“La BBC contra el Muro Amarillo,” ran Tuesday’s front page headline in Madrid’s football newspaper, Marca. Translated as, “the BBC (Bale, Benzema and Cristiano) against the Yellow Wall,” the paper focused on the challenge posed to Real Madrid’s superstars at Signal-Iduna Park in Westphalia, Germany.
The Yellow Wall describes the 25,000 capacity grandstand behind the goal on the southern terrace of the stadium, hitherto known as the Westfalenstadion prior to its current commercial identity.
The largest free-standing grandstand in Europe, and the raucous and colourful atmosphere it produces, was the least of the holders’ worries ahead of this match. Borrusia Dortmund were looking for a fourth successive home win against Los Merengues whose record in Germany is poor – they had won just four times away to German opposition in 29 attempts.
As if that wasn’t enough, Dortmund were on fire in the lead-up to this clash having notched 20 goals in their last four matches as they equalled a club record 24 home league matches unbeaten. In addition, their 6-0 thrashing of Legia Warsaw on matchday one was their biggest-ever away victory in European competition.
Madrid, on the other hand, had drawn back-to-back matches in La Liga, twice surrendering the lead on the island of Gran Canaria as they dropped two points against Las Palmas at the weekend. That anything less than a win here could tip Zinedine Zidane’s men into a mini-crisis – despite their current position atop the La Liga standings – speaks to the high expectation levels at the Bernabéu.
It wasn’t all bad news for Los Blancos though, with plenty of stats in their favour as well. The Spaniards were on a 22-match unbeaten run in the group stages of the Champions League and were unbeaten in 19 matches in all competition, a run stretching back to 6 April. The last team to inflict defeat on Madrid was a Wolfsburg side containing André Schürrle, who signed for Dortmund this summer and started on the bench here.
That was the first leg of last season’s quarter-final. Real overturned the deficit and went on to win the final in Milan, handing them La Undecima, the club’s record-breaking 11th success in Europe’s premier competition. AC Milan were the last club to win the European Cup in consecutive seasons and Madrid continue their quest to become the first club to replicate that in the Champions League era.
Team news and formations
Borussia Dortmund were missing Marc Bartra and Marco Reus, both out with groin injuries. Only Bartra would have been a guaranteed starter, though, and the 22-year-old Matthias Ginter has proved a reliable back-up in recent weeks and continued here.
In the summer transfer window, Dortmund were of course deprived of the considerable talents of the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mats Hummels and İlkay Gündoğan, however they have recruited well and arguably their biggest coup of the summer was retaining the services of the prolific Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The Gabon international is one of the hottest forwards in Europe right now and had scored six goals in his last six appearances prior to this match.
In André Schürrle and two exciting teenage prospects in Emre Mor and Christian Pulisic, Dortmund also had ample reinforcements on the bench. They lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Julian Weigl as the midfield anchorman. Weigl, despite being just 21, is crucial as the pivot in Thomas Tuchel’s system, which is characterised by fast and aggressive counter pressing and swift vertical passing through attacking phases.
BVB: Bürki, Piszczek, Sokratis, Ginter, Schmelzer, Weigl, Dembélé, Götze, Castro, Guerreiro, Aubameyang
Zinedine Zidane claimed he wasn’t worried by his side’s consecutive league draws, saying that the team was playing well and were “working” on certain aspects of their game. Casemiro missed both those matches with an ankle injury, and it’s no coincidence that Madrid dropped points without him. Zidane has described the Brazilian as “fundamental” to his team for his diligent and disciplined displays.
James Rodríguez joined Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić in a midfield three as Zidane stuck to his favoured 4-3-3 formation with Danilo drafted in to replace the injured Marcelo at left-back. Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane continued in the centre of defence so Pepe had to be content with a place on the bench. Zidane also had a big call to make in goal with Keylor Navas returning after an Achilles problem. His deputy, Kiko Casilla, has grabbed his chance and impressed recently, but the coach chose to go with the Costa Rican. It was tough on Casilla and would prove to be a decisive decision by the Frenchman.
Real Madrid: Navas, Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Danilo, Modrić, Kroos, James, Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale
Dortmund fast out of the traps
The match started with almost identical free-kick opportunities for each team as both goalkeepers were called into early action to make good saves from Ronaldo and Castro. Dortmund had exploded out of the traps and started very much on the offensive with Mario Götze and Castro, pictured below, taking up dangerous positions between Madrid’s midfield and defensive lines.
