Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund meet in the group stages yet again in what has turned out to be one of the more common and exciting pairings within the last 5 seasons. Los Blancos continue to dominate in Europe with a diamond made up of Isco, Modric, Kroos, and Casemiro. Dortmund sought to bring their high pressing 4-3-3 and counterpressing to the game, but ultimately it wasn’t enough.
Real Madrid had nearly their full-strength lineup, with only Marcelo missing and Nacho moving in as his replacement. The system was the usual 4-3-1-2, though out of possession this structure remained rather then moving back into a 4-4-2 with Isco dropping into the midfield line. Isco had a free role both in and out of possession as his positioning was due to his individual decision making throughout the game. Ronaldo and Bale gave the depth on the forward line and were constantly testing all areas of the line by switching positions and even moving out to the wings.
Kroos and Modric had their typical roles where they dropped into the defensive halfspaces to stabilize the circulation in the defensive zones which Madrid look to overload. Nacho was in a simple and linear role with a few attacking runs, certainly a more defensive option than the Brazilian he replaced. Because of this, it seems Carvajal was more offensive than he already tends to be – with very high positioning and frequent runs into depth.
For BVB, Aubameyang looked to move from side to side and make runs in behind with his tremendous speed, while also occasionally offering a short central option to help his teammates evade pressure in combination. Both wingers and fullbacks stuck towards the sidelines as is common in Bosz’ positional-play system which focuses on spacing across the entire field and attacking through combinations on the wings. Sahin occupied the pivote position while Gotze was the more fluid of the two #8s. He moved out wide to the wing, between the lines, and even supported Castro’s side of the field against Real Madrid’s diamond press. Castro stuck more to his side of the field and had a simpler, more linear role.
Real Madrid in Possession
In recent years the approach of Real Madrid has been to overload the more defensive zones in order to stabilize the circulation and then pick and choose when to move forward at will. The fact that they can keep the ball under pressure and constantly threaten into depth to their strikers pushes teams back to protect the spaces closer to their goal. When this happens Real can then circulate in front of the opponent block and allow Modric and Kroos to make the decisions and create attacks from the deeper zones.
An important development within the system happened more recently. Isco has become more of a solidified starter, and instead of 3 strikers threatening into depth, Real Madrid have 2 attacking the depth and 1 as a central attacking midfielder who looks for pockets of space behind the opponent midfield line as teams inevitably seek to apply pressure to the deep build up.
Immediately obvious was Real Madrid’s intention to maintain possession of the ball and exercise their domination onto the game, while BVB would attempt to high press when possible to force them into poor actions or even turnovers. Unfortunately for the Germans, turnovers occurred very rarely and Modric and Kroos displayed their incredible abilities to protect the ball under pressure and find open passes. Casemiro was stripped of the ball in front of the defense and Isco gave away a pass in the same position, resulting in a controversial Ramos handball on the goal line, which might prove the use of the approach in itself, but in the end these were the only notable moments.
The idea was for Aubameyang to cut off the passing lane between the two central defenders and apply pressure to the one on the ball. As this occurs, the winger on the ball side would press the fullback while the #8 on the ball side would press the Real Madrid ball side #8. Sahin was mostly pre-occupied with blocking passes into Isco when the Spaniard was within the central zones, while ideally the far side #8 would move onto Casemiro. The graphic above is an example where Dortmund had good starting positions in comparison to the Real Madrid players as the situation came from a long ball played towards Ramos.
If the ball is played backwards to the GK, Aubameyang can run through to the GK, the winger on the far side covers the far side CB, the ball side #8 comes up onto the CB which Aubameyang left, and Sahin covers up for the #8 who moves to a higher position. This way BVB would ideally be able to isolate Madrid to one side and put pressure on the GK at the same time – which would surely result in positive results. In the graphic above Kroos and Nacho are inaccessible on the far side and Dortmund force a very difficult situation on Madrid. The ball is eventually turned over to Castro in front of the box for a great BVB chance.
