Tactical Analysis: Hoffenheim Get Jumped by Liverpool FC

TSG Hoffenheim will miss out on the Champions League group stage after losing to Liverpool FC 6-3 on aggregate. Here is our tactical analysis of the two-legged clash.

Hoffenheim 1-2 Liverpool: the 1st leg

Leg 1, first half: starting formation shapes.

During the first half, both clubs failed to create chances, particularly from more settled build-up situations. Hoffenheim was impressive at overcoming Liverpool’s 1st line press, but never really found a way through the opponent’s low block. The same can said for Jürgen Klopp’s boys. Compact defense by each side, as well as missing dynamism in the final third by both sides was arguably the main culprit for this lack. However, as Liverpool were not as impressive as the hosts in their build-up play, we can say that Hoffenheim were the slightly better side in this first leg.

Hoffenheim’s high press and Liverpool build up

In Hoffenheim’s initial press, Nagelsmann used a 5-2-1-2 pressing shape to deal with Liverpool’s three central midfielder formation. Meanwhile, two Hoffenheim forwards occupied the first line with one player acted as a #10, marking the opponent’s central 6, and Kerem Demirbay or Lukas Rupp as double pivot behind the said #10.

In the central press, Hoffenheim’s 1st line stuck to Liverpool’s central defenders (CD) sector. Liverpool would then quickly circulate the ball to a wide area, generating a 2nd passing lane to the full back (FB), while Hoffenheim’s CM tied up Liverpool’s midfielder trio; finally, Hoffenheim’s ball side wingback (WB) dealt with Liverpool’s FB. But when Hoffenheim’s 1st line press managed to funnel and trap Liverpool’s ball circulation to the FB on the flank, the ball-side forward would pick up the full back with the other forward man marked the near CD, leaving the far CD unmarked, while Hoffenheim’s midfield trio man-marked Liverpool’s midfielder trio.

In the last line press, the behavior of Hoffenheim’s five  defenders was depending on Liverpool’s forwards’ movements and space occupation. If Liverpool’s wide forward dropped deep through the wing, then the near wing back (WB) would pick him up. But, if the wide forward initially occupied the half space and dropped deep through the same half space, it would have been the near half back (HB) to follow his movement.

Hoffenheim’s touchline press.

Hole within Hoffeheim’s press

At times, Hoffenheim lost an ideal pressing structure and allowed a free man in its middle line. The reason was that, instead of man marking the far CM, Hoffenheim’s far side forward stayed with the far CD, thus weakening this player’s defensive access to the near CM. When Liverpool managed to play the ball to the far side CM (the free man we’re talking about) Liverpool’s far FB’s (Arnold) forward run would rush forward, creating a progression option through the far wing/half space corridor. And when the FB progressed with ball, his movement had actually also generated the possible 2v2 situation along with the wide forward (Salah) against TSG’s HB (Hübner) and WB (Zuber).

The allowed free man for Liverpool.

In the other situation, it was coordination within the ball oriented horizontal shift that allowed Liverpool to generate free man. For example,  TSG’s CM was oriented to and overload the ball-side half-space and wing, whilst the 1st line of press occupied Liverpool’s back line. In turn, this made the center and far half space became more free for Liverpool, an area occupied by Liverpool’s far CM.

Liverpool against Hoffeheim’s press

In principle, Hoffeheim established a 5-3-2/5-3-1-1 shape. Kramaric dropped deep to the middle line to help occupy the wide area beside Demirbay and Rupp. Wagner stayed up the pitch and man marked the near CD. Gnabry oriented and moved closed to Henderson (Liverpool’s dedicated #6).

Liverpool’s forward line displayed a narrow formation, which allowed quick interplay among the three. For example, one forward dropped slightly deeper, acting as a vertical passing option for the back or middle line. Sometimes, Firmino dropped deeper to provide this depth within the progression. Sometimes it was Mane. Liverpool’s 1st goal started by Mane moved inside into the ball side half space and made a dribble supported by the run towards the wider area by Firmino.

