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Tactical Analysis: How Borussia Dortmund outplayed Real Madrid before inevitable defeat

Just as almost everyone expected, Real Madrid defeated Borussia Dortmund to lift their record-extending 15th Champions League title and sixth since 2016 last night.

Although the final scoreline was pretty predictable, no one could have foreseen the way the match was played out.

Los Blancos were on the ropes for almost the entirety of the first hour against a Dortmund side that could not even finish in the Bundesliga’s top four this season.

The La Liga champions were outclassed tactically and truthfully very lucky to come away with a win.

Dortmund’s defensive tweaks

Dortmund’s memorable run from the group of death to the Champions League final was built on a solid deep defence and counterattacking threat.

While their poor possession play was to blame for their issues in the league, this approach served them very well against stronger opposition in the Champions League.

The big question on everyone’s minds ahead of the final was whether Dortmund’s block could hold out against Madrid.

They had done a pretty good job against the Kylian Mbappé-led Paris Saint-Germain, but Carlo Ancelotti’s side were sure to pose a totally different challenge with their fluid attacking play.

While the German side had been able to keep out most opponents reasonably well in their 4-1-4-1/4-5-1 low block, inviting Madrid to try and break them down for 90 minutes did not seem a very clever approach.

As a result, they switched their defensive shape to more of a 4-3-2-1, setting up just a touch higher with their number eights beyond the wingers to match Madrid’s three-player first line.

Quite clearly, this approach had its gaps. In particular, the advanced positioning of the number eights left vast amounts of space open between Dortmund’s midfield and defence on either side of Emre Can. With the right approach in possession, Madrid could easily have exploited this.

However, they did not. For some reason, they did not even try to occupy these pockets of space and instead spent more time playing around Dortmund’s block rather than through it.

The fact that Madrid’s two most central attackers – Jude Bellingham and Rodrygo – had the fewest touches among their outfield players underscores their failure to exploit Dortmund’s defensive weakness.

Edin Terzic’s side would certainly have recognised the gaps they were leaving by tweaking their defensive approach, so the only logical explanation for their decision is that they took a calculated risk and expected their opponents to be unable to capitalise, possibly as a product of their fixed pattern-less possession-play.

In this case, the advantages they got included being able to limit the time Madrid’s back line had on the ball and also being able to pose a decent counterattacking threat as the two number eights supported Niclas Füllkrug.

As a result, Dortmund were able to restrict their opponents to just two shots in the first half, both of which were worth a combined xG value of 0.07 and went off target.

Madrid’s poor press

Madrid’s exciting and dynamic possession-play under Carlo Ancelotti has attracted plenty of plaudits over the years, but their out-of-possession approach and especially pressing has been a major issue throughout this season.

Los Blancos’ press is almost always far too disjointed to be effective as an individual attacker steps up to chase the ball but is rarely backed by his teammates, allowing the opposition to play around him easily.

At other times, they set up their block high with the defensive line close to the centre circle but fail to apply pressure on the ball, giving their opponents an easy chance to try and get in behind.

That is precisely how Dortmund were able to create some of the best chances of the first half, with Karim Adeyemi getting in behind consistently.

The German forward’s best chance came around the 20th minute when Mats Hummels was able to carry the ball into midfield without much pressure.

He had the time to look up and pick out the exact pass to play him through right down the middle, but he went too far wide in a bid to round the goalkeeper and failed to convert.

Ultimately, the key to winning football matches is taking your chances as both Madrid and Dortmund have regularly shown in recent years, albeit in contrasting ways.

Even though Dortmund did almost everything right in the first half when they registered eight shots worth a cumulative 1.88 xG, they can only blame themselves for not converting even one.

Dortmund inexplicably cede the advantage

There were plenty of interesting tactical tweaks in the second half.

Madrid came out in a significantly lower 4-5-1 block which masked their pressing issues but did allow Dortmund to build some pressure.

They soon switched to a loose 4-2-4 structure in which the front four tried to maintain some pressure on the ball while the back line sunk deep well behind the centre circle, preventing space from opening up in behind. In this way, they were able to significantly stifle Dortmund’s chance creation.

Even so, the Germans maintained the upper hand as they posed more of an attacking threat without really being troubled defensively. They looked well on course to take the game to extra time.

But just after the hour mark, Dortmund suddenly dropped off and sank into a very low block almost as if someone flicked a switch. With that, they ceded all the momentum they had worked so hard to build over the course of the first 60 minutes.

(Image credit: FotMob)

What followed then was what everyone feared ahead of the game. Given time to try and break down Dortmund’s low block in the attacking third, Madrid quickly built up some pressure and soon enough forced their way through.

Cruelly, the decisive goal came from a Dani Carvajal header on the end of a corner, though it is worth noting that the set-piece situation arose after a magical bit of skill from Vinicius Junior – which he could only pull off because Dortmund’s defence had sunk so deep.

Most fans and experts alike expected it to be curtains if Dortmund conceded first, and that proved to be the case.

As they were forced to commit more bodies to their attack, their midfield got all the more stretched and Madrid finally started to run through. Ultimately, the second goal came after a sloppy pass at the back from Ian Maatsen, and that sealed the result for good.

This final gave viewers a taste of the ultimate Madrid experience and Dortmund experience simultaneously.

Los Blancos got the job done at the end in a game in which they were mostly second-best, though the same could be said of each of their knockout ties this season.

Dortmund offered their fans a great deal of hope with a brilliant showing but just failed to get over the line as they have done so often in the past.

Stats courtesy Transfermarkt and Opta via FotMob.

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