In reality though, it was difficult for Dortmund to set up their press properly and truly isolate the Madrid players and create turnovers. Dortmund pressed with their 6 highest players, while Madrid’s build up is in a 2-5 (7 players) along with their GK, Navas. In a typical possession the starting positions would be spread out further across the field and Real would pass backwards to the keeper to lure out the press while being in a very wide formation. Because Sahin was focused on defending the zone in front of his back 4 where Isco roams, Casemiro was a free player between the two structures. This meant Gotze and Castro had to work out how to cover Kroos, Modric, and Casemiro based upon the situation – and often one of these players was free.
With Varane and Ramos being further spread out and playing the ball with Navas, it was difficult for Aubameyang to shepherd the ball to one area as he was dealing with 3 players in this pressing scheme. This was the root of all the problems for BVB’s high press. Because you cannot get pressure on the ball, any compact positioning will be exploited with longer passes over the compactness. So frequent long diagonals out to Nacho and Carvajal broke the press and pushed Dortmund into their own half. On one occasion Casemiro played an excellent pass with pressure on his back and facing toward his own goal to Carvajal past the high line of Dortmund and through to goal – as Carvajal faked that he would come closer to the ball to support and then ran behind to wrong-foot Toljan.
Another aspect to mention was that Dortmund maintained their high line of defense even when they couldn’t apply pressure to the ball on the wings. So when Nacho or Carvajal had the ball they could play long passes down the line into space for Bale or Ronaldo to use their speed and penetrate into. Normally passes from the FB down the line are easily contained to the sides, but because there was so much space behind the defense and Ronaldo and Bale have large amounts of pace, they could receive these passes and still turn back towards the middle to run toward the goal. When a FB can so easily cause problems for your defense from a deep position, it is highly unstable to press high.
Even when BVB could cut Real Madrid’s build up off to one side, the players simply played passes into Modric and Kroos with pressure on their backs and they would shield the ball, dribble, and find an open back pass, long diagonal pass, or pass into depth into free players. These two players alone make it extremely difficult to build up any sort of pressure through a high and compact ball-oriented press, because they will expose the far spaces or simply break the access of the opponent by finding a free player.
Once Madrid moves into the opponent half they look to circulate the ball until they see an opportunity to attack, normally they focus on wing combinations between the #8s, the FBs, and possibly Isco supporting as well – while Casemiro comes across to fill up the space behind the FB and protect against counterattacks. When Madrid lose the ball after an attack they have a very good counterpress with the base of the 2 CBs, Kroos and Casemiro (sometimes Modric if he is deeper) and the 2 FBs. In this way they enter into a cycle of attacking and keeping the ball in the opponents half constantly until they give up the ball for a goal-kick or get counter-attacked properly.
The first goal came from a thrown-in on the wing that Madrid wins which makes its way across to the opposite halfspace (always a very dangerous thing after a throw-in close to the box) and Carvajal plays a ball into the space in the back line which Piszczek failed to close on the blind-side of Sokratis and Bale scores on the volley. This is the sort of cycle Real can trap you into once they have the ball in your half.
BVBosz in Possession
Because Real Madrid defended in a diamond with 2 strikers pressuring both central defenders and Isco marking Sahin, Dortmund had a very difficult time playing through the middle. But the spaces are clearly open on the side, right? Early on the ball would be played down the right side of the field and eventually reach Yarmolenko with Madrid applying pressure with multiple players as they weren’t forced to shift a long distance from the opposite wing, but simply moved across from the center.
Normally this would result in BVB simply playing it back and Madrid triggering their high press off of back passes from the black-and-yellow. This would lead to many long clearances by Burki which Madrid won most of. But due to the skill of the newly signed Yarmolenko as a wing creator, Dortmund had some promising situations when he dribble diagonally towards the middle. As a left footed player on the right side, when he dribbles backwards he is moving away from opponents but is looking across the entire field with his body between his opponent and the ball on his strong foot. This is an ideal situation for diagonal passing and dribbling (see: Messi, Robben). Its difficult to defend someone dribbling back towards their own goal because defenses must first protect the path their goal, and then applying pressure to the ball with cover. Typically, you would need someone pressing the back pass, the player, and a central pass – meaning you have to surround this player with 3 defenders on the wing, which is very difficult to achieve consistently.
