Bundesliga MD 02 Preview: Hoffenheim vs. Bayern

Tobias Separator September 27, 2020

Hoffenheim look back on a somewhat turbulent 2019/20 season. After Julian Nagelsmann left for Leipzig, Alfred Schreuder was appointed as a competent and modern successor. However, this marriage ultimately turned out to be an unhappy one. Schreuder and Hoffenheim, it never really seemed to fit. The former assistant coach of Erik ten Haag at Ajax Amsterdam often left people wondering about his starting line-up, not only Hoffenheim fans, but apparently his betters in charge at the club as well. After a mixed first half of the season, TSG seemed to stabilize a bit and played a solid season despite the upheaval at the end when Schreuder was sacked after the 30th matchday. After a draw, the club parted with Schreuder despite his team being on course for the Europea League places at the time. However, it seemed that those in charge lacked trust in a positive long-term perspective with Schreuder on the bench. Although a lack of success could certainly not be the reason, the team nevertheless managed to climb up another place and ultimately finished sixth under interim coach Rapp.

In summer Sebastian Hoeneß took over as head coach in Hoffenheim. Last season Hoeneß led the second team of FC Bayern to the championship in the 3. Liga (third division). Impressed by the results and the general development of Hoeneß as a coach, TSG appointed Dieter Hoeneß’ son as the permanent successor to Alfred Schreuder. Hoeneß did not think twice and took the opportunity to work in the Bundesliga.

Else, not much has changed in Sinsheim. In times of COVID-19, TSG too has had to scale down their ambitions. Last year the club had to compensate for such painful departures as those of top performers Joelinton, Kerem Demirbay or Nadiem Amiri. This year, however, the core of the team could be kept hold of and was further strengthened by Mijat Gacinovic and Kevin Vogt, who returned from his loan from Bremen. Bruno Nazario also returned from a loan spell, but will have to accept a lower place in the pecking order the same as the four Hoffenheim youth players who have been promoted to the first team.

What can be said about TSG Hoffenheim under Sebastian Hoeneß? So far not a great deal. After all, the former coach of the Bayern reserves has had very little time to work with his new team and implement his ideas of football. In their narrow opening victory in Cologne, TSG came out on top playing with a back three, as they have done several times in recent years. In Hoeneß’ 3-4-1-2 the highly talented Geiger played alongside the no less talented Samassékou in the center of midfield. With these two Hoffenheim has a very strong midfield, which can always make an impact going forward and is able to remain calm in possession even under pressure. Together with Kevin Vogt, Sebastian Hoeneß’ team has a strong backbone, whose task it will be to build-up form the back and release the offensive around the strong Baumgartner, striker Dabbur and top star Andrej Kramaric. That he is still playing in Hoffenheim is quite surprising. Kramaric is probably one of the strongest attackers in the league and would certainly be considered a welcome addition by many top teams.

During his time at Bayern, Hoeneß continuously developed as a coach. While he was first criticized for his lack of tactical ambition at the U19, he later established many different variations in build-up play at the U23. Normally Hoeneß used the 4-4-2 diamond or a 4-2-3-1, with Stiller always the pivot in defensive midfield and one of the two eights supporting him. So the team always tried to build up the game in a 2-4 or 2-3 shape at the back and open up spaces at the front. This was a very notable feature of his game. Hoeneß attached great importance to drawing out the opponent in order to open spaces in higher areas. Due to their clever positioning, Bayern’s second team then was able to very effectively use these rooms to their advantage. As a result, by having the wing players shift inside frequently or even playing a system without dedicated wide players, Hoeneß’ team usually had many passing options between the opponent’s midfield and defensive line. These they then used these to try to get behind the last line with a passage of short passing combinations.

Everything Hoeneß has been doing at Hoffenheim so far indicates that this will also be his goal in Sinsheim. By building up with a 3-2 shape at the back, Hoffenheim try to draw the opponent out, overload the space between the lines, and quickly get in behind the back line. There are certainly the right players for this in Hoffenheim’s squad. First of all, many are still familiar with this approach from their time under Julian Nagelsmann. Furthermore, players like Dabbur or Kramaric with their playing intelligence, technical aptitude and intelligent runs without the ball are tailor-made for this style of play. With a striker like Bebou, there is also a player who likes to run in behind and has the necessary speed to do so.

Everyone who wants to know more about Hoeneß’ playing style of last season, I would like to refer to this analysis.

What will be in store for Bayern against Hoffenheim?

