TSG 1899 Hoffenheim has just finished at the 4th place on the ranking table of the Bundesliga, and qualified to the Champions League for the first time in history. They have completed this Bundesliga season without one single defeat in their own stadium. Furthermore they have managed to break a glorious record concerning the first round of this season: being the only unbeaten team in Europe’s top five leagues. It’s even more surprising if we add that last season Hoffenheim finished 15th, and they have the youngest ever coach in the German league: the 29-year-old Julian Nagelsmann. Hoffenheim’s youngster boss has introduced some of his interesting tactical ideas throughout this season, making Hoffenheim play in an entertaining way.
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, founded in 1899 was a quite unknown team playing in regional level until the early 2000s. Then it was owned by Dietmar Hopp, the boss of German business management enterprise, SAP AG. In the 2000-01 season, Hoffenheim won the regional league of Baden-Württemberg (5th division of the national pyramid), and they started to play on a higher and higher level, winning the regional leagues consecutively. Finally, they were promoted to the Bundesliga in 2008, and the start of the season was a miracle for them: they spent the winter break at the top of the table! However, their strong start was followed by a poor performance at the spring of 2009, so they only finished 7th. They played in a really aggressive way having a high amount of intensity (similar to what you can see from Leipzig today, which is no surprise as their coach was Ralf Rangnick). After the 2008-09 season, they failed to maintain a similarly successful performance, and the German philosopher left them in 2011. In the following years, Hoffenheim consistently had a low position in the Bundesliga. In February 2016, the Dutchman Huub Stevens left Hoffenheim’s bench due to medical problems, and Dietmar Hopp immediately appointed Nagelsmann as their new coach.
Julian Nagelsmann was born in 1987. As a player, he spent his career in the reserve team of 1860 Munich and Augsburg. At age of 21, he was forced to retire from playing by a knee injury, and he started to work soon as a coach, in the youth team of 1860 Munich. In 2010, he became the boss of the U17 team of Hoffenheim, and after having spent six years in this club (and refusing the job offer of Bayern Munich’s U23 team), Dietmar Hopp trusted him with coaching the first team, albeit the international public considered his appointment as a mad decision. However, that’s not the case. The youngster Nagelsmann successfully avoided the relegation at the end of 2015-16, and now, they play fancy and tactically interesting football. Having had Thomas Tuchel as a coach in Augsburg’s reserve team, Dortmund’s current boss has definitely had a lot of influence on Nagelsmann’s coaching philosophy. His Hoffenheim plays a vertical type of positional play (just like Tuchel’s side), and has a good defensive organization.
“I put a lot of emphasis on our behaviour when we don’t have possession but I will never provoke a loss of the ball. You need both things today, solutions with the ball, as well as well as without it.” (Julian Nagelsmann)
Here is a quote from Nagelsmann which shows he understand well the importance of proper organization during each phase of the game. There is another, when he explains the proper behaviour of positional structure:
“It’s a question of five or 10 metres whether it’s a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-2-1; you only see teams adhering to that at kick-off and perhaps eight times during the game” (Julian Nagelsmann)
All these quotes show greatly that despite his age and lack of routine, he has a great tactical competence. He understands well the important tactical aspects of today’s football, and he is able to adapt them to his own side, although it yet works nowhere near perfectly. As he considers working as a coach “30% tactics, 70% social competence”, in this article I will analyze the 30 percent of the work he has done in Sinsheim until now.
Hoffenheim have 54.2 percent of possession in average which is the 3rd in the Bundesliga. It means they never abandon the possession phase of the game and this is what Nagelsmann said as well. When having the ball, Hoffenheim always try to keep possession. And indeed, their football is not only well-organised and successful (until now), but also entertaining to watch. Although Nagelsmann has been establishing possession-based football for some time,earlier it hasn’t been so effective. Fortunately, he has managed to fix their problems,having introduced some really interesting and effective tactical elements which has helped his team to be more effective when playing out from the back.
