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Favre’s Midfield Conundrum

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Following Dortmund’s draw against Hannover before the break, an inquest has begun, fairly or not, on Favre’s player selection and tactics during that game, and how he could have approached the match differently to gain a more positive result after 90 minutes.

Spacial Analysis

After two games, it is fair to say that Favre is a proponent of the Guardiola ideology of spacial analysis, dividing the pitch into 5 vertical strips- the center, the left and right wings, and the left and right half spaces that occupy the areas of the pitch in-between. The 433 that Favre has deployed so far has included a midfield 3 consisting of a CDM, or a 6, with two CMs, or 8s, lying directly adjacent and slightly further up the pitch, much like the graphic below.

Depiction of Half Spaces with a 433 formation

What is really interesting in Favre’s pressing scheme is that the 8s press vertically up the half spaces, intent on attacking the opponent’s CMs, which worked against Leipzig, as Dahoud and Delaney combined for 4 tackles and 7 interceptions. It worked against Leipzig because RB’s setup was based upon dominating the half-spaces, but their play was sloppy for a large stretch in the first half because of Delaney and Dahoud’s pressing onto their 8s and 10s in and around the center of the pitch.

Against Hannover, on the other hand, the vertical pressing was rather ineffective, as Andre Breitenreiter, Hannover’s current and Schalke’s former manager, took steps to minimize the pressing that BVB excelled at the week before.

As the graphic below depicts, the red areas are where Favre wants to press vertically, the blue area is where Favre wants his midfield base, and the purple areas are where Favre’s system was exposed.

Favre’s 433 Spacial Analysis

By limiting play in the the red areas by using a midfield double 6 pivot, where former Hamburg starlet Walace and Norwegian Iver Fossum rotated as the base of the midfield, Breitenreiter was able to not only beat the press, but pull the midfield 3 apart, exposing areas that opened because of BVB’s failing pressing scheme. Not only that, but 19 year old Linton Maina capitalized on the space on the wing next to the midfield 3, where he had enough time and space to either force Schmelzer forward and play to a runner behind Schmelzer, or whip in a cross from 25 meters out into the box. That happened numerous times, and BVB was forced to play defensively for the majority of the game against a team that, said bluntly, outperformed the black and yellow giants with less talent on the pitch.

While the belief in utilizing and pressing the half spaces is important, it is often utilized during sequences of play that include possession of the ball, so that the defensive flaws of the defensive structure will be harder to pull apart. A healthy alternative would be taking something from Klopp’s book, and utilizing a flexible 3 man midfield press, as each member of the midfield adjusts to pressure the ball and to take away the passing lanes. A belief in separating the field horizontally has worked since the conception of the 442, and is one of the best ways to organize a defensive foundation.

By pressuring the ball in such a fashion, the press is giving the back line time to adjust to any ball played over the top intent on switching the play, and allowing for a quick press and step to that natural outlet. Klopp’s Liverpool midfield of Milner, Henderson, Keita, and Wijnaldum have used a flexible press like this to quickly win the ball and transition effectively into the final third so effectively over the last year, and with quick center backs like Akanji and Diallo, it could certainly work against Bundesliga opposition.

While Favre’s tactics were spot on against Leipzig, and how he wanted to play against their 4222 shape, Hannover intelligently pulled our setup apart for the majority of the game. A plan B pressing setup was needed during the second half against Leipzig, when they put Werner in and switched to a 433, and a plan B is needed this Friday against a new look, but struggling, Frankfurt should pressing their 4231 shape not go to plan.

Player Analysis

Another facet of Favre’s conundrum is who he picks to play in his midfield 3 on Friday. While Delaney and Dahoud combined for 4 tackles and 7 interceptions against Leipzig, they combined for a meager 4 tackles and 3 interceptions, Akanji, Diallo, Pisczcek, and Witsel all had to muster at least their output, with Pisczcek completely outperforming both of them with 5 tackles and 4 interceptions. That speaks volumes, not only to how ineffective the press was, but how much the back line, especially the fullbacks, had to do while being exposed again and again. The only member of the back 5 (the back line plus Witsel) to perform worse defensively than Dahoud and Delaney was Schmelzer with 0 tackles and 0 interceptions, as Maina exposed the system’s flaws over and over again.

And while claiming that BVB’s midfield is not strong enough is an obvious conclusion, it is the wrong one. Witsel and Delaney are both quality defensive players, while Dahoud has been focused on fulfilling his defensive duties ever since he lost track of his runner in the first round of the DFB Pokal. In fact, in the first two Bundesliga games, Dahoud has outperformed Delaney defensively, recording two more tackles than his midfield counterpart. Dahoud’s pressing has even boosted Delaney’s numbers, as Delaney has 2 more interceptions than Dahoud, the majority coming from when Dahoud’s pressing was most effective - the Leipzig game.

