Lucien Favre has enjoyed success in every managerial position he has had, from the Swiss lower leagues to the German Bundesliga. He led Hertha Berlin to a top-four finish against the odds in one of his two full seasons with the club, then took Borussia Monchengladbach from relegation contenders to the Champions League during five incredibly successful years in charge. Between these spells, he led Nice to third place in Ligue 1.
Following his two-year reign in France, the experienced Swiss coach was appointed by Borussia Dortmund in the summer and tasked with revitalising a faded giant. Six years have passed since BVB won their last league title, and their points total has slipped in each of the previous two campaigns, but Favre already looks set to turn their fortunes around.
DORTMUND'S NEW LOOK
Dortmund didn't just change managers in the summer – they also experienced some serious player turnover. The likes of Nuri Sahin, Roman Weidenfeller, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Gonzalo Castro and Andriy Yarmolenko moved on, while Michy Batshuayi's temporary spell came to an end and Andre Schurrle went on loan to Fulham.
There were several major additions, too. Axel Witsel and Thomas Delaney were brought in to refresh the central midfield area; Abdou Diallo arrived to offer an option at centre-back or left-back; while Achraf Hakimi joined on a two-year loan from Real Madrid to provide competition for Lukasz Piszczek at right-back. Further forward, Marius Wolf was signed after a positive season with Eintracht Frankfurt and Paco Alcacer left Barcelona for Dortmund on loan.
Witsel and Delaney have quickly established themselves as Favre's favoured central midfield duet within a fluid 4-2-3-1 system after a brief flirtation with 4-3-3 in the opening two league games of the season. Ahead of them, Marco Reus acts as a second striker, while one of Maximilian Philipp or Alcacer leads the line.
Youth is the preference out wide. Christian Pulisic, Jadon Sancho and Jacob Bruun Larsen (all aged 20 or younger) compete with Wolf for the two wing roles, each of them offering pace, skill, clever movement and aggressive dribbling.
FAVRE BUILDS ON STOGER'S SYSTEM
In the early stages of last season Dortmund looked scintillating at times under Peter Bosz. The Dutchman's 4-3-3 system produced some wonderful attacking play, but it all fell apart rather quickly. Peter Stoger stepped in and brought more stability with a 4-2-3-1 shape, though the offensive structure wasn't quite as effective, as seen in the below graphic.
Favre's preferred system is similar to that used by Stoger, though there is a much stronger central presence and more compactness in possession. While compactness is usually discussed in analysis of defensive play, it is also relevant to attacking – large distances between players makes it harder to build stable possession, but this is no longer the case at Dortmund.
When attacking, Favre's 4-2-3-1 becomes a 2-4-4. Both full-backs push on, seen below, while the wingers also position themselves higher up. This shape offers a great deal of stability when building out from the back, as the centre-backs are provided two clear passing options – diagonally out to the full-backs, or forward to the central midfielders.
Dortmund's build-up structure allows them to retain possession and play out against the opposition's first line of pressing, though they are heavily reliant on their front four when it comes to progressing beyond the middle third. Fortunately, there is a great deal of movement within the attacking quartet, particularly the central two, to ensure forward passing options in central areas.
Favre effectively sets his side up without an out-and-out No.9. Even when Alcacer starts ahead of Philipp, the Spaniard is still expected to drop back and link attacks rather than simply playing on the shoulder of the last man. This dropping deep of the front two allows Dortmund to overload and penetrate the opponent's midfield line. At the same time, the two forwards can position themselves to combine with one another, as Reus and Philipp do below.
Another important aspect of Dortmund's attacking movement can also be seen above. While Reus and Philipp drop back towards the middle third, the left winger (Larsen) looks to run behind the right centre-back in the opponent's back three. This is seen frequently in the team's offensive play – while opposition centre-backs are distracted by Dortmund's two central forward players, the wingers look to make runs in the channels between defenders.
When aiming to penetrate in the final third, the front four constantly execute opposite movements, with two players simultaneously running in different directions to confuse defensive lines. Around the hour mark in the Champions League win over Monaco, Alcacer dropped deep, drawing out the opposition's left centre-back while Reus attacked the space vacated. These movements are well co-ordinated and leave the opponent unsure of whether to push up, drop deep or go with their man. There is, frankly, no easy solution to this problem.
LESS FRENETIC, MORE EFFECTIVE?
While at Monchengladbach, Favre gained renown for the organisation of his defensive block. Whilst the strategy implemented at Dortmund thus far is less passive than his Gladbach iteration, it is nowhere near as frenetic as that seen during Jurgen Klopp or Thomas Tuchel's spells with BVB.
Instead, Favre has deployed a midfield press. The shape is a 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2, with Reus often behind Philipp or Alcacer, and the wingers taking up positions in the inside channels to threaten or block the pass out to the opposition full-backs, assuming they push up. At the same time, the back four is set up roughly midway between the halfway line and their own penalty box.
In the second half against Monaco, Dortmund pressed with more intensity and slightly higher up the pitch as they looked to seal a crucial win. Their approach appeared mainly ball-oriented, with the focus on cutting out passing lanes, and a similar focus was seen in their counter-pressing. An example of this pressing is seen below – Larsen presses the ball-player while Alcacer and Reus cut off passing options and Witsel closes down the receiver from behind.
The defensive approach perhaps typifies Favre's overall tactics. He isn't overly keen to take risks, with or without possession, and instead wants stability and organisation in all phases. So far, the results of this philosophy have been fruitful.
His side are unbeaten in nine competitive fixtures, winning seven and drawing two. Along the way they have beaten Leipzig, Leverkusen and Monaco, securing top spot in both the Bundesliga and Champions League Group A.
Keeping the club top of the league and progressing into the latter stages in Europe will be a huge challenge for Favre. But, with a steady system and a vibrant young team, the future looks bright for Dortmund once again.