It’s the Bundesliga fixture of the week that occurred on Saturday evening at the Vettins-Arena between Schalke and Hoffenheim. This match was bound to be filled with tactical ideas in one of the most exciting German League matches. There was heavy interest in the tactical analysis given the work Julian Nagelsmann’s has done over the years. However, both teams possess players with individual talent, Nadiem Amiri and Amine Harit from both teams are among the most observed.
The Royal Blues have gone through a very complicated season and are currently 15th in the Bundesliga table just six points above the relegation zone. Die Kraichgauer, however, had 47 points and were five points behind Eintracht Frankfurt who sit in fourth. This tactical analysis will look to show the qualities and strengths of Hoffenheim to outclass Schalke.
Both managers had aligned a five-man defensive structure, something that had become really popular among football coaches during the last two to three years. It’s a 5-3-2 on paper for the hosts at the kick-off. The visitors had a similar structure except that they were positioned in something more like a 5-4-1 with Kramarić and Amiri performing behind Belfodil, the main striker.
Building out the back
Hoffenheim did have more ball possession sequences. The visitors tried to maintain control of the ball and rhythm of the game. They initiated most of the attacks playing along the ground. Naglesmann’s team only executed 25 long balls during the same period which is less than 10% of their total number of passes.
In order to achieve this, the team needed to implement clear structures depending on the build-up phase and the opponent’s pressing. A noticeable feature is Schalke trying to block passing channels to the centre. As seen in the pictures below, they often tried to put three players in front of Hoffenheim’s defensive line to prevent them from getting into the centre lane.
The idea is to close all pass options to Kerem Demirbay, Amiri and Florian Grillitsch and oblige the defenders to get the ball to their full-backs making it easier to defend on the flank. All you need is to use the sideline to block the ball holder and reduce the number of his potential choices. Julian Naglesmann’s players reacted very well. They succeeded to break it at numerous times.
One of the tactical solutions used during the match is the use of the right and left central defenders to open up passing lanes into midfield. Benjamin Hubner and Ermin Bikakcic tried to take the attackers’ attention away and stretch the first defensive line to open space for oncoming midfielders. This phase of play below was at the start of Hoffenheim’s second goal.
The visitors also tried to initiate attacks starting from the goalkeeper. This sometimes worked as did as Pep Guardiola’s model.
FUll-backs occupied the low options area while midfielders stepped-back in order to offer passing solutions. They either get the ball when being free or move away opponents to unlock spaces.
In the continuation of this, the Die Kraichgauer did also a good job in the second phase of the build-up. They tried to use double ball-calls and the third man concept to get the ball into the final third of the pitch.
As you see in the picture below, Schalke’s midfield was often constituted of only two players. This meant that whatever they did, there will be always a huge space there. The visitors did not struggle in any way to use this space and to find passing channels.
However, most of these attacking sequences did end poorly. Most of the time, ball receivers in the final third get the ball while being back to the goal and also pressurised by Schalke’s defenders. As the hosts reduced the space between the midfielders and defenders to the minimum, these receivers had little time and space to combine or to get face to goal and often lost the ball.
In order to see this, you can look at the loss of possession map here. More than 50% of the balls were lost on the final third and at the border between the latter and the mid third. You can also observe that Belfodil, Amiri and Kramarić lost 11 out of the total of 22 balls.
Schalke’s attacking structure
If you get a look at Schalke’s statistics during the first period, you can easily think that they did not have such a great time. The Miners attempted only three shots in 45 minutes. They made fewer passes than their opponents, had less accuracy rate and had more turnovers and possession loss. Though, everything was not so bad for the locals.
It’s important to report that they rarely played passes to their own mid-third. Schalke’s players did always look to advance the ball and make forward passes. According to whoscored statistics, during the first 45 minutes, they had 38 passes out of 184 into their defensive zone. This equals a 20% ratio which is relatively low especially. Most importantly, they had some impressive ball-progression movements on the right side of the pitch.
Here we see how the Royal Blues had 50% of their attacks from the right side.
The key element was, no doubt, connections. As Schalke’s defensive trio faced two forwards, (three sometimes, but often the third one stuck to Omar Mascarell) they were in numerical superiority and then able to get out of the pressing and make progressive runs with the ball.
Often, this was Benjamin Stamoubli’s and Daniel Caligiuri’s roles. Both, progressed with the ball into the right half-space while having multiple pass options. McKennie, Serdar, and Embolo did, at many times, drop out of position to give pass solutions. All of them positioned at different (x,y) coordinates to avoid cover-shadows and be able to combine with each other.
This says that at least two to three pass directions were available for ball holders in half-spaces. This situation is hard to defend as you need three to four players in a restricted zone of the pitch. In addition, they needed to make sure they either man-mark their opponent or always leave him in their cover-shadow while staying compact and keeping an eye on the ball carrier.
Hoffenheim failed to defend these situations most of the times. Unfortunately for Schalke, missed passes and controls due to hurry alongside with technical failure led to inefficient attacking sequences.
Evolution through the second-half
A second goal, while being led 1-0, just before the break is always one of the worst things to happen. Schalke needed some effective changes during the break to rebound. The locals did switch to a four-defender system. Stambouli moved forward to the midfield to form a double pivot system with Mascarell. Jonas Carls and Caliguiri were positioned as two full backs in a 4-2-3-1. This can be quite reasonable. The team needed more presence in the opponent’s half whether to press or to move the ball into the final third. Though, things did not seem to work much better.
The huge number of turnovers is maybe one of the most revealing points about the locals’ second half. They accumulated 19 possession losses in 45 minutes, six of them were during the first five minutes where they lost almost every recovered ball. Schalke’s players made several attempts at individual runs to get the ball out of their zone without any particular structure. You can observe the huge number of lost balls in their own-half in this image. Schalke players did lose 25 balls in their own half, which is two and a half times more than Hoffenheim.
Schalke did also try to press their opponents high as an ultimate solution to create dangerous situations. Well, they also failed at doing this since Hoffenheim had eight players and the goalkeeper to manage the ball. The visitors made interesting use of midfielders dropping back to open spaces. They tried in the situation below to close down all potential receivers. They brought on five players on the opponent’s third but did fail due to their inability to cover the whole field’s length.
The last thing to add is the fact that Schalke, whenever the ball arrives in their defensive third, defended with no more than seven players. This can be also understandable assuming that the team’s main focus is the attacking phase. After almost one hour of play, the forwards and attacking midfielders were not able to make the necessary runs to achieve a defensive task. This caused some big problems for the locals. They struggled, for example, to close down opponents on the pitch zones called 15 and 13. Typically that would be either Amiri or Demirbay who would receive the ball and try a long-range shot or a cross. This resulted in Hoffenheim’s fifth and last goal of the evening.
They might have not created an outrageous number of goalscoring chances but Naglesmann’s team deserves such a “great” win. Space opening was both key points in order to exhaust their opponents and then control the game’s rhythm.
On the other hand, a large defeat is certainly hard to swallow. The Miners did create some chances but had a disastrous second half. They lacked organisation and discipline during the build-up phase after recovering the ball and also during defensive replacement. This has cost them two goals leading to a painful defeat that does not help at all to avoid relegation.