Tactical Analysis: Nagelsmann’s Adjustments Help Hoffenheim Draw 4-4 in Mainz

By now, you know the storyline: Mainz led Hoffenheim 4-1 after the break. Some defensive mistakes by Hoffenheim’s players played a part in some of these goals. For example, a miss-marking on the defending corner-kick had given Pablo De Blasis  huge space for a header to slot in the first goal. This 3-goal-margin had forced Julian Nagelsmann, the Bundesliga’s youngest ever head coach, to alter the shape and the line-up. Brilliantly, it all worked out with many positive impacts as Hoffenheim finally leveled the score.

The Starting Formations

After an impressive defensive display in their away match at Borussia Dortmund last week, Mainz hosted their second match of the 2016-2017 campaign against TSG Hoffenheim. Some changes startingly eleven changes were made by both coaches after Matchday 1:

The starting eleven for both Mainz 05 and Hoffenheim.
The starting eleven for both Mainz 05 and Hoffenheim.

Although sticking with the 4-1-4-1 the formation he used against BVB, Schmidt fielded a different starting 11. Gaetan Bussmann started replacing Daniel Brosinski on the left back. Yunus Malli took one spot along with Jean-Philipe Gbamin and Fabien Frei, in the central area of the second-line. Pablo De Blasis and Levin Öztunali staked out the flanks, as Schmidt benched two wingers from match day 1, Daniel Brosinski and Karim Onisiwo. As Malli was dropped from 9 to 8, Martin Schmidt opted for Jhon Córdoba to play as his single striker.

Julian Nagelsmann made huge change to his line-up and basic formation. Two weeks ago, he fielded a 4-3-3 shape. In this match, the youngest head coach played with a 3-man backline in a 3-5-2 shape. Fabian Schär, Niklas Sule, and Ermin Bicakcik manned the back line (or “the first line”). While Pirmin Schwegler started as the central midfiedler. Along with Sebastian Rudy and Eugen Polanski, Schwegler covered the space around the 6 and the 8 positions. Jeremy Toljan and Lukas Rupp flanked these three midfielders, respectively, on the right and left wing. And Sandro Wagner and Andre Kramaric were partnered up front. Alternately, the forwards occupied the ball-side half-spaces or 10 slot in the center during build-up play, which Hoffenheim needed to create access to the final-third and/or Mainz’s 18-yard box.

Hoffenheim’s Press versus Mainz’s Build-up

In Mainz’s initial build-up play, the ball was played to the central defender duo. Gbamin, the dedicated 6, kept close to this first-line as he was needed to help progress the ball forward. At times, Yunus Malli or Fabian Frei alternately dropped deep, trying to create more passing lanes for the needed ball progression. When Gbamin shifted to a half-space to receive the ball from the back line, there was new space on the opposite half-space that opened up for Mainz . Yunus Malli dropped  into this area.

Mainz's build-up against Hoffenheim's initial press.
Mainz’s build-up against Hoffenheim’s initial press.

Mainz’s build-up play was wing-oriented and direct. They tended to pass the ball wide and tried to progress from there. The pressing-orientation of Hoffenheim’s first-line also influenced Mainz’s deep-circulation and prevent progress with short-passing combinations. Thus, Mainz’s players had to play many long-balls from the back-line along the right touchline in the opponent’s half or final-third.

Hoffenheim's high-block press.
Hoffenheim’s high-block press.

Wagner pressed M05’s keeper and put Bell behind his cover-shadow. Andrej Kramaric went for Bussmann in case the ball was played to the opponent’s feet. The backward-press of Krupp, Polanski, and Schwegler ensured that there was no access to Gbamin, Malli, and Blassi.

Mainz overloaded the near-ball half-space and touchline where the ball was played. But this tactic wasn’t effective as the numbers of second-ball wins was too few to support or create promising and consistent progression. Most of the time, Mainz’s direct-based progression handed Hoffenheim many ball recoveries from their relatively stable defensive shape. So Mainz’s build-up play was relatively soft as they didn’t have to make a lot of consolidation between lines and zones.