Improved positional structure
One of the major factors in Hoffenheim’s improvement is the better level of connections between players. The scene you can see below is taken from their Bundesliga match against Mainz in February. In this match, Hoffenheim were able to create some chances using diagonal balls to the wingbacks. Nevertheless,they often failed to bring out the ball from the back and they often found themselves in a sterile,U-shaped passing situation against Mainz’s less aggressive block. Hoffenheim often tended to switch into a double-pivot system but both midfielders failed to make themselves active when centre-backs were doing horizontal circulation. The other problem was visible between Mainz’s defensive lines: inappropriate staggering of forwards. They were situated almost in a flat horizontal line which definitely made central play impossible. Players between opponent’s defensive and midfield line should be always staggered well as opponents usually pay a lot of attention to tighten these spaces. Therefore, a player positioned in these gaps is often forced to get the ball facing his own goal and due to his limited field of vision he is often marked tightly. In this case, he cannot turn with the ball, he has to put it backwards. And these lay-off combinations can never work without proper staggering and support around the ball-carrier. Wingbacks’ position should be also noticed in the picture above: as they were consistently situated very high, the one single option was creating chances using a direct switch towards them.
Today, that’s not the case, Hoffenheim have no longer problems like this. Their current build-up structure is rather resembling to a 3-3-3-1 than a 3-2-5(if we really wanted to describe it by numbers) and Nagelsmann managed to fix their former problems really well. The most important aspect is the position of the wingbacks. At least one of them is positioned much more deeper and it has several positive effects on the team’s build-up mechanism. Fullbacks'(or wingbacks’) too high initial position is never advantageous for positional structure. As they often provide width in this phase of the game, in a too high position they can easily get isolated from teammates in the defensive third, cutting off the lateral access to higher zones. If staying not too high(and neither too deep, in a flat line with centre-backs) they will always provide a lateral option which makes an obviously good effect both on positional structure and the ability to switch the play and move the opponent. Hoffenheim’s wingbacks have a very important role during the build-up, especially under pressure, which will be detailed soon. Forwards between the lines are also tasked much better. They are generally situated in a 3-1 or 2-2 layout(with Kramaric dropping back,which give Hoffenheim a more adequate basis to play through the centre(I’ll explain it later).
An other structural adjustment which has been chosen especially against teams pressing higher up is the middle centre-back(MCB) stepping up into the position of number six. It’s something quite logical when using a back three. If the MCB steps up higher(ideally into the No.6. position), goalkeeper will form a diamond with the centre-backs which(especially under pressure) provides a much better distribution of spaces than he had to face a flat line of three. As MCB becomes a number six in effect, he will have a big influence on Hoffenheim’s pressing-resistance, see below.
Pressing-resistance and inviting pressure
The most important aspect of Hoffenheim’s rise in the last few months is perhaps the high level of pressing-resistance they have been consistently showing. For a long time, they have failed to build up the attack effectively under pressure and they have been often forced to knock the ball around. Build-up under pressure is a very important component of creating an offensive game model(remember the quote from Lillo) and it has been a subject of serious analyses several times. Build-up under pressure is an aspect of attacking which is difficult to execute technically due to the limited time and space which is caused by the opponent’s disturbing movements(hah, what a surprise).
One of the major keys of Hoffenheim’s pressing-resistance is certainly their positional structure itself. The good connection between players they can maintain during the first progression allow to come out easily even from tight situations(and crowded zones). The more players a team has around the ball, the harder to the ball-carrier to find himself isolated by the opponent.
The improved coordination of structural movements must be also highlighted. During a build-up situation, the most important aspect is of course the positional structure, but when you’re building up, you always have a ball, and this is something which cannot be ignored. When making an offensive plan, ball and player movements should be never isolated, things should be regarded in a complex way(as everything in football). Movements without the ball should be always in synergy with players’ movements and this is how should analyze a build-up situation. Hoffenheim have reached a great improvement concerning timing and synergy of build-up movements.
Pressing-resistance and inviting pressure might be composed from a wide scale of tactical elements, both on an individual and a collective level. They are also known as “offensive pressing traps”. I have presented such elements in my last piece about Napoli, which is a team with great-pressing resistance as well. In Hoffenheim we can experience some similar but some different things as well. So, what kind of elements do Hoffenheim use in order to stay resistant against the opponent’s press?
