Tactics : Arsenal 1-2 Borussia Dortmund
Dominating their own league, Arsenal and Dortmund were opposed on Tuesday evening. Dortmund finally managed to win what was a very tight game.
It quickly appeared that this match was not the opposition of two different tactical schemes, as both teams, when playing defensively, were looking identical. On Gunners´ side, the 4-2-3-1 was deprived of a genuine defensive midfielder like Flamini (Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Flamini, Ramsey – Wilshere, Rosicky, Özil – Giroud). For Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp had to deal without Gundogan to get the ball out and lead Borussia game (Weidenfeller – Grosskreutz, Subotic, Hummels, Schmelzer – Bender, Sahin – Blaszczykowski, Mkhitaryan, Reus – Lewandowski).
On both sides, the “Germans” and the “English” have decided to establish their first line around the midfield, with Lewandoski and Giroud respectively. Both players would usually get the support from one partner, and let the defense come to them. The pressing phase was then triggered by the midfielders, who were coming out to press the players about to get the ball. The aggressiveness of the Borussia midfielders, however, quickly resulted in a broad domination of Dortmund.
The first key-player in the pressing, Mkhitaryan, was in charge of blocking Arteta´s play in the center of the pitch. He succeeded so well that Arsenal had to find other relays than Arteta to cross the midfield. Those relays had often to go down low on the pitch, and as such, became targets of Dortmund’s four midfielders. With the exception of Sahin, who was sometimes a bit late in his movements to press the relays and thus, easily avoided by Arsenal passes, the German midfielders have mostly controlled their opponent’s movements. And when this line was bypassed, the lack of precision of the Sagna-Wilshere-Ramsey trio on the right flank allowed Dortmund to get control again in its own camp.
Arsenal awaiting… and its price:
Once they were controlling the ball, Dortmund was facing a Londonian team with a much more passive strategy. Behind Giroud or Ramsey (or Özil and even Wilshere, depending on the situation), Arsenal midfielders were much less responsive to the first passes of Borussia. This was facilitated for Borussia by the implementation of all kind of axial “threats”. The first pass was handled by Sahin, Hummels and Subotic, while Bender and Mkhitaryan were joined by Reus, leaving his left wing to offer more axial solutions. This move was forcing Arsenal midfielders to get closer from their axial covering line, and therefore opened up the space on the wings for Grosskreutz or Schmelzer.
Another issue for the Gunners was stemming from defensive players (especially Hummels) climbing up to help on offensive phases. Lewandowski, able to keep the ball despite the challenges from Mertesacker and Koscielny, was the obvious target for passes. Facing his partners, he could easily launch Reus or Mkhitaryan in the axis. By keeping a 4-players compact line in the midfield, the Gunners were preventing good passes from reaching Lewandowski. As a result, the Germans never really managed to find spaces when they were constructing their offense. However, the Londonian players finally paid for this passive defense.
Indeed, letting Dortmund develop its movements also meant that the team was exposed to huge pressure on its own side. This proved to be true on Mkhitaryan´s goal (18th min). Arsenal got the ball back next to its keeper´s surface, but Ramsey gave in to Reus´ pressing. A good relay of Lewandowski later, and the most expensive summer acquisition of Borussia was able to score the first goal.
Playing wide, the key to block Dormund:
With a one goal lead, Dortmund could keep applying the same plan, but had to face much more mobile Gunners. Instead of staying in Mkhitaryan´s area, Arteta didn´t hesitate to go lower on the pitch and give space for Rosicky (left side) and Ramsey/Wilshere (right side) to go down as well. Arsenal could then exploit one of the weak points of Dortmund: using the sides to bypass the midfield block. Rosicky, who is really fit, could go down and attract one opponent. Dortmund midfielders who stayed in the axis would get closer to their partner, then Rosicky could aim at the other flank, where Sagna and Wilshere-Ramsey had to attack Schmelzer quickly before the rest of Dortmund block would shift to help its left defense.
Not long before the break, the London players used a strategy to equalize, starting by successfully getting the ball out despite the German pressure, followed by switching side in two passes to reach Sagna. Facing Dortmund midfielders, who had to step back, the right lateral could ask for a one-and-go and progress in Dortmund camp, then deliver a precise center. At the reception of the center, Subotic and Weidenfeller screwed up and offer an easy equalization to Giroud (41st min).
