The Return of a Philosophy

After more than half a year of catastrophic football under Peter Stöger, Lucien Favre’s arrival means there is once again an aesthetic style of play in Dortmund. We will take a look at the Swiss and see how the BVB players are doing.

The Darling of Goalimpact

What do you associate with Lucien Favre? Looking at his career, many ‘smaller’ clubs immediately stand out, with which he enjoyed relatively great success. Aki Watzke also speaks of the fact that his ideal candidate has ‘fully exploited the existing potential in all of his previous jobs.’ Every football fan should be aware that there is undoubtedly a lot of potential at Borussia Dortmund.

In fact, Favre is the frontrunner in achieving more success with his teams in recent years than could have been expected. From 2012 to 2014, his Mönchengladbach team exceeded the so-called Expected Goals Matrix three times. This calculates the probability of scoring a goal based on the position of the shot and is extremely popular amongst analysts. In the three years mentioned, Favre’s team scored about 20% more goals than Expected Goals predicted. This trend also continued at OGC Nice in the 2016/17 season. According to Expected Goals, they should have had a goal difference of -10. At the end of the season, however, it stood at +27, so Favre must have found an error or a gap in the matrix.

Sports journalist Christoph Biermann has examined this gap or error in his book Matchplan – Die neue Fußball-Matrix. He explains that it makes a difference whether a shot on goal is met with pressure or not. Favre’s philosophy sees his team having few, but high-percentage shots in dangerous areas with a finely-tuned possession game. The opponent, on the other hand, is allowed to take many shots – even from good positions. However, what’s essential for Favre’s game plan is that these shots come under constant high-pressure from Favre’s team

This highly theoretical jargon can be translated as follows: Favre’s style of play is a patient, ball-possession game, aimed at eventually ‘finding a gap in the opponent.’ These gaps are constantly exploited and ensure his team get into good attacking positions. Their game out of possession often seems a little uninspired as the opponent is usually left to advance into the final third. However, once they reach the final third they meet a resolute defence that Favre coaches down to the last detail. He once explained to the later Bayern Munich player and Brazilian international Dante which foot he should use to block a shot. Nothing is left to chance in his team’s box.

Favre’s teams have always impressed with their structured deep pressing, their outstanding organization – they are extremely strong individually and collectively. Strangely enough, these aspects have been the biggest weaknesses of the Post-Klopp era for quite some time. Under Thomas Tuchel and most recently Peter Bosz and Peter Stöger, Dortmund have seemed unbelievably carefree with their defending in and around their own box.

It speaks for the competence of the new BVB management of Sammer, Zorc and Kehl to have recognized Dortmund’s poor organisation when defending deep. The singing of Thomas Delaney and Marius Wolf should also improve BVB’s squad in this respect. Favre is just the right man to solve this problem – the team already seemed much more alert and sharp in the International Champions Cup.

Training philosophy

In the few public training sessions, small-sided games focused on ball-possession have stood out among a holistic training approach. Rondos and various games focused on positional play with neutral players have been the main drills. Anyone who remembers Favre at Hertha Berlin or Mönchengladbach as primarily a coach focused on transitions will soon experience another side to his coaching.

Favre’s style of play

Favre is a demanding coach who cannot be restricted to a single style of play. He is very flexible both strategically and tactically and is currently working on his final formula for success. What is certain is that BVB will be more versatile than under Peter Stöger’s results-based football, which is in some cases more conservative. Favre primarily wants to play possession football, but he recognises the importance of quick counterattacks and a compact, deep block. At his presentation in Dortmund, he remarkably went into the fine details of his footballing philosophy. He divided the football match into four phases, which he then explained briefly. He explained that if his team can master these four situations, ‘we have a very good team.’

