When the draw was made for this qualifying round of the Champions League one tie caught the attention of fans around the world. Liverpool and their German coach Jurgen Klopp were drawn against Hoffenheim and the prodigiously talented young coach Julian Naglesmann.
For both sides, this draw was the worst case scenario with each harbouring genuine aspirations of reaching the group stages. The first leg, played in Germany, proved however to be an enthralling match with a clash of tactical systems that provided an extremely entertaining ninety minutes.
Before the match the onus was on the two coaches, two men who share an agent and from time to time exchange messages, combined with the ongoing transfer saga surrounding the Brazilian midfielder Phillipe Coutinho and his proposed move from Liverpool to Barcelona. When the match started, however, the players on display well and truly claimed the spotlight with the English side, in particular, containing speed in abundance, whilst Hoffenheim were expertly organised by the superb Kevin Vogt in the centre of the three man defence.
The final score of 2-1 to Liverpool was not quite in keeping with the match as a whole as the German side failed to take advantage of their superior possession and chances. That said you cannot help but be impressed by the resilience of Liverpool in securing this result at this early stage of the season.
Predicting the tactical system used by Naglesmann is something of an impossible challenge, he is well known as a coach who adapts his system based around the team that he is going to face. Indeed such was the system utilised in this match there were only a handful of players in fixed positions. Goalkeeper Oliver Baumann, central defender Kevin Vogt and forward Sandro Wagner provided the spine of the side while Pavel Kaderabek and Steven Zuber provided the width from the wingback position, beyond that there was a high degree of versatility.
Liverpool, on the other hand, lined up in the relatively straightforward 4-3-3 shape, the width was present with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. Former Hoffenheim forward Roberto Firmino played as the central striker although as the game wore on he took a slightly deeper position creating a diamond in midfield and leaving the two wide players as the most advanced when in possession.
Hoffenheim build from the back
One of the key concepts put in place by Naglesmann in his time at Hoffenheim is the willingness to build their attack from the back. The German side are extremely confident in possession in their defensive third with Oliver Baumann providing an excellent base and central defenders Vogt, Ermin Bicakcic and Benjamin Hubner split across the width of the field to allow passing lanes to open up.
Kevin Vogt is especially effective in this phase of the game as befits a player who was converted to this role from the defensive midfield strata.
The key to the attacking progression of the ball is the willingness of Vog, in particular, to pass the ball forwards into advanced areas and breaking the opponents line of pressure. In this match, the capacity for Vogt to play passes beyond the Liverpool line of pressure was key in the game plan from Naglesmann.
Here we see the immediate point of transition after a Liverpool attack had broken down. The ball comes to Kevin Vogt centrally and as you can see he is immediately closed down as the Liverpool players sense an ideal opportunity to counter press and force a mistake or a turnover.
It is at this moment, when under pressure, that we see the qualities that Vogt provides for his side. He does not look to play a rushed pass that could be easily intercepted but instead waits for the passing lane before driving a vertical pass to the feet of Sandro Wanger.
This pass immediately changes the emphasis of the attack and gives Hoffenheim a perfect advanced platform from which to build their attack.
Once again here we see the quality on the ball from Kevin Vogt although in this instance he is under no pressure from Liverpool as Hoffenheim have already launched one attacking phase and are in the process of resetting the play.
As the ball comes back from Hubner in to Kevin Vogt, who is once again in the centre, this time Vogt plays the pass first time out to the player in the left hand half space. This single pass effectively takes five Liverpool players out of the game and gives Hoffenheim a superb platform.
Once again Vogt is centrally positioned as the initial Hoffenheim attack is repelled and the German side looks to start again from the back. Once again the key is in the willingness of Vogt to play forwards into tight areas instead of merely circulating the ball and playing out in to wide areas.
The vertical pass in this instance breaks the line of Liverpool pressure and takes six Liverpool players out of the game.
You can clearly see from this pass map created by @11tegen11 with the use of Opta data that Vogt was they key passer for Hoffenheim, you can also see the positional flexibility
The Positional battle
One of the most intriguing aspects of the match was the way in which both sides tried to take the initiative in terms of controlling space through the positional structures of the sides. As previously mentioned Hoffenheim were extremely fluid with the likes of Lukas Rupp, Karim Demirbay, Serge Gnabry and Andrej Kramaric in particular adopting different positional slots across the width of the field depending on the ball position.
Liverpool on the other hand ended up with Roberto Firmino playing in almost an attacking midfielder slot to shore up the central areas while they concentrated their attacks down the wide areas.
Here we have Hoffenheim in possession of the ball in the left hand half space. Liverpool are relatively compact with their defensive line being supplemented by the positioning of Jordan Henderson and Emre Can ahead of them. The issue that Liverpool have is that Hoffenheim are stretching the width of the field with Zuber and Kaderback in the wide areas.
Then note the positioning of the three Hoffenheim attacking players, they are relatively narrow but all are looking to take up positions in pockets between the defensive players for Liverpool. The width of the wingbacks stretches the defensive line slightly and can allow passing lanes to develop if Liverpool are not careful.
Here Hoffenheim are building their phase of play from the back. Liverpool are defending in their default 4-3-3 shape with Sadio Mane on the ball near side using his positioning to cover the pass out to Kaderback in the wide areas.
The issue that Liverpool have, and one that they will have to be careful of in the second leg, is that the midfield three have been pulled completely flat. This lack of depth, which usually sees one of the three dropping deeper centrally, can lead to the midfield being easily bypassed with a single pass.
Liverpool will need to take care to keep their compact defensive shape and defend the space between the midfield and defensive lines if they are to preserve their lead through the second leg of this tie.
Liverpool attacking structure
This Liverpool side appear to be built to be deadly in the attacking transition. Few teams in world football can boast such a potent attacking threat in the wide areas as Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah both possessing pace that will frighten the life out of opposition defences.
When playing quick vertical football in periods of this match Liverpool were more than a match for Hoffenheim and it was the two wide players who impressed the most in patches.
Here we see an example of the Liverpool attack in transition; with the ball out on the right hand side with the exceptionally dangerous Salah, we can see that they have caught the Hoffenheim defence out of position. On the left side Zuber is struggling to get back and Hubner has been pulled in to a dangerous area to cover Salah.
Centrally the attacking movement is being supported by three Liverpool players who are looking to make runs to overload the central area of the Hoffenheim defensive area.
Having Salah isolated in this manner against a central defender is an ideal scenario for Liverpool, especially when combined with central support.
On the overall balance of play it is difficult to judge if either side deserved to win this match. Liverpool took the lead through an excellent free kick courtesy of young full back Trent Alexander-Arnold whilst Hoffenheim missed an early penalty courtesy of Andrej Kramaric.
This expected goals chart from the match courtesy of @11tegen11 using opta data further illustrates the close nature of the match. On expected goals Hoffenheim edged the match by 1.94 to 1.57. Showing that the English side were more efficient with their finishing.
The second leg next week promises to be another fascinating encounter with the tie still finely poised. It remains to be seen whether the German side will be as composed in possession when faced with the wall of noise that Anfield will provide. Advantage Liverpool.