Earlier this season Bayern Munich travelled to the Rhein Neckar Arena to face Hoffenheim and the match unfolded in to a blueprint on how to combat the attacking threat of the Bavarian side. Hoffenheim had only 28% possession in the match but still came out 2-0 winners with both goals coming courtesy of Mark Uth. Bayern dominated large phases of the game but played in a manner that led to them being unable to penetrate the Hoffenheim defensive structure.
That match of course came during the opening weeks of the season when Bayern were struggling under Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti. Fast forward to this past weekend and Bayern are a very different proposition with Jupp Heynckes having taken over and enabled the side to find their best form again, form which happens to have coincided with their main rivals starting to drop points.
Whilst Bayern have climbed to their more natural position at the top of the league table Hoffenheim on the other hand have gone on to struggle this season and find themselves firmly in midtable. When compared with their finish in the Champions League qualifying places last season this could be considered a poor season in relation, you have to consider the fact that Bayern Munich have not taken away the spine of that Hoffenheim team with Niklas Sule, Sebastien Rudy and now Sandro Wagner moving to Bayern. All things considered you could form an argument that Hoffenheim are doing well to be as well placed as they are.
There were no real surprises in terms of systems from the two sides in this match. Bayern came in to the game in their easily recognised 4-3-3 structure with Sven Ulreich continuing in goal for the injured Manual Neuer. Joshua Kimmich, Jerome Boateng, Niklas Sule and David Alaba made up the back four with Sebastian Rudy, Arturo Vidal and Corentin Tolisso played in the midfield. In attack we saw Kinglsey Coman and Arjen Robben play either side of Robert Lewandowski.
Hoffenheim continued with their variant of a 3-5-2 with Oliver Baumann continuing in goal. Kevin Vogt is the key player in the centre of the defence flanked by the ever reliable Benjamin Hubner and Ermin Bicakcic to either side. The young German midfielder Dennis Geiger continued as the controlling midfielder at the base of the midfield with Pavel Kaderabek and Steven Zuber at wing back. Lukas Rupp and Florian Grillitsch played in the centre of midfield and Serge Gnabry, on loan from Bayern, partnered Mark Uth in attack.
Hoffenheim dominate the early exchanges
The early states of this match were extremely reminiscent of the first meeting beetween the two sides with Bayern struggling to cope with the speed of the Hoffenheim transition from defence to attack as the away side looked to create an early foothold in the game.
Florian Gillitsch and Lukas Rupp in particular were making intelligent runs in to the channels to either side of Bayern’s holding midfielder Sebastian Rudy in an attempt to connect with the front players and create situational overloads in and around the Bayern defensive line. Arturo Vidal and Corentin Tolisson struggled in the early stages to effectively contribute to the defensive phase for Bayern.
Along with Kevin Vogt at the centre of the backline Dennis Geiger is a key part of the tactical structure preferred by Hoffenheim under Naglesmann in transitioning quickly from defence to attack. Here we see Geiger take possession of the ball in space in the Hoffenheim half with the Bayern midfield three caught almost too compact ahead of him.
In the Bayern system the midfield lines up in a 1-2 shape with a single controlling midfielder and two more advanced players with greater licence to join in with the attacking phase. As the controlling midfielder is a single pivot you would expect him to be at least 10 yards deeper than the other two midfielders to ensure that the vertical pass is covered.
With the lack of depth in the Bayern midfield it only takes a simple vertical pass from Geiger to bypass the Bayern midfield and create overloads against the Bayern midfield in to the final third, Rupp and Grillitsch in particular were willing runners looking to move forward at every opportunity in the early stages.
Once again in this example the key to Hoffenheim getting out and being able to play towards the Bayern half of the field lay in the quick transition and supporting runs from the midfielders. This time the direct pass is played out from the defence as a Bayern attack breaks down.
As Gnabry receives the direct ball the two central midfielders are already moving forward in to advanced areas in order to support the ball. Gnabry simply lays the ball back to one of the two controlling midfielders before spinning and moving in to the Bayern half of the field. It is now that we see Hoffenheim in full flow as they transition, the first pass is direct but the controlled layoff gives them clear possession of the ball The support from the midfield two and from the wingbacks can then move in to position to create a clear attack structure with the two forwards.
Attacking in this manner ensures that the two forwards are not left isolated in the opposition half.
Bayern take control and start to penetrate
As with the first match between these two sides Hoffenheim quickly found themselves ahead in the match and by the 12th minute goals from the front pairing of Serge Gnabry and Mark Uth had given them a clear 2-0 lead. Unfortunately for the away side this was as good as their match would get and gradually Bayern took clear control of proceedings and began to dominate the match.
As it turned out Bayern had far less possession in this match (59%) than they did in the first match between the two sides (72%) but their use of their ball and their ability to penetrate the Hoffenheim defensive structure was much higher the second time around.
As the match wore on Bayern began to get more space and time in which they could build their attacking movements from the defensive line. Jerome Boateng in particular was finding more space on the ball and his ability to break lines with vertical passing left Hoffenheim unable to counter press effectively when they lost possession.
Here Boateng had possession of the ball and whilst there is a Hoffenheim forward looking to apply pressure the Hoffenheim midfield three have become flat and narrow (just as we had seen above from Bayern) this shape allowed Boateng to play vertical passes through the midfield line and in to the forwards.
Note too that the three forwards are relatively narrow in this example, this forces the three man defensive line from Hoffenheim to man mark and creates space in the wide areas that can be exploited by the Bayern fullbacks moving forward.
On the left hand side in particular we saw David Alaba go on to make a significant impact on the game as his tactical understanding means that he was able to identify the spaces that were being left in the Hoffenheim half and exploit them.
The pass out to the wide positions from either the central defenders or from Sebastian Rudy who improved massively as the game wore on was a constant mechanism for Bayern to build their attacking phase with limited pressure from Hoffenheim.
Again in this example we can see the spaces in the wide areas that were exploited ruthlessly by Bayern as they attacked. Here with Arturo Vidal originally in possession in central areas we see the difficulties that Hoffenheim had in dealing with the runs and movement of Robert Lewandowski, Here you can see that the right sided central defender Ermin Bicakcic is constantly aware of the threat of Lewandowski moving in to his blind side and penetrating in to the penalty area. As such he takes up a more narrow position instead of either committing to cover Lewandowski or move out to cover the wide area.
This indecision means that Vidal is able to feed the ball through to the left hand side for the wide player to attack the space.
As the match progressed the quality of the Bayern starting line up really began to show. From leading 2-0 after 12 minutes Hoffenheim would go on to lose five goals over the next 78 minutes eventually losing the match 5-2. In all fairness however it is exceptionally difficult for a side of Hoffenheim’s stature to stand losing three key players up the spine of the team to a direct rival within the space of a year.
There is talent in this Hoffenheim team and there is no doubting the coaching credentials of Julian Naglesmann but this feels far more like a regression to the mean from Hoffenheim following a fantastic 2016/17 season. Perhaps Europe League qualification is the best that a club of this size can hope for?
Matches against Bayern should not however provide the barometer for progress across the course of a season for Hoffenheim however. They will need to improve over the coming weeks of the season but I would not be surprised to see then improve significantly upon their league position.