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Champions League performance insights: The importance of in-game management

The UEFA performance analysis unit shows how Dortmund's Edin Terzić and Real Madrid's Carlo Ancelotti fine-tuned their sides through to the semis.

Niclas Füllkrug and Edin Terzić celebrate Dortmund's third against Atlético de Madrid
Niclas Füllkrug and Edin Terzić celebrate Dortmund's third against Atlético de Madrid AFP via Getty Images

Borussia Dortmund's ability to find space was a pivotal feature of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final victory against Club Atlético de Madrid. Space is a precious, and sometimes elusive, commodity in the elite game and the way Dortmund adapted to get space caught the eye of UEFA technical observer Ole Gunnar Solskjær and the UEFA performance analysis unit.

In this article produced by the unit, the spotlight is shone on how Dortmund and their head coach, Edin Terzić, changed their way of building their attacks in the first leg, after a tough start in which Atlético de Madrid disrupted their game plan with some intense pressure which led to their opening goal.

Atlético profit from Dortmund's narrow 3-2-2-3 possession play

In the first leg at the Estadio Metropolitano, Dortmund began by building their attacks in a 3-2-2-3 formation, featuring a back three of Nico Schlotterbeck (4), Emre Can (23) and Mats Hummels (15), with left-back Ian Maatsen (22) forming a double pivot with Marcel Sabitzer (20), as can be seen in the first video. Higher up, Terzić played Jadon Sancho (10) and Felix Nmecha (8) as inverted wingers operating as high number tens, with the clear intention of pulling Atlético's wide-sided centre-backs out of position.

Ahead of the players mentioned, right-back Julian Ryerson (26) and left-winger Karim Adeyemi (27) joined striker Niclas Füllkrug (14) in forming a front three trying to attack the Atlético defensive line.

Champions League Performance Insight: Dortmund build-up with 3-2-2-3

As is shown by UEFA's official tracking data, Dortmund's average attacking width during the first 27 minutes was 37.8 metres, with short distances between the back three and double pivot.

The above graphic underlines how narrow Dortmund were in that early period and, according to UEFA's wider technical group, there is a potential lesson here for coaches: "Building attacks with a narrow 3-2-2-3 against a 5-3-2 press could cause some problems as a 5-3-2 pressing team can get into strong position to press due to the short distances to the team in possession."

This is a point expanded on by Solskjær, the UEFA technical observer, who said, "The 3-2-2-3 build-up suited Atlético as Antoine Griezmann (7) and Álvaro Morata (19) could screen Dortmund's double pivot and were within close enough distance to press their back three. Furthermore, Marcos Llorente (14), Koke (6) and Rodrigo De Paul (5) were constantly in the right position to jump in a press on Maatsen (22) and Sabitzer (20) due to the short distances described above. It was a textbook example of how a 5-3-2 high press could nullify and disrupt a 3-2-2-3 build-up."

Dortmund's struggles during the first 27 minutes are reflected by the amount of recoveries and turnovers from Diego Simeone's team in this period, counting 18 in total. The fact the majority took place in the centre of the pitch is indicative of the pressure exerted on Maatsen and Sabitzer. To further demonstrate Dortmund's early difficulties, Atlético had a total of seven shots compared to a single one from Dortmund in those first 27 minutes, and Simeone's team had an xG (Expected goals) of 0.93 compared to Dortmund's 0.

Dortmund's tactical change to a 4-1-2-3 build-up vs Atlético's 5-3-2 high press

When Schlotterback went down with an injury in the 27th minute, it gave Dortmund's head coach Terzić a chance to regroup his players. As spotted by both Solskjær and the performance analysis unit, during this pause in play the coach gesticulated to his experienced centre-back Hummels that he wanted his team to switch to a back four.

As can be seen from UEFA's official tracking data below, the Dortmund players were subsequently set up in a wide back four in possession, with Emre Can (23) slightly ahead of them and with Sabitzer (20) and Nmecha (8) as number eights. Maatsen (22) was now operating in his conventional role as a left full-back.

Describing the impact of Dortmund's tactical change, Solskjær said, "It is hard for a 5-3-2 team to cover the full width of the pitch against a team who are building with a back four. You now have to move across the full length of the pitch when pressing in a high press."