One such collective trigger provoked by Hoffenheim is playing the ball into ‘risky’ zones. Certain zones of the pitch are controlled better by the defence. For example, these are the wider zones. The majority of defences set themselves more aggressive only in the flanks. Here it’s definitely easier to gain possession and force tackles as the touchline limits the ball-carrier’s choices to maintain the play,as Guardiola says it is the best defender. Another such zone is the zone between the defence’s midfield line and the strikers. Here, it’s also easier to put pressure on the opponent’s ball-carrier, as it’s not so risky as it would be between the defensive and midfield line.But how do Hoffenheim take advantage from these zones? Well, they purposely pass the ball into these spaces in order to provoke pressure from the opponent, gaining spaces to get further forward. During these situations, certain players have a great responsibility, such as Steven Zuber and Jeremy Toljan, the wing-back pair. When passing the ball into wider zones, escaping the press and choosing a good option is up to them. Kevin Vogt, the MCB has the same role when asking the ball in the space of number six(sometimes it’s done by Sebastian Rudy, who is the respective defensive midfielder of Hoffenheim).
There are also some individual triggers applied well by Hoffenheim. One such solution is getting the ball purposely with a bad field of vision, such as facing the own target. This is a major trigger to invite the press(therefore, the ball-carrier cannot tuen towards the goal) and backwards passes can invite the opponent to press. As they don’t use it so much times and pre-scripted as Napoli, I wouldn’t consider it as vertical circulation.
An other such trigger is individual dribbling movements. With wingbacks having good abilities in 1v1, Hoffenheim can always manipulate the opponents with individual solutions. As they are always dribbling inside towards the centre of the pitch with a diagonal movement, it’s more difficult to press them due to the favorable body orientation.
With these well-coordinated combinations Hoffenheim have an effective progression into higher zones. In regards to the tempo of this mechanism, I wouldn’t consider their build-up as a slow proccess. Hoffenheim doesn’t look to do so much passes when coming out from their own half. They would rather look for verticality than changing the ball’s direction during a short period with a lot of short passes.By the way, this approach is a well-known attribute in the German adaptation of juego de posición which can be seen in Dortmund’s offensive game as well.
These patterns I’ve just mentioned rise up Hoffenheim into a really high tactical level. There isn’t so much team in worldwide football having a great ability to bring the ball out even under pressure and I find Hoffenheim are one of them. This is something that really makes the story of Nagelsmann’s guys glorious.
These things I’ve just presented might sound really hard to understand, but perhaps one video says more than thousands of words.
Another, but also important aspect of Hoffenheim’s offenses are lay-off combinations. Using this kind of passes is anything but surprising when looking for verticality. The disadvantage of a vertical pass is that the receiver is usually facing his own goal, consequently he has a limited field of vision. It certainly gives a trigger to the opponent’s defender to press him immediately, so he can’t turn towards the goal. Therefore, he is forced to hit a backwards pass to a teammate who is facing the opponent’s goal. Every tight situations like this are generally followed by a lay-off pass, so it goes in the same way, when knocking a high goal towards the striker(English League Two, where are you?)
Although Hoffenheim tend to build-up the attacks using a well-organised, short-passing game, sometimes it comes to use long balls. For example when being under pressure and feeling themselves in a dangerous situations, it’s something quite logic to not taking so much risk and knock the ball forwards. Lay-off combinations might be definitely used against deeper blocks as well. Vertical pass between the lines are usually followed by a lay-off pass for the pre-mentioned reasons.
The most important motion in these situations is Kramaric’s dropping movement. From the initial position of the centre forward, he often drops back between the lines, leaving Wagner alone in the opponent’s defensive line. It’s an interesting pattern as lay-off passes are usually done by the most forward player and send back between the lines. Nevertheless, with getting the ball between the lines, he can immediately pass the ball in a sideway direction to the central midfielder or the wingback. This is definitely more difficult to execute than a backwards pass, however it allows a quick access of
wider zones which is a principal point for Hoffenheim during these situations. At this point it’s common to see central midfielders looking for the wingbacks immediately, even if they would have time and space to turn towards the goal.
Chance creation through the strong side
As you have been familiar with Hoffenheim’s excellent way of build-up from the back, let’s see how they create chances after having arrived to the final third! As you can see from the paragraph title, Hoffenheim puts much emphasis on the flanks, when it comes to break through the opponent’s last line. Attacking through the flanks is anything but uncommon in modern football, but Hoffenheim’s wing play has a unique approach. The most common way when breaking through the wings is using the flanks in order to stretch out the opponent and opening up the half-space. Unless this trend, Hoffenheim always stay oriented towards the centre and opening up central passing lanes are always in focus, however classic half-space combinations are also used.It’s important to notice that Hoffenheim’s lateral combinations have a direct approach. Playing in one side doesn’t have the same objective as in Guardiola’s juego de posición: Hoffenheim’s main goal is to create chances with quick combinations.
