Going in to this match the narrative surrounding Hoffenheim coach Julian Naglesmann was beginning to shift slightly, still only 30 years old the young tactician has long been heralded as the most promising young coach in German football. A disappointing first European campaign for the club combined with the appearance of a new bright young coach in Domenico Tedesco at Schalke has led people to question the ability of Naglesmann to coach at the very highest levels.
These doubts are to some extent perfectly natural in a professional environment where coaches and players are built up by media and fans alike before being knocked back down when they fail to live up to expectations. It pays though to take a step back and consider the bigger picture.
Despite losing two key players in the off season to Bayern Munich, Sebastian Rudy and Niklas Sule, and the increased competition of midweek European fixtures Hoffenheim are still competing for the Champions League spots at the top of the Bundesliga.
In contrast to this RB Leipzig have experienced very little in the way of drop off and are continuing their solid form that saw them finish second in the Bundesliga last season.
This match would provide an interesting clash of system and style the home side eventually gaining a commanding victory as the gameplan implemented by Naglesmann completely nullified the threat posed by RB Leipzig.
Hoffenheim went in to this match without their captain and best defender Kevin Vogt but there was very little impact in terms of their defensive performance. They started in a 5-3-1-1 system with Oliver Baumann in goal behind a back five of Pavel Kaderabek, Kevin Akpoguma, Stefan Posch, Benjamin Hubner and Steven Zuber. Dennis Geiger was the deepest of the central midfielders sitting behind Lukas Rupp and Nadiem Amiri. In attack Mark Uth led the line with Serge Gnabry, on loan from Bayern Munich, playing in a slightly more withdrawn role.
RB Leipzig lined up at the start of the game in their standard 4-2-2-2 shape. Peter Gulasci continued in goal with a back four of Lukas Klostemann, Ibrahima Konate, Dayot Upamecano and Marcel Halstenberg. Naby Keita and Diego Demme formed the double pivot in midfield with Emil Forsberg and Kevin Kampl playing ahead of them. In attack the Danish international Youssef Poulsen was chosen to partner the Germany forward Timo Werner.
Hoffenheim Defensive Spacing
One of the most impressive aspects of this match from Hoffenheim was the excellent spacing from them in the defensive phase. With Leipzig looking to play quickly in transition especially through the wide and half spaces we saw the midfield three from Hoffenheim in particular space themselves in order to cut off any possible passing lanes that could be used to progress the ball forwards.
By using clever positioning and cover shadows we saw the home side force Leipzig time and time again to look for a low percentage pass over the top of the midfield in to the strikers, a threat that the three central defenders from Hoffenheim dealt with extremely well.
Here we see Ibrahima Konate having split wide in to the full back position looking to progress the ball forwards. From this position we normally see either a low vertical pass played in to the feet of the strikers or a lateral pass in to the central midfielder for Leipzig.
Here however both of those options have been taken away by the Hoffenheim defensive structure, The advanced players are all covered comfortably by defensive players and the option of the lateral pass to Naby Keita has also been taken away.
This defensive structure and spacing forced Leipzig then to look for the clipped forward ball over the midfield in to the strikers, this was a pass that could be easily dealt with by the Hoffenheim defence.
Here again we can see why Leipzig struggled to move the ball forwards and penetrate the Hoffenheim defensive structure. With the ball being brought out from the defensive line the only clear passing lanes for the man in possession are wide to the man on the touchline or back and across to another defensive player.
Of course Hoffenheim are happy to allow the ball to go backwards but at the same time if the ball is played out to the touchline it will trigger a press as Hoffenheim try to turn over possession.
Hoffenheim easily play through Leipzig press
There is no doubt at all that Naglesmann had prepared thoroughly for this match, helped no doubt by the way that Leipzig follow a very rigid tactical blueprint. As well as blocking their passing lanes in the defensive phase Hoffenheim were ready for the high press preferred by Leipzig.
Once again the alignment of the midfield and in particular the positioning of Dennis Geiger as the deeper controlling midfielder allowed Hoffenheim to comfortably play through the press in central areas.
Here we can see the moment of immediate transition as Hoffenheim win the ball back, straight away there are two Leipzig players who move in to engage the man in possession of the ball, Geiger. Because of the positioning of the Hoffenheim midfielders the ball is quickly circulated between the three players before the third midfielder is able to turn and quickly move in to open space.
The back line of three central defenders was also utilised by Hoffenheim to escape the pressure that Leipzig looked to impose, both Timo Werner and Yousef Poulsen in the Leipzig attack are normally excellent in closing down the opposition defensive line to prevent them from being able to progress the ball forward properly.
With the back three though Hoffenheim were able to shift the ball across the width of the field at speed in order to prevent Leipzig from closing down the man in possession.
Here we see the ball move across the defensive line in order to gain the time and space in order to play a ball forward. For the whole match Leipzig struggled to effectively pressure the ball.
Hoffenheim defensive compactness
As already discussed above Hoffenheim were excellent in the centre of the field and with their attackers in spacing themselves. The defensive solidity continued when Leipzig were in more sustained possession and were able to move in to the Hoffenheim half of the field.
The defensive structure from Hoffenheim when in a deep block was extremely compact with no space for Leipzig to play through in to central areas. With the 4-2-2-2 favoured by Leipzig the two advanced midfielders, Forsberg and Kampl sit in more narrow positions, either in the central area of the half space. The width is then provided by the fullbacks. In this game however the Hoffenheim wingbacks were effective in preventing the ball being played out to the wide areas for Leipzig. This in turn forced the away side to funnel their attacks in to the central block where Hoffenheim were compact.
Here we see Leipzig attacking in the central areas. They are looking to overload one of the Hoffenheim central defenders to find a passing lane through in to the penalty area. As you can see whilst there are five attacking players in the central area there are nine defensive players for Hoffenheim. This defensive structure made it very difficult for Leipzig to create any clear cut chances throughout the match.
On this occasion Leipzig have the ball out in the wide area. One player is engaging the ball with another offering support. In the centre again we have four attacking players in the central area, once again though the attackers are outnumbered by the seven defensive players in a compact block.
Even if the players in the wide areas were able to get the ball in to the centre the defensive block from Hoffenheim would be ready to deal with the attacking threat.
This match showcased a near perfect tactical gameplan from Hoffenheim and Naglesmann. The home side had studied the tactical tendencies of Leipzig and were ready to counter any attacking threat that the away side posed.
To win at all against a difficult opponent was impressive but to win by a 4-0 margin was even more so. This win came at a time in which Hoffenheim were beginning to show signs of falling away from the top of the table, on the basis of this performance however Hoffenheim may well have put themselves firmly back in the hunt for Champions League football.