Bundesliga MD 18 Preview: Bayern vs. Hoffenheim
The signs before the match of FC Bayern München hosting TSG Hoffenheim are completely different from those of a few months ago. Back then, the record champions travelled to Sinsheim coming almost straight from their celebration of the UEFA Super Cup triumph in Budapest, and had to realize that the last few days had taken a toll. Mentally especially they seemed exhausted.
The newly crowned treble winners went down 4-1 and for the first time there were signs that this season could become a long and hard one. But the defeat turned out not to leave a lasting scar on the team. Right now, they are seven points ahead of biggest challengers Leipzig and thirteen ahead of Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga. Everything points to a ninth championship in a row.
On the way there, however, Sebastian Hoeneß and his team will certainly want to be a stumbling block once again. This time against a fitter Bayern side and away from home, but with a tactical plan in store.
Hoffenheim are currently in no-man’s land in the table. Seven points clear of the relegation zone and eight adrift of sixth place, which would qualify them for Europe. So they are just average. The hope that Hoeneß could seamlessly pick up with Hoffenheim where he left off with the incredible Rückrunde at Bayern’s second team was not fulfilled.
At Hoffenheim, however, the bosses remain calm. “We are highly satisfied with how the people here – the coach, the players – accept the extraordinary situation and deal with it,” said sports director Alexander Rosen on pay-TV channel Sky at the beginning of the year, adding that this season could not be assessed by ordinary standards.
Hoeneß himself pointed out in an interview with Kicker that the situation was “extremely challenging” and that he was gaining “valuable experience” at a rate that he had not expected. Especially since he was missing up to 13 players at times when parts of the squad were afflicted with the coronavirus. Nevertheless, he is optimistic about the future. In the last few weeks, he noted, his idea of the game was better implemented and the work of the past summer was beginning to bear fruit.
But what kind of idea is that? And what does Sebastian Hoeneß stand for? Anyone who has followed him over the various stages of his career first at FC Bayern and now at Hoffenheim will probably find this a difficult question to answer. This is probably the biggest point of contention when it comes to the coach: it is difficult to discern a core idea.
Certain recurring elements can be discerned, but beyond that Hoeneß’s style often borders on the experimental. One example: Hoeneß wants his team to press high and put the opponent’s build-up play under pressure. That would be one of the typical elements. At the same time, however, we have witnessed his side play everything from sitting very deep to merciless pressing in the final third – but nothing with real conviction and consistency. It seems as if the coach himself is still searching for what suits his squad best.
In phases of higher pressing, Hoffenheim tend to push the opponent out wide in order to force turnovers in areas with a shortage of space. The shifts create spaces on the far side of the ball, but ideally a well-timed execution makes it difficult for the opponent to break free. More often than not, however, Hoffenheim’s work against the ball is similar to what many Bundesliga teams play: A mid block and squeezing the center.
The key to a second win against Bayern this season will be to combine and balance the two aspects well. In recent weeks, Hoeneß has made the team sit a little deeper in an attempt to stabilize the defense. As in the reverse fixture, however, it will be important for Hoffenheim to push out and put Bayern’s build-up play under pressure with courage, but also to fall back behind the ball quickly should the Bayern side be able to elude the press.
It is well known that Hoeneß’s team is strong in transition after winning the ball. Many players are still benefiting from the Nagelsmann era. They possess quick decision-making, are technically sound, and often reliable ball handlers even under pressure. The class of Andrej Kramarić and the pace of Ihlas Bebou should be two of the biggest assets against Bayern.
Hoffenheim’s problems lie – this is also almost typical for many Bundesliga teams – in longer phases of possession. The trademark Nagelsmann style of give and go passing patterns going forward has almost completely disappeared. Hoffenheim often lack not only sensible positioning in defense, but also the willingness to take risks and penetrate a deep defense with passes and runs. This makes it difficult for them to create spaces.
In addition to Kramarić, Hoffenheim lack another striker or attacking midfielder who can hold up and distribute balls and assert himself in tight spaces. It is particularly noteworthy that Hoffenheim have significant trouble making the game although in theory they have ideal players in central midfield to do so. Diadié Sammassékou, Sebastian Rudy and Florian Grillitsch (who is injured) would all have the technical and strategic prerequisites.