At this point, the behavior of the far-side is interesting: once the ball has been put in a lateral zone, far-sided players immediately starts to move inside with a diagonal run, leaving the far side unexploited. This is of course a type of agressive run behind the defence, which has a clear benefit for the far-sided wingback: if ever he gets the ball, he immediately finds central passing lanes.
Basically, Hoffenheim have two main solutions for create chances:
- combination play
- individual dribbling
The main objective of combination play is opening up the half-space. These combinations are usually executed by the group of far-sided wingback,central midfielder and the striker. Far-sided striker(usually Kramaric) often tends to drift to the strong-side by a diagonal outside run, so exploiting the half-space stays his task. The movement of
strong-sided central midfielder is even more interesting: when wingback has the ball on the strong side, he often moves next to the touchline. Because of his movement, he sometimes provides with with the wingback simultaneously, but in this case it’s not a disadvantage, as it’s a favorable position to find himself in a 1v1 situation. It’s important to notice that these three players in this functional group have flexible roles: anyone of them can drift wide, creating a 1v1 situation, whilst the other one takes his place and goes inside.
The other possible solution to create chances is individual dribbling. They pay a lot of attention to find someone in a lateral position in order to have enough space to do 1v1s. As I’ve just mentioned, these individual dribbling movements are always oriented towards the centre as it gives multiple choices to the ball-carrier in situations like this. The most favorable effect of dribbling inside is opening up central passing lanes and if opponent closes central options well, the two wings wings are still available. Last but not at least, with dribbling inside, player can find himself in a good situation for shot on goal.
Problems with dynamism
Although Hoffenheim have multiple ways to breaking through the opponent’s defence, their play in the final third works nowhere near perfectly. The main problem is the absence of dynamical superiority against deeper blocks, as they have often lacked agressive runs in situations like this, especially in the half-space. It sounds like a paradox using the aforementioned combinations, however they have been mainly effective in transitional situations or against uncompact defensive sides. Honestly, their second solution(opening up the central zones) has been used much more times. This is, obviously, a method more difficult. Basically, defences are always oriented towards the centre. This is their basic position, when they start to do shifting movements. The more orientation an offensive team have towards the centre, the more protected the centre will be by the defence. Inviting the defence to close towards the centre should be always followed by playing towards the open flanks. And wing play, as we know, doesn’t work without agressive cuts.
For this reason, Hoffenheim have often failed to create ‘big’ chances. Seeing their xG(expected goals) statistics, we can realize that they spend a lot of time in the final third, and they create a number of little chances, but they have often lacked great possibilities, hitting a lot of innefective crosses towards the centre. They have often found themselves as well restricted into the famous Zone 14. It’s important to mention that they have scored the most goals by set pieces in this Bundesliga season(16) and they have one of the most shots attempted from outside the box.
A passive pressing scheme
As I’ve quoted Hoffenheim’s boss, Julian Nagelsmann pays a lot of attention to make a good game plan both with and without the ball. Now, having described all important aspects of Hoffenheim’s offensive model, it’s time to see how they work when the opponent has the ball. Having two wingbacks and two strikers in the starting eleven, it’s no surprise that they use a 5-3-2 basic formation without the ball. Having grown up in the German football, Julian Nagelsmann is never afraid to make his team pressing higher up. As the majority of Bundesliga teams use this tactical element which has been something quite principle in worldwide football, it something which cannot be avoided as more or less you always have to adopt your game model to the circumstances.
Of course, there is a number of difference between teams pressing higher up, but the most principal question is the level of their agressivity. Well, Hoffenheim use a passive type of pressing which means they push the defensive line higher up, but they don’t press the ball always agressively, just in certain zones, mainly in the flanks. Their main objective is to stay economic with stamina and just having a better access to the ball. When defending in the opponent’s half, their 5-3-2 formation is definitely transformed into a shape which is more favorable to control higher zones.
Concerning the exact shifting movements, several adjustments has been possibly assigned by Nagelsmann. When being positioned basically in the centre, there are two possible layouts. The difference is owing to MCB’s movement: if the opponent puts a more emphasis to the space between the lines or has more central presence, than Vogt steps up and occupies the No 6. space. In this case, Rudy dteps higher up as well, becoming a central midfielder. If the opponent attacks more through the flanks, then Vogt and Rudy retain their original positions, staying in 5-3-2.
