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One of Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund will almost certainly fail to advance from the group stages of the UEFA Champions League this year. Their direct encounters will decide the shape of Group D. With one game down, it's BVB who have the advantage, although thanks to a late (and controversial) penalty call, it's only a slender one. How did Dortmund end up outplaying the defending Premier League champions?
It was painful to hear the studio analysis. Do Borussia Dortmund always play this well? Has Marco Reus always been this spectacular? Why aren't Manchester City winning? We had, in fact, seen this story before. A year ago, City failed to advance out of a group containing both Bayern Munich and Serie A side SSC Napoli thanks to their performances against the latter. The third place finish was greeted with shock, then chalked off to inexperience. Next time, Manchester City would be ready.
Apparently nobody learned their lesson.
It's almost impossible to imagine Borussia Dortmund entering any match as heavy underdogs. Blessed with a cast array of attacking talent as well as perhaps Europe's top centre back partnership, the two-time Bundesliga winners are a superb side. They had a poor outing in the Champions League last year -- perhaps thanks to their insistence of including a completely unfit Sebastian Kehl in the middle of the pitch -- but in a season in which Bayern Munich reached the European Cup final, it was clear who held the title of best team in Germany.
Their performance at the Etihad Stadium, where they dominated against perhaps the best footballing side England has to offer, should have come as no surprise. City were caught flat footed and unable to adjust despite several desperate tactical chances, and had to be bailed out by first their goalkeeper and then referee Pavel Kralovec.
Jorgen Klopp used the talent at his disposal in a remarkable manner, thoroughly outfoxing Roberto Mancini from start to finish. Here's how he did it.
Manchester City began the match in a loose 4-4-2 shape, with Edin Dzeko (10) and Sergio Aguero (16) spearheading the attack. Their midfield had creativity on the wings in David Silva (21) and Samir Nasri (8) as well as a dynamic central pivot of Yaya Toure (42) and Javi Garcia (14), and the back line was unchanged from their 2-1 victory against Fulham at Craven Cottage over the weekend.
There are strengths and weaknesses to every lineup, and although City possess the talent to mitigate some of their weaknesses they can't make them go away entirely. Having creative players wide makes them easier to isolate and remove from the game. A central pairing without a truly devastating passer of the ball -- Yaya Toure relies on pushing his way through the middle with displays of pure force rather than really distributing possession -- can be stopped with disciplined, athletic defending. Commit too many bodies forward, and a team is vulnerable to the counterattack.
Klopp responded by making drastic changes to his side's usual shape. While Dortmund typically line up in a 4-2-3-1 shape, with a dedicated playmaker in an attacking midfield band, they moved to a 4-5-1 for this match. İlkay Gündoğan (8) and Sven Bender (6) were tasked with stopping Yaya Toure from pushing forward. Three players, Mario Götze (10), Jakub 'Kuba' Blaszczykowski (16) and Lukasz Piszczek (26), were deployed to smother City's more adventurous left side; Marco Reus (11) and Marcel Schmelzer (29) were left to deal with David Silva and Pablo Zabaleta (5) on the other flank.
As for the centre forwards, well, they were a different challenge. Dzeko, despite being a great footballer in his own right, is best known for his ability to win aerial battles in the box. Aguero, on the other hand, is a speedy, tricky link-up striker, thriving on through balls and clever interchanges. A deep defensive line mitigates most of the damage Aguero can do -- the Argentine wouldn't have the space to get in behind it -- but would allow City to station Dzeko in the penalty area and shower him with crosses, a prospect that neither Mats Hummels (15) nor Neven Subotic (4) would have relished.
The need to hit City hard when they were in possession made Klopp's decision easier. With the midfielders looking to hound City's players, especially Toure, Silva and Nasri, it made more sense to play with a high defensive line and take their chances with Aguero than sit back in a 'low block' and open up space between the midfield and the defence.
If Mancini had a plan to deal with Dortmund specifically, it's hard to figure out. Contesting the centre, where Reus usually operates, with burly, physical players is a reasonable idea, but he was playing left wing, opposite Götze on the right. In fact, the City midfielders weren't doing anything useful to prevent BVB from playing their game, with both Bender and Gündoğan much deeper than Toure and Garcia were prepared to track. Although City can usually rely on moments of magic from their star players, they rarely encounter a side with the talent and setup to stifle them so thoroughly.
