Matchday 1: Borussia Dortmund vs. RB Leipzig
New beginnings, again: Lucien Favre — a year removed from ex-manager Peter Bosz’s debut with Dortmund—took the helm at BVB, starting his tenure with an opening day match against Leipzig. The Swiss boss brought his short-passing, compact and extremely well-organized approach to the Westfalenstadion, with his ideas being, quite clearly, implemented during the team’s pre-season. In the away dugout, Ralf Rangnick returned to the managerial role with Leipzig after leading them to promotion in the 2015–16 season. Both sides would have preferred perhaps slightly easier openers after rather underwhelming previous campaigns, but a win for either club would be a tremendous platform to begin their domestic seasons.
Here’s how the teams lined-up:
It seemed, from the off, Rangnick had a clear intention with his continuation of Leipzig’s shape from last season: Overwhelm the Dortmund midfield with numbers and energy. It was obvious from BVB’s pre-season and, at times, their DFB Pokal match against Greuther Fürth last week, that retaining meaningful possession would be tricky while they learned Favre’s system. Also, there was an active idea in place to unsettle Dortmund’s new center-back pairing of Abdou Diallo and Manuel Akanji. For the hosts, Favre stuck to his guns; Stay narrow, use short passes among a fluid midfield and use the pace and movement of the front three to create a numbers advantage in the half-spaces.
How It Went
Right from the first whistle, Leipzig rarely strayed from the game plan. It took only 30 seconds for the visitors to find the back of the net, and despite the error from Akanji on a clearance attempt, the goal actually came from a perfect execution of Leipzig’s strategy. As Dortmund pass the ball around the back in the opening seconds following the first whistle, six Leipzig players enter the home half—cutting off multiple passing lanes and executing a mid-block press, to essentially mark all outlet options. The aggressive positioning from Rangnick’s side forced Marcel Schmelzer to ping a ball to nobody, leading to a loss of possession and eventually, Jean-Kévin Augustin’s opening goal.
Dortmund, to their credit, did plenty of bending in the opening 15 minutes, but they didn’t break. It took them just over 20 minutes to get a shot on target, which was quickly followed up by the equalizer: A stunning header by Mahmoud Dahoud from a terrific Schmelzer cross. Dahoud starts the play, picking up the ball deep in midfield from the center-backs, then rotating it out wide before dropping between markers in the Leipzig box to get his goal. This whole play is a strong example of what Favre is looking for in his midfielders; Players who will contribute in tight, narrow spaces to draw in the opposing team before springing the speed-players wide and advancing the Dortmund shape.
Dortmund added two more goals before the half taking advantage of Leipzig’s under-practiced set-piece design. An own goal from Marcel Sabitzer, and an extravagant, close-range bicycle-kick from Axel Witsel on his debut had the hosts up 3–1 at the break.
BVB completed 198 passes in the first half, to Leipzig’s 150—many of those coming after the back-and-forth first 10 minutes. Favre’s midfield found it’s rhythm as the game went on, too. Specifically, the more forward pairing of Thomas Delaney and the aforementioned Dahoud. The duo were able to create outlets in the half-spaces, splitting the staggered four-man midfield that Leipzig would revert to when out of position, making themselves available for passes from Witsel, who led all Dortmund players with 68 touches in the match.
In the end, that’s was how the battle was won in the middle of the park. But for the actual game itself, it was won due in large part to one man: Roman Bürki. The Swiss keeper turned away six shots, and out-performed his xGA by .46, which by most measures is a top-tier performance. Dortmund’s center-back pairing was targeted heavily by Rangnick with his two-striker attack, and the plan almost came good. But he, and Leipzig’s shooting boots, ran into a wall.
On another day, perhaps Leipzig leave Dortmund with points. For BVB, they can thank Bürki and their malleable midfield for their recovery and the 4–1 win.
The Eye Test
- Dahoud could be one of, if not the most likely player to benefit from Favre’s system. The midfielder looks like he’s been given free reign to roam around the pitch, keeping his spacing with Delaney and Witsel and directing the swift Dortmund attack. He has a long, long way to go, but he’s beginning to look the İlkay Gündoğan replacement many thought he could be.
- Max Philipp has work to do. It probably wasn’t his fault how isolated he was, and he did do a good job dropping into the hole to give space to Marco Reus so he could do his thing, but Philipp was mostly nullified. His movement in the half-space and channels was actually quite good, though his presence during build up and attack needs to improve.
- Jadon Sancho is coming for a starting spot. The Englishman was electric from his first touch and really gave BVB a new look in attack. He ran both wings and did all the dirty work on Reus’ 100th Bundesliga goal to make it 4–1. Christian Pulisic’s level of play will need to increase, and stay there, to keep Sancho on the bench.
- Delaney is exactly what Dortmund have been missing. He brought an intensity an energy that BVB haven’t seen in the last few seasons. His movement on the left side, combining with Reus and Schmelzer, created the first of his side’s chances and forced Diego Demme, Leipzig’s holding midfielder, out of position countless times.
The Numbers Game
- Reus is a monster. If Dortmund are to mount a serious title challenge this year, their new skipper will need to keep being one of the best player’s in Europe. The winger had .78 xA (expected assists), leading his team as the creative fulcrum in their attacks.
- In the absence of Julian Weigl, Witsel sat in Dortmund’s holding role and, for the most part, had success. But there are a few concerning metrics: He didn’t complete a tackle, compared to Dahoud’s three, and had just one interception, whereas Delaney had four. Obviously, he wasn’t asked to do a whole lot, but the Akanji-Diallo partnership is going to need a different, more defensive, style of protection going forward.
- Bürki’s distribution is continuing to plague Favre and Dortmund’s plans. The keeper completed just 51.2% of his passes, contrast that with Péter Gulácsi’s 84.2% and you can see why BVB looked strange in their build-up play. Also, Bürki’s choice of pass is an issue, too. He attempted 28 long-balls, completing just eight of them.
Point of Interest
There is no denying that the captain’s armband weighed heavily on Schmelzer’s arm the last two seasons. The left-back saw his play decline severely last year, leaving Favre with a conundrum at the left side of his defense this summer. Raphaël Guerreiro’s poor World Cup, and positional ambiguity, left Schmelzer with a strong opportunity to turn his play around under the new coach. And so far, the system seems to be fitting him better.
The key stat here is duels won. Last year, Schmelzer won just 5.8 duels per-match, and just 57% of his duels total. Those numbers he tallied last year aren’t good enough for a left-back who doesn’t perform, offensively, at a level he used to. In Favre’s system, Schmelzer may be asked to do less on the ball, but his defensive acumen will be under the spotlight more than ever—and he will need to continue his strong start in his own end to keep the curious Guerreiro on the bench.
Dortmund head north-west to Hanover to take on Die Roten on Friday, August 31. In their last ten trips to the HDI Arena, BVB have managed just four wins and 15 points. Hannover couldn’t quite hold on to a 1–0 lead in Bremen, conceding just five minutes from time to draw their opening match of the Bundesliga season. Dortmund’s second fixture of the Bundesliga campaign should be an opportunity to see more of the ball than they did against Leipzig, and in turn, it’s a chance for Favre to see what his more technical players can do.