At Bayern, Hoffenheim will need this playmaking quality, especially after winning the ball. That makes it all the more important for Hansi Flick’s team to prevent their visitors from switching the play from the get go.
“Pressure on the ball” is once again the key phrase here. Flick recently relied on a relatively stable starting eleven. At the back, the treble winning center-back pair of Boateng and Alaba was allowed to settle in, while the team’s back to front backbone of Kimmich, Goretzka, Müller, and Lewandowski also played consistently. The coach only made marginal rotations in the wide positions.
Both the results and the performances have proved Flick right so far. The performance gap between starting XI and the bench is huge, especially in the central positions. While changing center-back duos led to problems in coordination, Flick also lacks an equal strength alternative for each of the other four players. Because Goretzka (infection with the coronavirus) and Martínez (also infection with the coronavirus) as well as Tolisso are out, this gap in quality could become relevant again at the weekend.
Flick must therefore time the rotation as well as possible, which is difficult enough. Things are slightly simplified by the direct competition in the Bundesliga doing him the favour of slipping up, but especially with a view to the Champions League, it could still become a problem that there are hardly any suitable options from the bench for the key positions.
Against Hoffenheim, three things will be particularly important: First, the patience, composure and organization to withstand phases of higher pressing by the opponent. It will be crucial to involve the midfield in support of Kimmich, who recently had to do a lot on his own when it came to carrying the ball forward. Especially Müller will have an even greater responsibility here than usual.
Second, it is about tempting Hoffenheim to deploy a high press in the first place. As described, Hoffenheim tend to compress the space. With Boateng, Alaba, Kimmich and Pavard, Bayern have players in their ranks who have strong passing skills and can shift the play.
And third, counter-attacking will be crucial. In the last few weeks, Bayern seem to have found defensive stability by consistently having three defenders sit deep. Hoffenheim, however, have a different attacking quality from Bayern’s last opponents, and so how Bayern fare will possibly offer a small hint of the progress they have made so far.
In our longer analysis a few weeks ago, we described the advantages and disadvantages of dynamic space utilization. Flick could go for a less dynamic and more preconfigured game in order to relieve Kimmich and reduce the risk when the team loses possession. Because if the players are more mutually aligned, they can also gegenpress faster and more efficiently.
Of course, the factor “precision”, which contains a great many individual aspects, always takes precedence over the three points mentioned above. DFB coach Louisa Ramsaier described it to us in our German podcast as Bayern too often making the third or fourth best decision in the game instead of the best or second best.
A concrete example is the three goals conceded against Gladbach. Each of the misplaced passes was somehow understandable in the moment, but not the best choice. As this concerns phenomena in the psychological realm, it is difficult to penetrate such problems from the outside.
As a coach, however, Flick has a greater level of and more immediate insight and will (have to) use that to simplify the decision-making process for the players. If he succeeds, Bayern’s game will become more precise again. Flick has already taken tactical countermeasures recently, for example by putting the brakes on the intensity levels a little. Last year, there already were games in which the team pressed from a deeper average position at times.
Especially last summer’s highly dangerous give and go play from the wing diagonally into the space between the lines has become more rare in recent weeks. The players already seem to act more watching out for the threat of a possible counter-attack.
However, this also results in problems: in defense, Bayern are too passive. Instead of actively pressing the opponent and winning the ball, they are often only companions of their opposing players. Almost paradoxically, another problem is that individual players are then conversely too aggressive and open up spaces that the opponent can exploit. A more uniform line and more active defending, at least at times, would be better.
In possession, the now more cautious style of play leads to a lack of penetrating power and moments of surprise up front. Flick, however, is probably intentionally taking a more cautious approach in order to stabilize the defense. He will not be able to fix all his team’s problems at once – especially in this situation – and so it is a matter of accepting those that have the least negative impact on the team’s success. A complicated balancing act.
Looking ahead to the Club World Cup, it would be important for FC Bayern to at least maintain their current lead in the Bundesliga. The trend of the last few weeks suggests that they will succeed in doing so. Especially as they have not lost a home game since the 2-1 defeat to Leverkusen in 2019.
But Hoffenheim not only know how to end long Bayern series, they also bring the requisite quality for such a feat.
In many places, the 4-1 in the first leg was blamed solely on Bayern’s fatigue – especially in hindsight because of Hoffenheim’s mediocre season. It is now up to Bayern to settle the score and underline this judgement.