Heading into the current campaign, it became increasingly apparent that Hamburger SV as a club needed a culture. Long gone are the days where beating clubs like Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen were part of the norm in the club’s successful period in the 1970s. Much like the pre-game hymn ‘Hamburg meine Perle’, it was outdated and irrelevant for the current predicament thus a change was required.
One player involved in the culture change at the former giant of the North is midfielder Sonny Kittel. The 26-year-old came for a free after his former employers Ingolstadt succumbed to relegation to the 3. Liga via the play-offs at the hands of Wehen Wiesbaden. Without a valid 3. Liga contact, Kittel would be available and it was Hamburg who pulled the trigger in the summer. This tactical analysis and scout report takes a look at Kittel, his strengths and how he is part of the Hamburg revolution as they push for promotion.
Highs and lows
At the peak of his power, Kittel was one of the more sought-after players coming out of the 2. Bundesliga. This came after an excellent season in the 2017/18 campaign where Kittel managed 10 goals and 15 assists from 33 league appearances. This resulted in Bundesliga sides like Mainz, Augsburg, and other similar types of sides looking to attract Kittel to the top tier.
However, Kittel remained as he looked to help Ingolstadt back to the Bundesliga. This seemed detrimental as on the opening fixture of last season against Jahn Regensburg, he was left on the bench as an unused substitute. Despite equalling his best goal tally, he managed nine fewer assists in what was a bizarre season for Kittel. Statistically, it stacked up but a closer look suggests a player burdened by the responsibility of trying to keep Ingolstadt up.
Here to assist
The Gießen native is notorious for being a good user of the ball and his 21 assists over the past two seasons are a good indicator. Throughout his career, Kittel completes 75.9% of his passes which are solid numbers. But where the real trend to spot is in the number of games where Kittel is heavily involved in terms of total actions, which includes passes his side has a stronger chance of winning. Case in point being this season against Darmstadt, Kittel was only involved in 23 actions which resulted in a 1-1 draw. Take the recent 3-0 win over Hannover and Kittel was involved in 64 actions. In this section of the analysis, we will look at Kittel’s repertoire of passes and how he can send the wheels in motion going forward.
We’ve taken three examples to showcase his versatility on the ball with the final resulting in a goal for his team. As he only has just the one assist this season, we will dissect that as well as a couple from his six assists from last season. The first of those coming against his current employers in a 1-2 defeat for Ingolstadt. Here we get to see the master at work from a set-piece. Kittel was the man for set-pieces at Ingolstadt and with good reason. The free-kick comes from between halfway and the 18-yard box. Kittel is looking for the danger area for any keeper, which is between six and the edge of the box. This area of indecision is where Kittel delivers to and he finds Fatih Kaya who heads in past Julian Pollersbeck. The technique and skill involved to produce such a well-weighted delivery, which causes such indecision and inactivity from the defence, are difficult.
The second assist was one of his last ones at Ingolstadt and it came in a 1-3 victory over Arminia Bielefeld. Here we see Kittel duelling with Cedric Brunner and it’s advantage to the Ingolstadt number 10 who seizes the moment and looks for an option in the box. The front post option of Dario Lezcano doesn’t work as Brian Behrendt could cut out the pass. But thanks to some questionable man-marking by Fabian Hartherz, Stefan Kutschke is the perfect option at the back post. Kittel hits a perfect ball to Kutschke who scores past a desperate and not quite able Stefan Ortega. The hard work was done early by beating Brunner which allowed a crossing opportunity, through Kittel displaying his excellent dribbling ability to see off the full-back.
Our final situation is Kittel’s single assist with Hamburg, and while it’s not glamorous by any stretch, it is the ability to play the right ball allowing for a goal-scoring opportunity that’s important. The move starts from a counter-attack which Aaron Hunt feeds to Kittel on the left, who now goes to work inside the box with Georg Margreitter for company. Margreitter is desperate to not allow Kittel to cut onto his right from which he can shoot or play a teammate. He fails to do so with Kittel swiftly disposing of the Nürnberg centre-half. As Nürnberg defenders try and get some shape in the box, Narey is left vacant and Kittel plays to him.