Prior to Bicakcic’s foul on Mane, which resulted in Liverpool’s first goal.

In some of the attack on the wide area, Sadio Mane dropped deeper to allow space for Wijnaldum and Moreno to move higher up. But in majority of time, Mane and his teammates just didn’t have enough collective intensity to penetrate into the box. Liverpool seemed to rely on Mane’s (or Salah’s) capability to get into the deep area of Hoffenheim’s box.

Liverpool’s press against Hoffenheim attack

Liverpool’s press vs Hoffenheim’s build up.

Liverpool used a press to block Hoffenheim’s passing options. The arrows in the diagram above indicate the initial orientation of each Liverpool player.

The three forward in the first line stuck with Hoffenheim’s 1st line. Liverpool’s players started the press from the Hoffeheim #6’s (Demirbay) space. If the 1st line moved forward, the task to press the #6 was done by the nearest midfielder. Mostly, Emre Can or Wijnaldum would take such a responsibility.

As we can see, there was a 3v3 in the 1st line, but also a potential 3v3 in the 2nd line (depending on Kramaric’s positioning). So the important part in this battle was the Hoffenheim’s wingback, specifically how the hosts tried to access the wingbacks and how Liverpool dealt with them.

One method used by Hoffenheim to access wing back for progressing its attack.

With Demirbay at the #6 and Kramaric at the #10 at times, Hoffenheim managed to find a free man to generate passes accessing the near wingback.

Hoffenheim’s other method was circulating the ball into certain areas (on the right hand side, for example), then making a quick shift to the center, and using the backline or the keeper to switch the ball to the opposite side of the field, like the left wing back, for example.

However, some factors helped Liverpool address this pattern. One consequence was the defending team (i.e. Liverpool) securing the central area. Overloading in some areas (the central area, for instance) then opened other areas (the wing) as well. Of course, it’s a good initial strategy to allow some space on the flank before making a quick-coordinated horizontal shift to trap the ball carrier against the touchline. The fact that Liverpool’s horizontal shift was well-practiced, not to mention Hoffenheim simply being less dynamic in attack (as mentioned by Spielverlagerung.de), was arguably the key factor here.

Consequently, some basic conceptual errors occurred:

  • Hoffenheim playing a vertical pass instead of diagonal pass, which might have allowed the receiver to generate better body position and sightlines toward the center.
  • Static positioning by the Hoffenheim wide-men, which made it easy for Liverpool’s defense to settle the shape (credit to Spielverlagerung.de for mentioning the static fizzling out of Hoffenheim’s attack).
  • Off the ball movement blocking another (potentially) better option for Hoffenheim’s final third penetration, as shown in the image below:

In such a situation, it might have been better for Wagner to drop deep, away from passing lane, which, in turn, could allow Kramaric to access the ball.

In principle, Liverpool’s low block was based on a 4-5-1 shape. Two wide forwards dropped very deep to help secure the wide area. The CM trio stayed centrally with the near ball CM and/or DM covered the vacated space by the ball side CD, as the CD moved wide to help full back to press the opponent on the flank. The lone forward in the attacking line kept an eye on the space in front of the Hoffenheim’s back three.

Strategic and tactical changes

Nagelsmann shifted Lukas Rupp from the left to right half space. For the visitors, James Milner came in to replace Jordan Henderson, which pulled Can down to the central #6 role/area.

During the second half, Hoffenheim looked for his side to be more decisive. Thus, the wide areas dynamic was slightly better, as Nagelsmann must have addressed this area in his locker room talk. Hoffenheim also utilized diagonal long balls to the blind side more often than they did in the previous half.

A diagonal long ball into the blind side on the far side.