In the above graphic Yarmolenko is able to get the ball across the field against Madrid’s heavy-central-focused structure and Dortmund attack the opposite halfspace. In these situations Modric had to shift out to the opposite FB to deny playing passes into depth or the box (which also happened on occasion), and Carvajal must press the opposite winger. In these situations Casemiro was very slow to arrive and cover Modric (even in some 4-4-2 situations later on when Madrid switch), leaving Gotze free to make movements out of Modric’s cover shadow and receive the ball in his favored left halfspace. From these positions he plays very good passes in behind to Aubameyang, but also plays highly accurate in-swinging crosses towards his strikers in the box. Aubameyang does well to drift to the back post area and then sprint towards the front post (as he did for his goal) to beat the opponent CB in a race. And when opponents try to double-cover him, there are typically opened spaces at the front post for other strikers (Yarmolenko chance).
Towards the end of the second half Zidane moved Isco back into the midfield line to form a 4-4-2 and defender the switches of play better with a wider formation. Though this obviously took away from their control of the center, mainly a player to mark Sahin and prevent him receiving the ball. While the beginning of the match was tight wing play with Real shifted over in a narrow formation, the end of the first half became a game more centered around the 2 CBs and Sahin outplaying the Madrid strikers and then attacking from the center. This meant Real could not force Dortmund to be as predictable and to one side, and Sahin was able to use his space to play long passes towards the wings for better attacks as Madrid’s defenders were now arriving later and the wing players of Dortmund could attack with a momentum advantage.
This inevitably forced Madrid back into a deeper block as they weren’t able to stop Dortmund’s progression to their 2nd line (Sahin) centrally. Even though Madrid were in a wider structure and more capable against switches to each wing, it seems Casemiro was still very slow to support Modric and Isco on the far side – which made them attempt to control larger spaces than usual. At times Isco would be out of position as well as he is used to roaming freely. So again situations where Modric was being outplayed and Gotze finds space behind his cover shadow occurred. But overall Madrid’s defense of the wings improved – even though they gave up some control of the game, which is probably why they moved back to the diamond in the second half.
Real Madrid’s pressing structure was ideal for applying pressure to Dortmund. They marked all 3 of the immediate short option for the GK, and had 3 players in between the 4 players on the next line of play for Dortmund. This means that whatever side the ball is played to, Real Madrid’s midfield 3 can shift across to that wing, cover the 3 nearest midfielders in the 2nd line, and leave the opposite wing player open as it is nearly impossible for them to receive the ball properly without a Madrid player arriving on time due to the longer pass distance. These long passes are also harder to control which gives extra time for a player to arrive and prevent playing forward. This resulted in many turnovers in the opponent half as well as inefficient long balls toward the Madrid defense which they easily recovered.
The back line operated normally as the FB on the ball side would press his winger and the opposite FB covers the far side CB. Ramos and Varane were able to control Aubameyang as a pair quite well throughout the game, partly due to the high level of athleticism both players have.
Still, Madrid had to operate properly out of this structure to have success. An important detail is that the two strikers were distant from the BVB CBs and focused more on maintaining a narrow position and protecting the center. This forced the ball wide. When the first pass wide or backwards is made by the opponent, the strikers then move while the ball is between players to arrive at the opponent defenders when they are receiving the ball. This forces the ball all the way back to the GK, with the only open pass being a long diagonal pass to the far side FB. Real Madrid most often didn’t press Burki, electing to maintain compactness for long passes. So Burki had the time to find the open player in the Madrid press – which was often Toljan as BVB favored to build down Yarmolenko’s side. He was able to find this pass occasionally, but not consistently enough to result in highly valuable actions in this match. Depending on the speed of the pressing player and the distance to the GK, Madrid’s striker or CMF would run through on the back pass to the defender and then all the way to the GK. If there wasn’t speed in the run or the distance to Burki was too far, they would elect to keep their position.
End of the Match
Kroos eventually became the tip of the diamond in high pressing as Isco moved out to the left side. Real Madrid regained control of the match in regard to field position, as the game began to occur more in the opponent half.
