Since Julian Nagelsmann took over Hoffenheim as head coach, TSG Hoffenheim have achieved many accomplishments in the Bundesliga. They finished top 10 in every season since five years ago and already made a debut in the Champions League, although it was a disappointing one for them. In season 2019/20, they finished comfortably in the sixth spot, which gave them an automatic qualification for the Europa League group stage for this season.
They continued their good form into the start of this season. They caught the world’s attention when they ended Bayern Munich’s 32-match unbeaten run with a 4-1 win and defeated FC Köln with a 3-2 scoreline. With two wins and one loss, they collected six points along the way which put them in the sixth spot in the league.
In this tactical analysis, we will delve into Hoffenheim’s tactics to understand how are they at the top half of the table. Based on their current good form, it might be worth it to analyse their game plan and conclude if they can hold it comfortably or even better, win the Bundesliga title for the first time.
Preferred formations and their structure
This summer, Hoffenheim brought in Sebastian Hoeneß, the former Bayern Munich II head coach to replace Alfred Schreuder. Hoeneß wanted to establish a style of football that is similar to Bayern Munich’s team that won the treble last season. Hoffenheim are known for their fascinating attacking play and their recruitment of exciting young talents, so there are already similarities between these two football clubs.
First, let us look at their formations and structure to interpret their style of playing before we go deeper into their defence and attack in this scout report.
In terms of the team’s structure, they are very flexible when lining up against a variety of opponents. Their structure is dependent upon a set of factors, specifically on what type of the team they face, and what type of players they have on the pitch. There is no obvious system that we can distinguish because they will react based on how their opposition play.
Despite the versatility and flexibility of their tactics, we still can identify their most-used formations during a match. Most of the time, they used 3-4-1-2 as their preferred formation in the last three league games they played. Sometimes, the formation will change into 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 depending on certain scenarios during the matches. Their most used formation can be seen down below.
Even so, when they play against better or stronger opposition, they will choose to play 5-3-2 that concentrates on a sturdy defence and counter-attacking play. They applied this formation in the match against a strong Bayern Munich side.
Although they used many variations in the formation, some similarities can be detected in their structure. They always administer three centre-backs to protect Oliver Baumann in the goalpost and deploy two centre-forwards as their attacking force. At the same time, they place their wing-backs according to the quality of their oppositions.
From the above picture, we can see that their structure is similar to their preferred 3-4-1-2 formation. This structure is giving them opportunities to exploit wider spaces on the pitch. One of the important pieces for this structure are their wing-backs. The wing-backs need to position themselves within the midfield line as they need to stretch out the opposition’s midfield block for the attackers to control the centre of the field.
This structure also changes when they are in the attacking phase. As shown in the below image, their structure becomes slightly more attacking, similar to 3-3-4 formations. We can observe how their wing-back movements can affect their structure. When the left wing-back moved in line with the forwards, another wing-back will slightly moved downward to give stability towards the structure.
When they are against the stronger opponents such as Bayern, their structure will be more concentrated on defending their own half. Instead of giving freedom to the wing-backs to join the attack, they stay near their penalty box.
This is to avoid the opponents from exploiting their flanks and to give support to the centre-backs for more compactness in Zone 14. The structure can be seen in the below image.
Based on these examples, Hoffenheim show that they can adapt their structure and formations depending on their opposition’s style. This flexibility in implementing changes to their structure could be very useful in the long run as Bundesliga has many clubs that play differently.
Hoffenheim are a well-organised team when it comes to defending their own half. Their backline is well-built and sturdy to defend any types of attacking play that they face. Although they apply 3-5-2 for most of the times, their defence structure will be in 5-3-2 regardless of any opposition.
This tactic is related to the basis of their strategy against top teams, as mentioned in the previous section. They want to stay compact and do not want to give up too much space for the opponents.
From the above picture, we can see that their defensive shape is 5-3-2, with the front two staying in the middle third, waiting to counter-attack. Look closely at the blue rectangle between the two lines of defence. There is so little space vertically as Hoffenheim’s midfield trio go back to their own half to close down the blue area quickly.
That area is so compact and tight, with Hoffenheim having the numerical advantage over Eintracht Frankfurt’s players. They win the ball very easily and start to push forward for an attacking transition.
The above statistics show the defensive duels that Hoffenheim win in their own third. From this analysis, most of the defensive duels take place in Zone 14 and inside the penalty box. The reason behind this statistic is that the defenders position themselves close to each other and make a formidable wall in front of the box. They protect these areas rather than their wide space because the opposition can do the most damage in these areas.
Besides that, they prefer to close down space instead of engaging the opponents. Hence the reason why the number of ball interceptions is higher than the number of tackles. They only produce 52.17 average defensive duels per 90, the third-lowest in Bundesliga after Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.
Hoeneß also asks his defenders to push upfield and play a high backline. The purpose of playing a high backline is to set an offside trap and catch the opposition forwards offside. Hoffenheim used this tactic with great success as their opponents were caught offside more than five times, except FC Köln who only got caught twice.
This offside trap can be seen in the same above image. Take a look at the left side of the pitch (from Hoffenheim’s perspective). We can notice there is one of Frankfurt’s players straying near the offside line. This happened as a result of Hoffenheim’s backline moving forward to reduce the vertical space in front of them. All five of them need to be in sync to ensure their offside trap is successful.
Another good example of their high backline and offside trap can be seen in the above image. All of Hoffenheim’s defenders including wing-backs already push upwards to set a high backline near the centre circle. Six Frankfurt players are waiting for the long ball at the defenders’ shoulder. Everyone is ready to make a run and make use of the space that Hoffenheim leave behind, but when all the defenders move up a little bit, four forward players are caught offside.