The visitors were able to execute their general plan to perfection. In Robert Lewandowski (9), they have the perfect centre forward to lead the defence high up the pitch. From the opening whistle, black and yellow shirts, led by Lewandowski, swarmed the home side whenever they entered the middle third of the pitch. This wasn't ball-chasing, either: Every single player has specific triggers on when exactly to go for the ball and when to drop back into a defensive shape, whether that's a specific pass by a City player or a turn back towards goal.
Lewandowski, who was brilliant last season with 30 goals in all competitions, has been so poor in front of the net this year that Klopp had dropped him for Julian Schieber for the 5-0 home win against Borussia Monchengladbach. But the Polish striker's ability to defend from the front was needed here, and the reinstated 24-year-old was vital to the team's collective effort.
City found it impossible to push up through the midfield. Javi Garcia's not good enough on the ball to feel comfortable embarking on driving expeditions forward. Yaya Toure was instantly closed down by both the athletic Sven Bender and Gündoğan, who could instantly turn any dispossession into a quick counterattack for the visitors. Whenever the ball went to Silva or Nasri on the flanks, they found themselves under so much pressure that they were often forced to simply return the ball to their fullbacks.
This is why, despite City having more possession, most of the play came in the midfield and Dortmund attacking zone:
That Dortmund were able to press quickly without losing their general defensive shape is something of a miracle, and the team was so quick to get organised that City never found a way to take advantage of catching their guests as they were committing bodies forward. For the first half, about the best they could do was pass the ball around the back and eventually punt it forward, hoping to find one of the two strikers. It worked on occasion (Subotic was generally targetted as the less-mobile centre back), but when England's most talented team resort to playing like they're managed by Tony Pulis... well, let's say it wasn't pretty football.
The only other threat offered by the hosts came when Aguero took advantage of Gündoğan and Bender's aggressiveness to drop back into the space that the BVB midfield had vacated. This would have been far more dangerous had Silva and Nasri not been so well marshalled -- as it was both found it nearly impossible to turn inside and play a pass to him. When they did, it was panic stations for the Dortmund defence, with Roman Weidenfeller called into action multiple times to deny the Argentine.
But of the two goalkeepers, Joe Hart was by far the busier. Götze was a particular nemesis, with Hart thrice pulling off great saves to deny him, and two of those required further intervention from the woodwork. Gündoğan too was stuffed by the England international on the counterattack, and both Subotic and Lewandowski might have done better with the chances presented to them.
The pressure from the visitors was taking its toll on City. Heads went down as Dortmund buzzed around them -- Toure in particular was completely lost -- and the hosts ended up reverting to thoroughly stodgy, unimaginative football in a not-particularly-effective attempt to keep BVB at bay. On top of that, they lost Javi Garcia more or less immediately to what looked like a thigh problem.
Garcia was never a good match for Dortmund, and Mancini should have found a player archetype better suited to the match he was conducting. The problem is, of course, that Mancini has never shown any particular affinity for the deep-lying passing role that was being so expertly demonstrated by Gündoğan. Having a passer in his midfield would have forced Klopp to account for another possible lane through the centre. The best City could come up with was Jack Rodwell.
Three at the back
A bizarre theme to Manchester City's current season is their manager's strange obsession with using three-man defensive systems. He certainly has the defenders to manage it, but it's not clear why he bothered here. Yet bother he did, swapping Aleksandr Kolarov (13) for Nasri in the 57th minute and using Gael Clichy (22), Vincent Kompany (4) and Matija Nastasic (33) to guard against Lewandowski:
The switch did allow David Silva to get into the middle of the pitch, but by now a shellshocked Toure was staying so deep that Bender and Gündoğan simply switched their attention to Silva, and the fullbacks (especially Schmelzer, who might as well have been a second winger by this point) pushed up onto Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta. The need for the centre halves to guard against incursions from Reus and Götze made the defensive shape even less stable, and while it was probably a coincidence that Dortmund took the lead four minutes after the switch, it's difficult to see how the change in shape would have positively impacted City's game.
Reus makes the breakthrough
The scoresheet says 'Marco Reus (61')', but that tells nothing like the full story. Calling it a Jack Rodwell own goal would be closer to the mark. Here's how Dortmund got their opener.