Hoffenheim’s Build-up and “Intermediate-area” Exploits

Hoffenheim’s build-up was initially established by a 3–man backline, supported by two holding midfielders in the intermediate area between the back and middle-line. The wide-men stayed relatively higher, stretching the opponent’s defense as the 3-man backline provided adequate coverage across back.

In attempts to break the press and penetrate into final-third, Hoffenheim tried to overload the between-the-line area within Mainz’s defensive block. At times, Lukas Rupp, the left wing, would tuck in and occupy this particular half-space. Combined with Sebastian Rudy’s vertical movement and the duo forwards’ intelligent positioning, Hoffenheim often gained access on the ball-side half-space.

The progression through the half-space or center was not only enabled by Hoffenheim’s positional structure, but also by opportunities emerging from Mainz’a heavy man-oriented marking, e.g. Philipe Gbamin. When Sebastian Rudy, Wagner, or Kramaric moved into the 6 area of Mainz, it was Gbamin’s job to deal with their movement.

If Gbamin didn’t follow, Rudy might have used some space to penetration into the box. And when the Frenchman did this, space opened up for Hoffenheim to exploit. Sometimes, Hoffenheim even created numerical superiority against Gbamin, which allowed Wagner to receive the ball in the vacated-space.

The positional structure of Hoffenheim’s between-the-line exploits.
The positional structure of Hoffenheim’s between-the-line exploits.

The wide-men (Rupp and Toljan) engaged Mainz’s wide players and stretched the shape. Rudy and Kramaric, in the central area, split the concentration of Gbamin to create space for Wagner to progress to the upper-zones. Polanski and Schwegler stayed in the central area, at the 8 slot, to engage Mainz’s central midfielders as well as widened Hoffenheim’s vertical-space (the light blue ellipse area in the diagram above) between the middle and back line.

The first goal scored by Sandro Wagner was a good example of how to maximize such scheme. Hoffenheim’s players were able to generate a “third-man run.” From a quick passing play between Mark Uth and Kramaric, Wagner made a run through the blind-side of two Mainz defenders.

Sandro Wagner and Andrej Kramaric’s role in this scheme was very important. The forward-duo alternately dropped to the 10 slot to create vertical access, enabling others bring to join the play. Gaetan Bussmann’s red card in the second-half was triggered by such a move. In this instance, Wagner dropped deep, received a pass, and played a no-look-pass to Kramaric, which lead to the foul by Bussmann.

On the other side, the narrow structure of Hoffenheim’s final-third progression also positively impacted their defensive transitions. However, they couldn’t consistently generate threats from their transitions, Hoffenheim still made some immediate ball recoveries because of their narrow-shape. Their narrow attack mostly seen on the left-side where Lukas Rupp cut inside and established good spacing for Wagner, Kramaric, and the central midfielders.

A hypothetical situation from Hoffenheim’s defensive transitions, resulting from their narrow-shaped attack. Better spacing could have established more stable defensive transitions.
A hypothetical situation from Hoffenheim’s defensive transitions, resulting from their narrow-shaped attack. Better spacing could have established more stable defensive transitions.

Unfortunately, Hoffenheim’s inconsistent gegenpressing allowed Mainz to profit. Cordoba’s goal stemmed from such a situation. Hoffenheim’s attacking structure failed to gegenpress Mainz’s middle-line, which lead to a diagonal long ball to Cordoba. In a 1-vs-1 situation, the striker manage to change the score. Mainz 3-0 TSG.

Back to the Hoffenheim’s build-up. There were two ways Nagelsmann’s boys exploited the space behind Mainz’s second-line. First, they used quick vertical pass from the first-line to the near half-space. Second, they used diagonal “fake-passes.” In these plays, Pirmin Schwegler played an important part, like in this example:

A diagonal pass to the attacking pocket.
A diagonal pass to the attacking pocket.

Good spacing between Kramaric, Polanski, and Schwegler allowed them to play quick one-touch passes. Schwegler used this to shift the ball from wide areas to the center playing a diagonal ground “fake-pass” (before releasing his pass, Schwegler gestured to the opposite far side of the pitch) to the ball-side half-space. As soon as the pass reached the target area, Hoffenheim players overloaded it and tried to create quick combinations to get into Mainz’s penalty box.

