandžukić stayed in the middle and would press when there was a difficult pass towards a centre-back. Kroos and Schweinsteiger, a strong presser, would mark Dortmund’s two deepest central midfielders (in most cases Gündoğan and Bender. Müller marked Schmelzer, while Ribéry’s target would vary, but usually, he would mark Kuba if Dortmund built up on the left, and mark Piszczek if Dortmund played on the right.
Like Dortmund, Bayern’s shape when defending was both horizontally and vertically compact, as demonstrated by the below image.
Counterpressing was pivotal for Klopp style. Using long goals kick helped them facilitate these movements by creating second balls after aerials. A typical Dortmund sequence would go like this: second balls -> counterpressing -> second balls -> quick combinations -> counterpressing -> second balls -> quick combinations -> etc. Dortmund counterpressed by fiercely closing down the ball-carrier from all sides without really considering his teammates’ positioning. Most of the time, this was enough to smother the ball-carrier, forcing him to make rash decisions or pass the ball back, slowing down their counter-attacks. A pressing trap they often used was giving the ball-carrier a seemingly good central passing option and then rushing at the ball receiver from all sides right when the pass was made.
Here, Ribéry found Schweinsteiger, who was not surrounded by anyone. However, as he was about to receive the ball, four nearby Dortmund players rushed towards him, forcing him to pass back to Alaba.
Alaba was trapped in a corner and had to clear the ball. Dortmund won the second ball and used quick combinations to progress through the right-wing. Notice the close proximity between the players and the wide positioning of Lewandowski, Bender and Kuba to facilitate these combinations.
This analysis showed that a draw was a fair result for both sides. There were virtually no big chances for either side. Bayern had more of the ball, but couldn’t create clear chances due to Dortmund’s organised pressing scheme. Meanwhile, Dortmund showed that they are as good as Bayern at on-ball qualities, but their counter-attacks couldn’t really trouble Bayern’s solid defence.