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Favre’s 4-2-3-1

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The tactical nuances of Favre’s setup, and what to expect going forward

Liverpool v Borussia Dortmund - International Champions Cup 2018 Photo by Bob Leverone/Getty Images

Dortmund’s start to the season has been been a roller coaster. As one of the only three teams left in the top 5 leagues still considered “invincible”, with 7 wins and 2 draws in all competitions, BVB preside in first place in the Bundesliga. The only other teams to start invincible this campaign are Juventus and Chelsea, placing this side in elite company.

Club Brugge v Borussia Dortmund - UEFA Champions League Group A Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Early on in the season, the attacking play was suffering, drawing comparisons to Stöger’s stale stint, from when he was the manager last year. BVB’s style of play under Stöger mirrored the team’s performances against Hannover, Club Brugge, and Hoffenheim, squeaking out 0:0, 1:0, and 1:1 results, respectively, after being dominated for large stretches of play.

In recent weeks, the play has been more similar to vintage Tuchel, as the team has been dominating possession, scoring goals, while also being slightly more vulnerable at the back. Favre’s tendency of breaking expected goals has also been a common theme too. A key component of making this happen has been the slow refinement for Favre’s 4-2-3-1, as well as the introduction of Paco Alcacer into the side.

What is really interesting is that Favre started the season out with a 4-3-3, often having Witsel at the base of the midfield 3.

4-3-3

The problem about how Favre initially lined up was a lack of creativity in the midfield and attack. The midfield puzzle was a source of frustration for a lot of viewers of BVB in the first three or four weeks of this campaign. While Delaney offered a valid source of physicality and intangibles, he lacked consistent output offensively and defensively. Dahoud was often forced to be the spark going forward, but he tried to do too much at times and wasn't making incisive passes in the final third. The inclusion of Wolf was almost always questioned, as he is more limited offensively than Sancho, Pulisic, and Bruun Larsen. On the other hand, the recent arrival from Frankfurt was probably mostly included for two or three specific factors: his relatively higher defensive output over the other options, his ability to run into space, and Favre’s willingness to isolate him at the back post. None of these situations suited him, but he managed to capitalize once to secure BVB’s win over his former team in a 3-1 win, in what was, ironically, the first time that Favre played with the 4-2-3-1 formation.

Weirdly, Favre stopped pandering to the depth of the midfield in the squad and built a squad that was shaped around the quality in BVB’s front like. That was first done by switching to a 4-2-3-1 against Frankfurt, which looked like the graphic below. Witsel did not start, due to Martinez’s poor judgement by playing him for 180 minutes the week before the game, including a full 90 minutes just three days before he was supposed to play for BVB.

4-2-3-1

Starting that game, the midfield and forward players have had distinct roles to how the players are supposed to break down the opposing low block. The deep lying CM tends to be stout defensively, shielding the back line, building up play from the back, while also occasionally trying to complete a long ball. The progressive CM tends to carry the ball towards the opposition, and attempts to facilitate play in the final third. The creative winger (either Pulisic or Sancho) tends to drop deeper or slide into the middle, using their creativity to break down the opposition. Oddly, Bruun Larsen has slowly made Wolf’s role his own, intelligently making runs into the opposing 18 and finishing his chances brilliantly. His play has started to resemble that of a raumdeuter, or someone who will capitalize off of intelligent runs and spacial awareness. While his finishing and creative numbers are eye catching, his inability to beat an opponent by dribbling does remain as a weakness in his game, as he has completed only 2 dribbles so far this season. So far, one of the keys to this side has been Marco Reus playing his preferred position at the 10 (or as Favre calls it, 9.5). His movement, especially when playing with Alcacer, has been great, and he has racked up 7 goals and 4 assists in all competitions so far this year.

All of these changes combined, the squad looked like this at some point against Augsburg on Saturday.

And while Favre may have lined the squad up like this, there are elements of tactical nuance that are being unnoticed.

A key example of the varied ways BVB can attack a back line is described by the Monaco game. For the first goal, Sancho drifted inside with the ball, and found JBL with an intelligent pass into the 18. Tracking Bruun Larsen, we see that he drifts inwards and then makes a very intelligent diagonal run behind Monaco’s back line, which looked something like this.

BVB’s second goal against Monaco game came from Reus receiving the ball in a pocket of space, immediately recognizing Alcacer’s intelligent run away from him, and placing a ball behind a Monaco defender into Paco’s feet, which he proceeded to slot away.

With the inclusion of attacking fullback Achraf Hakimi into the side, another goal threat has been added with his competent crossing ability. Evidence of that was shown in the 4:2 comeback against Leverkusen, and was detailed by Sean a couple weeks ago.

What has also been really interesting is that Favre has been intent on maintaining the 5 attackers and 5 defenders structure that he implemented earlier this year, shown by the graphic below.

Although the manner by how this is achieved on a week to week basis can vary, recently it has been implemented with the inclusion of Hakimi pushing relatively far up field, while a defensive block of Witsel, Weigl, Diallo, Zagadou, and Akanji was used to recycle play, protect against the counter, and recover any balls that are played into dangerous areas.

While this particular back line setup may be changed after its poor performance against Augsburg, there is a solid foundation that can be improved upon. There is no need to worry, especially with a bogey team like Augsburg, who has drawn against both Bayern and Gladbach. What is slightly concerning though, is that all three of Augsburg’s goals came from crosses, while two of the three goals came from set pieces (free kick, corner). The second of Augburg’s goals came directly from Hakimi losing his man at the back post after a cross from the corner was redirected Andre Hahn to Philipp Max. This season, Augsburg’s direct style and physicality will be tough for anyone to play well against, and BVB bore the brunt of that last week.

And while this might not be the worst thing, the Witsel-Weigl double pivot is rather overly defensive and somewhat rhetorical in possession. The most offensive contribution that the midfield pair provided against Augsburg was Witsel’s spectacular pre-assist to Jadon Sancho, hitting him in stride and splitting two defenders 30 meters away. Once Götze was substituted in for Weigl, the possession play was much more lethal, as Augsburg had to deal with creative force against their low block in an entirely new area of the pitch. Watch out to see if Favre tries to play him as a direct rival to Dahoud in that progressive center mid position after this week. It would give BVB more options going forward, however it could potentially compromise the ability of the remaining defensive block of players by threatening to push too many numbers forward.

If you were Favre, what other changes would you make? What changes have stood out to you over the last couple weeks?