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Shortly after his arrival to Borussia Dortmund during the summer of 2015, 19-year-old defensive midfielder Julian Weigl made his presence felt in new manager Thomas Tuchel’s tactics. In the previous Bundesliga season, Dortmund had struggled to perform up to expectations as the seven-year reign of Jürgen Klopp came crashing to an end. Tuchel’s hiring was intended to ease the transition between Klopp’s disastrous final season and the start of a brighter future under Tuchel.
However, just a few short games into the 2015/16 season, Tuchel was able to rapidly transform Dortmund’s defensive alignments and offensive nous to cater predominately towards his system, which is a regeneration of the tiki-taka tactical scheme popularized by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona sides. In order for the tiki-taka to succeed, all 11 players (including the goalkeeper) must play with cohesion and synchronicity in every part of the pitch. The short passing and precise movement required by the system rewards players, like Weigl, who execute with selflessness and anticipation.
Julian Weigl opened his Dortmund career in a relatively low-key affair against Chemnitzer FC in the first round of the DFB Pokal. Though he didn’t get a spot in Tuchel’s starting XI, Weigl got in on the action in the 72nd minute when he replaced Sven Bender. Right from his first few touches, the calm, poised attitude with which Weigl operates came rushing into view.
But it was a series of passes midway through the 79th minute that provided a small glimpse into what Julian Weigl (and Dortmund) would become down the road.
Upon first appraisal, that buildup play seems fluid and the players seem to have adequately absorbed Tuchel’s teachings, even though only a handful of days had passed since Tuchel’s first training session.1 Just a few seconds into the clip, Julian Weigl enters the frame, and from the start, you see him directing traffic as Dortmund contends with a Chemnitzer side that’s man-marking aggressively.
In the freeze-frame above, İlkay Gündoğan has just finished a one-two with right back Łukasz Piszczek as Weigl (yellow circle) comes into view. Gündoğan holds possession while scanning for clues from Weigl, who extends his right arm to let Gündoğan know that he’ll be better off passing to defenders Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Mats Hummels, who are not currently in the frame.
Without much hesitation, Gündoğan makes the safe pass to Sokratis, who is now confronted with a rather interesting situation.
While Gündoğan’s pass arrives at his feet, Sokratis analyzes what the defense is giving him, and eliminates a pass to Weigl as a viable option. The only plausible plan is to either ping it right back to a decently defended Gündoğan (red circle) or siphon it off towards Mats Hummels (green circle) and let the German defender execute his magic.
Sokratis chooses the right pass and directs the ball towards Hummels’ way without much dilly-dallying.
As Sokratis’ pass hurtles towards Hummels, it’s important to note exactly why the tiki-taka requires such adept players and playmakers. Hummels is about to receive a pass from Sokratis, yet his head is up as he scans the field to see what options remain. Great players, like Hummels, know that their next play should already be planned out far in advance of the ball’s arrival. Average and poor players are too busy simply receiving the ball – because they haven’t mastered soccer fundamentals – to even carve out time to scan the field.
Weigl, on the other hand, does not have the pressure of an incoming pass, yet he also keeps his head on a swivel and makes a quick check towards his attackers to see which passing lines remain all the while making his run towards Hummels’ direction.
Sensing Weigl’s movement here is what allows for the formation of the most fundamental aspect of the tiki-taka system: Triangles. If short-passing is to be executed at a high level, then these triangles must exist, so that the player with the ball always has at least two open passing lanes.
Weigl calmly receives Hummels’ pass and quickly executes a one-two pass with Hummels, while working his way towards the left flank:
The quick one-two disrupts the Chemnitzer defenders and leaves both Weigl and Gündoğan as viable passing options for Hummels. The triangle is a bit larger at this point, in terms of the overall shape, since Gündoğan is on the opposite field, so Hummels plays the safe pass off to Weigl, and avoids the riskier transactions with Gündoğan and a heavily-defended Sokratis.
