For the first time in Bundesliga history, TSG Hoffenheim travelled to Allianz Arena on the 5th of December 2008 as Bundesliga league leaders. The club which originally hails from a town of 3,000 had produced one of the most surprising runs of form ever seen in the German Competition. Led by Ralf Rangnick, the side met Bayern Munich who were currently in second place. Hoffenheim would later go on to drop out of the UEFA Champions League spots.
Rangnick’s side, known for their electric, high-paced tactics, would meet a Jurgen Klinsmann coached team also known for their modern approach at the time. Joachim Low’s analysis of the game led him to describe it as “perhaps the fastest game of football in Bundesliga history”. This tactical analysis will examine how this match unfolded and, in particular, how it was played at such a high pace.
There are many familiar names to both line-ups. For Hoffenheim, Luis Gustavo was starting to make a real impression on German football. At 21 years old, he would go on to be signed by the Bavarian’s a month after this game. Demba Ba was a key part of Hoffenheim’s rise to the Bundesliga with nearly a goal every two games in the league below. Andreas Beck would go on to become an ever-present for Hoffenheim over the next seven seasons.
For Bayern Munich, most names will of course still be recognisable with World cup winners aplenty. Phillip Lahm was coming into his prime at 25 years old while Mark van Bommel, the captain, was at the heart of everything for the Bavarians. Bayern had depth to choose from with Martin Demichelis and Toni Kroos on the bench.
Hoffenheim’s impressive pressing
Hoffenheim came firing out of the blocks. The speed and intensity at which they pressed and broke when they won the ball was frightening. Rangnick had them arranged in a 4-3-3 shape both offensively and defensively.
Hoffenheim pressed Bayern high up on the pitch for the first fifteen minutes before setting up in a 4-3-3 medium block. The high press was relenting, but it set the initial pace of the game. The 4-3-3 medium block had a succession of traps and was extremely well drilled. With the triggers so clearly defined, Hoffenheim started their press fairly quickly after they formed a block, a key reason for the game speed being so high.
As we can see below, the wide men would sit half and half between the full-backs and centre-backs of Bayern. On the switch from one centre-back to the other, the winger would press from outside, forcing them into a central trap. In the image below, the left centre-back, van Buyten has just played the ball to Lúcio. This sideways pass is a trigger for Hoffenheim’s left-winger to press Lúcio from that side and force the ball back to van Buyten. As the winger’s started wide, it naturally forced Bayern to play centre-back to centre-back and meant there was little time between the block being set up and a pressing trap initiated.
This then also triggers Ba to press Van Buyten. Van Buyten then receives the ball under intense pressure and forces the pass out wide to Lahm who was immediately confronted by Beck. The synchronicity of Hoffenheim is impressive as all the players anticipate the situation well.
To be able to press the opposition full-back at just the right time as seen below is no easy feat. Often a full-back to full-back press can be a difficult task due to the distance needed to cover. Hoffenheim’s extreme compactness and synchronicity allowed them to do so. The work-rate from the front three, in particular, was absolutely phenomenal. However, it was still rather surprising to see Chinedu Obasi cramping around the 45th-minute mark.
A central trap that occurred for Hoffenheim was with a similar mechanism. Instead of the ball being played wide, it is forced inside to where there are numbers around the ball. As seen below, the square ball again is a trigger for Ba to press Lúcio. Ba actually gets his positioning slightly wrong as he was too far inside. He exaggerates his run in the end to make sure the pass cannot go to the right full-back of Bayern. The well-drilled nature of the team is clear. In this instance, Ba has swapped position momentarily, yet due to a good tactical understanding of the whole team’s roles, he presses just as he should.
This then forces the ball centrally, where Gustavo and Carlos Eduardo have stepped forwards onto their man, anticipating a pass inside. This is where the trap has been set and is extremely dangerous if won in here, with their three strikers ready to counter-attack. As a result, Bayern tended to miss the midfield when they were playing out.
Another key to speeding up the play for Hoffenheim was their orientation in regards to pressing. The Hoffenheim players oriented their pressure on the positioning of the ball first and foremost. To explain this, we can look at the image below. In this situation, the right central midfielder, Tobias Weis goes tearing out to pressure Lahm at left-back. In a more zonally oriented side, Weis would wait for Lahm to travel down the pitch and then address him in a deeper zone. However, with Hoffenheim wanting to make the game as quick as possible, their wide central midfielders would often step out of their zone and press in the wider areas in order to force turnovers.
