Tactical Analysis: TSG Hoffenheim 1 – 0 Hertha Berlin

A potentially exciting clash between two red-hot sides: Julian Nagelsmann’s boys against Pal Dardai’s Hertha Berlin. A clash of two youngish tacticians from different generations: Nagelsmann, a 29-year old, Dardai, a 40 year old.

So how did this generational clash play out?

The Line-Ups

 TSG Hoffenheim played in a 3-5-2 / 5-3-2 basic shape. In the back line, Niklas Süle, Kevin Vogt, and Benjamin Hübner established a chain of 3 in front of keeper Oliver Baumann. In the second line, Sebastian Rudy plotted as the 6. Along with the 8-duo with of Karim Demirbay and Lukas Rupp, Rudy helped create space behind Hertha’s midfielder during TSG’s build up play.

This space was also used, alternatively, by the forward-duo of Andrej Kramaric and Sandro Wagner, who provided vertical access for Hoffenheim’s build-up progression and final-third penetration. As ever, both the right and left half-spaces were the integral zones within Nagelsmann’s progression strategy.

On the other side of the pitch, Dardai’s visitors played in a 4-1-4-1 / 4-3-3 shape. Vedad Ibisevic led both the attack and Hertha’s initial-press. In Hertha’s pressing scheme, the captain oriented himself toward any opponent ball-carrying central defender. Behind Ibisevic, the Brazilian Allan was faced off against TSG’s Rudy. Hertha’s 8 covered the first-line press by moving up to the 10 from his respective position in the midfield-line and pressed Rudy, which was needed to make ensure that the host couldn’t easily access the 6 area and then progress through the center.

Along with Allan, Dardai also played Per Skjelbred and Niklas Stark in the central area. This trio was supported by Alexander Esswein and Genki Haraguchi on both flanks. Behind this midfielder-five, there were Mitchell Weiser, Fabian Lustenberger, John Anthony Brooks, and Peter Pekarik as the back-liners.

The Systems

Against the each opponent’s goal kicks, both teams displayed a high-block press, which forced the oppositing team to play the ball far forward to the front line. Different pressing shape could be observed as both sides displayed two different basic formation.

On their initial press, Hertha displayed a single-forward shape of 4-1-4-1 in their first-line of press. As mentioned above, Ibisevic oriented himself to press Hoffenheim’s first-line and was supported by Allan, whose press was oriented to the host’s #6. When Allan stayed in the midfield-line, the near wide-men were positioned relatively wide, but still maintained access to the half-spaces. Hertha’s pressing-shape would be adjusted when Allan rushed into Hoffenheim’s 6 zone since he had to press Rudy directly. As Allan moved further forward, there would have been space around the central area of Hertha’s midfield and half-spaces. To compensate this pressing, Hertha’s near wide-men adjusted their positions by moving closer to the 8-zone, which could provide a better access to Hertha’s central area.

(hertha-pressing-adjustmet) Pressing-positioning adjustment. When Allan moved forward, Hertha’s wide-men, Weiser and Esswein, moved closer to the 8 to cover the vacated-space.
Hertha’s Pressing Adjustments: when Allan moved forward, Hertha’s wide-men, Weiser and Esswein, moved closer to the 8 area to cover the vacated space.

There were two problems during Hertha’s pressing-play. First, Hoffenheim’s players were really good at creating and occupying spaces between-the-lines. Nagelsmann tried to exploit Hertha’s man-oriented system by playing the ball from the back to the second line, from where Demirbay, Rupp, or Rudy would receive the ball. This passing work and the positional structure was intended to invite Hertha’s #8 to press onward, potentially opening up space behind Hertha’s midfielder-line. Mostly, it was Wagner who occupied such a space. Hoffenheim’s striker was crucial in exploiting this attacking-pocket, and acted as the progression access point for Hoffenheim, bringing play into the deep regions of Hertha’s defensive block.

Second, Hertha’s basic shape itself allowed space for TSG’s first-line. However, it gets worse, at times Hertha’s midfielders seemed to be reluctant to leave their zones, at the 8 for instance, which in turn created space for Rudy to progress comfortably.

On the other hand, Nagelsmann’s players displayed nice fluid attacking movement. Their verticality, especially, and interchangeability also helped the attack to progress gradually. Verticality means that Nagelsmann used more players to pin back Hertha’s back-four, while the interchangeability means that Hoffenheim dragged Hertha’s players away from their respective positions, which created some access for Nagelsmann’s boys in which to comfortably circulate the ball.

As the space between the lines was tactically exploited, Nagelsmann’s positional play often saw the #9 dropping deeper into the 10 to create access or receive the ball. Making use of such a move, Hoffenheim near-side central midfielder would then make a vertical move into the vacated space.

(TSG created space and access) Rupp and Wagner rotation that helped TSG to create space and access on the half-space and space between the lines.
How TSG created space and access: Rupp and Wagner’s rotation helped TSG to create space and access points in the half-space and space between the defensive lines.

As we can see in the diagram above, when one of  Hoffenheim’s forward-duo dropped deeper to create vertical access, Lukas Rupp made a forward-movement. Rupp interchanged with the deep-dropped #9 to occupy the forward-line area and then took part in TSG’s execution-phase. For example, a big chance in the 27th minute was triggered by such a tactic.