FC Bayern will certainly be faced with greater problems against Hoffenheim than they were against Schalke, especially if Hoeneß maintains his line-up from the weekend and once more relies on his preferred back five against the record champions. Hoffenheim has often used a 5-3-2 in the past to good effect and it has proved a system that makes them very uncomfortable to play against.

Bayern showed in the Champions League tournament in Lisbon that they can struggle against a 5-3-2, which not least Olympique Lyon demonstrated in the semi-finals. The reasons are obvious. Bayern’s game has a strong center focus. Ever since Hansi Flick took the helm at the club, the top priority has been to overload the space between the opponent’s defensive and midfield lines. These patterns were also evident again and again against Schalke. In addition to Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller, the wingers Leroy Sané and Serge Gnabry always pushed into the center and half spaces. When Bayern had two players on the wing, one of the holding midfielders was at liberty to push further forward.

On the basis of creating heavy overloads in the center, FC Bayern want to enable passing options between the lines and cause problems for the opponent’s midfield line. The many players between the lines should make it impossible for the opponent to block all passing lanes at all times. To achieve this, Bayern’s full-backs pushed high up against Schalke, not only to provide width, but also to serve as an additional passing option in the space between the lines. As a result, Bayern’s rear players always had three options to distribute the ball to behind the Schalke midfield line. These were the full-backs, Müller or Lewandowski in the center who often made themselves available for a diagonal pass into the center, and Sané and Gnabry in the half spaces. In addition, Bayern faithfully maintained a coordinated positioning across different horizontal lines and precisely knew when to launch a run in behind. To counter this, Schalke’s back four could not simply push out without leaving an unmarked opposing player in space. Accordingly, Bayern enjoyed plenty of space and were able to break through at the front as soon as they had moved the ball in the space in between the lines via one of their training ground passing routines.

Everyone who wants to know more about Bayern’s impressive offensive display against Schalke, I would like to recommend this video to.

In contrast to the Schalke 4-4-2, a 5-3-2 could be a more promising solution to contain Bayern offensive play for various reasons. For one, the 5-3-2 automatically leads to a better coverage of the half-spaces since the two number eights are already positioned there by default. In contrast to a 4-4-2, there is hardly any fuzziness about which player marks whom. Furthermore, an opponent’s diagonal pass into the center is easier to defend by the holding midfielder. Accordingly, the opponent’s routes through the center and the half spaces are generally more obstructed.

Against Lyon, Bayern had to switch the play out to the wings earlier, where they were comparatively easy to isolate. The wing-backs pushed out aggressively, while the number eighth near to the ball was always able to block the diagonal pass to the center. The holding midfielder, meanwhile, provided protection at the back. This caused persistent problems for Bayern, especially since the two opposing strikers could still put pressure on the their build-up game.

Even if Bayern do get into the space between the lines in the game against Hoffenheim, TSG’s central defenders, if they really do set up in a back five, could push out more easily without leaving sizeable empty spaces for Bayern’s attacking players to exploit. Thus, there would be considerably less space for Bayern to operate with.

What could be the key for Bayern against this system?

But what are the drawbacks of a 5-3-2 and how could one play against it?

On Twitter and in a more detailed article I have already thought about this. The key for Bayern will surely be the deeper half space. Since Hoffenheim’s number eighth will be busy blocking the passing lane to Bayern’s winger in the half space, we will see him push forward less frequently. As a result, Bayern’s center-backs will often have unoccupied space ahead of them to carry the ball forward.

Especially if Goretzka drops in between his center-backs again to form a back three, Boateng/Alaba and Süle can do this quite freely and force the opponent to move out and close them down. This in turn will open up spaces that Hansi Flick’s team can use.

Bayern’s full-backs can also become a decisive factor, especially in combination with a wide winger. To make best use of this, one of the holding midfielders would have to push up quite high, while the other one keeps his position. Then, from a deep initial position, Bayern’s full-backs could run upfield with the ball at their feet or set off without the ball and open up spaces for a pincer movement by wingers Gnabry and Sané.

Furthermore, shifts of the play from the wing through the center to the opposite half space can play a decisive role. Lyon, for example, did not succeed in preventing this, so that Bayern frequently got the opportunity to switch the play via Thiago. It should not be forgotten that the three man midfield in a 5-3-2 is horizontally less compact due to the lack of a fourth man.

Conclusion

It will be interesting to see with what approach Hoffenheim will try to meet the threat of FC Bayern in their current form. No doubt the game will be much harder than the opener against Schalke. The trip to Budapest and having had to play against Sevilla just three days ago will add to the challenge. Consequently, it is not entirely unlikely that Flick will make first small adjustments to his personell selection. After all, the games now come thick and fast for Bayern in the immediate future. No rest for the wicked.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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