Matchday two of the Champions League saw us blessed with one of the highest profile games in the group stages in recent years; a clash between a pair of heavyweights as Real Madrid travelled to Germany to take on Borussia Dortmund. For the current holders it was an opportunity for them to flex their muscles again after only stuttering to a late win against Sporting Lisbon last time out, while for Dortmund, on the back of a dominant 6-0 win over Legia Warsaw, this was their turn to prove themselves against the very best on their return to Europe’s elite stage.
The home side had a close to full-strength squad available, so Thomas Tuchel was able to once again adopt the fluid 4-1-4-1 system which has been working so well for them lately. That included the brilliant 21-year-old Julian Weigl as the sole pivot to help link everything together smoothly, as well as the exciting young summer signings Ousmane Dembélé and Raphaël Guerreiro in differing roles on either side of the midfield.
Zinedine Zidane meanwhile had a bit more of a selection headache than his managerial counterpart due to the absence of Marcelo and Casemiro, opting to replace them with Danilo and James Rodríguez respectively. As a result, the Colombian joined Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić in what looked to be a very attack-minded midfield three. Real Madrid’s standard 4-3-3, then, headed by Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo as usual, remained intact regardless of those changes.
Two direct free-kicks (one for each) on the edge of the penalty area within the very early stages signalled how much of a treat we were in for at the Signal Iduna Park, and while it wasn’t necessarily quite that frantic for the full 90 minutes there was certainly a very quick tempo to the first-half. Dortmund were the main instigators of that at first, taking initial control though some swift ball circulation that was enabled by great spacing of players and dynamic movements between them.
As he’s so often the one who links everything together for Dortmund, and he was here again, looking at Weigl’s influence seems like the logical place to start. There were strong attempts from Real Madrid to man-mark the young playmaker, Rodríguez clearly being instructed to stick tight to him and try to reduce the space he had available, but he remained fully unfazed by the pressure: in the first-half Weigl completed 100% of his passes and only Matthias Ginter had a higher number of touches, too. So based on that alone it was evident that Zidane’s plans to keep him quiet didn’t really work.
Not only did Real Madrid fail to restrict Weigl’s influence through this, though, they arguably actually enabled him – and crucially the rest of his team – to play even better. With Rodríguez so fixated on him the German found it easy to drag his marker away from the rest of the game through subtle movements, creating more space and a greater number of vertical passing options for everyone else. At times it was almost like the away side were playing with 10 men because of Rodríguez’s role. For Ginter and Sokratis that meant playing out from the back was relatively easy, while Gonzalo Castro and Mario Götze in midfield were given plenty of opportunities to receive the ball in the half-spaces either side of Weigl.
Dortmund’s right side of the midfield was a little more consistent in its movement pattern, Castro being the one to stay infield while Dembélé stuck wide to the right. To Weigl’s left there was greater variance though, with Götze, Guerreiro and left-back Marcel Schmelzer regularly rotating to great effect. One of them would always hold the width, allowing the others to stay inside and interchange, but working out who was going to do what (and thus who would track who) was a nightmare for Real Madrid defensively.
There were some attempts to press as a team from the Spanish side, and they didn’t do too badly at disrupting Dortmund when they did do so, but for the most part Rodríguez was isolated and, even though it sounds harsh, pretty damn useless in that higher role (though whether he or Zidane should be blamed for that is open to debate). Half-hearted, individualistic closing down just simply doesn’t work against teams of this quality.
While it may have been Dortmund who sought – and generally achieved – control, something their own high quality of pressing aided in achieving, Real Madrid still looked very dangerous on the ball. Particularly so on the counter-attack, and it was some great play in transitions that enabled them to take the lead in the 17th minute. It was a move initiated by Modrić through a glorious pass with the outside of his foot deep within his own half, finished quickly afterwards by Ronaldo following some neat interplay, and it showed just how lethal they can be when space opens up.
