Dinamo Zagreb were in contention to go through the group stage of the Champions League and likely to be head-to-head with Shakhtar Donetsk for the Europa League. They surprisingly defeated Atalanta in the first game and withstood the offensive waves of Manchester City until the very end. Nenad Bjelica then could turn his attention to Shakhtar for a back-to-back clash. In the end, Dinamo couldn’t surprise us and finished fourth in Group C, mostly because they failed to secure at least one win against Shakhtar.
This tactical analysis of Dinamo is focusing on how they adapted to the Ukrainian side’s attacking strength. This part will break down their four-man defensive line while the previously mentioned tactical flexibility will be examined in this analysis as well. Lastly, we will travel back to the sixth match and see how the urge to obtain a fair result against City influenced negatively Dinamo’s defensive formation.
The defensive structure of Dinamo was essentially a mixture from the first two games. At times, they drew their lines higher like against Atalanta but as soon as the opponent stepped over the halfway line, the team retreated and remained compact like in Manchester. The players had a hard time to accommodate and were often out of position. As a result, Dinamo conceded five goals in two matches and they showed less promising signs than against bigger opponents. Both sides aimed to attack from the first minute and this led to a more open and less organised backfield. But let’s see what happened.
Restricting the playmakers
Even though Dinamo was listed in 5-4-1 for the away game, the Croatian side visibly changed their formation in the defensive phase. When the players shifted in their new positions, the team defended in a 4-3-2-1. One of the main reasons for this asymmetrical movement was to neutralize the two playmaking midfielders of Shakhtar. Dinamo needed to make sure that Alan Patrick and Taras Stepanenko gains the least amount ground in the build-up. This was achieved by constantly putting them under pressure.
Instead of their original two-man front in a 5-3-2, the manager chose to work with a ‘two-one pyramid’. This consisted of the three attackers, Orsic, Olmo and Gavranovic in constant rotation. Gavranovic replaced Bruno Petkovic and this layout suited him better as he is a faster player. The duty of whoever happened to be in front was to cut off the passing lanes between the two widely positioned centre-backs during the build-up. Behind him, the two teammates could choose between cover-shadowing the playmakers or mark them. Dinamo couldn’t stay organized for the full 90 minutes but they were on point with their approach.
Mainly, the pressing duty was the responsibility of the three attackers, as the midfielders rarely pushed higher up the field. If the pressing happened to be unsuccessful within five seconds, the front three also retreated and formed a compact midfield. Petkovic could put some pressure on the ball from behind as he was in the most advanced position.
The waiting game
As previously suggested in the analysis, the midfielders preferred not to press high, instead, they remained in line waiting for individual errors and interception opportunities. From a further perspective, this position-oriented defence in the midfield might have looked passive against Manchester City and also Shakhtar. Clearly, it is a safer approach for Dinamo to make sure not to be caught off guard and played a big part in Bjelica’s tactics. Arijan Ademi, Nikola Moro and in this case Petar Stojanovic moved together and kept the structure of the team intact. Albeit, they tend to let the opponent dominate in possession and they can get pinned to their goal because of the lack of tackling attempts. This was also the negative side of this tactical aspect which led to goals conceded against Shakhtar.
Asymmetrical in defence
We now switch our attention to the backline. They tried to remain organized to hold up against Shakhtar’s attacking threat in an asymmetrical formation. It could be surprising to see Dinamo playing with the previously drawn-up structure but there is plenty of logic behind the idea. The personnel side of it is that Kevin Theophile-Catherine proved his versatility in the previous games. The capability to defend one-on-one efficiently and following opponents who drop dreep enabled Bjelica to deploy him as a right-back. He essentially neutralized the right half-space against City and he had the same duty here.
The other key movement came from Stojanovic as he occupied the right midfield. The main reason for that lied within the opposition and his name was Ismaily. Bjelica rightfully felt that they were better focusing on Shakhtar’s left-wing and they aimed to achieve defensive overload on that side. Stojanovic positioned himself closer to the Shakhtar left-back, marking him tightly. Ismaily didn’t back off though and still played through the Croatian side with creative one-twos. He carried the ultimate threat in the attack as Shakhtar could create empty space with moving out Theophile and Stojanovic out of position.
When Marin Leovac, the other full-back joined the midfield to press, the tactics became a 3-5-2/3-4-2-1 system similar to how they lined up against Atalanta. The centre-backs stayed wider to cover the open spaces behind the full-backs. This often left Dino Peric and Theophile alone with the wingers but they could be trusted when the opponents tried to take on them.
