Talking Tactics: Borussia Dortmund’s three at the back


Borussia Dortmund 1-2 Schalke 04: Jurgen Klopp, the Borussia Dortmund manager, used this weekend’s Ruhr derby match against Schalke to experiment with a back three but his plan backfired. His side conceded an early goal and as the game developed lacked creativity throughout the spine. Klopp eventually made changes so that they were playing in a familiar shape, but there was no fluidity in attack.

Dortmund had moved away from their familiar 4-2-3-1 in favour of a 3-5-2 (see diagram). Roman Weidenfeller started in goal and the back three surprisingly featured Sven Bender in the middle, with Neven Subotic to the right and Mats Hummels the left. Lukasz Piszczek started as the right wing back with Kevin Grosskreutz on the left. Sebastian Kehl played the deep role in midfield, with Ivan Perisic and Moritz Leitner either side of him and Robert Lewandowski was partnered up front by Marco Reus.

Borussia Dortmund v Schalke three man defence Klopp

When Dortmund did have three at the back, the most interesting aspect of the match was Piszczek v Ibrahim Afellay. Piszczek is a naturally attack-minded full back but playing as a wing back it was as though he forgot he was still required to defend and get goalside of his Dutch opponent. Subsequently, with Piszczek playing so advanced, Afellay was happy to just tuck in slightly and stay high up the pitch, ready to hit Dortmund on the counter.

Borussia Dortmund v Schalke tacticsPiszczek’s positioning had severe repercussions for the other players around him. With Afellay (light blue ring) cleverly tucking inside slightly, into a pocket of space where he was able to get the ball and turn, Dortmund needed to make a decision as to who should mark the winger.

If Subotic allowed himself to be dragged up the pitch, he would leave Lewis Holtby and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in a 2v2 situation against Bender (inexperienced at centre back) and Hummels.

However, if Subotic decided to stay with the backline, Kehl had to drift over towards that side of the pitch from central midfield. But this would leave Leitner and Perisic, two more attack-minded players, to mark three Schalke players in the central zone – Holtby, Marco Hoger and Roman Neustadter.

Dortmund never really found the best way to solve the problem of who should mark Afellay – Kehl sometimes picked up the Dutchman but on other occasions he left Subotic to come forward and mark.

Schalke attacked as a 4-1-4-1 with Hoger breaking forward from midfield, leaving Neustadter to sit. Huntelaar did well in occupying both Bender and Hummels, leaving Holtby, who played very high up the pitch, to take advantage of Subotic’s confusion over who to mark and where to position himself.

Holtby made a series of clever diagonal runs towards the left hand side of the pitch, making use of the gaps created by both Subotic and Kehl over that side of the field, as a result of neither knowing who should be responsible for marking Afellay.

Once Dortmund conceded the second, Klopp brought on Julian Schieber and they switched to a back four of Bender, Subotic, Hummels and Piszczek. However in attack they lacked shape.

Klopp then tried changing them to their favoured 4-2-3-1 after the introduction of Leonardo Bittencourt, but by this point there was no real understanding of what every player’s role was and attacks lacked a high tempo – if Dortmund needed anyone it was the injured Mario Götze.

Overall Schalke thoroughly deserved their derby victory. They were well organised, a real threat on the counter, and Afellay’s positioning caused all sorts of problems for a Dortmund side that couldn’t adjust to a back three and once back to a familiar shape, had lost all its flair.

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Sam Thompson is the sole editor and writer of TTTFootball, a football tactics website, and can be found on twitter: @TTTFootball

(photo credit: Fanthomas (2) via Flickr Creative Commons)

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3 Responses to “Talking Tactics: Borussia Dortmund’s three at the back”

  1. Kane prior
    October 23, 2012 at 6:31 pm #

    I thought the two big problems were the use of bender in defence (as he was completely unused to it) and the lightweight midfield. They could complete in midfield or dominate possession, which meant the wing backs were constantly caught out of position. I would have liked to have seen hummels step up into midfield and help dominate possession, though the defence was probably too weak for that to happen regularly.

    Good review of the match though!

    • Sam Thompson
      October 23, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

      Many thanks for your kind words!

      Yeah it seemed strange to position Bender in the middle of the back three too, where he was always likely to be most vulnerable.

      I agree with your point on Hummels. His distribution at the weekend was very good but I think Dortmund really missed both Gundogan and Gotze – both are good on the ball and it was this that Dortmund lacked through their spine!


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