The reason it doesn't look like anything's going to happen from here is because the situation is thoroughly under control, as far as City are concerned. Vincent Kompany's just won the ball, which was routed to Rodwell via Toure. None of the Dortmund players are close enough to really press (nor do they necessarily want to, this deep in the Manchester City half), so everything should be safe. Except it's not.
Rodwell's pass to Nastasic is woefully underhit, and the Serbian is caught flat-footed by the error. That allows Reus, who'd been anticipating a mistake in the centre of the park from the beginning, to come into the play. He picks up the ball and sees an open avenue between the two City players, neither of whom will be able to catch him if he simply powers forward.
Despite some interference by Gael Clichy, a simple finish past Joe Hart (although the keeper does manage to get a hand to the ball) is enough to give the visitors a deserved 1-0 lead.
City find late equaliser
Dortmund would continue to generate chances, but never managed to convert. Lewandowski might have been hugely useful in the pressing game, but his failure to capitalise on the best of them, a volley in the 76th minute that would have put the game away, cost his side dearly. He was dropped, if you recall, for his woeful form in front of goal this season, and although he was required for his defensive ability in this match, the miss in question won't do much good for his confidence.
Equally damaging for BVB was the departure of Mats Hummels with a pinched nerve in the 74th minute. While his centre back partner Neven Subotic wasn't having the best of games, the 23-year-old had been superb throughout, and while Felipe Santana is a decent player, there are very few defenders on the planet who can match Hummels on a good day. While it's difficult to blame the goal on the fact that the first-choice centre back pairing was no longer on the pitch, having Hummels around would have eased some of the pressure on Dortmund as they tried to see the match out.
They wouldn't, of course, because this happened:
That's a handball, by the letter of the law, if not the spirit. Subotic's arm was out, and that's enough for it to be deemed intentional whether or not he had time to move out of the way of Aguero's desperate attempt to punt the ball back into the mixer. Sometimes those get called and sometimes they don't, and in this case City got lucky. Mario Balotelli stepped up to the spot looking for the equaliser, and Mario Balotelli doesn't miss penalties.
But let's back up a second and focus on more than just the rather fortuitous refereeing decision that got City back to level terms, because the goal actually stemmed from a much earlier mistake in the Dortmund midfield.
BVB had been clogging the centre all match, but Klopp ordered a strange substitution in the 83rd minute. Off came İlkay Gündoğan, who had been excellent in the middle. On went Kevin Großkreutz , who's a reasonable appoximation of an out-and-out winger. For a few short minutes (Sebastian Kehl was introduced for Götze shortly thereafter), Sven Bender was stuck manning the centre on his own. And it showed:
Vincent Kompany wins the ball with a good interception and is then suddenly blessed with the good fortune to spy no fewer than five easy passes with only two players defending them. The Dortmund midfield is disrupted and can't defend properly, and the back four without Hummels has been forced to drop too deep to put pressure on Edin Dzeko when Kompany does push forward.
Sergio Aguero, in fact, nearly scores off a Pablo Zabaleta cross within seven seconds of this turnover -- it's a pretty basic example of how not to defend that all the more strange considering how well the visitors had contested the centre until that point. Aguero didn't score, of course. Roman Weidenfeller ended up coming up with a great save, pushing the ball behind for a corner, but the attack continued and weak clearances from first the goalkeeper and then Kehl ended up leading to the Subotic handball decision.
If Kehl had been brought on for Götze in the 87th minute rather than the 88th (he came on for the corner), there's a very good chance that Dortmund hold onto their three points.
City had no plan. That sounds rough, but it's true -- the team that started had no way of beating Dortmund save for hitting the ball long and hoping that the Edin Dzeko-Sergio Aguero tandem could do something with it. That strategy simply wasn't going to work.
Klopp's side, meanwhile, had a plan and executed it to the point that City's players (save Joe Hart, of course) simply couldn't have a good match. By the time the first half ended, there was essentially nothing Mancini could do to salvage the situation. Across the board, his players were having bad days, thanks largely to the situation he put them in.
Are BVB the better team? Probably not, but if Mancini continues to show the sort of tactical naivete he did here, City could easily be in trouble when they make their trip to Germany.