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Offensively, Delaney has been the weak link of the midfield setup, recording a 73.3% pass completion percentage, which is worse than the 74.3% pass completion percentage that Castro has with last placed Stuttgart, and worse than Witsel and Dahoud (86% and 81.7% respectively). Other than recording recording one key pass per game, which is the higher than his midfield compatriots, Delaney’s impact is questionable. He doesn't keep possession, accumilating 2 inaccurate long balls per game, with 0.5 accurate per game. Dahoud has 4 accurate long balls per game, as he drops deeper and switches play to relieve pressure, with as many inaccurate long balls per game as Delaney has accurate ones.

This does not dispute the fact that Dahoud has had his mistakes too. He misplaces 7 short passes per game, which is still lower than Delaney (10), but on 3 less passes made per game. He gets dribbled past 1.5 times a game, which all happened from the Leipzig game, as their midfielders attempted to expose a relatively more defensively fragile right half of the pitch. And his creative numbers are not great, as he has only had one key pass in two games.

Favre need to adjust the midfield roles to take a more attacking approach to the game. Sitting deep in football is a double edged sword - protect your goal, but expect to be dominated for 60 minutes. And while Delaney’s defensive output is needed, he is at his best against teams that will attempt to press against us, where our pressing will be successful, and the game will become rather scrappy.

A healthy alternative is either replacing Dahoud with Götze or Kagawa, two players with historically higher key passes per 90 (KP90), higher expected assists per 90 (xA90), and expected goals per buildup involvement (xGBuildup). These numbers imply that they are better equipped to be the sole creator in the attacking role of a midfield trio, while relying on Delnaey and Witsel to pick up the slack from the loss of Dahoud’s solid defensive contributions so far this season.

A more radical approach would be replacing Delaney with either Witsel or Dahoud, pending the return of Wiegl into the lineup.

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The idea of playing Witsel and Weigl was floated out during the end of the summer with Witsel’s pending arrival at Bad Ragraz. What is really fascinating is that their numbers are really similar when playing in the same role - a regista or deeper playmaker at the base of a midfield. Witsel has a 86% passing completion percentage- 0.2% lower than Weigl’s last year. Witsel averaged 1.5 tackles and 2 interceptions in his first two Bundesliga games, Weigl had 2.8 tackles and 1.5 interceptions last season. Witsel completed 45 short passes per game, Weigl completed 40, and both had about 6 inaccurate passes per game last year. The idea is that Witsel is more attacking of the two- Witsel recorded two goals in one DFB Pokal game and 2 Bundesliga matches, Weigl recorded two goals in his entire career for Dortmund. Witsel is definitely more comfortable creating chances further up the pitch- he tended to be shy of creating about one key pass per game throughout his career, and he recorded one completed dribble per game for Belgium at the World Cup. Despite both players being extremely talented, whether they can complement each other during games remains to be seen.

Dropping Dahoud deeper and placing either Götze or Kagawa in the more creative role of the midfield three seems to be the most logical of the options that would require a midfield shuffle. Dahoud’s key passes per game are not high enough in order to be the creative force of BVB’s midfield. He has been most effective dropping deeper and claiming Delaney’s passing responsibilities - switching the field, relieving pressure, and connecting on through balls - all things that he would have to do should he take Delaney’s spot on the team sheet and already does. While some feel like Delaney’s defensive output would be hard to make up for, which makes sense, it is an idea without much basis of factual evidence. Delaney has a very similar defensive output to Dahoud, and while Dahoud would have to play slightly more conservative when pressing, it is not anything that a professional footballer could not handle. The strength of a midfield three is its advantage in numbers, how each member of the central spine is able to contribute with pressing, interceptions and tackles. Members of a midfield two have to be stronger in tackling, and more physical players in general. There is a reason why players like Diego Demme, and Dominik Kohr have averaged at least 4 tackles a game- yes, they lost those games, and did not have possession for the majority of them, but they play in teams that line up with 2 physical defensive midfielders. When losing a player with 3 tackles and 6 interceptions in two games, defensive output might decrease slightly, but the majority of that output can be supplemented through a decent replacement, sharing defensive responsibility around the rest of the midfield, and creating an attacking style of play that will allow for the overall reduction in a need for defensive prowess.

Götze, Kagawa, Sergio Gomez, and Weigl all played really well against the 3rd Liga side VFL Osnabrück last Thursday. Who would you like to see in the match day squad come Friday?