Despite their relatively strong possession and positional play, issues were seen in Hoffenheim’s build-up, particularly the first-line of build-up. Most of the time, Hoffenheim’s central defender trio only dealt with one player, which was Cordoba, the Mainz lone striker, so we saw many 3-vs-1 or 3+1-vs-1 clashes. And this was ineffective. Why? Because Hoffenheim’s backline wasted too many resources to overcome such a small obstacle. It should be enough for two players to deal with one presser, right?

Second Half Changes

In the 35th minute of the firs-half, Julian Nagelsmann made his first substitution. Mark Uth came in and replaced Fabian Schär and altered the formation. After the break, Hoffenheim brought in another new player, Pavel Kadeřábek, to play at the left back, bringing Toljan to the bench.

Nagelsmann made changes in the second-half, as Adam Szalai was brought in for Eugen Polanski.
Nagelsmann made changes in the second-half, as Adam Szalai was brought in for Eugen Polanski.

Given the scoreline, Hoffenheim became aggressive in attack. Their narrow-attack resulted in quick ball-recoveries off their gegenpressing. Polanski and Schwegler had different responsibilities with Schwegler slightly deeper. He was responsible for maintaining deep ball circulation by bringing the ball forward. Whilst Polanski was slightly higher in final-third attack, Szalai came in for Polanski as Nagelsmann tried to push his team further forward, forcing Mainz to sit even deeper.

As the basic formation was changed, the pattern of build-up was also altered. Martin Schmidt made sure they maintained central compactness to push TSG wide. Nagelsmann caught on and had had his team push out wide.

Example of the structure behind Hoffenheim's build-up play in the wide areas.
Example of the structure behind Hoffenheim’s build-up play in the wide areas.

This structure had its own purpose. First, it was designed to counter Mainz’s compact shape. With positional-superiority, Hoffenheim’s penetration through the opponent’s block became possible. Second, it was used to overload and isolate an area, so they indirectly opened the other side of the pitch.

 A good isolation shape on the right side, but without enough central support the ball-receiver was easy to steal the ball from.

A good isolation shape on the right side, but without enough central support the ball-receiver was easy to steal the ball from.

When executed properly and combined with proper timed passes, such a strategy ruined the opponent’s compactness, as it opened some horizontal gaps between the wide and central areas. Defensive shifting can often be exploited by quick horizontal/diagonal passing play. A diagonal passing play does not just “gain space, but also shifts play.

Hoffenheim's successful isolate and switch scheme.
Two examples of Hoffenheim’s successful isolate and switch scheme.

The distance between Bell-Donati and Malli-Oztunali became wider and wider, thanks to this horizontal shifting. There would be gap between players in any horizontal shifting and a quick-properly timed pass through the half-space or flank exploited it.


Julian Nagelsmann once again showed his astute practicality in adjusting his side’s positional play. Despite conceded 6 goals in the 2 first matches, there some positive tactical aspects for Hoffenheim to build on.

Mainz’s first three goals were enabled by M05’s intermediate-line exploiting strategy. Hoffenheim players combined relatively well in tight space and gave them many attacking access into Mainz’s deep area. Honestly, Hoffenheim deserved the full three points from this match.

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Ryan Tank is crazy about football tactics and crazy insightful when writing about them. Check out Ryan's site, ryantank100.wordpress.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ryantank100.


  1. Thanks, mate. Rupp. Yeah I was completely not comfortable watching him against RB Leipzig. Some over-zealous press, etc which ruined the compactness.

    One player I currently appreciate more is Pirmin Schwegler. I’m getting more impressed with him. Heard a lot of good things about him, but never really appreciated how good he is until I did this analysis.

  2. This is really nice Ryan! I’d probably have to mention that Nagelsmann got the whole inverting Rupp and Toljan thing very wrong from the start, but huge credit to him for adjusting 35m in and taking off a veteran player like Schar. Got himself into a huge hole, but def dug himself out too!

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