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Three observations on Borussia Dortmund’s humiliating 5-1 defeat to Stuttgart

What went wrong during today’s calamitous loss to Stuttgart?

Borussia Dortmund v VfB Stuttgart - Bundesliga Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

It’s really difficult to properly analyze matches like this. The natural reaction is to try to determine exactly what went wrong, and after disastrous performances like this, it’s very easy to give the cop-out answer, which is that everything went wrong. Well that doesn’t exactly help, does it? BVB have another match against Werder Bremen on Tuesday, and there’s nothing preventing BVB from losing in similar fashion again. While this match clearly reflects several long-lasting narratives surrounding this club, such as whether or not Favre belongs at the club, here are three factors that I think particularly contributed to this result.

Stuttgart had a game-plan and executed it to perfection

There’s always a tendency to look at the side that lost and determine who or what is at fault, and I find it funny how often the other team is completely overlooked. The fact is that VfB Stuttgart set up perfectly to break down Borussia Dortmund, and the players executed their plan to perfection. I remarked on the match thread that I was a bit confused by Stuttgart’s formation. Ostensibly something of a 5-3-2, in reality VfB’s wing backs Silas Wamangituka and Borna Sosa played so high that they were practically ahead of Stuttgart’s forwards, making the formation more of a 3-3-2-2, with Wataru Endo sitting further back, and each of Philipp Förster and Orel Mangala further forward. This effectively accomplished three things:

  1. It created odd-man situations against BVB’s back line.
  2. It neutralized Axel Witsel and Jude Bellingham.
  3. It forced BVB to turn the ball over by punting the ball or by attempting to play through a heavy press.

This was one of the most effective pressing set-ups I’ve seen from a club of Stuttgart’s level. I’ll get into this further in the next observation, but it perfectly exposed the flaws in BVB’s system. It allowed Stuttgart to systematically surround BVB players on the ball, but crucially, it did so without running their players ragged, allowing them to sustain the system until the game was out of reach.

BVB played into Stuttgart’s hands

Lucien Favre returned to a 3-4-3 for today’s system, with Jude Bellingham and Axel Witsel shielding a backline of Emre Can, Manuel Akanji and Mats Hummels, and Raphael Guerreiro and Mateu Morey playing as wing backs. The flaws with this setup were apparent right away. As Coulibaly and Klimowicz squeezed the ball out of the center of the pitch towards either of BVB’s defensive corners, Stuttgart were able to surround all of BVB’s passing outlets. I’ll give you an example, from the opening two minutes of the match.

In this sequence, Coulibaly runs at Bürki, and noticing the pressure, Hummels calls for a pass:

Right away, this puts Hummels in a precarious situation. He can’t pass to Can or Akanji and Witsel is surrounded by Klimowicz and Förster so he’s not an option either. This means he can either pass to Morey on the touchline and hope he can dribble past Borna Sosa, or he can try to force a pass to Bellingham.

Hummels chooses the latter option, and puts Jude Bellingham in an even trickier position. He is closed down by four separate Stuttgart players.

Bellingham might be able to play it to Sancho if his touch is right, but instead his touch is a bit too heavy, and Stuttgart immediately pounces. Förster knocks the ball away to Wataru Endo, who quickly moves the ball to Coulibaly. Coulibaly is in the perfect position to hold the ball out and pick a pass to Orel Mangala, who scuffs the shot wide for Stuttgart’s first chance of the game. It was only 20 seconds before BVB were in the same situation again. Bürki took the following goal kick short, and this was the result:

In this frame, the ball is moving towards Can, and as you can see, he has absolutely no good options. He ends up trying to play a ball to Sancho, at the bottom right of the screen, but it is cut out by Sosa and leads to another chance. Thirty seconds later, here we are again:

This was happening on both sides as well. In this example, Akanji is under pressure from Klimowicz and has no passing options (Hummels is marked by Coulibaly, just out of frame), so Gio has to drop deep to provide an outlet. When he does, Wamangituka sticks to him and pressures him from behind. Förster immediately cuts off the return pass, so Gio is surrounded and quickly stripped off the ball:

This happened again...

Result: turnover, shot attempt

... and again...

Result: Burki clears, Stuttgart gain possession.

... and again.

Result: goal.

Favre subbed off Can, and the wheels fell off

Despite all the tactical acumen and effort that VfB Stuttgart had shown, in the end they were only up by a single goal. A moment of individual brilliance from Gio Reyna had already yielded a BVB goal, and he easily could have grabbed another.

With BVB chasing the game in the second half, Lucien Favre took a bit of a gamble and subbed off Emre Can for Reinier Jesus. Unfortunately, within 60 seconds of this change, Dortmund were picking the ball out of the net. It was a frustratingly simple goal, too. Hummels, Guerreiro, and Akanji seemed confused about where they should position themselves, and Stuttgart managed to exploit this by playing a pass straight to Förster, who shimmied through the tiny gap between Guerreiro and Hummels with ease. At this point, at 3-1, the BVB heads started to dip, and you just knew the game was lost. Minutes later, Stuttgart made it four with Tanguy Coulibaly destroying Mats Hummels in a one-on-one.

I think subbing off Can was, in hindsight, the wrong move. BVB desperately needed someone to push the rest of the squad to chase the game, and Emre Can is frequently the most reliable motivator on this team. He may not have been playing great, but frankly, neither was anybody else. The move left Hummels and Akanji to figure out who to mark on the fly, and both of the goals immediately following the substitution were arguably a result of that.

The final score, 5-1, was a fair result. Even though four of Stuttgart’s goals didn’t come until the second half, with the way the two sides set up, the result was never really in doubt. Stuttgart set themselves up perfectly to disrupt BVB’s game plan, and Dortmund played right into their hands.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of my analysis of the game? Leave your thoughts below.