As can be seen in the second video, Atlético are now finding it more difficult to apply the high press against Dortmund's 4-1-2-3 build-up. A clear example is Atlético midfielder De Paul (5), who now has a 24.9m gap to cover if he wants to press Dortmund right-back Ryerson. Meanwhile, wing-back Samuel Lino (12) has to sprint 22m to apply pressure on the same player.

Linking back to recoveries/turnovers, Atlético only managed to recover the ball six times in the remainder of the half, illustrating the fact that the changes made by Terzić allowed Dortmund to gain control of the centre of the pitch.

According to UEFA's wider technical group, "The small but significant details in these positional changes led to Atlético falling back in a flat back five with a midfield three ahead of them. This means spaces will appear on the outside of the midfield three which the opposition can get into." This can be seen in the video below.

This clip of Dortmund's third goal in their 4-2 second-leg win summarises the tactical details spelled out above by Solskjær and the performance analysis unit. In a clear contrast with the opening stages of the first leg, De Paul (5) and Griezmann (7) now have 10.8m and 14.5m respectively to cover to their nearest opponent while trying to set a high press.

Dortmund duly pin Atlético back into a flat back five and manage to play on the outside of the visitors' midfield three before the penetrating run from Sabitzer (20) and an excellent finish from Füllkrug (14) bring them level on aggregate on the night they booked their first semi-final appearance in the Champions League since 2012/13.

Champions League Performance Insight: Dortmund change to 4-1-2-3 build-up

City building against Ancelotti's 4-4-2

To shift the focus to another quarter-final tie, Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid faced a huge task in trying to progress to the semi-finals in their second leg at Manchester City, following the 3-3 draw in the teams' first encounter in Madrid.

For his part, Pep Guardiola was trying to find a solution against Madrid's 4-4-2 press and, for UEFA's technical observer group, this was viewed as an opportunity to conduct an analysis of City's build-up play. As with the Dortmund vs Atlético game, this match featured common concepts which are important for coaches at any level of the European game.

Guardiola lined up his team in a 3-2-2-3 formation against Ancelotti's 4-4-2. As can be seen in the video, City had a clear plan of drawing one of Madrid's strikers towards their back three, before releasing the ball to either Rodri (16) or Manuel Akanji (25).

The clip illustrates how: with Bernardo Silva (20) and Kevin De Bruyne (17) operating as a line of two behind the Madrid central-midfield duo of Eduardo Camavinga (12) and Toni Kroos (8), there was always an opportunity of pulling one of that pair out of position, which then meant either Rodri or Akanji could be used as a spare man attacking the final third behind the Spanish side's midfield line.

Champions League Performance Insight: Man City build in 3-2-2-3 vs 4-4-2

These various concepts demonstrate the high standard of tactical detail that coaches and players are employing at the very highest level in UEFA's competitions – something that is important for UEFA's technical development team to highlight to all stakeholders who engage with this content.

Furthermore, these two quarter-finals also demonstrated the importance of in-game management, with no better example than the change made by Dortmund coach Terzić in the 28th minute of their first leg in Madrid – and carried through to the second leg.

Additionally, they underlined the importance of defending well. As Thierry Henry stated on CBS Sports in the post-game discussion of Manchester City vs Real Madrid, "You can control a game without the ball, and Real Madrid did exactly this and that's why they are in the semi-finals."

Controlling transitions

A final aspect worth highlighting is a feature that Solskjær and the UEFA performance analysis unit had earlier considered in their review of the group stage, namely the ability of teams to proactively defend while they are attacking. After all, this was as a key component for both Man City and Dortmund.

Champions League Performance Insight: Controlling transitions

As can be seen in both clips, City full-back Kyle Walker (2) is proactively marking Vinícius Júnior (7) while his team-mates are attacking, gaining an optimal position to intercept the ball when Madrid try to counterattack.

This specific feature was also evident in Dortmund's game against Atlético, and this can be seen in the clip where Emre Can (23) and Ryerson (26), as with Walker, are able to find excellent recovery positions when their team-mates were attacking – allowing them to intercept the ball and apply counter-pressure when Atlético try to counterattack.

Reflecting on this tactical theme in the above-mentioned group stage review, Solskjær provided the following insights: "A defender should get tight to the opposition attacking player while their team are attacking. This is proactive defending. If there are short distances between the attacking players and the defending players, the better chance the team have to employ good counter-pressure and retain possession."

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