The other pressing mechanism that Hoffenheim used to increase the speed and transition moments of the game was backward pressing. Hoffenheim’s frontline was excellent in pressing from behind. This increased the number of turnovers and led to many key transitional moments for the blue side. Ba and Obasi in the image below are both involved in pressing deep into their own half. They press from behind with extreme tempo and create a trap centrally.
Hoffenheim’s blistering attack
As stated pre-game, Rangnick made it clear that his side would play “quick football”. For this brand of football, it is vital that his players are mobile on the pitch. In particular, the mobility of Eduardo and Weis was a huge asset. Through Ibisevic, Obasi and Ba, they also had three lighting quick forwards. Gustavo would often sit, whilst Eduardo and Weis would bomb forward in transitional moments. As will be covered later, Bayern was aggressive with both full-backs, in particular Lahm. In more established spells of possession, both Lahm and Massimo Oddo would take higher positions up the pitch.
This created spaces in the wide areas in transition for Hoffenheim. The minnows did brilliantly to exploit these gaps through any of the three forwards and the midfielders. As seen below, they could often create numerical equivalencies and even superiorities when transitioning. In this situation, Hoffenheim win the ball in the back third. Oddo and Lahm, Bayern’s full-backs are caught out up high on the pitch. Eduardo’s pace allows him to beat Bayern’s midfield and create a 3v2 against their center-backs alongside Ba and Ibesivic. This extra player in transition for Hoffenheim put Bayern under considerable pressure.
Hoffenheim’s Possession shape
The shape of Hoffenheim was therefore interesting to compare to modern teams. In the modern game, the full-backs are often tasked with providing width and overloads in the wide areas. However, the blues tended to use the midfielders alongside the wingers to create overloads on Bayern’s full-backs. They were heavily involved in attacks, with the full-backs playing a more conservative role.
As we can see for the first goal, Hoffenheim break again and manage to create numerical equivalency in the counter-attack and a four versus four situation. Weis the right central midfielder crosses it for Ibesivic who scores the first goal of the game. Just behind him is the other box-to-box midfielder. An interesting concept and not one that is too frequent in the modern game. It also increases the speed of the game as the central midfielders are usually higher in defensive moments and can, therefore, provide an attacking threat more quickly than the full-backs.
Bayern were definitely not taking the contest lying down. They too played the game at a ferocious pace. They looked to counter-press after losing the ball and rarely dropped into their own half. When building up, it looked as though Bayern were fairly wary of playing into the traps of Hoffenheim.
Instead, Bayern opted to play longer chipped passes into a clearly defined second ball structure. As can be seen below, Luca Toni would drop deeper into midfield. Miroslav Klose would threaten in behind Hoffenheim’s backline in case of a flick-on. The two midfielders would support underneath, with Frank Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger dropping narrowly inside. This created a good vertical and horizontal coverage of the areas where the ball was likely to drop. As a result of this and Toni’s strong aerial presence, Bayern won their fair share of second balls.
Whilst they were winning their fair share of second balls, their play after it was lacking. Bayern often looked to break fairly quickly from here on in. This added to the frenzied nature of the game and played into the hands of Hoffenheim. With more transition moments in the match, Hoffenheim had more chances to counter-attack.
In the second half, Bayern seemed to alter their plans slightly. Whilst they still played long balls, when they did secure it, there was a safety and patience to their build-up play. This meant that they could get Lahm and Oddo up the pitch in more controlled situations. From here they looked to get crosses into the box. As we can see below, they also looked to create wide overloads. In particular, Ze Roberto would double up on the left-wing with Lahm.
With these variations in their play and a tiring Hoffenheim, Bayern started to create more chances, getting good numbers in the box. Additionally having Klose and Toni caused problems with their ability from crosses. Eventually, Lahm went on a solo dribble and scored through a deflection.
The game was to end in cruel fashion for Hoffenheim though. Another long ball onto the head of Toni was flicked onto Klose. A mistake from Beck then meant that the ball landed squarely at the feet of Toni in the box. He could hardly miss and sealed the win for Bayern. A cruel blow for Hoffenheim who were excellent throughout the match.
One of the games billed as a Bundesliga classic certainly didn’t fail to disappoint. Played at breakneck speed for almost the entire game, Hoffenheim would have felt hard done by with the scoreline. The ferocity and intensity of this game was a key catalyst in shaping some of the great German managers today and is available on footballali.com for any interested in watching it in its entirety.