Dortmund: Autopsy of a tragedy

Their defeat to Bayern, analysed. Plus some Manchester United.

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Howdy. There’s so much football on at the moment that I’m having a hard time keeping track of days, apart from to send this out on time.

I’m starting to think that maybe football is like Christmas. When Wizzard sang “I wish it could be Christmas every day” it sounds great on the surface, but the reality is far different. Ditto with football. There’s a reason World Cups only last a few weeks.

Anyway, on with some actual football. Der Klassiker in Germany more or less punctured Dortmund’s hopes for a Bundesliga title, while Solskjaer’s reign is hitting some turbulence. I’m also going to include a little section at the end relating to football writing — I know it’s not defensive analysis, but think of it like a DVD extra.

  • Dortmund: Autopsy of a tragedy

  • Wolves are Manchester United’s bogey team?

  • Writing as a job, and cliches

Dortmund: Autopsy of a tragedy

There is, or there must be, a version of the Return of the Jedi script where, on a particularly bad Tuesday, George Lucas wrote an ending where Darth Vader swooped down to the moon of Endor and systematically exterminated all of the Ewoks. That was what the first half of Bayern Munich vs Dortmund was like.

The first couple of minutes saw Dan-Axel Zagadou, who made the mistake for Bayern’s second goal, do some questionable defending. In a situation not entirely dissimilar to the Virgil van Dijk two-on-one from last week, Zagadou moved towards the ball and allowed a pass through for what could have been a great chance for Robert Lewandowski if he hadn’t taken an uncharacteristic bad touch.

I mention the Van Dijk situation as a reference point, because it was a similar stick-or-twist moment. Go towards the ball or stay with the runner. As it was, it looks like Zagadou was stepping across because he thought that the player on the ball was going to take a shot.

Now, this is where we weigh up the possible outcomes. Is it better to try and block a (largely unpressured) shot from outside the box, or one from here:

The answer is obvious. But there’s something else to consider too, which is what trigger Zagadou was reacting to.

That doesn’t look a lot like the Bayern player (I forget which one it was) is winding up for a shot that they, at the last second, disguise into a pass. Take a pinch of salt because this could be a large amount of hindsight bias, but it looks like Zagadou was overreacting to what he thought was danger because he was on edge in a big moment.

That will become important later on.

Bayern, though, were not shaken by the occasion. Throughout the crucial first half they always seemed first to second balls, pressing Dortmund at every opportunity, never losing possession when they got it. (The notable exception to their pressing was when Dahoud got his chance and hit the post; the build-up to that saw Dortmund play one-touch football breaking through Bayern’s press high up on their right).

The on-form-ness also flowed through Robert Lewandowski. Of course he got his goal, but it was most evident in the next chance, after Bayern took a quick throw-in.

Lewandowski receives the ball here. Instead of holding it up, he pulls it back with his toe, and spins into space expertly.

If it had ended in a goal, it would’ve been a solid contender for goal of the month.

Up against this kind of in-the-zone play, it’s a shame Dortmund were so below-par as a team. They’d clearly decided that they’d sit their midfield deep rather than engage around the halfway line. But even though it looked like they were trying to keep space tight between the midfield and defensive lines, they failed.

Below we have a runner from midfield being picked up by nobody, running into a massive gap between the centre-backs, with no-one immediately pressuring the man on the ball.

That’s a pretty major list of things that aren’t quite right. I’m not gonna pretend I’m a good enough tactician to give pointers on what they could’ve done to remedy it, but it looked like the worst worlds of zonal and man-orientated systems.

The above wasn’t the only example at all. Dortmund tightened things up a little after Bayern’s first goal, putting more pressure on the ball and looking a little calmer, but they got suckerpunched by the second goal and altogether took too long to find their feet in the match.

They also weren’t particularly convincing from set-pieces, which is where the first goal comes from. The first corner that Bayern gets causes problems for Dortmund, and a look at what was going on punctures most of the faith you might have had in Lucien Favre’s team defending from dead-ball opportunities.

Within the first minute, Bayern had their first corner. We can see Dortmund setting up in a kind of two-banks-of-four zonal system, with two other men in strategic zonal positions that also double as man-marking.

However, as sketched, Mats Hummels (circled) runs from back to front post to get a flicked header, and two others peel off towards the back post.

This isn’t actually the scheme that Bayern played to get their first goal – on that occasion, Hummels pretty much had a standing jump amidst a mass of Dortmund zonal markers and still managed to score. That ain’t great.

So Bayern scored their first and Dortmund looked shaky, and then Dortmund continued to look shaky and Bayern scored their second, Lewandowski’s 200th goal in the Bundesliga. Let’s take a look at the still image just before the Polish striker supremo intercepted Zagadou’s pass to put him in with a chance of scoring.

