Borussia Dortmund vs Real Madrid (Champions League Semi Final)

24/04/13

Mats Hummels is finally fit enough to return to Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League starting XI at the expense of Felipe Santana. Elsewhere Sven Bender is likely to play ahead of Sebastian Kehl in what should be Jurgen Klopp’s first choice line-up.

A suspension to Alvaro Arbeloa will mean Jose Mourinho is in need of a full back: Sergio Ramos may move from centre back rather than Michael Essien coming in. Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain continue to tussle for the forward position, although the Frenchman’s weekend goal may give him the edge.

These sides met in the group stage, Dortmund winning 2-1 at home before earning a 2-2 draw in the Bernabeu with a mixture of intelligent defence and quick counter attacks.

Probable line-ups.

Probable line-ups.

Both Sides Ceding Possession

In their group stages meetings Dortmund triumphed by allowing Real Madrid possession before breaking quickly. This allowed Klopp to do two things: exploit his own side’s excellence on the counter whilst denying Madrid the opportunity to counter themselves. Such was their success that it would be a huge surprise if Dortmund were not to pursue this plan again. This also supports a wider point – these two sides may be the best counter attacking teams in Europe.

The result is that the game is likely to become a contest of counter-possession. Mourinho will be aware of the problem caused by Dortmund, and Manchester United earlier in the knockout stages, and surely adjust his side accordingly. It has been accepted for a couple of years that Madrid are at their most dangerous without the ball, yet a combination of footballing arrogance and lack of genuine opposition – with the notable exception of Barcelona – has allowed Madrid to continue to dominate possession. Yet with Mourinho’s final season at the club supposedly winding down it may be time to fold to necessity and instruct his players to yield possession more readily.

Xabi Alonso

Since their previous meetings Klopp has talked openly about the importance of stopping Xabi Alonso rather than Cristiano Ronaldo in order to stifle Madrid. While the plan was pretty evident from the two games, the willingness that Klopp has spoken about his tactics suggests that he didn’t expect to play Madrid again. With their plan seemingly in public view, the emphasis will be on either Madrid adapting to it, or Klopp changing it.

Whether Dortmund develop a different approach or not, pressing Alonso will surely still play a major part. Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski will look to occupy Madrid’s playmaker at every opportunity, meaning the emphasis will turn to others – notably Sami Khedira and the centre backs – to play vertical passes to the attack quartet. There is a precedent here: Danny Welbeck successfully pressed Alonso out of the game at Old Trafford until Nani’s red card and the introduction of Luka Modric gave Mourinho two incisive passers from deep midfield. There is no suggestion that Modric will start ahead of Khedira, but should Alonso struggle to escape Dortmund’s attention Mourinho will now feel he has a proven Plan B.

Midfield Movement

When 4-2-3-1 systems meet, the space between the midfields is crucial. The formation is tiered in such a way that teams can often become broken: six defensive players looking to feed the front four. To make the sides more fluid requires movement between these tiers, preferably from each end of the midfield triangle.

At the top of the midfields Gotze is more willing than Mesut Ozil to drop deep in search of possession. Both German playmakers have excellent movement but in different ways. Ozil’s movement is mostly lateral, preferring to remain upfield but drift from flank to flank in search of space. In contrast Gotze is more vertical, and like another young German playmaker, Toni Kroos, he is able to adopt positions from any tier between midfield and attack. Last season Ozil and Kroos met in the Champions League Semi Final, when Madrid met Bayern Munich, and Kroos’ movement back into midfield was considered to give Bayern an advantage. Gotze is similar to Kroos in his willingness to drop deep into midfield. Not only does this allow him to find space deeper, but it also entices either Alonso or, more likely, Khedira away from their station in front of the defence.

Attacking Full Backs

The other way to link defence and attack in a 4-2-3-1 system – and indeed any 4-4-2 variation – is with aggressive full backs. All four full backs enjoy getting forward, so rather than the emphasis on them to influence attacks, instead it will be whether they are adequately tracked by the opposing winger.

Dortmund have a large advantage in this respect. Both Marco Reus and Jakub Blaszczykowski are diligent defenders and work hard to track their opponents, often turning Dortmund into a 4-4-1-1 without the ball. In contrast Madrid are less disciplined – Angel Di Maria will often engage his full back but Ronaldo cannot be relied on to track Lukasz Piszczek’s runs from right back. The Polish full back has an excellent understanding with compatriot Blaszczykowski in front of him, and the two of them may find plenty of opportunities to isolate Fabio Coentrao on Dortmund’s right flank.

Summary

Despite failing to beat Dortmund in the group stage, Madrid come into this tie as the favourite. The general opinion appears to be that Madrid ultimately have too many top class players, including the brilliance of Ronaldo, to get past an inexperienced Dortmund side. Mourinho is also a fine tactician, and the likelihood is he will have a redesigned a plan based on their previous meetings.

This may be true, and yet Mourinho’s side are not infallible. Dortmund are a far more coherent side than Manchester United, and yet Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were looking relatively comfortable prior to Nani’s dismissal. They are likely to play on the counter again, so much will depend on the form of Roman Weidenfeller to keep Madrid’s attacks at bay. Dortmund’s goalkeeper was excellent against Malaga in the last round, and may have to be again.

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