Much more interesting, what happens when it comes to shift to the flanks. Nagelsmann also adopts this mechanism to the opponent’s offensive characteristics. There’s one single aspect which is constant and independent from the actual opponent: the central midfielders’ role. When the ball comes to the left side, Amiri always steps up next to the two strikers. At the other side of the coin(and of the pitch as well, hah), when the ball comes to the right side, Demirbay tends to hold his initial position in the midfield line, so providing presence in the first line is up to the strong-sided striker(generally Kramaric). Of course I haven’t forget to describe the wingbacks’ role as having a three-man- defence(or five-man-defence, call it whatever you want) this is perhaps the most important question. It’s always suggested them to step up, because it means an extra man higher up, which shouldn’t be avoided in order to press effectively. Well, Zuber and
Toljan have often stepped up, when the ball came into their own side, but it always depends on the opponent’s wing play. If the opponents’ winger drops back, they are followed in a man-oriented way. However, this adjustment is used only on the strong side, so a direct switch from the centre to a deeper position(such as stretching the midfield line) has often caused them problems. In this situation, wingbacks doesn’t know whether he press the ball or not. If wingers’ role is to stretch the defensive line, maintaining his own position, then wingback stays back to prevent direct switch. By the way, dropping movement from the opponent is certainly a consistent triger to step up, so situational man-orientations, especially on the strong side are anything but uncommon.
This passive pressing scheme is occasionally added with the aspect of pressing the goalkeeper. This solution is commonly used by passive pressing sides in order to force the opponent to a knocked ball. Goalkeepers generally have a weaker ball-playing ability, so pressing them by usually one player might be effective, even if it may harm vertical compactness.
Defending at the own half
Even if a team tries to press higher up, sometimes sitting deep in the own half cannot be avoided. what is more, in certain matches Hoffenheim opted to stay back in a quite organised deeper block. Their match against Dortmund is a good example, when Hoffenheim pressed higher up just occasionally,otherwise they stayed in their own half returning to the 5-3-2 initial shape. The deeper the team has to defend, the less defensive responsibility the strikers have. In such situations Hoffenheim’s shape rather works as a 5-4-1/5-3-1-1 with Wagner staying forward and Kramaric having less and less defensive duties. In wider zones, of course, they put the ball-carrier in the sandwich by the co-production of the wingback and the central midfielder. However, 5-3-2 has an obvious disadvantage in situations like this: midfield line is relatively narrow, so it takes more time to shift well to the strong side, which provides the offensive team more time to take a good decision. If they maintain more distance between each other, it opens up central passing lanes. Despite all of this, Hoffenheim have a quite organised block at deeper zones, having conceded only 37 goals in 34 matches.
What about gegenpressing?
Counterpressing(or in German, gegenpressing) is something that can’t be forgotten when analyzing a German team. Regain possession immediately after having lost the ball was a main reason of German football’s rise in the late 2000s. Gegenpressing is often associated with losing the ball purposedly(aka Roger Schmidt, Ralf Rangnick), but Nagelsmann says:
“I put a lot of emphasis on our behaviour when we don’t have possession but I will never provoke a loss of the ball. You need both things today, solutions with the ball, as well as well as without it.” (Julian Nagelsmann)
To be honest, gegenpresing isn’t something typical in Hoffenheim’s game. Hunting to the ball aggressively right after losing it hasn’t been a tendency. At the other hand, there’s not so much gegenpressing situation in Hoffenheim matches as they bring the ball out with losing it just a few times(they put much more emphasis than for example Klopp’s Dortmund did it which was one of the best known pressing powerhouses). Of course, some movements referring to win the ball back can be noticed, but not in a so aggressive and organize way we have experienced in several German sides.
Hoffenheim has reached their very best Bundesliga position in their history. This 4th place is a much better result, than we would have expected from the squad’s quality. What is more, they reached this good result, with the youngest coach in Europe’s top five leagues. This 29-year-old man managed to lift Hoffenheim to a high tactical level, which is anything but common from a young boss like this. Without any doubt, he is the most talented young coach in worldwide football. It’s a good question what they will be capable of in the next season. their main problem will be certainly caused by the transfer window. Sebastian Rudy and Niklas Süle will be hunted by Bayern Munich this summer, and they can easily lost even more key players. It would be something really sad, as Hoffenheim’s story is definitely one of the most glorious in this season-both tactically and generally.