Stage 1: The Build-up

In the first phase – the build-up – Favre wants to create numerical superiorities through his goalkeeper. Despite occasional slip-ups, he has a goalkeeper who’s confident on the ball in Roman Bürki. Under Thomas Tuchel, Bürki played extremely high and often pushed up into the defensive line and regularly played as high as the half-way line. Even Marvin Hitz showed a constant desire to play out from the back in the friendlies. First and foremost, Favre challenges his team to play vertically and along the ground in the build-up to beat the opponent’s press. Christian Pulisic’s 2-1 goal against Liverpool FC is a perfect example of this. It demonstrated that the neutral can look forward to technically demanding football. If you haven’t seen the goal you should definitely look it up. It’s remarkable how Dortmund’s players combine right from their own goalkeeper to end up scoring.

The frequent third man runs – especially from the full-backs – after vertical passes were particularly noteworthy. In the 18th minute of the game against Manchester City, Dortmund played a rapid attack on the right wing that was very similar to Pulisic’s goal against Liverpool.

The centre backs are always looking for the line-breaking, vertical pass into the number eight. The eight either lays the ball off or dribbles (like Götze against Liverpool), while the full-back (as the so-called third man) starts to run down the line and receives the pass in his stride. Dortmund’s players often receive the ball with their back to goal and play a pass to an advancing player. This player has to make sure he’s able to receive the ball at the right time, and so far this has worked very well.

The third man’s run is decisive for moving up the pitch after a vertical pass. Moreover, it is often possible to run past the opponent on their blind side since they must change their body position.

Dortmund exhibited many moves which made use of third-man runs. In one, Zagadou plays a forward pass to Götze who finds Philipp after a short dribble with another vertical pass. The third man, Gomez, then plays in Schmelzer who had also embarked on a third-man run. In this case you could actually call Schmelzer the fourth man. Favre is confident that he will refine such mechanisms and make Dortmund a spectacular team in playing out from the back. In terms of playing in triangles, runs and positioning, this is the best football seen at BVB since Tuchel’s departure.

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If the vertical, line-breaking pass into the midfield isn’t on, the goalkeeper is available to switch the play. If he is put under too much pressure, he can chip the ball to the full-backs as they are usually left open by the opponent’s press to be able to press diagonally from the wing to the centre.

Hitz has been playing these chips quite frequently so far. Favre’s demand that the goalkeeper produce a numerical superiority has been very consistently implemented so far. Nevertheless, Hitz can be regarded as technically somewhat weaker than his fellow countryman Bürki.

Phase 2: Ball-possession in Midfield

In the second phase – possession in the midfield – Favre wants to dominate the game. Here there are 20 players and the goal must be to ‘intelligently find the gap to move forward’ according to the Swiss. Dortmund’s positional play is based on a 4-3-3 system, which is designed for combinations in the centre.

The two centre backs look for the deepest-possible pass to progress the game. If possible, the centre backs can also dribble into free space in front of them. Depending on the situation, the six can also drop back and form a three-man defensive line with the centre backs.

The full-backs push as wide and high as possible, keeping mind not to lose their connection with the centre backs, i.e. staying out of the opponent’s cover shadow. The eights tend to drop deep and pick up the ball in the six-space and then play passes into the ten-space or behind the opponent’s last line. If they are bypassed by the centre back’s vertical pass, they move up immediately to make themselves available again. Favre seems to have already created a mentality amongst his players of always immediately offering the ball-receiver a new passing option – and to run a lot to create this new option.

The strategically important ten space is occupied by the inverted wingers and the lone striker. The three players combine incessantly via short pass combinations within their triangles. Dortmund’s offensive players are very fluid and skilful. The interaction between the creative players in the ten space followed by playing into depth characterises Dortmund’s play in this area of the pitch. It’s actually a little reminiscent of the Moroccan team at the World Cup in Russia, although they lacked presence behind the opponent’s defence.

BVB, on the other hand, often look for a direct route to the goal with runs from deep and passes behind the opponent’s defensive line.

This allows Mario Götze to finally show his technical ability with his razor-sharp passes into the strikers’ path. He assisted Maximilian Philipp’s goal in the 2-0 win over Benfica with a splendid lob. The former once-in-a-century talent has developed into another kind of player. His playstyle now reminds you more of an Andres Iniesta than a Lionel Messi. From a neutral point of view, you can only hope he gets his act together again. Under Favre he seems to be on the right path so far.

