Tactics corner: Chelsea loanee Ian Maatsen mixing things up for Borussia Dortmund


Ian Maatsen has added a new dimension to Borussia Dortmund's game following his loan move from Chelsea. bundesliga.com explores how the 21-year-old full-back's arrival has allowed Edin Terzic's men to flourish in a new setup...

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Football tactics can become a game of cat and mouse. However strong your side, once opponents become familiar with how you are going to play, it's no big surprise if they manage to stop you. The ability to shift tactical setups and catch opponents off guard is a vital option for successful teams. Dortmund have shown this to great effect, with the signing of left-back Maatsen in the winter transfer window inspiring them to a great start to 2024 - in part because he has allowed Terzić to mix things up tactically and throw a new system at unsuspecting rivals. 

The 3-0 away win that Dortmund took in Darmstadt to start the year illustrated just what Maatsen has to offer. While Julian Brandt gave Dortmund an early lead, the Black-Yellows did not have it easy for a long time against a Lilies side that defended doggedly. A tactical switch from Terzić proved vital in securing the comfortable win - moving Maatsen from his left-back role into a central position in front of the defence when Dortmund were on the ball. That stretched Darmstadt's man-marking strategy and Dortmund were suddenly freed to send the wide men into one-on-ones. Just how has the shift been such a great success?

Ian Maatsen's usual position is left-back, but he has been deployed as part of a pair of players in front of a defence at times at Dortmund. - DFL

Dortmund begin with back four v Bochum

If we look at Dortmund's fixture against Bochum on Matchday 19, it was a case of back to basics as they lined up in their usual back four. Maatsen on the left and right-back Thomas Meunier did take a higher position than the central defenders, but that is exactly where you would expect them in a defensive line of four. It proved an effective strategy for the start of the game, as Bochum were preoccupied in doubling up on wingers Jadon Sancho and Donyell Malen, allowing the two full-backs free rein. Maatsen continually tore down the left wing to start attacks.    

Bochum boss Thomas Letsch reacted by bringing right winger Matúš Bero back to track Maatsen. This led to Dortmund concentrating their attacks via Meunier on the right for a while, but Bochum brought the tough-tackling Patrick Osterhage into a wide role from defensive midfield to stop him too, and the hosts were suddenly finding their attacking efforts stifled. A Niclas Füllkrug penalty had been cancelled out by a Nico Schlotterbeck own goal by half-time to leave the hosts level in a game they were expected to win. 

Dortmund started with a back four against Bochum, with Marcel Sabitzer the more attacking of two nominally defensive midfielders. - DFL

Terzić reacts after the break

Terzić and his fellow Dortmund coaches knew that something had to change. Moving Maatsen into a bank of two in front of a back three, just as had been tried against Darmstadt, was the answer. 

There were a number of likely advantages. The most obvious would be drawing a marker away from the flanks, as Bochum had doubled up on Sancho at the start of the match but since moved a man onto Maatsen. By tempting him inside, that would free Sancho to go one-on-one with Tim Oermann on the Dortmund left. Dortmund would have to supply Sancho to reap the benefits of that, and they found that easier too with Maatsen in the middle alongside Salih Özcan.

Schlotterbeck took the position of left defender in the back three and supplied Sancho with direct balls that the Englishman was frequently able to take down, turn and look to race past Oermann with. The inexperienced 20-year-old Bochum right-back put in a solid defensive shift, perhaps contrary to some expectations, but was not able to completely put a lid on Sancho's superb dribbling ability. In all, some 50 percent of Dortmund's attacks during the game came down the left flank due to Maatsen having space to attack there in the first period and Sancho being freed in the second.

Moving Maatsen into a central position in front of a back three against Bochum gave Jadon Sancho more freedom on the left wing. - DFL

Maatsen turns into playmaker

Moving Maatsen into the middle in front of the back three wasn't just about confusing the opposing marking scheme, of course. The technically gifted Dutchman is a real asset to Dortmund's build-up play, and being positioned in front of defence helps Özcan to focus on his defensive strengths. With Marcel Sabitzer frequently roving further upfield than his starting position in defensive midfield suggests, nearly all the build-up play can be channelled through Maatsen in his alternate position - to devastating effect. 

A shining example of just what Maatsen has to offer from this position came in the 72nd minute. With Bochum focusing so much of their defensive efforts on stopping Sancho down the left, Maatsen became an option to receive the ball further back in a left central position. He found plenty of space to charge forward and supply substitute Jamie Bynoe-Gittens.

Just like Sancho on the left, Bynoe-Gittens is a real handful, who loves to take defenders on. After collecting the ball from Maatsen, he broke into the box and helped Dortmund restore their lead. The Bochum central defence had dropped very deep to cover in case Bynoe-Gittens beat his man, allowing Sabitzer to burst into space with a well-timed charge and get the ball from Bynoe-Gittens and cross for Füllkrug to head in. It was a wonderful team goal, sparked by Maatsen's playmaking ability.

The central position also allowed Maatsen to showcase his playmaking abilities. - DFL

Defensive benefits

Maatsen's new positioning when Dortmund were in possession was not only an attacking boon. Every coach has to weigh up the attacking elements of any system with the need to take a solid shape when the ball is lost. A bank of two in front of a back three proved to be effective in this regard too, as it creates a tougher barrier for the opponents to break through on their approach to the penalty area than a back four with one in front.  

The one obvious drawback is that it tightens up the centre of the field at the expense of having men down the flanks. That is the indirect way to attack, though, and Bochum's endeavours down the wings gave Dortmund time to restructure and get more men behind the ball. The benefits for Gegenpressing or winning first balls are clear too. In the 54th minute of the Bochum match, for instance, Sancho took on Oermann and crossed the ball only for Erhan Mašović to prod it clear. The ball bounced loose just outside the box, and as Maatsen was in a high central position, he could win it and start the next attack.

Maatsen was positioned well to provide an effective Gegenpressing option too. - DFL

Positioning a bank of two in front of a back three is very much a tactical trend - and Dortmund now have the perfect player to exploit it in Maatsen. A promising development indeed for Dortmund's ambitions as they can look to the rest of the season with increased tactical flexibility.

Read our FIVE reasons why Dortmund are not out of the title race yet!