Progression in Klopp’s Offense – A Discussion on the Focal Point of Attacking (Translation)

This piece is a translation of a blog post originally in Korean, which can be found here. All the bolded texts are from the original, and whenever I added information by myself they were italicized.

Klopp - 1

There are eleven pieces on the football field. In the sense that it is necessary for the player to identify and properly employ the strengths and weaknesses of those pieces, football and chess share a commonality. A difference would be that in football, a piece can be transformed by the player injecting certain traits. Jurgen Klopp, the player for Borussia Dortmund, has been transforming young and neglected players into the most desirable players in Europe by injecting his philosophy of the game into his players. Unfortunately, football is heavily influenced by factors outside of the game. The invisible hand of the market, ambition for greater achievement, and the admiration for Bayern Munich prevalent in Germanic footballing cultures has meant that Klopp has not been able to hold on to his most prized chess pieces.

In response to the departure of essential players, Dortmund has consistently brought in new players who have taken up Klopp’s philosophy to continue performing at the highest level. However, this season has been different. The team that used to compete for trophies against Bayern Munich found themselves in the relegation fight for the first half of the season. In order to identify the cause of this change, this post will discuss the absence of Robert Lewandowski and Klopp’s attempts to replicate Lewandowski’s role in his game.

First off, it is necessary to remind ourselves of Klopp and Dortmund’s philosophy. Dortmund’s energetic pressing from the front lines, often referred to as ‘Gegenpressing’, really is only an intense version of a mechanism other teams also utilize. The real importance of Dortmund’s pressing is in redefining the purpose of pressing up high. Whereas traditional views consider the lack of possession an anomaly and pressing a solution, Klopp sees the lack of possession as a normal part of the game and uses pressing as another mechanism to attack. Just as it is more effective to shoot closer to the opposition goal, it is also more effective to press closer to the opposition goal. After their initial failure to pass the group stages of Champions League, the intensity of the pressing has been adjusted, but the overall approach has not been altered.

The above discussion leads to the point that Klopp emphasizes utilizing the zone occupied by his forwards over building-up from the back. Naturally, this is idea is connected with what Klopp requires from his strikers. The prerequisite for Klopp’s dynamic football is a striker who can be the focal point in the attacking third. The aforementioned role is commonly referred to as a targetman and is not a unique role. Nonetheless, the reason Dortmund have always seemed faster and more energetic than other teams lies in the fact that their lone striker was able to cover more ground and perform his role with greater athleticism.

Lewandowski was essentially Klopp's persona

Lewandowski was essentially Klopp’s persona

All of this was made possible by Lewandowski. Jurgen Klopp must be recognized for his role in developing Lewandowski into such a player. It is not an easy task to develop a player to perfectly perform a tactical role as envisioned by a coach. Lewandowski was able to hold a distinct advantage over Barrios, his predecessor, in his ability to use his teammates’ movements as he receives the ball and put finish the attacking move.

It was the presence of Lewandowski that allowed Dortmund to continue to perform despite the departures of Nuri Sahin, Kagawa Shinji (admittedly replaced by Bundesliga MVP, Marco Reus), and Mario Gotze. Reus did prove himself as an outstanding attacking midfielder last season, but the quarter-finals against Real Madrid showed just how much Dortmund missed Lewandowski.

Immobile and Ramos: the struggling duo

The absence of Lewandowski meant Dortmund needed to prepare more options. First, they bought in Adrian Ramos, a player who can play a similar role as Lewandowski, albeit not as well. Ramos does contribute to the offensive transition, but lacks Lewandowski’s raw quality. Despite creating a number of chances, Ramos’s lack of a clinical touch in front of goal has definitely been a limitation. Unfortunately, expecting the offensive midfielders to compensate for the lack of goals creates an imbalance and requires the midfield and defensive line to cover even more ground. This was a key reason on why Dortmund’s defense, exemplified by Subotic who struggled regain form after an injury, struggled throughout the first half of the season.

Ciro Immobile presumably offers a different option from Ramos: Immobile can play off the shoulder of defenders to nullify their offside trap. Maybe Klopp believed that Immobile’s performance at Torino would be an effective option in Bundesliga where teams tend to play a higher defensive line and press. However, the only team that will pull up its defensive line against Dortmund in the Bundesliga would be Bayern Munich. This has meant that Immobile has not been able to maximize his strengths, and coupled with wasting a few chances including a PK, Immobile has lost his confidence.