The match was being played at breakneck speed as Tuchel’s game plan to pressure Madrid in their defensive third was clear. There were early warning signs for Dortmund, however. You can see from this image the high counter-press as Madrid cleared a cross into the box.
Cristiano Ronaldo is very deep collecting possession, facing his own goal, and was forced to pass back the way. But with five Dortmund attackers involved with the press, Toni Kroos, circled, was free centrally to receive a pass and spring a counter-attack.
On this occasion, Ronaldo rolled the ball back to Danilo who went direct with a first-time long ball towards Karim Benzema. The Frenchman, with support from Modrić, had begun his run inside his own half and was therefore onside. Had the pass been better, Benzema would have been through on the goalkeeper. As it
As it was, Sokratis was able to cover and contest the ball. Madrid’s number 9 had to halt his forward momentum, as seen below, rather than continuing on for a clear run at goal. It was typically high intensity pressing from Dortmund, but the indications at this early stage were that Madrid were more than capable of outmanoeuvring the traps and punishing the Germans on the counter.
Tuchel’s troops were not deterred, however, and kept looking for pressing triggers. When Ronaldo, this time only five yards ahead of his left-back, miscontrolled, that was the signal for two Dortmund players to converge and win the ball back. The reason for Ronaldo’s uncharacteristic indecision was the presence of a third yellow-shirted attacker blocking the only two available passing options that would have allowed the Portuguese to escape the press. This passage illustrated an effective Dortmund counter press as shown below.
Madrid were able to clear the danger, but this sequence was repeated twice more in quick succession, ending only when Aubameyang fouled goalkeeper Navas whilst chasing down a back pass from Real Madrid’s under pressure defence. There was nothing malicious in the challenge but Navas stayed down, more to take the heat out of Dortmund’s intensity and give his defence a break, rather than any injury.
Real effective counter-attacks
After a further three turnovers as Dortmund attacked were rebuffed and they won back possession to try again, Ousmane Dembélé found himself in a fantastic crossing position. The youngster had been kept quiet by Danilo until then and lacked the necessary composure to make the most of the opportunity.
Dortmund were overloading in attack throughout these phases and, with so many men committed to the counter-press, they were left exposed at the back. They would have got away with it on most occasions, but not against Madrid. The outstanding Modrić managed to fashion a genius pass with the outside of his boot from the edge of his own box to Benzema on the halfway line. The image below shows how Madrid were able to capitalise on the space as they had the freedom of Dortmund’s half to exploit.
Sokratis should have left Piszczek to close Benzema down while the Greek filtered back towards goal, but instead, both the right-back and centre-back were drawn to the ball. After strong hold up play, Benzema was able to play an easy pass to the oncoming Toni Kroos. From there on it was effectively 4v2 in favour of the attacking side. Kroos passed to James, who played in Bale, and the Welshman’s clever backheel set Ronaldo up for a clinical finish.
It was a sensational counter-attack by Madrid and could easily have been a hammer blow to the Germans, but they showed great determination to stick to their plan and continue to play positive and progressive football. Zidane, happy with a lead to protect, had asked Bale and Ronaldo to sit a lot deeper than they are accustomed to, as Madrid dropped back to a 4-5-1 formation.
The heat maps (left), courtesy of marca.com, illustrate how much time both spent in their own half, with Bale in particular having an extremely quiet and ineffective match on the whole.
The image below shows this midfield line, although Toni Kroos (highlighted) was out of position here as he pushed on to pressure the ball. Julian Weigl was consequently able to play a vertical pass to Götze through the channel that Kroos had vacated. This was a typical position for Weigl to take up and shows just how important he is as the conduit between Dortmund’s defence and attack. He was ably assisted throughout the match by Matthias Ginter who frequently stepped out of his defensive position to add another body in midfield.