Naturally Zidane’s side dropped ever so slightly deeper after that point, with their instances of pressing higher up becoming less frequent. They were hardly sitting on the edge of their own box though, a pretty uncommon sight for a team that’s playing against the lightning-quick Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang; but then again, most sides don’t have Raphaël Varane at centre-back. The Frenchman was forced into more one-on-one situations with his opponent than Real Madrid would have liked, Los Blancos’ midfield being rather open in the absence of Casemiro, yet Aubameyang came out second on the majority of these occasions.
Other than that the Gabon international did still look pretty sharp, to be fair, doing a great job of helping to initiate Dortmund’s coordinated pressing from the front. And it was mostly effective, putting the press resistance of Kroos and Modrić to a very stringent test, although one (rather surprisingly) notable method for Real Madrid to bypass the press came through Ronaldo. In these sorts of games it’s relatively common to see their midfield and attack significantly divided, but by dropping deep more often than normal the Portuguese forward gave some much-needed support whenever the ball was in Real Madrid’s half on his side of the field.
Overall it was a very entertaining and high quality first-half of football. Well, except for one standout moment anyway, which came right at the end in the 43rd minute when Dortmund got their rather fortunate equaliser. The goal came courtesy of Aubameyang, but he was given more than a helping hand (two, quite literally) by Keylor Navas when the goalkeeper’s attempt to punch Guerreiro’s free-kick away from goal instead saw him divert the ball into the path of the unfortunate Varane. Aubameyang was then quick to tap home into the empty net after the deflection in order to claim the goal for himself, giving them a level platform to build off going into the second-half after an impressive performance.
Rather than look to use that progressively, however, Dortmund were a little more conservative than most expected in the second-half leading to a drop in the tempo. They re-emerged from the break with a greater level of passivity about them, the circulation of possession being slower and the level of pressing reduced quite notably. As a result, Real Madrid had more time on the ball and were now able to get Kroos, Modrić and Rodríguez more involved in the phases of play where they work best.
Tuchel made his side’s first change just before the hour mark, André Schürrle coming on for Götze. It was a substitution which saw Guerreiro revert to a more permanent central midfield role to the side of Weigl, one which he’s played extremely well as of late in a few other matches, leaving the oncoming substitute to adopt his natural wide role on the left. There was still some nice flexibility about the positions of Guerreiro and Schmelzer at times, though for the most part Dortmund’s attacking structure was more consistent now. Aside from that things were very similar to the first-half from here on out, just played at that aforementioned lower speed.
Guerreiro moving infield did help to sure things up slightly at a time when Real Madrid were still looking sharp, although fairly soon afterwards (in the 68th minute) the home side went behind again. This time it came through a Varane tap-in, his first goal in the Champions League, originating from a corner – and then a superb Ronaldo cross towards the far post – and capping a very impressive performance from the defender. Zidane then made a change shortly after the goal, Mateo Kovačić replacing Rodríguez in midfield.
Now chasing the game again, Tuchel made two more of his own substitutions. Emre Mor and Christian Pulisic were the ones to come on, replacing Dembélé and Guerreiro, and the fresh legs in attack didn’t take long to have a positive impact for Dortmund. Pulisic in particular was bright, operating on the right side mostly and having lots of joy when taking players on, while Mor proved a threat in a similar sense too.
And the American played a big role in Dortmund’s eventual equaliser in such a way, cutting inside and drifting past Danilo before playing a cross into the penalty area which found its way to his fellow substitute, Schürrle. He then finished emphatically past Navas at the near post with his left foot, making it 2-2 in the 87th minute; and that was how it finished.
It must have been disappointing for Zidane to see his side give away the lead (for the second time) at quite a late stage, but on reflection a draw was a fair result which suited both sides in the end. Dortmund were very impressive in the first-half, and though that faded away as the game wore on they certainly demonstrated their credentials as one of the favourites for the competition; while Real Madrid showed that, even when they aren’t at their best, they’re still a force to be reckoned with themselves.