Despite being two different kinds of players, they must become a focal point during attacking situations by themselves. However, when the limits of these players became apparent, Klopp attempted to field both of them at the top in a 4-4-2 diamond formation. Maybe Klopp hoped if Lewandowski’s quality cannot be replaced, quantity may be able to compensate. Unfortunately, the results did not follow and Ramos lost his place in the team. Later, a forward pairing between Immobile and Aubameyang in a flat 4-4-2 was also experimented, but this only resulted in the complete loss of a focal point from the strikers and Dortmunded ended up playing a simple ‘kick-and-rush’ game.

Klopp had attempted numerous variations to amend for the situation but all of them had failed to produce. This points at the importance of Lewandowski in the team. Some have argued that Dortmund’s poor form is a result of other teams adapting to their tactics, but the response of other teams in the Bundesliga against Dortmund has not changed significantly. Rather, Dortmund have self-destructed in trying to establish their playing model in the absence of Lewandowski. This was how Dortmund finished their first half of the season and fans hoped for a better turn of events after the month long winter break.

At the time of the writing (original post written 02/24/2015), Dortmund has strung together three straight wins, positioning themselves in the mid-table. Things to note include the transfer of Kevin Kampl into the team and using Aubameyang as a lone striker up front. It is crucial to note Aubameyang as a lone striker as it indicates a change from Dortmund’s traditional approach in utilizing their lone striker.

Aubameyang is central to lessen the burden on Reus

Aubameyang is key to lessen the burden on Reus

In order to bring out the most from Aubameyang as a striker, it is imperative to utilize his pace. To maximize his strengths, Aubameyang can often be seen slightly off to a sideline during attacking situations. This movement draws the defense out of position, and Dortmund are exploiting the space created. This space is the new focal point in Dortmund’s offense in the second half of the season.

The original posts include gifs of the following several paragraphs, but I haven’t been able to get the files to add in this post. Please look at the original post or find a highlight video if you want more visual evidence.

In Dortmund’s first goal against Stuttgart, Aubameyang draws two defenders towards himself by making a run out wide. The space that opened up was exploited by Reus and Kagawa to be finished by Aubameyang. This is a prime example of a play that happened around an open space, not a player. In general, Aubameyang plays closer to a sideline, usually the left, to create these kind of situations.

In the 74th minute against Stuttgart, Dortmund attack by pulling out wide to the right. Again, the lateral movement is meant to pull the defenders out of position to have teammates run into the opened up space. In this case, Aubameyang had to take an extra touch to try to get in a shooting position which allowed the defenders to deal with the situation without quick support from his teammates. Nonetheless, it is important in that this kind of attacking transition could not be found during the first half of the season.

In the 80th minute against Stuttgart, Mkhitaryan mistimes his pass to waste a chance. It is interesting to note that this play starts with Aubameyang’s flick much like a traditional targetman. However, Aubameyang also sprints back up instantly to exploit the now opened up space, something that had not been seen before. It is also important that Aubameyang’s purposeful running and movement is understood and complemented by attacking midfielders like Reus.

Reus’s goal against Mainz in the 54th minute would be a prime example. Using the space opened up by Aubameyang’s lateral movement as the focal point is unlike utilizing Lewandowski’s hold-up play as a focal point, and also dissimilar with how the Ramos-Immobile pairing was being used.

Since balls are being played into channels, a sudden burst of pace is necessary. Such a requirement may suggest that Dortmund may struggle against teams like Atletico Madrid who are adept at organizing their midfield and defense in two tight banks of four. Such teams relatively allow more space in the sides, so the key would be how the other attacking players opposite side of Aubameyang exploit his movements. In Budesliga, Wolfsburg defend in a similar manner so the match up would be particularly interesting.

Regardless, Dortmund must not lose any points for the remainder of the season. This necessitates that they win against ‘lesser’ sides.

Their first goal against Freiburg and last goal against Stuttgart were both scored by quick and high pressing which led to defensive mistakes.

If teams cannot cope with Dortmund playing at a much higher tempo than they did earlier in the season, situations akin to those described above where Dortmund press quickly to force defensive errors can become common.

Reus and Aubameyang’s fantastic direct play against Mainz in the 70th minute, or the third goal against Mainz after a series of short passes are some moments of magic, if consistently reproduced could be enough to announce the return of Dortmund. Although concentration issues in the defensive line need to be addressed.

Klopp - 5

Numerous successful managers have failed to cope with change and become obsolete. Many fans had expressed concern that Klopp may be on a similar path; however, Klopp will be able to overcome the current crisis. Klopp has developed from a player who injected his philosophy into a piece to a player who adjusts and grows with the pieces given to him. The truly great do not fret over their tools*, and perhaps Klopp is on his path to becoming such one. Who knows, maybe Klopp will follow on Jupp Heynckes’ path.

*This is a translation of a phrase popular in Korean, originally referencing RPG games where high level players can overpower lower level players even with starting items.

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