If playing into depth by means of vertical passes is not possible, Dortmund switch play to the ball-far side – as they do in their build-up. They often switch the play with ease as the two full-backs are always providing the width.

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Dortmund’s positional play in the second third: wide full-backs, the six can drop back to form a three-man defensive line if necessary, the eights move to the six’s space, the striker and wingers provide presence between the lines.

Stage 3: Ball-possession in the Final Third

At his inaugural press conference, Favre paradoxically defined the third phase of his attacking game both defensively and offensively. The Swiss spoke of ‘playing very, very high – really high.’

This statement suggests that Dortmund’s new coach would like to see his team pin the opponent in their box. Inevitably connected to this is high, offensive defending from the front and protection against counterattacks.

These were two elements that were the downfall of his predecessor, Peter Bosz. However, Bosz did not have players like Manuel Akanji and Abdou Diallo in central defence who can beat strikers for pace. The youngster Dan-Axel Zagadou was impressive in the friendlies as well. The Frenchmen, Diallo and Zagadou, have been impressive in the build-up with their diagonal and vertical passes into midfield. That Zagadou in particular has a lot to offer physically could already be seen last season, but he still seemed a bit impetuous and immobile. Akanji only started training later due to the World Cup in Russia, where he impressed with his brave play in the build-up.

Since Favre has so far kept the eights in the six space, Dortmund has better counter-protection in the centre than under Bosz. He usually pushed the eights into the ten space, while he kept both the full-backs and the wingers as wide as possible.

Phase 4: Counterattacks

The fourth phase is the counterattack. Emphasizing its importance, Favre said: ‘We must also be able to counter, that is important. A team that cannot counter is not a big team.’ Favre shows that he is aware of the different facets of football and underlines his already mentioned tactical and strategic flexibility. If his team have the opportunity to counter, he wants them to seize it. It goes without saying that Dortmund have players who can initiate and finish a counterattack. Jadon Sancho, Christian Pulisic, Maximilian Philipp and Marco Reus are just a few of them. The fact that Favre considers the counterattack as one of his four game phases shows that his team still has to master defending deep in order to create space for a  counterattack. So far his statements on the game had only referred to the offensive side.

Moreover, Favre touched on a very interesting psychological aspect of counterattacks. If the opponent faces a team without any counterattacking threat, they can move further and further up without fear of being attacked. ‘If you can counter, they’re a bit afraid,’ said the Swiss. In Dortmund, the counterattack has been a symbol of identification and passion since the Klopp years. It embodies the working-class mentality in the Ruhr metropolis and brings back memories of the legendary full-throttle football under Klopp. Some Dortmund fans will have been pleased to hear the new coach philosophize extensively about counterattacking.

Conclusion

 

In summary, Favre’s style of play is based on ball-possession, aiming to dominate the game from the off. Structured positional play is to be expected, which has already been seen at the International Champions Cup in the USA. In all phases of the game, the team looks to play along the ground. Their build-up, including the goalkeeper, has been particularly appealing so far. In the second third, they have impressed in the preparation by considerable storage and combination play in the spaces between the lines.

Dortmund’s structure in defence has so far been a 4-1-4-1 middle block. There has yet to be clear evidence of Favre’s ‘recipe for success against expected goals’ – the deep defensive block. All in all, the Swiss’ approach seems to be more offensive than in previous years – three of his four game phases refer to ball-possession. Favre did not mention structured defending at all in his inaugural press conference – nor did he mention counter-pressing after losing the ball. Of course, both are to be expected in Favre’s game. It seems that he is thinking more offensively because of the squad available to him. In fact, he’s never had as many top players at his disposal in his entire coaching career as he does now.

Favre has exceeded expectations at all of his previous jobs. After observing the pre-season, he can be expected to do the same at Borussia Dortmund.

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