Dinamo grew familiar with organized zonal-marking and they practised it efficiently in the Croatian League. It worked to some extent against City as well. However, it proved to be a rather questionable choice against Shakhtar mostly because of the lack of commitment showed to engage in tackles. It seemed as if Luís Castro prepared his team better as well and they managed to find the space between the lines. With repeatedly using blindside runs to move into channels between Dinamo midfielders, they gained an advantage against the relatively static defensive line.
Against the Citizens
You can’t fault Bjelica for setting up his team more offensively. In the last round, they needed one point to be in contention for the third place but with all three, they wouldn’t have had to pay attention to the other game. The 4-4-2, however, was a recipe for defensive disaster. The tactical difference between the first and second match against City became clear from the beginning. In Manchester, they stayed in a 5-3-2 defensive formation which gave greater presence in the half-spaces. Bjelica had to rotate heavily and Dinamo fairly paid the price.
Focusing on Rodri and the role of the front line
Orsic and Petkovic had to remain narrow to contain Rodri who dropped deep between the two centre-backs. Since none of the midfielders could follow him in man-marking – otherwise City would have had a numerical advantage – it was the role of the two strikers often accompanied by Olmo to limit his build-up play. They identified him as the main threat during but in the process, they left enormous space on the flanks. Mainly Eric Garcia, a young, ball-playing centre-back ran with the ball and created a three against two situation in the midfield.
Numerical inferiority in the midfield
The first part of the scout report presented earlier how the Croatian side could stop Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez from getting the ball in the half-spaces. With a flat back four and a flat midfield, this was impossible to repeat. The match was lost at the moment of the kick-off, even though Olmo gave Dinamo the lead. The most common sight in the first half was Silva dropping between the two midfielders on the right and receiving the ball uncontested. This movement could be mirrored on the other side by Mahrez.
Benjamin Mendy’s positioning high up the pitch and wide next to the sideline pinned Damian Kadzior, the right-winger of the Croatian side. At the same time, Amer Gojak focused mostly on Foden, closely man-marking him. Moro was the most defensive-minded player of the midblock, his role was to cover shadow the middle channel, not letting Gabriel Jesus drop deep. Despite the momentary unavailability of City options in the midfield, Guardiola always found a way to march through thanks to the previously mentioned winger movements. He was also helped by the distance which often emerged between the Dinamo’s backline and the midline.
Striker basics 101
On the tactical board, we can see how Jesus pinned the two centre-backs and prevented them from helping out in the midfield. Guardiola often instructs his strikers to drop deep, however, in this match, the main goal was to keep the centre-backs in their place. Jesus achieved this perfectly and indirectly helped to create a numerical superiority for City in the midfield. The full-backs, unable to keep up with the opposition wingers, stayed wide and deep. This way, they had to sustain even more pressure on the midblock.
Considering football as a game of time and space, Dinamo lacked in both aspects, committing the main tactical error of giving too much breathing space for City. Kadzior’s and Gojak’s respective man-marking appeared as a fresh concept, mainly as a tool to limit Mendy’s attacking potential on the right side. In the first game, the continuous crosses by the Frenchman meant the biggest threat on the defensive line. Here, even though they managed to stop City on the right they didn’t have enough men left to cope with the other movements on the midfield. Moreover, the added pressure to get a result out of this match proved to have the wrong effect on the players. This game was more of a bad exception in the whole process of building a team that can adapt defensively to the opponents.
This team analysis tried to thoroughly analyse GNK Dinamo Zagreb and their defensive schemes in the Champions League. We couldn’t focus on a general strategy, since Bjelica, the Croatian manager preferred to tailor his tactics to the opponents. The first part was based on the 5-3-2 formation used against Manchester City in the second round and its 3-5-2 version utilized both times against Atalanta. We examined the roles and positions of the full-backs and centre-backs in the defensive line, the three midfielders and finally, the two strikers. In the second section, Shakhtar Donetsk followed. With the same approach, we could compare the defensive 4-3-2-1 system and discuss why Bjelica decided to line up his team the way he hid. A short story of a classic 4-4-2 and an ugly defeat closed the analysis.
Dinamo remained defensively cautious during the campaign. The three-centre-back system proved to be the most effective to limit the opponents. When they switched to a back-four, individual errors started to surface and at the end, the defence declined slightly. All in all, Bjelica learnt some valuable lessons in the Champions League while his players gained experience at the highest level. Some youngsters already stood out during this campaign and then some teens are ready for their debut. Dinamo firmly stood their ground in the tournament and this is something to be built on. Their present is in safe hands and their future could be even brighter.