The situation ends in Narey scoring amongst a crowd of five Nürnberg defenders and a helpless Christian Mathenia. Three different situations resulting in goals for his team, it’s apparent that Kittel is highly skilled on the ball and his creativity with it allows him to be an extremely effective offensive weapon.
Elite midfield scorer
Kittel is one of those midfielders, in recent years anyway, who just has a habit to find the scoresheet with regularity. In the past two seasons with Ingolstadt, Kittel managed 20 goals in the 2. Bundesliga and he has already hit the ground running with Hamburg. Four goals in the opening five games have Kittel as Hamburg’s top scorer. The 26-year-old is tied with Osnabrück’s Marcos Álvarez and Karlsruhe’s Philipp Hofmann for the leading scorers in the division. But how has Kittel got his goals in the early part of the season? Let’s have a look.
Kittel opened his account against a Nürnberg side looking to make an impression after a disappointing Bundesliga campaign. After Hamburg opened the score earlier on, Kittel put his set-piece wizardry on display with an excellent strike. Using the Hamburg section of the wall, Kittel sends Mathenia the wrong way and beats him at his near post. Whilst you could argue that Mathenia should’ve done much better, the shot was hit with such venom that it did enough to deceive the keeper.
The next entry comes from that win in Karlsruhe, the first goal is similar to the last goal as we will showcase. Kittel picks up possession at the edge of the area and with no options around him, he cuts onto his right and creates space. With one idea in mind, Kittel fires and places in the ball into the top corner of Benjamin Uphoff’s goal. A moment of individual brilliance and class by Kittel showcasing the range of abilities he has.
The final situation is the last goal scored by Kittel so far which comes in the victory over Hannover. Narey has possession at the edge of the area as Hamburg look to take the lead. Circled is our man Kittel with Marvin Bakalorz defending him but is already out of position, giving him space and allowing Kittel to be goal side.
As the play develops, Narey beats his man to the by-line before crossing the ball on the edge of the six. Kittel is unmarked and his intelligent play allows him to be at the end of the play and give Hamburg the lead. The versatility of goals on display by Kittel showcases what a dangerous threat he is in the final third- whilst he is a notorious assist man, he is also deadly in front of goal.
The fit in Hamburg
Under Hecking, Hamburg has favoured either a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1 formation this season. Kittel, who is an attacking midfielder who likes to drift out to the left, can play in a variety of positions in either system. Typically, these tactics have seen Kittel play on the left-hand side of the attacking three with Lukas Hinterseer and either Bakary Jatta or Khaled Narey on the other flank. As his heat map for this season below showcases, Kittel typically operates on the left side of midfield. However, expect the centre of the park to get more treatment as the season goes on.
His best performance in Hamburg colours came in the 2-4 win in Karlsruhe where Kittel scored twice and was influential throughout. There he played as a number 10 and was incredible in helping Hamburg control the contest from the opening whistle. When Hecking has gone pro on the 4-1-4-1 with Jatta and Narey both playing, Kittel has played as a number eight alongside David Kinsombi and Adrian Fein in the pivot. Kittel is given a license to join attacks and help the attacking wingers and striker.
Hecking has a tactically useful player who can play a variety of different roles and it’s increasingly important that Kittel gets plenty of touches on the ball. When he is heavily involved, Hamburg win.
Kittel is already showcasing that last season’s campaign which resulted in relegation for Ingolstadt was only a blip in his career, and his current outfit Hamburg are profiting from that. A change of scenery and having a manager in Hecking who is well known in the German football circle has proven to have a positive impact on Kittel.
It’s early in the season but Kittel is on course for a repeat of his 2017/18 season, but unlike Ingolstadt finishing outside of the top three, Hamburg look strong favourites to go up. At the peak of his career, now is the best chance for Kittel to show Bundesliga sides on what they are missing out on.
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