Sometimes, Hoffenheim did this after a “up-back-through” sequence (Jed Davies, 2017) in the first line followed by a quick switch to the far side. The offside goal by Gnabry and the goal by Mark Uth was started by this scheme. The Uth goal was beautiful: a diagonal long ball from Håvard Nordtveit was brilliantly controlled by Uth (see how he adjusted his run and body position prior to the first touch) before a shot to the left post.


Second leg at Anfield: Liverpool 4-2 Hoffenheim

Both clubs used similar basic formations: Liverpool’s 4-3-3 vs Hoffenheim’s 3-4-3. There were also some improvements by both sides. However, in the end, Liverpool were better and played some remarkable football, as they managed to create many valuable chances.

In the 1st leg, as mentioned above, one of Hoffenheim’s method to progress from their deep build up was forming a 3-1 shape (with a “lone 6”) in their first two lines, opening passing lane to this “lone 6,” and deflecting the ball to the near WB. However, this time around, Liverpool’s FB seemed to be more aware of the pattern and anticipated it more effectively.

Here, Liverpool’s Arnold anticipated Demirbay’s next action.

To do this, Liverpool used the FB to press Hoffenheim’s WB. With the pressing behavior by Trent Alexander-Arnold, Demirbay realized if he passed the ball to Zuber, then Zuber might be in trouble, which, in turn, wouldn’t help Hoffenheim gain a spatio-temporal (Grehaigne, 1999) advantage. This problem forced Demirbay to play the ball back to the 1st line.

Overall, Liverpool dealt effectively with Hoffenheim’s deep build-up. The touchline trap was performed with intensity. And Liverpool’s horizontal shifting was well-supported by the forward trio. In a touchline press to the left area, for example, Salah (the right side wide forward) adjusted his positioning by occupying the space between Hoffenheim’s back line and middle-line. This positioning made it easy for Salah to access Hoffenheim’s middle-line should the ball be played there. Tactically, adjustment was useful as it delayed any potentially immediate switches by Hoffenheim players away from Sane’s side toward Salah’s side.

Depth within Liverpool’s attack and Hoffenheim improvement

In ball progression, Liverpool constantly created vertical depth through Roberto Firmino, which was achieved by two CMs moving away from the ball carrier, thus tying up Hoffenheim’s CM and opening a vertical passing lane from the ball carrier to Firmino.

Liverpool’s diamond shape in midfield.

The best instance of such interplay was seen during the sequence leading to Emre Can’s 2nd goal: a remarkably dynamic wide attack, as you can see below:

Howeever, Hoffenheim also made some tactical improvements. Last match, Hoffenheim’s attack lacked dynamism—both in central and wide attacks. In this 2nd leg, from the very first minute, Nagelsmann’s boys had been showing some better display as they managed to establish overload supported by strong spacing. And, like they performed in the second half of the 1st leg, Hoffenheim’s players tried to generate access by utilizing as much diagonal long balls to the blind side:

For additional note, Hoffenheim weakness in their high press was also identified. The same issue though.

Liverpool’s Emre Can left unmarked.

Tactical changes and the second half

After conceding the third goal, in the 1st half, Nagelsmann took Mark Uth in replacing Nordveidt. The basic shape changed, from 3-4-3 to a 4-2-3-1-alike. Both Gnabry and Uth in each left and right wing, flanked Kramaric who acted as the 10 behind Wagner. Demirbay and Geiger paired as the CM duo right in front of Vogt and Hübner, the CD duo, and Kaderabek-Zuber in the full back post.

Hoffenheim’s 4-3-3 against Liverpool’s 4-2-3-1 shape.

The 4-2-3-1 also changed the behavior within TSG’s deep build up. The CD-duo retreated deeper into each channel, almost in the same line with the goalie, while Kramaric-Geiger occupied the #6 space.

Against this structure, Liverpool responded by adjusting their high press slightly as the 1st  line of press pushed higher in order to orient to Hoffenheim’s 1st line trying to generate better pressing access. Firmino (or anyone occupying the central 9) started by occupying the opponent’s #6. But when the ball played to Oliver Baumann, the central #9 would step up to put a press. The task to pick up Hoffenheim’s #6 was taken by the nearest CM players.

Against Hoffenheim’s 3-4-3, Liverpool’s initial press was oriented to block central options. Against a 4-2-3-1, from the very early stage, the wide forward in Liverpool’s 1st line had have to split their focus to also focus to the opponent’s full back, either maintained the direct access or put the full back behind their cover shadow. This, in turn, slightly weakened their focus to the more central area thus allowed space for Hoffenheim’s 6 to be accessed by Hübner/Vogt.

Hübner accesses Demirbay.

Hoffenheim’s twin pivot also provided advantages for the deep build up. Let’s take a closer look at one scene. In Liverpool’s three-forward press, ther was a gap between the wide forwards and the central one. Hoffenheim initially tried to access the 6 who occupied this horizontal gap. If any of Liverpool’s CM stepped up to press from behind, the ball would be played to the near CD (Vogt, for instance). To respond to this, Liverpool’s central 9 and the ball side wide forward would move closer to the receiver trying to block his progression option to the near Hoffeheim’s players, as the twin 6 also made a ball oriented shift. A pass to the far CD opened another vertical passing lane from the back line to the 6 space.

Using two pivots and two central defenders for ball progress. Another option, depending on Salah’s pressing orientation, was Hübner;s not only passing to Demirbay, but also accessing Stefan Zuber (#6).

Final third attack

Hoffenheim attacked narrowly in the final third, thanks to the horizontal space provided by both full backs, the two forwards occupied Liverpool’s back line, the two 10s in the intermediate-defense, the two central midfielders around Liverpool’s 8 and 10, and the two CDs covering the deepest area.

Using Wagner, Hoffenheim tried to create penetration access. The big man dropped slightly deeper to pick up a pass from the back line to play quick short combination with his partner. But vertical compactness in Liverpool’s defense made it hard for Wagner and co to gain easy access. An alternative to deal with such a defense, as many been practiced, is using the wide option. Here, in this later option, the full back on both flank was the target of long ball from the deeper players. As they had shown in the 1st meeting, Kevin Vogt utilized long diagonal balls to the blind side run on the far flank.

In Liverpool’s attack, Klopp’s boys still displayed what they have been showing during Klopp’s reign. That is, vertical CM and wide attack using the dynamic created by full back and wide forward coonection – which supported by the near CM.

We can easily see how vertical Wijnaldum has been. The CM would rush forward – when Mane dropped deeper or moved wider – to provide depth in the dynamic positional structure. On the right hand side, there was Salah and Arnold who alternately occupied the half space and flank in their box attack. Can supported the wide-men very well as he provided adequate cover to the flank or half space to keep the spacing stays optimum as well as established gegenpress for any potential transitional battles.

Effective Arnold/Salah/Can interplay from Liverpool.

Final words

One of the main talking point on Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim,since the last season, has been the high number of the xG-against they allow for the opponent. Last season they had managed to improve the achievement of Nagelsmann’s 1st season.

Against Liverpool in this 2nd leg, according to 11tegen11, Liverpool managed to score 3.88 xG for against 0.51 Hoffenheim.

@11tegen11’s xG plot for Leg 2 of Liverpool vs. Hoffenheim.

If there is one major point to applaud from Nagelsmann and his players is their capability of playing out of the back. In this context, it is a remarkable display let alone against such an opponent.

As usual, Klopp’s boys were the better pressers. The performance(s) of the three forwards have been a joy to watch. They drop deep, move wide, run with ball, create depth, etc. Arnold also displayed very good performance. The youngster connects well with Salah, he also understands when it’s good timing to get into the more center area, and also good at running with ball forward.

From an outside-the-Bundesliga perspective, it will be interesting to see how far Klopp can bring his team into the Champions League tournament this season.

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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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