After the break, the game started on the same ground, with Arsenal waiting and letting Dortmund dominate. While Rosicky and Özil were in charge of blocking Grosskreutz and Schmelzer´s movement on the wings, Giroud and Ramsey were dragged into very low position by up movements from Hummels or Subotic. But, without Gundogan, Dortmund was still struggling to get any real chance, as only Lewandowski, Reus or Mkhitaryan could take the free space in the last 20 meters (and in particular to end their movements on the right wing with Grosskreutz).
The match really changed once Cazorla stepped in (57th min). Substituting Wilshere, the Spanish player took position on the left wing but as a XXX. For a few minutes already, the Gunners had tried to bypass the Dortmund midfielder by going through the axis, with Rosicky (now playing right/axial) and Wilshere (left midfielder). But the young English player almost sunk his team by losing a ball under pressing, and only a referee intervention interrupted Borussia movement straight toward Szczesny´s goal.
Cazorla changes it all:
Cazorla started his work by moving systematically toward the axis to complete Rosicky and Arteta. His moves allowed Ramsey to play much higher. and to back Giroud, while Özil was joining Sagna on the right wing. Once in possession of the ball, Arsenal was therefore forming a losange (Arteta ; Rosicky-Cazorla ; Ramsey) in the axis. Resisting to pressing, Cazorla orientated his passes like Rosicky was doing during the first half, toward the right wing, where Özil, an Arsenal key player who nevertheless didn´t show up at all during the first half, was finally finding space to express his skills. The alternative to this movement was to aim at Ramsey in between the opposite lines.
Much more at ease on an advanced position, the Walish player was complementing the movements of Sagna and Özil on the right side, which led the Dortmund block to step back, trying both to prevent being outnumbered and allowing Özil to make the difference on a one on one situation. By densifying its left wing to counter Arsenal actions, Dortmund lowered its pressing. In turn, the Gunners finally could play mostly in the Dortmund camp, and use Arteta to distribute passes on the whole width. Entering the last 30 meters by the right, they were able to then get the ball out through the Catalan and finish the movement on the right side with Gibbs moving up.
Facing this renewed domination of Arsenal, Jurgen Klopp reacted by using substitutes, Hofmann and Aubameyang, in place of Mkhitaryan and Blaszczykowski (65th minute); two changes that made it clear that Dortmund was, from this point on, relying on counterstrikes. After a gorgeous shot by Cazorla on the post (68th minute), the Schwarz-Gelben were more than ever depending on Lewandowski´s efficiency, since he was the only player with no defensive task. For a long time, the Polish player was physically dominated by Koscielny and Mertesacker,,,,
But one interception was enough for him to launch a victorious movement. Faster than Mertesacker, Lewandowski could realign his midfielders in a proper offense position with a few passes. By switching the ball from left to right, Borussia midfielders could in turn launch Grosskreutz on the wing, using a relay from Aubameyang to get Gibbs out of the way, Free from any direct opposition, the right wing player could adjust his center on the second post, on Lewandowski, full speed and free as well, thanks to Reus and Hofmann’s runs who attracted Arsenal´s defence in the axis (82nd minute).
If not at its best level, Borussia Dortmund nevertheless managed to gets victory at last, precious in prevision of the upcoming struggle with Arsenal and Naples. Playing without Gundogan always turns to be problematic against teams with dense playing schemes, and Arsenal was certainly aware of it when it chose its own positioning. Unfortunately for them, Gunners got crushed by an individual mistake, which put them under pressure. Wenger´s approach was nevertheless close to success, even if some players lacked a bit of precision (Wilshere, Ramsey) to back up the most efficient players (Giroud and Rosicky, among others). While preparing the back match, Arsène Wenger will certainly remember the losange he used in the second half and which deeply disturbed Borussia´s usual pressing scheme. Arsenal will need a point there if they want to be ahead of Naples before going to the San Paolo´s stadium for the last playoff game.
Translated by Rackham and Jennifer Hoffman – Original Version.