Borussia Mönchengladbach coach Marco Rose sprung a tactical surprise in the Bundesliga opener, eschewing the 4-2-3-1 formation that had been the staple of post-lockdown Gladbach last season to match up Borussia Dortmund’s notional 3-4-3. However, Lucien Favre system, and the interpretation of the formation, helped create overloads for Dortmund where there were meant to be individual match-ups, and created the edge for his team when it came to creating chances.
While Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland and Gio Reyna stole the show in terms of goals and assists, let’s focus on a more unusual attacking outlet – Dortmund’s right-sided centre-back Emre Can. Gladbach had more than enough possession, but struggled to outnumber Dortmund in a way that created chances. Dortmund were able to craft opportunities from both deep and from the byline through Can getting forward. The use of centre-backs to create attacking overloads is more than a little reminiscent of Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United, and Dortmund had a player in Can, obviously a converted midfielder, who could deliver the goods.
While the likes of Haaland and Sancho are unique, generational talents, the likes of which Gladbach simply do not have, Gladbach can take inspiration from Can’s performance and tactical role. They also possess a player (who played centre-back this game) in Ramy Bensebaini, who liked Can, can step into the play and create quality chances with his crossing and passing. Bensebaini only really got going in an attacking sense when Oscar Wendt was subbed and Bensebaini reverted to a conventional left-back. If Rose wants to play with a three at the back more this season, he would be well-advised to look at what Dortmund did, and find a way to utilise Bensebaini’s attacking potential even when he plays at centre-back.
In the match-up of the systems, Jonas Hofmann was the left sided attacker who might’ve been expected to close Can down, as Wendt at LWB was pre-occupied by marking Dortmund’s RWB Thomas Meunier. Hofmann did not always do his job defensively, but before laying on a critique, let’s examine a scenario where he implemented the press he was asked, recovered the ball, but which also shows why he wasn’t always picking up Can.
In this example early in the first-half, Gladbach’s press has been triggered, but Dortmund’s defence attempts to play out from the back anyway, and is very nearly successful. The pass to Witsel looks like it’s on, but Hofmann’s job is to cover than central passing lane.
His work rate is such that, combined with Lars Stindl and Hannes Wolf who have forced the passer to rush, he is able to successfully make the challenge at this stage, and launch a counter-attack high up the pitch.
This passage partly explains why Hofmann isn’t in the position to pick Can up in the examples that follow. While the press works well here, Can is not even on the screen in the above exchange, showing that the Gladbach set-up gave him a certain amount of space.
Here’s a clearer example of the freedom that Can had. Again, you can see that Hofmann, circled, is sitting on Witsel as Dortmund look to construct the a move from deep. Can is in oceans of space on Dortmund’s right wing, and is clearly looking for the ball.
A couple of passes later, the ball in on its way out to Can, and Hofmann, again circled, is still narrow, with Meunier (off-screen) sticking wide and Wendt (right-most player, half off-screen) dropping right off.
Can drives forward, and Hofmann realises that he is the man who will have to close Can down. He can’t get close enough, and Can provides the cross for a Sancho header which was one of Dortmund’s clearest chances (other than the goals).
Hofmann’s work rate was good in the above example, and it was the tactical requirement to sit in on Witsel which was the factor that caught him out. But sometimes, he was in position to pick up Can, but showed a lack of awareness, or even laziness.
Here, in a second-half example, Wendt is standing up to Thomas Meunier, who has the ball, and Hofmann and Can are circled.
In this situation, Hofmann is clearly Can’s man, but whether he is just not expecting what comes next, or whether he’s caught flat-footed, he loses him, and Can is free at the byline to centre dangerously.
Can has, of course, not made your typical centre-back run. But his ability to get free, and provide the extra man when Gladbach were trying to match-up against Dortmund, hurt Rose’s men time and again.
Can was not able to do it all on his own, of course, and a couple of examples in the 34th minute demonstrate how other players could get involved to create overloads and pull Gladbach players out of position.
Here, the ball is played to Can, and, credit to Hofmann, he sees the danger…
…and closes in quickly, forcing Can to misplace the pass but winning a Dortmund throw-in.
From the throw-in, Dortmund are patient, and Sancho (circled) shows his game intelligence and increasing maturity as he drops deeper, not an element of his game that’s often highlighted. In matching Dortmund’s 3-4-3, Gladbach only had two central midfielders, so when Dortmund’s wide forwards Sancho and Reyna dropped deep, they were hard to pick up.
Hofmann, 23, is once again pulled narrower, perhaps sensing that Sancho’s presence is creating an overload in a central area. However, this means that, when Can comes into picture, there is oceans of space ahead of him on the right once again.
In the end Stindl is closest to Can when he crosses. Hofmann is caught in no man’s land and Wendt is focussed on Meunier once more. The ball into the box is not cleared and, after some ricochets, it results in the breakthrough for Dortmund as Reyna opens the scoring.
Dortmund’s other goals were a dubious penalty and a counter-attack that was supremely well-executed, but much less likely to happen if Gladbach are not chasing the game. In the first half, where the game was finely balanced, Can’s attacking contribution made the marginal difference between the two sides that separated them at the break. Rose should learn from this, both from a defensive stand-point, to make sure other teams don’t do to Gladbach what Can did, but also looking to learn if it’s a tactic Gladbach could use themselves going forward. In Bensebaini, there have a player of the perfect profile to do so.