As the second half began there was a clear change in Gotze’s behavior as he remained on the left side and asked for switches of play (likely an adjust by the coaching staff to more actively and consciously expose Madrid’s diamond). From there he could attack and receive cutback passes in the halfspace to cross the ball. Cutbacks to the ball side halfspace outside of the box typically open up when a winger dribbles down the line because the opponent drops deeper to protect its box, so Gotze was able to find a nice pocket of space in these situations.
Shortly after the half began, Madrid pulled Dortmund out by luring them into a press using an Isco short layoff on the left side after a switch of play that Dortmund was poor to shift to. They then played Bale in behind to quickly cross to Ronaldo who was in a passive offside position on the far side – allowing him to easily arrive first to the cross in front of goal. As mentioned in the beginning of this piece, Madrid are experts at luring out presses by playing in their overloaded deep zones before playing direct passes behind opponents on the wings.
Dortmund’s goal then came from their triangular wing combinations. On the left side Toljan played horizontally into the center of the field and then made a diagonal run towards the center, clearing space by pulling the opponent FB inside and allowing the wing player to cross freely into Aubameyang.
Finally, in the last phase of the game Bosz had switched Dortmund in a 3-diamond-3 system. Though it clearly looked unpracticed, it showed some very interesting potential. Weigl came on for Sahin as the 6, and Dahoud came on for Toljan and played as the left #8, moving Gotze into the #10 position. A back 3 of Sokratis, Toprak, and Piszczek formed and the front 3 stayed the same. Immediately after this switch Castro, Gotze, and the backpressing Aubameyang were able to strip Kroos and Casemiro of the ball in front of the defense with and launch dangerous counterattacks which could’ve easily resulted in goals.
Gotze’s freedom in the #10 position allowed him to do more of the actions he likes to do and be more creative in general. He could make runs behind when Dahoud or Weigl had the ball rather than always looking to create actions for others. This system allowed BVB to find passes through the center more often in their diamond which resulted in good chances to play their 3 strikers into depth just in front of the opponent defense. Gotze tended to drift to the left wing to allow Philipp inside next to Aubameyang, where he played his favored in-swinging crosses from that position.
A very interesting string of actions occurred in which Real Madrid’s 4-3-1-2 press against the 3-diamond-3 and the back 3 and 3 central midfielders were clearly matched up man-to-man with Madrid’s players. Dortmund’s 3 strikers remained high, pinning the back line of Los Blancos, while Gotze was now the free player between the lines. Because Madrid pressed in a 3-3 with their front 6 players, and Dortmund’s first 2 lines of play in the 3-diamond-3 is a 3-3, Gotze became the free man (along with Burki). This was very similar to what Isco does for Real Madrid when teams move up to put pressure. It would’ve been interesting to see Dortmund look to expose this, as they were very strong in keeping possession in central and defensive zones with their substitutions for more skilled possession players. This showed some signs of success against Madrid in possession and I look forward to how this system could develop under Bosz if he chooses to move forward with it, as it is a favored system of his.
Ultimately the system was not stable enough without the ball and looked more like a decision in the moment rather than a system which was trained often and the players know exactly what to do. When Madrid had possession of the ball they often exposed the far side wing as it was completely open due to unorganized defending. Madrid finished off the match has Varane dribbled the ball into midfield and attracted pressure from the #8, Modric moved out of his cover shadow towards the wing and away from Weigl’s reach. This meant that Sokratis had to move out to Modric as he was the left halfback. This left Ronaldo and Asensio 2 vs. 2 with Piszczek and Toprak, and Modric simply played Ronaldo into the box where he beat Toprak for pace and finished at the near post on Burki (again).
Overall a very fun game to watch. I was impressed with Madrid’s pressing scheme, as when they are out of possession is usually when they are the weakest. Though this game showed signs that they are beginning to improve even in this aspect, making them even harder to control. Dortmund in the end couldn’t deal with the amount of control Kroos and Modric are able to exercise in the 2-5-1-2, but in the end showed an interesting 3-diamond-3 system thats still in the works. It will be exciting to see how both teams continue to develop this season. Dortmund now looks more likely to be playing in the Europa League due to Spurs winning both matches. Time will tell.