It looks an awful choice, right?

Let it first be noted that Zagadou is left-footed, which makes this particular pass a little more understandable, although he’d still have been better off shifting it to his right foot. Then, also…

That’s three teammates communicating that Zagadou should pass it to his fellow centre-back. I’m not pointing this out as an excuse for the defender, however I’d like to note two things.

The first is that we’ve already seen that Zagadou seems a bit shaky. Being put under pressure by a forward and being told to make a pass that, on some level, you probably feel is dangerous isn’t going to make this any easier. I’m sure all of us who’ve played the sport know what it’s like to actually have to make a conscious decision and not be sure what the right option is, and it usually ends in taking too long and a bad option being taken.

The second thing is that, if all of Dortmund’s nearby players are pointing out this pass to Zagadou, then it’s probably part of a set pattern of play, which probably means that Bayern know what they’re doing. This wasn’t the only time that Bayern looked to pounce on a Zagadou pass – they looked like they’d figured out where he passed to and when to use him as a pressing trigger.

From those four factors – shaky individual defenders, poor team systematic defending, poor set-piece defending, and Bayern being on fire – the rest of the game plays out.

Bayern’s third comes from Dortmund getting caught out by a quick free-kick and failing to clear their lines in the aftermath. The fourth comes from Bayern fairly easily beating Dortmund’s initial press, cutting through them to the final third, and then finishing well once they get there.

Dortmund were nervy and bad, the very worst of combinations. And it could be the nail in the coffin of their title hopes.

Wolves are Manchester United’s bogey team?

Across the international break, Wolverhampton Wanderers beat Manchester United twice. The questions about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure at the club, shortly after signing a permanent deal, write themselves.

One interesting point of the latest defeat was United moving to a 3-5-2, with Jesse Lingard as a Diogo Jota-esque second striker and Ashley Young as a right-sided centre-back.

There were aspects of this that we’d seen before under Solskjaer. Young played as a right-sided centre-back in a back three for periods of the second Paris Saint-Germain game. Lingard has always been a flexible player in forward areas. United are not averse to a back three or, generally, tactical experimentation under their new manager.

I started watching the game to watch Young and see how he got on at centre-back, but I think the decision for United to change system was more interesting. Any comment on Young relies on understanding why he was playing as a centre-back in the first place.

Let’s take a look at how the two sides set up.

One of Wolves’ major attacking threats, and release valves in possession, are their wing-backs, particularly Matt Doherty on the right. United using wing-backs of their own seems an obvious way to combat this.

A combination of Jesse Lingard and the rest of United’s midfield trio kept a close eye on Ruben Neves, trying to limit the chances for Wolves to feed him the ball. To stop Wolves keeping possession around their back-line, gently probing to create opportunities, United then pressed Wolves’ central defenders.

That actually seemed to work fairly well. Where it didn’t work were the moments post-press, if Wolves managed to just about hold on to the ball under pressure.

In those moments, United were caught with the members of the initial press out of position and the rest of the team usually backing off. I guess some might give credit to United for trying to press high up the field, and it did kind of work, but it also made their midfield very easy to carve through at times.

In attack, Wolves are a pretty crummy team for United – a team who’ve thrived on counter-attacking under Solskjaer – to play. Wolves sit deep when they defend and it’s what they did at Molineux last week.

Writing as a job, and cliches

This bit will be about writing for a living and, if you like this, you’ll probably like Jon Mackenzie’s newsletter as he writes the book on Bielsa.

I write for Football Whispers and their clients (it’s not just the Football Whispers website folks), which is why I describe my job as a copywriter when asked, rather than a football writer.

(For those who haven’t come across the term ‘copywriter’, if there’s words on a website, someone’s written them, and that someone will probably be a copywriter. It’s much more professional and run-of-the-mill than ‘football writing’, which is pretty synonymous with blogging.)

Anyway. I found myself using the word ‘storied’ to describe a team’s history last week.

‘Storied’.

I had to look up the dictionary definition of it — not because I was unaware what the word meant (I’ve seen it used in football context enough times to know what it means), but to learn where it comes from.

One place online described it as an ‘archaic term’, which is basically true. It’s not used outside of football/sport, pretty much. So why did I use it?

Don’t get me wrong, the sentence that I used ‘storied’ in worked as a sentence. But it just felt like an autopilot moment.

That’s unsatisfactory, although inevitable when you’re doing something all-day, every-day I guess, pressured for time.

That, if anything, is the thing that doing this as a job has taught me. Working with words every day is difficult, and as much as you might want to agonise over every word and clause, you don’t have time.

‘Til the next time

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‘Til the next time