The German Bundesliga has a reputation amongst many football fans as being one of the most uncompetitive leagues in the world. Few casual observers can see beyond the modern super club that is Bayern Munich and perhaps Borussia Dortmund at a push.
Those fans that dismiss the quality of German football however are doing themselves a disservice in not recognising the quality of established sides like Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach, there are also the next level exciting young sides looking to challenge at the top of the table. This tier is led by the likes of Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig both of whom are playing progressive attacking football as they set up camp at the top of the Bundesliga.
Hoffenheim are a relatively small club primarily funded by a single owner in Dietmar Hopp who originally funded extravagant purchases before changing the model at the club to a more sustainable version with young players with significant resale values being signed to supplement young players developed at the club. Last season they made waves with the appointment of the then 28-year-old Julian Naglesmann with some putting the appointment down to a publicity stunt.
Those doubters have all but disappeared as the young coach has impressed with his tactical and structural flexibility as Hoffenheim continue to challenge towards the top of the table.
RB Leipzig on the other hand have followed a different route to the top flight with significant investment from the Red Bull group. That said the investment has followed a specific model with the club targeting players that are 24 and under who have the capacity to develop beyond their current ability. This young squad is coached by another of the hottest coaches in German football with the Austrian Ralph Hasenhuttl having taken charge from FC Ingolstadt.
Under Hasenhuttl and with the added influence of director of football Ralf Ragnick RB Leipzig have adopted a fast pressing system with vertical passing through a 4-2-2-2 structure that has overwhelmed a number of opponents so far this season.
The most interesting piece of team news from RB Leipzig prior to this game was the combination of Demme and Ilsanker being chosen as the central midfield pivot. This meant that one of the most impressive and tactically versatile players in the league Naby Keita had been moved up in to a more advanced role where he would connect with Sabitzer on the same line.
Hoffenheim lined up as expected in a 3-5-2 shape with both Sule and Rudy playing their first matches since the announcement that they would be joining Bayern Munich at the end of the season. Creativity would be supplied by the exciting young players Amiri and Demirbay whilst in attack Kramaric and Wagner were in impressive form.
Hoffenheim dangerous in transition
One of the strength of this Hoffenheim side so far this season has been their ability to break down opposition attacks and then counter quickly and vertically in the transition phase. The 3-5-2 structure can very quickly flow in to an attacking structure that creates overloads in the final third of the pitch.
In the centre of the three-man defensive unit Kevin Vogt was until very recently a defensive midfield player and he still has the freedom to step out in to the middle third of the pitch to offer a passing option when Hoffenheim are in possession.
The mechanism is something akin to Barcelona who have Busquests dropping back from a defensive midfield area in to the defensive line when in the defensive phase. Hoffenheim have inverted that and have Vogt start in defence and step out.
Here we can see the speed at which Hoffenheim transition from defence to attack and the way that they catch the Leipzig midfield flat and out of possession.
As soon as the ball is won back then instantly three or four Hoffenheim players will look to break beyond the man in possession to take advantage of any spaces in the Leipzig defensive structure that has been left as they looked to attack.
Leipzig different pressing structures
Ralf Ragnick is well known as one of the first German coaches to push the idea of zonal marking and high pressing within a 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2 structure while he was in charge of Ulm, Stuttgart and Hoffenheim in particular.
Ralph Hasenhuttl has a similar tactical blueprint although he is slightly more nuanced in his use of pressing traps and triggers with different approaches taken depending on the position of the ball and of the man taking possession of the ball.
Here we can see Hoffenheim circulating possession of the ball across their back three. As they are not looking to move the ball forward immediately the RB Leipzig structure is set to allow possession in this area but also to make it difficult for Hoffenheim to move the ball forward in to central areas.
I have highlighted the position of Rudy in the Hoffenheim system in a central position where he would look to take possession of the ball from the defence before playing forward in to the middle third of the pitch.
Four Leipzig players are used in this pressing structure with the deeper central midfielders then covering out towards the wide areas where the pressing players are looking to funnel the ball.
As mentioned above the initial pressing movement from Leipzig is designed to funnel the Hoffenheim attacking movement out in to the wide areas as they concentrate on blocking the central areas.
As the ball is then played out in to the wide areas then we see Leipzig move in to a more aggressive press using the touchline to pen the man in possession in and force either a pass back towards his own goal or a rushed and inaccurate pass forwards.
The structure is flexible enough that players know their role and when they should press and when they should allow the opposition to have possession of the ball in areas that suit their purpose.
Leipzig Structure in possession
In possession of the ball Leipzig are interesting in their approach to advancing the ball forwards. Their 4-2-2-2 structure tends to allow the two more advanced players the freedom to move in and out of space in their own specific half of the field, combined with two fluid forwards and full backs who support instead of attacking blindly then can be difficult to defend against.
Here you can see Leipzig in comfortable possession in their own half of the field. One of the two central midfield players has dropped in to the defensive line thus allowing the two centre backs to split out towards the wide areas and offer passing options and angles to bring the ball out from the back.
As this happens then the fullbacks are able to advance forward forming another wide line with the remaining central midfielder.
This structure when playing the ball out is not unusual in football today having been popularised by the Barcelona side of Pep Guardiola but it is an effective means of moving the ball in to advanced areas.
This time you can see the structure of the Leipzig side as they advance in to the final third of the pitch.
The ball is with the left back and the fullback on the opposite side has also advanced to join the attacking movement. With the two strikers and the two advanced midfielders also in the final third this gives Leipzig a number of options in terms of overloading the opposition.
Another example of the structure from Leipzig in the final third of the field but this time on the opposite side of the field.
The man in possession has five separate passing options open to him and the right hand side of the pitch can be overloaded at a number of different depths to allow Leipzig to break through the Hoffenheim defensive structure.
A 2-1 win for Leipzig sees the newly promoted side continue to put pressure on Bayern Munich at the top of the Bundesliga. After falling behind to Hoffenheim the side from Eastern Germany showed great focus to come back and win the match.
Whilst Hoffenheim impressed tactically in phases of the match the relentless energy and attacking overloads from Leipzig were too much for Hoffenheim to handle.
This match is an ideal example as to why the Bundesliga is so tactically interesting and diverse.