Second hosts third in the Bundesliga. Borussia Dortmund have lost once away all season, whereas Bayer Leverkusen are unbeaten at home. This is a contest between one of the league’s most proactive sides – Dortmund – against one of its most reactive – Leverkusen. This will be marginally tested by Leverkusen being at home, but still expect Dortmund to monopolise possession and the home side to attack on the break. However the most intriguing aspect of the fixture will be whether joint managers Sami Hyypia and Sascha Lewandowski will stick with Leverkusen’s usual 4-3-3 system, or switch to the 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 formation that they used against Dortmund earlier in the season. Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund will play in their usual way, so the pattern of the game will depend on Leverkusen’s choice of system.
Leverkusen’s 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 vs Dortmund’s 4-2-3-1
Hyypia and Lewandowski’s decision to switch formations against Dortmund was a curious one given they have not done so against anybody else, but the use of a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 shape has a precedent, having being implemented in the corresponding fixture last season by their predecessor Robin Dutt. The change appears to be an attempt to have greater defensive cover on the flanks whilst allowing Andre Schurrle to remain upfield for counter attacking opportunities. A holding midfielder, Simon Rolfes, is sacrificed from their usual 4-1-2-3 and replaced by a wide midfielder, Jens Hegeler, to play on the left, with Gonzalo Castro moving from a wide forward position to wide midfield on the right flank. Schurrle moves from his usual wide forward position to a central role tasked with finding space behind Stefan Kieβling.
The defensive part makes sense. Dortmund’s band of advanced midfielders tend to play quite narrowly and so their width is provided by their attacking full backs, Marcel Schmelzer and Lukasz Pisczcek. Both players are able to attack with relative abandon, given the defensive cover provided by Dortmund’s deep midfield pairing of Sebastian Kehl and Ilkay Gundogan, as well as the excellent defensive understanding of first choice centre back pairing Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic. By playing with four players across midfield, Leverkusen’s wingers Hegeler and Castro are able to watch the runs of the Dortmund full backs and allow their own full backs to concentrate on the movement of Marco Reus and Jacob Blaszczykowski.
The problem with the system is the number of players Leverkusen have committed to defending, effectively 8 vs 6 attacking Dortmund players. For a team that relies so heavily on counter attacking, leaving Schurrle and Kieβling against Dortmund’s centre back paring and two midfielders makes retaining possession upfield particularly difficult. Schurrle is adept at moving wide to take advantage of the space behind the advancing full backs, but the sheer number of Dortmund players around him make it difficult for him to create opportunities for his forward partner.
The final problem with this shape is the freedom granted to Kehl and Gundogan, Dortmund’s holding midfielders. Faced with one direct opponent they are afforded the freedom to alternately moving forward to support attacks without fear of compromising the team defensively. With Stefan Reinartz and Lars Bender occupied by Mario Gotze, Reus and Blaszczykowski there is also little chance of the Dortmund midfielders being adequately closed down, allowing them time to spread the play or the freedom to make attacking runs.
The previous fixture in which Leverkusen utilised this system ended with a comfortable 3-0 victory for Dortmund, so Hyypia and Lewandowski may be reluctant to try the same again. Nevertheless the formation would not have been used without due consideration and with two managers (or three) using the plan in successive seasons there appears to be a theory within the club that this is a viable option against the German champions.
Leverkusen’s 4-1-2-3 vs Dortmund’s 4-2-3-1
However, considering the previous result and the success Leverkusen have had with their usual 4-3-3 variation it is likely that Hyypia and Lewandowski will stick with what they know. This is perhaps more likely given the tactical matchup between their 4-1-2-3 system and Dortmund’s 4-2-3-1. In theory Leverkusen’s wide forwards should pose Dortmund a greater attacking threat, and a compact three man midfield should stifle the space inhabited by Reus, Gotze and Blaszczykowski whilst also deterring Kehl and Gundogan from breaking forward from deep midfield positions.
Leverkusen’s full backs will need to be aware of the duel threat of Dortmund’s advanced midfielder and attacking runs from full back, so will require some defensive support from both their midfielder and wide forwards. Yet Schurrle and Castro will want to be as brave as possible in their positioning – they are accustomed to tracking back to their own half, but prefer to remain close to the halfway line to initiate counter attacks when possession is won. Dortmund’s full backs will therefore be challenged to either play more conservatively than usual, or trust that their opponents will be adequately covered by their teammates behind them. Whether Leverkusen line up in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-1-2-3, the defensive and attacking contribution of Dortmund’s full backs will be a crucial factor in determining which team comes out on top.
Both Schurrle and Castro are versatile attackers, capable of remaining wide or attacking central areas, but they are most likely to find success against Dortmund’s weakness down the flanks. To describe it as a weakness is slightly harsh given the quality of Dortmund’s full backs, but in reality compared to the solidity of their central defensive unit – two deep midfielder shielding the centre back pairing – the flanks are the areas to attack. This is more relevant with the loss of first choice centre back Subotic who has an excellent understanding with Hummels, and Leverkusen may find the incoming Felipe Santana easier to pull out of position. The comparison to the 4-4-1-1 is clear. Whereas that option requires Schurrle to alternately threaten both flanks, in a 4-3-3 variation Castro and Schurrle can both stretch Dortmund’s defence.
Finally Leverkusen’s three man midfield appears a better fit against Dortmund’s fluid attack. Defending the space ahead of the defence is paramount against Dortmund, so a tiered midfield such as Leverkusen’s offers the appropriate depth that will prevent the opposing playmakers finding space, whilst also competing for the ball in the centre of the pitch. This formation also permits either Rolfes or Bender to join attacks without fear of leaving the team exposed.
Whatever formation Leverkusen choose, they will look to contain Dortmund before breaking quickly. As always, Schurrle will be the home side’s key man and will need to provide a constant attacking threat to prevent Dortmund, who are likely to dominate possession, taking control in the Leverkusen half. Leverkusen’s concern over Dortmund’s full backs is understandable but they also need to acknowledge that these are the areas to attack Klopp’s side. Matches between inherently proactive and reactive sides are always interesting, especially as goals alter the course of the game and teams are forced to adjust their mentality.