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In the Zone: How Dortmund dug deep against Paris to reach the Champions League final

UEFA's Technical Observer panel analyse Dortmund's impressive semi-final second-leg win over Paris.

What does it take to get to a UEFA Champions League final? For all the attention given, rightfully, to the exciting attacking talents on show in elite European football, sometimes other qualities come to the fore – as Borussia Dortmund showed when they dug deep to edge past Paris Saint-Germain and reach their third final.

In this analysis brought to you by FedEx, UEFA match observer Ole Gunnar Solskjær, working together with UEFA's performance analysis unit, highlights the defensive excellence displayed by the German side in winning 1-0 at the Parc des Princes – and embodied by their veteran centre-back Mats Hummels.

Team formations


Paris rotate to create space

One way in which the home side sought to create space against opponents who spent much of the game in a compact mid-to-low block was with their wide rotations. The video below begins with an example of this as midfielder Fabián Ruiz drops deep, with full-back Nuno Mendes pushing high and Kylian Mbappé moving inside between Dortmund right-back Julian Ryerson and Hummels.

In the zone: Paris rotations

Solskjær explained: "PSG wanted to attack with a 3-4-3 and there were different combinations on both sides. Sometimes, on the right, [Ousmane] Dembélé was wide and [Achraf] Hakimi inside, and other times Hakimi was wide and Dembélé inside. On the left, as we've highlighted, they had Mbappé free to go inside, or go higher up or in between, while Nuno Mendes came up and Fabián Ruiz dropped in to be the third centre-back in the build-up."

Clip two provides a second example of the left-sided trio at work, changing positions as they try to find gaps with their movement. According to Solskjær, however, individual players moving is less of a problem when a team are defending zonally, as Dortmund did last night in their 4-5-1 shape out of possession.

"They were very zonal," he said. "They wanted to drop deep, shuffle across, work in their own zones. They weren't too concerned about following men. Against a man-marking system, that would create more problems."

Dortmund's defensive shape

Defending their 1-0 advantage from the first leg, the visitors offered a lesson in staying compact to frustrate Paris centrally – a game plan by coach Edin Terzić that earned praise from Solskjær, the match observer. "He has set the team up really well and maximised their chances by the way they are defending. With that low-to-mid block, they didn't allow Paris to play through them but only play wide and put crosses in."

In the zone: The Yellow Wall

Clip one in the second video highlights this, with Dortmund displaying their organisation as they shift across the pitch in a block that, at one point, is no wider than 34.1m.

For the German side, the danger lay in Paris's quick and tricky attackers getting into spaces in between the lines in central areas – hence their willingness to cede the wide areas. And with two tall centre-backs in Hummels and Nico Schlotterbeck, they were largely untroubled by crosses in the air. Between them, that pair won four of their five aerial duels.

Solskjær added: "With the size of Hummels and Schlotterbeck, as well as Niklas Süle near the end, you are happy defending crosses slung in from the widest man. They allowed PSG to put in crosses from the wide man, and Hakimi and Nuno Mendes each put a few crosses in from almost the touchline. In the second half, when they put the cross in from inside the box, that was more difficult." To emphasise the point, while Paris produced 33 crosses from open play, only four times did a home player connect with one.

It was in the second half that Paris, now showing more urgency, struck the goalframe four times, and for the visitors to earn a second clean sheet in the tie required a formidable effort – evidenced by their total of eight blocked shots.

Solskjær noted the defensive work of wingers Jadon Sancho and Karim Adeyemi, dropping deep into full-back positions, and clip two offers an example with Adeyemi and attacking midfielder Julian Brandt working back to support full-back Ian Maatsen against Hakimi and Dembélé. As Dortmund captain Emre Can said afterwards, "It's unbelievable how we worked for each other."

A Hummels masterclass

The Player of the Match on Tuesday was rightly Hummels, the veteran of Dortmund's last Champions League final appearance, at Wembley in 2013, having helped to secure their presence in another final – in London once more. And this third video below begins with his goal, which was only his fifth in the Champions League and his first in the knockout rounds since that 2012/13 campaign.

In the zone: Hummels' masterclass

As well as his goal, the 35-year-old shone for his leadership in the Dortmund defence. He made a series of important interventions, including ten clearances, three interceptions and two blocked shots – the most of any Dortmund player in each of those categories.

"Sometimes, with Hummels, we talk about his distribution, but this wasn't about defending in possession or build-up; it was about being well-organised, protecting the box, winning headers, blocks and interceptions, and making sure Mbappé never had space to run into," said Solskjær. "He won every header apart from one which Marquinhos headed just wide in the second half."

Clip two of the video shows Hummels at work, and it is worth highlighting how he draws on his know-how to stall the progress of Bradley Barcola. From a coach-education perspective, it is not always necessary to make the tackle. Instead, he employs the three Ds: delay, deny and dictate.

In short, you delay by slowing the speed of the attack, deny the opposition the pass, and then look to dictate the direction in which they move the ball. In the process, Hummels allows others to get back, and Dortmund have eight men in their final third by the time Vitinha picks up the loose ball.

Hummels' know-how is on display again in the final clip as we see him sense the danger in time to stretch out a long leg to thwart Mbappé following a cutback from Fabián Ruiz – one of the few low crosses of this kind in the first half. "The positioning of Hummels was faultless and his reading of the game too," Solskjær said. "He was always in control."

The role of luck?

As a final point, football matches are decided not purely by coaches' strategies and players' talents. Last night, luck was cited as a factor too. "If we add together the two games, we've hit the post six times," Luis Enrique, the Paris coach, lamented. "The funny thing about football is it's a sport that's not always fair."

Solskjær, Manchester United's match winner in a 1999 UEFA Champions League final turned on its head by two injury-time goals, knows this as well as anyone. He admitted: "You can have the best tactics and play as well as you can, but the randomness of football will decide as well. Sir Alex [Ferguson] always wished us all the best and said, 'Good luck' before every game."

But can you make that luck? "The more you practise, the more lucky you get," Solskjær observed, while reflecting how small details do matter when the margins are so narrow – such as the stray pass from Marquinhos that brought the corner for Hummels' goal. "That's concentration," he added. Marquinhos himself admitted that Paris "lacked efficiency" on a night when they had 30 shots but only five on target, thus ensuring they finished without a goal from a two-legged tie in which their combined xG (Expected goals) read 4.95.

The final word, though, can be left to Terzić. "We've been, of course, also lucky," the Dortmund coach told Canal Plus. "They hit the crossbar and the post several times and, in the end, this is what you need. You need resilience, you need belief, you need a bit of luck, and you need a good energy, and this is what we got today."

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