Digging slightly deeper into the passing figures, however, shows a failing in Dortmund’s play on the night. It was Ginter, not Weigl, who received the most passes from team-mates – 87 in total – and most of his link up play was with his defensive partner Sokratis or the left-back Schmelzer. Weigl, on the ball, directed 26 passes to his more advanced central midfield colleagues Castro and Götze, but only managed nine to Gueirrero and five to Dembélé in the wide areas. These two have been an integral part of Dortmund’s good form so far this season, so this telling statistic shows how much the home side struggled to bring them into play – therefore losing vital attacking outlets on the flanks.
Dortmund’s persistence did pay off when they won a free-kick 25 yards from goal as half time approached. Raphaël Guerreiro took the kick, which should have been easily dealt with by Keylor Navas. Not for the first time in the match, however, Navas elected to punch the ball rather than catching it or palming it away to safety. He only managed to knock it against Raphaël Varane, and it looked like being an own goal until Aubemayang made sure it ended up in the back of the net. Kiko Casilla would have been on the bench wondering why it wasn’t him between the sticks.
The second half continued in the same vein as the first with Dortmund having the lion’s share of possession. Poor decision-making and a lack of penetration in the final third cost them as Guerreiro, Dembele and Aubameyang’s link up play was next to non-existent.
Raphaël Varane had the pace to thwart Aubameyang on the occasions he threatened to get free, and Dembélé got very little change out of Danilo, a right-footed player asked to fill in at left-back due to the absence of Marcelo. The game swung from end to end as Madrid also wasted several opportunities on the break, but it was the holders who took the lead again through Varane. Dortmund’s defence switched off at a corner, and Benzema’s volleyed effort cannoned off first the post then the crossbar before falling to Varane to prod home from inside the six-yard box.
Tuchel turns to youth
André Schürrle had replaced the ineffectual Götze by now, and with Dembélé and Guerreiro struggling to impose themselves, Pulisic and Emre Mor were also sent on to see if they could have any more of an impact. Dortmund pushed forward in a more conventional 4-3-3 with Pulisic and Schürrle now flanking Aubemayang. Schürrle was having some joy down the left as gaps appeared in Madrid’s shape.
The introduction of Mateo Kovačić, who replaced James, signalled Zidane’s intent to once again retreat and protect their lead. However, some of his players didn’t seem to get the memo and continued to operate a high press. In the image below, Madrid’s midfield line is far too high.
The four along the curved line should be nearer to Toni Kroos (circled), keeping a compact shape and packing the midfield as I’m sure Zidane intended. When Modrić attempted to rush Weigl, who cleverly turned into space, Bale, recognising the danger, points at the gaping space in the midfield but doesn’t bother to track back into it.
It was a strange, disjointed passage from the Madrid midfield and Toni Kroos was helpless as Weigl played a great ball through the vertical passing channel. The lack of midfield cover forced Dani Carvajal out of position to press the ball, as shown below, but the Dortmund forward was aware enough to flick the ball round the corner into the space the Madrid man had left vacant and Schürrle was away.
The ex-Chelsea man’s touch wasn’t great and he forced himself wide before Navas pushed his shot behind for a corner. Schürrle wasn’t to be denied for long, though. Pulisic was extremely lively when he came on, and when he picked the ball up on the right touchline and skipped past a couple of defenders to cross, Schürrle was once again free at the back post. He took one touch to get the ball out of his feet and this time there was no mistake as he smashed the ball high into the net past Navas.
This was a match that lacked the expected quality but was high on entertainment. Zidane almost executed a perfect smash-and-grab away European performance but was yet again forced to rue his side’s inability to close out a match from a winning position.
The reason they found themselves in a winning position was their more efficient use of the ball. Compared with the passing statistics of Dortmund that we looked at earlier, Toni Kroos was the main man for Madrid. Kroos was the recipient of 58 passes from team-mates, as opposed to Dortmund’s team high of Ginter with 87. But it was what he did with the ball that was more impressive.
We also saw how Weigl struggled to make incisive passes, hitting Dembélé, Guerreiro and Aubameyang just 11 times, nine times and once. In contrast, Kroos found Ronaldo and Modrić 11 times each and James nine times: the majority going forwards and leading to dangerous situations. That is why, in short, Madrid were able to equal Dortmund in scoring twice despite having just 41 percent possession.
A draw was probably a fair reflection on the balance of play. It leaves the sides level on four points at the top of Group F, and that is where they will likely stay, with only first and second place to be determined between the two.
By Graeme Ellis. Follow @3ll15_