Tomislav Brezovic writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Champions League qualifier that finished Hoffenheim 1-2 Liverpool
When these two clubs were paired in Nyon, the game automatically got the label for one of the more interesting match-ups in the Champions League play offs. This game was interesting, not only because of reputation of this two clubs, but also because of their football styles and their star managers Nagelsmann and Klopp who always get big attention in the media because of their personality. The game itself was a challenge for both clubs and therefore this was great win for Liverpool.
The match can be shortly described as Hoffenheim’s attacking plan versus Liverpool’s defensive plan. Hoffenheim’s tendency was to aggressively attack Liverpool’s back four in possession and with their dynamic vertical and horizontal offensive movements without the ball to disorganize Liverpool’s defensive shape. Liverpool’s plan was to reduce space between the lines, especially in their half to stop dropping movements of Hoffenheim’s offensive players and then to counterattack through their needle players Mane and Salah. These counterattacks were very dangerous because of Hoffenheim’s aggressive attacking strategy. When Liverpool managed to bypass Hoffenheim’s counterpressing, many players in Nagelsmann’s team were caught out on the wrong side of the ball and because of that Liverpool posed great threat in transition. Some of the best chances in the game for Liverpool came from transition. But in the end Alexander-Arnold’s moment of brilliance and Nordtveit’s own goal secured Klopp’s men victory in Southern Germany.
Hoffenheim (3-4-3) – Baumann, Bicakcik (Nordtveit 52’), Vogt, Hubner, Kadarabek, Demirbay, Rupp (Amiri 53’), Zuber, Kramaric, Wagner, Gnabry (Uth 70’)
Liverpool (4-3-3) – Mignolet, Arnold, Matip, Lovren, Moreno, Henderson (Milner 63’), Can, Wijnaldum, Salah, Firmino (Solanke 84’), Mane (Grujic 89’)
Goals: Uth 87’/ Arnold 35’, Nordtveit 74’ (own goal)
Hoffenheim’s attacking play
Hoffenheim’s strategy didn’t change, there were only changes in personnel compared to last season. Principles in their 3-4-3/ 3-1-4-2 formation remained the same. Nagelsmann’s philosophy can be called as direct version of the Spanish Juego de posicion. Hoffenheim’s back three remained almost the same but they lost their very talented player Niklas Sule who joined Bayern this summer alongside with his teammate Sebastian Rudy. Demirbay in previous seasons had an advanced role in midfield but this season he is Hoffenheim’s main playmaker and he has deeper role in Nagelsmann’s system. Players with advanced roles in left and right halfspace were Kramaric and Rupp. Attackers were Wagner and Gnabry who is on loan from Bayern. Hoffenheim usually starts to construct attack from their first third and the game against Liverpool was no exception. The aim was to invite Liverpool’s attackers to press with horizontal ball circulation from halfspace to halfspace.
Liverpool in pressing had a 4-3-3 shape. When Mane and Salah pressed Hoffenheim’s sidebacks, they tried to exploit space behind them. Because of three compact Liverpool players in midfield, there was space on the flanks that was exposed by playing on Zuber or Kaderabek. This space was especially opened when the ball was in central spaces. Movements of Rupp and Kramaric helped in opening that space and they attacked the space between fullback and centerback so Liverpool ball near fullback couldn’t help in pressing because of threat from Kramarić or Rupp and Wagner who consequently occupied centerbacks.
One of the most common ways to come with the ball to wingbacks was through Demirbay’s first touch lateral passing to Zuber or Kaderabek. This sequence was frequent on the left side of the pitch. When Zuber or Kaderabek received the ball they had space to dribble towards Liverpool’s goal. Rupp and Kramaric offered nearest diagonal passing options and Demirbay advanced higher so he could be the lateral passing option. Hoffenheim’s attacking players are very dynamic so there was a difference in attacking positional movements. Example, Kramaric in horizontal relation to wingback stretches Liverpool’s last line and Gnabry drops deeper to offer the diagonal passing option.
Hoffenheim’s dropping movements and diagonality
Another way to progress with the ball for Nagelsmann’s side was dropping movements of their offensive players. When Hoffenheim had the ball in the second third, their offensive players Kramaric and Rupp occupied Liverpool’s last line alongside with Wagner and Gnabry. Purpose of that was to:
- stop centerbacks to follow dropping movements
- drop on blind side of Liverpool midfielders to receive the ball
Most common dropping movements were executed by Kramaric and Rupp to offer passing lane in halfspaces when Demirbay was in possession whilst Gnabry and Wagner kept Liverpool’s centerbacks busy.
Kramaric drops between the lines and receives the ball, Emre Can can’t see Kramaric and Henderson’s field of vision is reduced for that space. When Henderson does see Kramaric, it’s too late to cut the pass from Vogt. Rupp, Wagner and Gnabry attacked Liverpool’s back line and Moreno is under threat from Kaderabek. If in this case Moreno attacked Kramaric, a simple first touch pass from Kramaric to Kaderabek could heavily disorganize Liverpool’s last line shape. Also in some occasions Wagner or Gnabry dropped to offer passing lane. Wagner is a player who can efficiently to lay off passes because of his physical strength.
In build up, Hoffenheim used diagonal passes to bypass the Reds’ pressing, especially Vogt used these passes to find Zuber or Kaderabek.
These diagonal passes were more frequent in the second half and distance in these passes were bigger in regards to first half. Reason for that is obvious; time was running out and Hoffenheim were chasing the game so wingbacks were pushing high and Hoffenheim’s back three started to play very direct. This was a problem for Liverpool who didn’t adapt their 4-3-3 pressing shape. Pressing positions of Mane and Salah left too much space behind them. Consequence to this positioning was 1v1 or 2v1 against Liverpool’s fullbacks. In the end Hoffenheim scored a goal after a diagonal ball, Nordtviet played a long ball to Uth who scored.
Issues in Hoffenheim’s possession
Staying in cover shadows and bad connections when one of back three had the ball were problems for Hoffenheim. These problems weren’t too often in the game but often enough to cause problems in progression through the middle of the pitch. Hoffeneim`s strategy was to attack through flanks and to put out Liverpool’s fullbacks from pressing by advanced positioning of offensive players but when Kramaric and Rupp acted in halfspaces to provide support Demirbay, they were occasionally left in cover shadow.
In the above picture we can see an example of this. The problem was sometimes in timing of droppings in halfspace between the lines. This was the reasons why Hoffenheim couldn’t progress from the middle in few situations.
There were many opinions after the match who was the better but when we look match odds based simulating all shots, the advantage goes to Hoffenheim. Both the teams had good chances, Hoffenheim dominated the possession but Liverpool was dangerous through transitions. When we calculated all, maybe the fairest result would be the draw. Hoffenheim is a great team and surely they will put a good fight at Anfield, this is far from over.
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