In this freeze-frame, other options are also available for Hummels. For instance, he can boot the ball up the field and allow aerial threats like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to explode into action. He could also bypass Weigl completely on the left flank and send a seeing-eye through ball to an enterprising Marco Reus, too. Finally, Hummels could take the safest of all routes and simply return the ball to his goalkeeper, Roman Bürki, who would engineer his own buildup from the back. However, that type of a back-pass to Bürki while Dortmund are pressing upwards would go against the core of tiki-taka, if you ask Pep Guardiola.
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal. It’s not about passing for the sake of it.”
“Be yourselves. You need to dig into your own DNA. I hate tiki-taka. Tiki-taka means passing the ball for the sake of it, with no clear intention. And it’s pointless.”
“Don’t believe what people say. Barça didn’t do tiki-taka! It’s completely made up! Don’t believe a word of it! In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak.”
“And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side. That’s why you have to pass the ball, but only if you’re doing it with a clear intention. It’s only to overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker punch. That’s what our game needs to be. Nothing to do with tiki-taka.”
– Pep Guardiola, as quoted by author Martí Perarnau in Pep Confidential: Inside Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich
Overloading is exactly what Jürgen Klopp’s gegenpressing Dortmund sides got excellent at executing during Klopp’s tenure, and the short-passing system espoused by Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel seeks to exploit any defense that’s willing to aggressively send legions of its men towards the tiki-taka masters that be. Amidst this onrush of defenders, the practitioners of tiki-taka have to remain calm and decisive in their every moment. One errant touch or pass and the overloaded defense is off to the races, counterattacking at the speed of light. This is why the tiki-taka fails to succeed with teams that lack quality players who can’t maintain possession and consistently become frazzled under significant pressure.
In a short period, Dortmund and Tuchel have gone about acquiring players in an intentional way, such that each additional piece adds to the tactics, while seamlessly fitting into Tuchel’s short-passing system. After the aforementioned Mats Hummels and İlkay Gündoğan departed for Bayern Munich and Manchester City, respectively, Tuchel brought in Marc Bartra, Sebastian Rode, and Mario Götze, all of whom had served under Guardiola in recent years.
Tuchel has also performed a rejuvenation of Dortmund’s youth by giving ample playing time to U.S. starlet Christian Pulisic, Portuguese revelation Raphaël Guerreiro, Turkish international Emre Mor, and French speed merchant Ousmane Dembélé. This infusion of hungry youth, combined with a cavalcade of experienced veterans, has allowed Dortmund to obtain 12 points from five Bundesliga matches thus far. Just recently, BVB managed to bang in 17 goals in three matches2 against sides like Darmstadt, Wolfsburg, and Legia Warsaw.
Throughout the last years, Tuchel has become a coach who is highly revered for a reason. Especially his pre-game preparation stands out. Using information gathered on the other teams by extensively watching video material, he regularly changes formations and details regarding group tactical set-ups.
– Constantin Eckner, Tactical Philosophy: Thomas Tuchel
Charged with the burdensome task of replacing a club legend like Jürgen Klopp, it would have been understandable for Tuchel to undergo some growing pains that come with the restructuring of a side. After all, Manchester United’s constant managerial struggles since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure have shown just how easy it is to be launched into a never-ending black hole of despair that all the financial reserves in the world can’t fix.
With Thomas Tuchel at the helm, though, these normally persistent worries have subsided and the future seems as promising as it ever was under the tutelage of Klopp. In his first press conference after arriving at Dortmund, Tuchel once said, “Jürgen Klopp had seven unbelievably successful seasons here. We will now try to create a new chapter at a high level. Klopp created a great foundation. We must build on that.”
Forget all that talk about “we must build on that.”
No, Thomas Tuchel has built the promising present that is already creating Dortmund’s fantastic future, while never missing a single step. The challenge isn’t to build on Klopp’s work anymore. The driving force behind Tuchel’s efforts nowadays is to continue upsetting the natural balance of Bayern-created order, and making Borussia Dortmund the brightest star in football’s universe.