Braunschweig took a deserved early lead, but the visitors’ second half pressure and tempo brought them back into the game.
Early surprise-package Eintracht Braunschweig maintained their unbeaten record and five-point lead at the top of the 2. Bundesliga after an entertaining 1-1 draw with second-placed Hertha BSC on Saturday afternoon. The hosts’ captain Dennis Kruppke’s sixth goal of the season had given them the lead, but Adrian Ramos headed a well-earned equalizer for the visitors, who prevented Thorsten Lieberknecht’s side from pulling comfortably clear at the top of the table.
Lineup and tactics
Both sides played a 4-2-3-1 system. Braunschweig’s the more flexible of the two, while for Hertha Ronny pushed up in the second half to make more of a 4-4-1-1. Central to the hosts’ strategy was the role of Norman Theuerkauf. The defensive midfielder was the primary distributor of the ball, coming short to receive from the defence and often slotting into the left-back role in possession to release Ken Reichel up the pitch. Striker Domi Kumbela drifted into wide positions to open spaces centrally for the attacking trio, but the hosts resorted to counter attacks for much of the second half. Hertha’s attacks revolved around Ronny and Ramos, but for the odd forward burst forward from Peer Kluge.
The hosts dominated possession from an early stage. Looking to build attacks from the back, they were patient and composed from the outset. The two central defenders split wide when in possession, allowing the full-backs to press up the pitch. It left a space in the centre where Theuerkauf came for the ball to bring out of defence without pressure, which proved very effective in Braunschweig’s ball retention. Another interesting strategy for the hosts was for Theuerkauf to also drift out to the left when the centre-backs were in possession, and Reichel would move much higher up the pitch. It meant that the hosts had a number of ways of brining the ball out of defence and Berlin could barely get into the game in the early stages, but for a wild shot over the bar from Ramos. Further up the field, Domi Kumbela’s worked tirelessly for Eintracht, drifting out wide to try and fashion chances for his team-mates.
The opening goal came from the game’s first real chance, and it was a direct result of Theuerkauf’s drifting to the left. Braunschweig brought the ball out of defence on the right, and Correia’s diagonal pass found the left-back Reichel who had been released up the pitch. He found Dennis Kruppke, who, from 20 yards out, found the top corner with an emphatic finish. Theuerkauf continued to influence the game thereafter. Whereas most deep-defending sides cede possession and invite pressure, his coming for the ball in different positions allowed his side to both defend deep and move the ball up the pitch. Hertha couldn’t find a way to combat this and failed to create a good chance in the first half, nor did they have any period of sustained pressure. Ramos was becoming increasingly frustrated as Braunschweig were able to defend in numbers and keep Hertha from having too much of the ball. Their first half was a display of impressive composure and comfort against one of the division’s best sides.
Neither side made changes at half-time, although Luhukay had evidently instructed his team to show greater urgency, tempo and aggression to disrupt the hosts. This took a while to manifest itself in any prolonged pressure, but Hertha gradually worked themselves back into the game taking this approach. They started to win more free-kicks and corners and slowly wrestled the ball from the hosts, although they were still to fashion a genuine chance. As Hertha started to see more of the ball, they were looking for more direct ways of reaching Adrian Ramos, and he and Ronny became more involved in the match, which was a dangerous omen. Despite starting to come under some pressure, Braunschweig remained committed to ball retention. A brilliant close exchange set Kumbela free down the left side. His pull-back created a good chance for substitute Gianluca Korte, whose shot was saved. Moments later, Braunschweig were able to counter and the tireless Kumbela ran clear but was denied by Kraft.
As the second-half went on, Hertha’s increased tempo and directness had completely nullified Braunschweig’s early effectiveness in possession and defence. The full-backs stopped pushing up and the hosts turned much more defensive. So the match had a more classical feel to it: the outcome became a matter of whether BSC would be able to break through or not, or whether Braunschweig would strike on the counter. The pressure from the visitors led Lieberknecht’s side into making some mistakes on the ball. They almost gifted a goal to Kluge with some sloppy play out of defence but for Bičakčić’s superb last-ditch tackle.
On the 75-minute mark, Hertha finally fashioned their first real chance. A well-struck volley from inside the box by Ronny was smartly saved. Moments later, Berlin’s pressure finally told and they were level. Ronny sent over a cross from a quickly taken free-kick and Ramos leapt above the defence to head in the equalizer. The Blau-Weiβen pressed for a winner. Ramos missed another good opportunity from a slip in defence but Braunschweig held on for a point and defended very well overall.
A tactically intriguing game: Braunschweig’s clever strategy and Theuerkauf’s drifting into various positions saw them dominate the first half. But Hertha adapted well and slowly fought their way back into the match. Jos Luhukay’s half-time instructions proved the turning point. The direct balls to Ramos got Hertha’s most influential players more involved and the greater tempo and aggression disrupted the hosts’ comfort on the ball and allowed a way back into the game. Partly because of this, from the hour-mark, the hosts were not doing playing the way which had led them to control proceedings. But they were also more willing to sit deep the longer the match went on and the more important it became to protect the lead. When the game became about the defensive team having to withstand pressure, Hertha were always likely to score. Braunschweig also lost confidence on the ball with some sloppy errors which the visitors’ greater urgency contributed to, and this nearly cost them the game. Overall, a draw was a fair result for who sides who displayed good football. Braunschweig had the upper hand, then Hertha reacted well.
After facing one of the firmest tests of the season so far and earning a point, Eintracht Braunschweig continue to impress with their defensive solidity and intelligence in possession. It will be fascinating to see for how long the surprise leaders can maintain their excellent run of form.
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