This season has been something of a learning curve for Hoffenheim and perhaps more importantly for their head coach Julian Naglesmann, lauded for the last two seasons as a coaching prodigy in which Hoffenheim achieved Champions League qualification (last term) they appear to have struggled more this season although this could be seen as the club simply regressing to the mean after the loss of several key players.
Before the season even started we saw Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy leave the club for Bayern Munich before their best striker Sandro Wagner followed the same path to the Bavarian giants in the winter transfer window. Three key players then left to join the biggest and most dominant side in the country, a clear sign that Hoffenheim were doing something right in terms of player recruitment and development.
It is also worth noting that after this match Hoffenheim still sit in 7th place in the Bundesliga season, this is by no means a poor performance from a side with limited resources in comparison to the clubs around them. Instead this apparent dip in performance and league position serves only to reinforce the superb job done by Naglesmann and his coaching staff last season.
Hoffenheim’s opponents in this match, Koln, are still battling against relegation. After a disastrous start to the season they have shown signs of life since the start of the second half of the season and going in to the match there were few, if any, who would have predicted a 6-0 win for the home team.
The most striking aspect of the starting systems from both sides was that Koln coach Stefan Ruthenbeck chose to match up the system used by the home team with both sides using a variant of a 3-4-3.
Hoffenheim however seemed far more confident in the starting system than their visitors with Serge Gnabry (on loan from Bayern) and Andrej Kramaric both causing havoc to the Koln defence with their capacity to attack either in the wide areas or in the central spaces. Combined with the vertical movements from the two central midfielders Lukas Rupp and Florian Grillitsch they were able to overload the visiting defence almost at will.
Indeed the shape of the Hoffenheim side impressed throughout the match;
Here I have captured a shot from a Koln goal kick as they look to play out from the back. The 3-4-3 structure has reverted to a 5-2-3 in their defensive phase with the two wing backs dropping back in towards the defensive line to cover the wide areas. With three forward players retaining their high position in order to press the Koln defenders as they looked to play the ball out from the back.
The flexibility of Hoffenheim under Naglesmann is key here with the young coach favouring a variety of different tactical systems with different emphasis in terms of movement and pressing across the width of the field. A number of the Hoffenheim players are able to play comfortably in more than one position within the structure allowing them to switch in and out of different playing structures.
Creating space and overloads
Key to the attacking game plan from Hoffenheim in this match was their ability to create space in the final third via movement and quick ball circulation. With only two designated central midfielders in the team it becomes more important for the wide forwards and wingbacks to offer support in the attacking phase in the half spaces and central areas.
Here we see an example of Hoffenheim accessing space in the centre of the final third through the intelligent positioning of Serge Gnabry. As the first pass moves back to the Hoffenheim player just inside his own half the press from Koln is triggered. The two midfielders for the away side immediately move out to put pressure on the man in possession and the pass through the lines in to space is left open.
Look at the space between the defensive and midfield lines for Koln, there is no sense of a coherent defensive structure and two passes from Hoffenheim have enabled them to bypass the press and access space in front of the defensive line. In this instance Gnabry is able to take possession and turn to attack the Koln defensive third, the end result is a superb goal from Gnabry.
This time we see Hoffenheim attacking in direct transition towards the Koln penalty area. As the man in possession looks to move diagonally towards the penalty area. The movement off the ball of the more advanced forward is key in this specific attacking play as he moves across the face of the runner towards the opposite corner of the penalty area.
This single piece of movement drags the attention of two Koln defenders away from the man in possession and allows him to move forwards towards the penalty area with little or no challenges. This sense of the importance of space is something that we see often from Hoffenheim with their players tending to be tactically intelligent in their understanding of space and overloads, again this is something that is clearly influenced by Naglesmann and his coaching staff.
Alongside the use of movement and overloads in the attacking phase the way that Hoffenheim pressed the ball in the defensive phase stood out as one of the keys to this match and to their 6-0 win.
German football as a whole seems to have moved away from the counterpressing that was becoming the norm whilst Jurgen Klopp was at the peak of his powers at Borussia Dortmund. For a time it seemed as if the whole league was playing a vertical style of football with heavy emphasis on counterpressing when out of possession. This season in particular has seen more variation in style from clubs in the top flight.
Hoffenheim in particular are known to press intelligently and situationally making use of pressing triggers in specific areas of the field in order to force the opposition to make a mistake when in possession.
As the ball is passed out to Marcel Risse in the right wing back role for Koln he receives the pass whilst still facing his own goal, this in itself is a pressing trigger and it leads to the pressing of the initial three Hoffenheim players who are behind the ball. Risse has two obvious passes open to him, the first pass is back to a central player whilst the second is a touch around the corner to a more advanced player.
Option one also leads to a pressing trigger with one advanced Hoffenheim player then being able to press from the blind side. Risse however chooses option two and as soon as the pass goes in to the feet of the advanced Koln player the trap is closed by three Hoffenheim players and the ball is won back by the home side.
Here we see counterpressing at its finest with the pressing trigger being applied just outside of the Koln penalty area. As Koln look to play out from the back there is immediate press put on the right sided player as he takes possession. This pressure forces the player in question to make a highly questionable pass across to the central defender. This pass simply triggers a more aggressive pressing movement from Hoffenheim as they swarm the man taking possession and once again turn the ball over for a quick attacking transition.
The game finished 6-0 to Hoffenheim and they were as dominant as the scoreline suggests. With 18 shots to Koln’s 4 they had an xG score of 3.02 compared to 0.79 from Koln.
Hoffenheim were technically and tactically on another level from their opponents with the level of understanding of the system from their players by far outshining that of the Koln players. With the end of the season looming in the near distance we could be seeing Julian Naglesmann reestablishing himself as the most coveted young coach in European football.