It was a pass from the midfield-line that played into Wagner’s feet, who dropped to the 10 area. But Hoffenheim lost the possession of the ball as the #9 failed to control the pass. However, a late move by Rupp helped him easily pick up the loose ball and face Hertha’s keeper, Rune Jarstein, one-on-one. Unfortunately, Rupp failed to capitalize as Jarstein managed to block the shot.

(hertha's press against TSG's build-up) The raw-shape and movements of Hertha’s press against TSG’s build-up.
The rough shape of Hertha’s press against TSG’s build-up.

Against the ball, Nagelsmann’s troops established their initial-press based on a 3-5-2 / 5-3-2 formation. The forward-duo oriented themselves towards Hertha’s central defenders, Karim Demirbay marked Hertha’s #6.

Within TSG’s press, ball-oriented movement and man-marking were strong and were applied with proper intensity. The fact that TSG fielded 3 central defenders was also crucial for this success. For instance, when the wing back moved higher up to press Hertha’s full back, TSG’s near half-back covered this area by pressing Hertha’s ball-side advanced winger. The half-back was able to execute this intense action since there were still two central defenders occuping the back-line, which is not a logical scenario for a two central-defender shape by contrast

The other key tactical element in Hoffenheim’s pressing system was the horizontal-shifting of the midfielder-trio, which proved to be crucial in maintaining TSG’s compactness, as well as the flexibility of aforementioned pressing assignments. Three central midfielders and two wing-backs on both flanks enabled Hoffenheim to shift with intensity toward the ball without too much worry that the far-side would be vulnerably vacated.

At times, Hertha’s players were able to find the way through TSG’s press by overloading one of the wide-areas. For example, the rotation of the near wide-men within the overload dragged Hoffenheim’s wide-players out of their positions and created access for Hertha on the flank. Alternatively, Mitchell Weiser was used to create havoc through the flank when the young winger found himself in 1-on-1 situations.

The Second Half

In their constructive phases of play, Hertha sometimes managed to find space through their 6-duo or through the touchline. When Dardai’s boys found space through the 6, it was apparently caused by Hoffenheim’s weak vertical-compactness and consequently an uncoordinated-press was applied against Hertha. Hoffenheim’s level of coordination suffered from either lack of support from the second-line or miscommunication between the same players in the first-line.

Compared to the 1st half, Hertha displayed better positional structure and attacking intensity, which enabled them to circulate or shift the ball across the pitch. The players occupying the 6 slot were always ready to aid in ball-circulation and provide horizontal connectoins as well. Allan and both wingers alternately occupied Hoffenheim’s defensive-pocket, while Hertha’s full-backs moved higher up to provide width and stretch the opponent’s defensive shape.

(hertha build up against TSG's press) Hertha’s build-up against TSG’s press and the example of TSG asymmetrical shape in their pressing-play.
Hertha’s build up against TSG’s press illustrates the latter’s asymmetrical shape in their pressing scheme.

Within Hertha’s 1st phase of attack, one of the #6 dropped off to the back line, which transposed into a 3-man back line. In response to this structure, Lukas Rupp moved slightly higher, orienting himself to the near half-back. Rudy and Demirbay shifted horizontally to cover the central area, and Zuber, the far-side wing back, tucked in as he needed to cover both Hertha’s near full-back and advanced-winger. This pressing movement shifted Hoffenheim into a 4-3-3 / 4-4-2 asymmetrical shape.

Hertha positional structure purposely exploited the defensive-pocket within Hoffenheim’s system. When the first line player managed to progress forward and bypass TSG’s first-line press, all Hertha’s front four would compress together more narrowly and overload the space between Hoffenheim’s midfield and back-line. This shift was not only intended to create access through the center, but also provide space on the flank, as Hertha’s ball-side full-back would get further forward as the attack gradually progressed.

However, despite improved their circulation, overall Hertha didn’t manage to create many big chances as Hoffenheim continuously did by contrast. They improved their possession play, but at the end were not able to really break down Hoffenheim’s defense.

As time went by, both managers made substitutions. Dardai brought Salomon Kalou in. The ex-Chelsea played as a #10, who situationally dropped to the 8 slot during constructive phases of play. As Kalou entered the pitch, Dardai pulled Allan Souza deeper, because he was needed to advance the ball in Hertha’s deep circulation.

For Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann replaced Demirbay with Nadiem Amiri and Rupp with Adam Szalai. With these switches, Nagelsmann seemed able to maintain his side’s verticality and speed of attack. The last two subs Nagelsmann made didn’t signal any park-the-bus intentions as his players might do to protect the lead until the final whistle.

Take Aways

If you’re expecting an exciting football show, Nagelsmann’s TSG absolutely fits the bill. Nagelsmann opts to play by his own philosophy no matter what and always keeps his opponents guessing by continuously altering his starting 11, basic shape, and tactics.

TSG Hoffenheim deserved the win. They controlled the match and created more big chances than Hertha. This win means Hoffenheim are on 5 consecutive domestic wins and remain at 3rd place in the Bundesliga table after 9 matches played.

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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.

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