Even though their defensive tactics look strong and hard for the opponents to penetrate, there are still some defensive flaws can be seen in their defensive plays. Since they play with a compact block at the middle of the pitch, the wider area always seems to be deserted. This area will be a big concern for the team if their opponents exploit the wider space by using tricky wingers or any forward that’s smart enough to beat the offside trap.
Build-up and attacking plays
After three game weeks of Bundesliga this season, Hoffenheim already scored eight goals, which is slightly higher than their xGoals of 5.8. The difference between the actual goals and expected goals is very notable, with -2.2. This means they are very clinical in front of goal as they over-performed their expected goals by two.
What makes them so interesting during the attacking phase is that they are full of exciting forwards that lead the line. In the squad, they have Andrej Kramarić, the current top-scorer in the league with six goals to his name. In addition to their top-scorer, they also have Baumgartner, Dabbur, and Bebou who are versatile to play in any forward positions that are required by the gaffer.
First, we need to study how they build their attacking phase starting from the back. In these three league matches, Hoffenheim liked to bring the ball into the final third by going through flanks. The wing-backs, usually Akpoguma and Kadeřábek, will wait for the ball at the far side of the pitch. Vogt, their ball-playing centre-back, will be the ball distributor into the opposition’s final third. This simple build-up can be seen in the below footage.
This time, Vogt decides to pass the ball diagonally into Kadeřábek’s path as Vogt sees his teammate is already running to the wide space in the final third. When the pass is delivered, Baumgartner will join the other two forwards in getting into the penalty box. This is so when Kadeřábek wants to cross the ball into the box, the forwards already in the box are there to score the header.
This style of build-up can be supported by this season’s data. Hoffenheim attempt 49.42 long passes per 90 with an accuracy of 60%. Their number of long passes is above the league average, which means the long ball into wing-backs or forwards in the counter-attacking route is their way to build up the attacking phase.
Their main provider for this build-up is the centre-back, Kevin Vogt. He made 65 accurate passes out of 73, equivalent to 89% passing accuracy. This proves that Hoffenheim use the passing ability of their centre-back in developing their build-up system.
Next, we will look at their tactics during the attacking phase. They have a diverse style when attacking the opposition’s final third. Their attacks are so flexible and they can adapt to any tactics based on how their opponents play. Despite that, their attacks mostly revolve around two forwards and one attacking midfielder.
The above image is taken from one of the attacking phases against Frankfurt. From the image, we can see a triangle of two forwards and an attacking midfielder placing themselves closer to each other. Dabbur, Kramarić, and Baumgartner are consistently rotating positions between them to confuse the defenders that apply man-marking tactics. Besides that, they also want to add numerical superiority when against two centre-backs, as shown in the image.
Posch carries the ball into the half-space before passing it to Baumgartner. Kramarić is a smart player; he knows that Dabbur is being marked and realises the gap between two centre-backs. He makes a run to exploit the gap and Baumgartner passes a through ball into his path. This sequence leads to a goal for Hoffenheim as the chemistry between the forwards bears fruit once more.
When they are against stronger opposition, Hoeneß’s men apply a direct attack from the goalkeeper. As we can see from the above image, Baumann sends a long ball into the middle third for his teammates. Kadeřábek is aware of this situation where he needs to win the ball in the air.
After winning it, he heads the ball into any of the forwards in front for them to capitalise on the disorganised backline. In this case, he heads the ball to Dabbur. This sequence also ends with a goal too. They prove to us that they are capable of scoring in a direct attack from a deep position.
Issues for improvement
It seems that their tactics during the attacking phase are near flawless as they can adapt to any opposition’s backline. However, there are still underlying issues especially at the back that they need to focus on.
As already explained in the previous section, they implement a backline of five with compactness in the middle of the pitch. To prevent the oppositions from controlling the possession to penetrate their backline, they also adopt a very high backline. When they apply these tactics, we noticed that their opponents change their attacking style to attack their abandoned flanks a few times.
The above image is taken right after a long pass from Almamy Touré towards Ilsanker, who stands beside the defender’s shoulder. When the ball is passed, Ilsanker is in an onside position, so the three centre-backs need to chase him quickly before he has a chance for a one-on-one with the goalkeeper. What Hoffenheim defenders do not notice is the abundant space that can be exploited by opponents on the flanks. Skov, Hoffenheim’s left wing-back, cannot defend that area on time. Adrien Silva receives the second ball in this area and shoots it widely at the goalpost. This is definitely an area they need to cover better in the future.
Another issue that they need to sort out soon is their transition play. The number of losses in the middle third that they suffered is the second-highest in the league right now, with 45.15. Their average number of losses in all areas inside the pitch is 104.3, fourth-highest in the league and above-average if compared with all the Bundesliga teams (97.87). The league standing for the number of losses can be seen in the image below.
With the tactics of the high backline, it is very dangerous and risky if the team concede possession in their first line of defence. The opposition might capitalise on this issue by winning the ball near their defence and start to attack the space they leave behind. The risk of losing possession in that area is too dangerous as opponents can break the defensive line without getting caught offside via through balls or forward passes.
Even though it is still early in this season, Sebastian Hoeneß’s Hoffenheim are an exciting team to watch. Their versatility and flexibility in implementing their tactics is a huge boost for them to challenge for the top four finish or a league trophy to certain extend. This tactical analysis has explained their flexible structure; they are a strong and compact team in the defensive phase and create fascinating attacking plays when moving forward.
This scout report also pointed out certain issues that they can improve on. If they succeed in ironing them out and keep their top players injury-free, there is no doubt that they can challenge for the Bundesliga trophy for the first time in their history.