The Ruhr derby is one of Europe’s most visceral spectacles. Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 are two sides for whom the word rivalry is not quite enough. These are two of the most passionate sets of fans in a nation that is famed for the passion of their various fan groups.
Originally, the upper hand in these matches was held by Schalke who were one of the most successful sides in German football in the days before a unified league structure and professional system. In the last few years, though, the balance of power has shifted drastically towards the yellow half of the derby. First under Jürgen Klopp, and now under the stewardship of Thomas Tuchel, Dortmund have been patiently building something special. An excellent scouting and player development network, combined with a tactical blueprint which has evolved but kept a clear focus, has made them one of the most exciting and feared teams in European football.
Summer 2016 saw the Dortmund squad remoulded following the loss of Mats Hummels, İlkay Gündoğan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to rival clubs. Young players like Emre Mor, Raphaël Guerreiro and Ousmane Dembélé had been added to the already talented core of Christian Pulisic, Julian Weigl and Felix Passlack.
That said, their opponents in the derby have also quietly assembled a young and talented squad. They have a core of German players in Leon Goretzka, Max Meyer and Johannes Geis that represent a significant focus on the future of the club. Now, with the blue half of the clash coached by the former Augsburg coach Markus Weinzierl and overseen by the former Mainz director of football Christian Heidel, there seems to be a focus and plan in place that has been missing at the club in recent years.
For Dortmund the defensive unit held few surprises. Lukasz Piszczek and Felix Passlack filled the full-back roles, while Matthias Ginter and Sokratis Papastathopolous were in the central positions. The midfield, however, was interesting with Tuchel choosing to start with Julian Weigl as usual in the deeper controlling role and Mario Götze and Shinji Kagawa in the number 8 positions. Given that both of these players are perhaps more comfortable as 10s, this would add an interesting tactical dimension to the match. In the attacking strata, Dembélé and Pulisic would flank Aubameyang in a dynamic forward line.
Schalke started with a fairly standard 4-3-3 system that had Max Meyer and Alessandro Schopf flanking Argentine striker Franco Di Santo in attack. The midfield for Schalke is the strength of the side, with Geis and Goretzka playing along with the versatile Algerian international Nabil Bentaleb.
Dortmund attack through half spaces
In most instances teams that are well coached will come into matches with a clear plan in terms of how they will attack the opposition’s defensive structure. In this match, there seemed to be a real emphasis from Dortmund on trying to create overloads through the half spaces and in particular down the left side. Götze had come back i to the side for the match and played on the left side of the central midfield.
Playing two creative players – in Kagawa and Götze – in a slightly deeper area of the pitch gives the side interesting options in the build up phase. Playing Dembélé on the left and having the naturally right footed Passlack at left-back led to some nice pieces of combination play as Dortmund attacked.
Here, the player in possession of the ball on the left hand side is Götze. He has Passlack and Dembélé in advance of him and Aubameyang also in close attendance. These short connections make it easier for technically proficient players to play through the defensive structure of Schalke and create overloads against isolated defensive players. The fact that these movements kept occurring suggest that Tuchel had identified these areas as the easiest way to access the space behind the Schalke back line.
Again, we have Götze operating in the left half space. As Weigl plays the ball out to him he is in a comfortable space. Passlack immediately starts to overload the wide area with a vertical run and Dembélé keeps his defensive player pinned by remaining static. Those two movements allow Gotze to take possession of the ball and drive vertically towards the opposition area with minimal defensive interference.
Whilst these attacking movements and overloads failed to yield a goal in this match, it was still interesting to see the thinking that had gone in to the game plan beforehand.
Poor spacing from Dortmund
One of the strengths of Dortmund last season and at the beginning of this was their awareness of positional structure in the attacking transition. Every time a player had possession of the ball in the middle third of the pitch, there were plentiful passing options, both in supporting positions and in more advanced areas of the pitch.
Over the last few weeks, however, the attacking fluidity that we were starting to see from Dortmund has started to fade and issues with positional spacing are becoming more and more evident.
This image is captured as Dortmund are building up in the middle third of the pitch. The front three have taken up narrow positions across the back line of the Schalke defence and Kagawa and Götze are both in the half spaces of their respective sides of the pitch.
The issue comes in the central area of the pitch, as I have highlighted. That space needs to be accessed to allow Dortmund to play from a more advanced platform than they are at the moment. There are a variety of ways in which this space can be accessed. Götze could move laterally, Aubameyang could drop into the space or Weigl could advance forward. Instead, the structure of the attacking movement is too rigid, with players staying in set zones and not moving into the more dangerous areas.
Here you can see Kagawa in possession as Dortmund look to progress their attack. Weigl is in a deeper position and is available to support the attack. The spacing between Götze and the other two midfielders, though, is poor. Schlake are arrayed in a defensive block but Götze is poorly connected and cannot be easily played in to. Without a more effective midfield shape and more fluid movement from Dortmund it was unlikely that they would be able to break down this Schalke side.
Schalke continually look to switch play
If Dortmund were looking to play through the half spaces into overloads, then the attacking game plan from Schalke was to switch the ball from the centre of the field to access the space behind and around the Dortmund full-backs, especially the relatively inexperienced Passlack on the left.
Geis has possession of the ball in the central area. The Dortmund defensive line has been narrowed by the vertical run of a midfielder who has pulled Passlack inside. This movement has opened up space for Schalke to access the wide areas, which they do time and time agan.
This time sees a similar attacking movement, although this one comes in transition and the switch is from right to left. Schalke had obviously identified a weak point in the Dortmund system in these wide deep areas as Geis and Goretzka were constantly trying to exploit these parts of the pitch as they moved forward. As with Dortmund looking to overload the half spaces, these attacking movements did not lead to a goal. They did, however, lead to an open game, especially in the first half when Schalke were more willing to stream forward looking for the opening goal.
It is too soon to say that there is something wrong at Dortmund. The attacking fluency seems to have escaped them at the moment but in all likelihood they will rediscover this shortly. There are signs that Tuchel may be overthinking the tactical side of the game with his highly mechanised midfield set up. Perhaps a greater sense of freedom for the players in these areas are needed going forward.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis