(T)itz a kind of magic – Have HSV had their best coach stuck in their youth system all along?

Finally, in Christian Titz Hamburger SV have a coach who could lead the storied club to the heights it deserves.

You’ve had the solution under your noses for years, yet chose to ignore it?

“The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”  Mark Zuckerberg

To say it’s been another rough season for HSV would be an understatement: this current Hamburg team is arguably facing its roughest battle in its storied Bundesliga tenure. That’s quite the accomplishment for der Dino, the only Bundesliga club never to have been relegated, – as the clock in Volksparkstadion never fails to remind every one of that. For it’s Hamburg who put up a historically anemic start in 2015\16 after Bruno Labbadia (and Marcelo Diaz’s legendary free kick) had saved them at the end of the 2014\15 season. Reinforcements in the form of summer transfers  and Markus Gisdol were only able to get them to need a last gasp Gian Luca Waldschmidt winner against Wolfsburg at the end of last season.

this xi is just painful to look at

The two-game winning streak to start the 2017\18 campaign might go down as an odd piece of trivia and with good reason. Nicolai Müller’s winner cost him his season in a lucky win against Augsburg that saw 143 completed passes, while the 3-1 win against Cologne saw just 111. It was also the game where Felix Brych had to be subbed off and the game lasted 100 minutes, but Holtby’s goal meant that HSV were Bundesliga leaders or Spitzenreiter! If only the season ended in August thought Markus Gisdol as they earned just 9 points out of the next 17 – the fewest in the league despite Cologne’s infamous start – costing him his job by the end of January.

Gisdol’s intensive pressing – at 7.91 PPDA only Bayern, Leipzig and Dortmund were more intense! – was at least effective for staying in games due to not allowing a large volume of shots (13.47 against) and more importantly keeping them off target (3.78 would be the third best mark this season and equivalent to Tuchel’s 16\17 BVB side) Gisdol would always play four defenders with at least a double pivot, opting to field a five man backline against the not exactly world-beating sides of Hertha and Gladbach away. Relying on the fighting spirit of the likes of Andre Hahn, Dennis Diekmeier, Mergim Mavraj, he would muddy up games and try to steal them with a Filip Kostic counter\long-range shot, an Andre Hahn header – who by the way was  trailing Lewandowski and Aubameyang in total shots attempted after 8 games!

Gisdol be like: this is fine

or heaven forbid a Bobby Wood goal. Unfortunately for Gisdol, Bobby Wood last scored in late August (until vs. Wolfsburg just last weekend) and with 47% possession and sub 70% pass completion, it was not what you’d call attractive football.  If you thought Hamburg would try to change course you haven’t been paying attention. Enter Bernd – Felix Magath’s finest student – Hollerbach – who went winless in 7 games with 0.43 PPG, averaging a -1.1 XG difference, culminated by a 6-0 defeat against Bayern, where they were outshot 20 to ONE! They also became a -4 net shots team.

At the time of the hire, 538 projected HSV to drop with a 55% likelihood

while Goalimpact believed it to be around 67%.

Perhaps the most staggering number isn’t the net -2 shots on target, but the 2.57 shots on target per game – worse than Darmstadt’s infamous 2.76 the lowest in this decade. Of course playing most of the games in a 5-2-1-2 – even if it kind of worked against Leipzig  and for 45 minutes against Dortmund – is going to lead to chances few and far in between. Especially if the strikers are the then scoreless Wood, or the immortal Sven Schipplock who would get back to back starts against Mainz and Bayern.It got so bad that even the pressing wasn’t working – a 9.91 PPDA scares no one and Hollerbach was relieved of his duties on March 12th alongside Jens Todt and Heribert Bruchhagen. “Das Wunder von Bern(d)” it was not, as Hamburg rubbed salt in the wounds by firing him over the phone! With nine games remaining and HSV sitting seven points out of the relegation playoffs at the time of Hollerbach’s dismissal,the promotion of second team coach Christian Titz seemed like a nice PR move to “try something new and give the young guys a chance”.

Who is Christian Titz?

What makes the decision to hire Hollerbach – who to his credit brought Würzburg up from the Regionalliga to the 2. Bundesliga -even more puzzling is that the club had been employing a certain Christian Titz since July 1st of 2015. The 47-year-old coach has since then taken Hamburg and the Bundesliga by storm, with an attractive 21st century blend of football that has the Volksparkstadion buzzing. Score one for my co-host Matt Hermann and I who said this would work in the March 12th episode of Talking Fussball!

For a comparison between HSV’s coaches this year and the statistical improvements under Christian Titz, check out my chart here:

https://infogram.com/hsv-coaches-1hnq41xmeqlp23z

or this gallery:

Though Titz’s numbers don’t really do him justice – 3-1-2 in 6 games, with a +1 goal difference and 10 points at 1.67 points per game, with crucial victories over Schalke, Freiburg and Wolfsburg. Skeptics can point to HSV  slightly overperforming its  8.34 expected points and a -2.47 XG difference (accrued mostly in Hoffenheim where TSG’s counters overwhelmed HSV to the tune of a 3 goal XG difference). But Titz’s tenure in Hamburg has been a success even before his appointment at the pros: 13-6-1 in 20 games at HSV II, crushing the Regionalliga to the tune of 2.25 ppg in his 4-1-4-1 formation. Interestingly, Titz’ hardly ever played that formation at the U17 level where he racked up 1.81 ppg mostly using the 4-4-2 diamond or a flat 3-5-2  in 52 matches with 29 wins, 7 draws and 9 losses with a whopping 116 to 66 goal difference.

A workaholic nobody who does everything?

Prior to his hire by HSV, Titz was dubbed “a nobody” by much of German media (Bild, Eurosport, Sportbuzzer) and inside the club it was mostly Bernhard Peters  – responsible for directing youth development since 2014 – who had advocated on behalf of the former FC Homburg coach after Gisdol was let go. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but the HSV leadership went for the proverbial safe pair of hands….and the rest as they say is history.

Christian Titz belongs to that group of trainers who do not have a huge footballing career behind them, but via monumental efforts – 15 hour days on 6-7 days in a week – and thousands of hours spent studying, writing and teaching finally got a chance at 47. After having his playing career at SV Sandhausen cut short by a tick bite and subsequent illness at age 16 (what I suspect is Lyme disease)  Titz did eventually make it to the third tier of German football by age 28 but only played six games for SC Idar Oberstein! Although he had completed a degree in economics, and business management, he had become obsessed with coaching and subsequently trained Alemannia Achen’s U19s featuring Sami Allagui. He had also began doing individual technical training for players, with former Aachen youth products Christoph Moritz and Lewis Holtby among his regular clients. It was around the same that Titz had begun to work with former USMNT legend Thomas Dooley on a number of tactical and technical books  ranging from a breakdown of the 4-4-2 formation to dribbling and shooting techniques to even goalkeeper training. The Dooley connection went as far as founding a soccer university in Virginia, with the help of Thomas’ brother Steven. Steven Dooley was the reserves coach at Aachen from 1999 to 2002, which is where he and Titz met for the first time, while Tom Dooley would become an assistant for Jürgen Klinsmann in 2011. In the meantime Titz also managed to get his Fussballehrer licence alongside Andre Schubert, Olaf Janssen and Olaf Thon in 2004. He endured a setback at FC Passau, the club slid into the Landesliga under his five game tenure in 2005\06,  and by 2007 Titz was busy and scouting future hopefuls for the USMNT playing in Germany. In 2009, the Mannheim native Titz also spent a year in Viktoria Köln’s system, but it would take Dooley’s hiring as director of football by FC Homburg to get his first prolonged stint, albeit in the Oberliga. Titz ended up spending three years in Saarland, coaching FCH first in the Oberliga then in the South West Regionalliga with a 1.59 ppg average in 97 matches. Following his departure in the spring of 2014, Titz began an ambitious youth project at fifth tier club VfL Vichttal, located just outside of Aachen in Stadtpark Dörenberg. Beginning with the class of 2004, where Titz’s son Luca was also playing,  the idea was to train local players like academy players in their city, in their comfortable surroundings, among their friends. Titz’s rule of  no player living further than 30 kilometers saw to ease the demands of a travel to a “Leistungszentrum” or joining an academy – Thomas Müller had joined Bayern’s at age 10 due in some part to living 50 kms from Munich. Getting a Fussballehrer to coach E-Jugend levels certainly paid off, as Vichttal went undefeated with 114 to 20 goal difference per a story in Aachener Zeitung. The tactical innovator in Titz also came out in full force as he used his 13-year-old son (who had trouble sprinting due to an injury) as a ball playing goal keeper and the precursor to Julian Pollersbeck.

That HSV’s youth department and reserve have long been a mess is not exactly breaking news. Daniel Jovanov details the story of unpaid reserve players, trainer carousels – remember former first team coach Joe Zinnbauer, or club legend turned Hollerbach assistant Rodolfo Esteban Cardoso? – and finally Bernhard Peters getting it right: through the recommendation of Lewis Holtby – who probably not for the first time campaigned for Christian Titz – Titz got the job in July of 2015.

Individualtrainingswoche mit HSV-Profi Lewis Holtby und Fußbal…

Individualtraining im Fußball – Lewis Holtby, Christoph Moritz und viele weitere, talentierte Fußballer vertrauen Christian Titz. Der Fußball-Lehrer und Buchautor ist Mitinhaber von Coaching Zone Portal und gibt mit seinem Kollegen Sebastian Stache wertvolle Tipps für das Fußballtraining.___Mehr zum Coaching Zone Portal und Christian Titz im Netz:http://www.coaching-zone-portal.de/https://www.facebook.com/coachingzonehttps://www.youtube.com/channel/UC33pc1FJn5-Rt4oU2ERUEUghttps://twitter.com/CoachingZone_https://plus.google.com/110968902631676201632/posts

Posted by Coaching Zone – Portal für Trainingslehre und Spielkultur on Friday, January 16, 2015

What happens when you join a football-obsessed youth coach and a generational talent?

As luck would have it, Jann-Fiete Arp was promoted to the A Junioren in the summer of 2015 and began working with Titz. By October, Arp was in the U16 Germany team and finished the season with 11 goals in 24 outings, with HSV finishing fifth. The next year, Arp exploded for 26 goals in 24 but HSV were still no match for Bremen’s incredible team that won 25 of 26 games conceding 13 and scoring 94 goals – losing to Bayern in the national finals 2-0. Unfortunately the quirky story that Bayern’s goalscorer on that day, Benedict Hollerbach was the son of Bernd Hollerbach turned out to be false! Arp’s magical 2017 continued with success at higher levels and Titz was promoted to the coach of the reserve team, where he went 13-6-1 in his 20 games, leaving HSV atop the Regionalliga Nord. He brought out the best in talents like Tatsuya Ito – the diminutive Japanese speed-demon who Markus Gisdol thought could only last 60 minutes and was cast aside due to his size by Hollerbach – had 7 assists in just 9 games for Titz in the fourth tier prior to joining  the first team.

Titzball – possession-focused approach that intends to dominate play using positional play but allows for flexibility and inviduality.

Openly admitting to feeling a sense of sadness when Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola departed the Bundesliga and citing Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona Dream Team as a major influence (due to Ronald Koeman’s deep-lying playmaking!) is going to definitely win you points with the hipsters, announcing your intentions to go out and dominate possession against any opponent, get into deep positions and favorable gegenpressing situations will probably even get Spielverlagerung’s attention! One gets the feeling that even if Titz wasn’t invited to do analysis by T-Online and the likes, he would probably just do it in his living room:

Even in the fall of 2017, Titz took time out of his HSV II schedule to travel to Hévíz, Hungary on a Monday-Tuesday to hold a two-day workshop for coaches. Luckily for us, much of the material has been posted online, so it will help better understand his footballing philosophy.

Titz training Hungarian youngsters in fall of 2017

This is the basic outline of Titz’s pitch – the smell of Juego de Posicion is in the air!

Overall, the presentation is reminiscent of an NFL playbook, as there are 141 pages worth of slides, featuring 9 different plays for goal kicks taken by the GK and individual requirements and coaching points for each position –  I’ve taken the liberty of distilling some of the key ideas and concepts:

A possession dominant side that uses the foundations of positional play while still allowing flexibility and individual creativity to shine. In the attacking third the focus is on creating synergy with runs, but there’s plenty of room for individual risk-taking. In general, Titz’s HSV is trying to create 1 v 1s  in dangerous situations, but also overloads via predetermined runs (automatism).

In the middle third, lots of movement and positional switches, switching the ball horizontally to create overloads, passes into open areas behind the defense

In the defensive third – secure buildup – at HSV this means using Julian Pollersbeck as a Libero with fullbacks high as seen here:

There’s an incredibly variety of options here, because Pollersbeck due to his passing abilities is able to put Schalke’s forwards (normally used to pressuring the CBs quite effectively) into a pickle: they could try to press him and leave one of the other CBs to start the attack – Papadopoulos isn’t a great playmaker by any stretch of the imagination, but given time, he can and will pick out the open men deep in opposition territory.

The left-footed playmaking of Rick van Drongelen is underrated: the young Dutchman is comfortable playing little dumped balls over the top towards Tatsuya Ito, or finding the streaking Douglas Santos wide as well. The positioning of Matthias Steinmann – an athletically limited career HSV reserve player (with a brief stint under Sandro Schwarz at Mainz II) at age 23, but a key part of Titz’s buildup due to his excellent passing and ball retention – whether it’s dropping deep to aid the buildup or to take a third Schalke forward (Amine Harit) away from defense is also vital.

With a great structure (a cornerstone of juego de posicion) Hamburg also create all kinds of passing options: the full backs are available wide, while the inverted wingers (Ito on the left, Kostic on the right) are pulling into the half spaces to confuse Schalke’s three-man backline – RWB Thilo Kehrer and RCB Benjamin Stambouli have no idea whether to cover Santos, Ito or help out on Waldschmidt. It’s no surprise then that Hamburg are regularly completing 3-400 passes a game, versus the mid to low 100s of the early Gisdol era.

The interrelated movement of Waldschmidt (dropping deep and dragging out the CB), Hunt occupying Naldo) and Ito’s inward run (Santos is not in the picture, but Kehrer’s certainly worried about him) are certainly confusing for Schalke. Aaron Hunt’s technical ability is able to shine through and Titz even seems to have gotten consistent performances out of him, to say nothing of #FreeHoltby, the movement that has swept the nation. Given their history, it’s understandable that the former Spurs man would improve under Titz, but few could have predicted a four goal outburst (on 2.23 XG) in six games – equal to his tally in his HSV career!. In span of a few weeks he has gone from an overpaid afterthought who was described as a dud by a Bild reporter to scoring Messiesque goals and becoming the potential saviour of HSV! Holtby was scoreless since August 25th and apparently such is the power of Titz magic that even Bobby Wood who also last scored in that feted 3-1 win over Cologne on matchday two and Luca Waldschmidt 0 for 27 on the season have found the back of the net vs Wolfsburg. For an excellent analysis on that game, I highly recommend Tobias Hahn’s breakdown here, if you can read German.

Without the ball

Titz’s philosophy again follows the Cruyff\Guardiola\Tuchel school of thought: the main goal is to win the ball back to attack. Again, the team needs to dominate the opponent to concede the ball. One way to do it is to force them into pressing traps – situations where Titz’s team has more players in a certain zone than the opponent. Defensive zone requires constant concentration, while a possession loss in opposition half is automatically a counterpressing opportunity. Titz can switch between a 4-1-4-1 high press or a mid block sometimes in 4-4-2 or in 4-1-4-1 but almost always with zonal marking. Hamburg shows great compactness and creates numerical superiority against Schalke:

but can also take a difference-maker like Max Meyer completely out of a match. In addition, Titz is not afraid to make adjustments in-game: when Tedesco decided to switch Kehrer and Caligiuri in an attempt to limit the damage done by Ito, Titz immediately switched his wingers to regain the advantage:

Where do we go from here?

This is not to say that there aren’t problems for Hamburg under Titz. It’s still pretty easy to counter them as Hoffenheim showed and almost every defender is capable of committing serious mistakes: Julian Pollersbeck is also very capable of howlers, Papadopoulos is still not the ideal ball-playing CB, while van Drongelen (and Stephan Ambrosius after his mistake in Stuttgart) still commit their share of rookie mistakes. Douglas Santos is still likely to gift the ball to opposition strikers\midfielders and\or forget to track runners, while Matti Steinmann hasn’t the athleticism to cope vs. Bundesliga counterattacks. Luca Waldschmidt was 0 for 27 on the season before scoring against VfL. That he was still the preferred option over Bobby Wood (also scoreless since August 25th until this weekend), Andre Hahn or Sven Schipplock says volumes about the kind of squad Titz is working miracles with.

According to Goalimpact there is now a 19 % chance of avoiding the drop, a vast improvement over the 7.8% at the time of Titz’s announcement.

ESPN’s 538 which had projected Hamburg to go down 94% of the time as Titz was hired:

 

is now predicting an 87% chance of outright relegation.

While that may not seem like all that much – an unlikely Wolfsburg win against Leipzig would shatter Hamburg’s dreams – there is finally a future at HSV and that should certainly include Christian Titz regardless of the outcome of these last couple games. As Lewis Holtby put it bluntly in a post-match interview: “We’re finally playing football” – and if you’re a fan of HSV that’s more than you could ask for. For as Winston Churchill put it: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”

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Abel started out watching and playing soccer in Hungary, before falling in love with the Bundesliga in the mid -90s (thanks to Kicker and Sat1's Ran). Now, he's in the USA -- and still loving it all many years later. Abel is faithful to BVB, but also endlessly fascinated by the emergence of new teams and talents from Germany, to the point that he even started a website about it, at www.bundespremierleague.com. Otherwise, you can find him working in publishing, teaching ESL, and/or drinking craft beer - not necessarily at the same time, or in that order. Abel tweets at @VanbastenESL and @BundesPL

6 Comments

  1. Very interesting read: and wouldn’t it be interesting to see what Hamburg* could do next year with Titz! (Or, given how often HSV like to change coaches – a more stable Erst Liga Mannschaft.)

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