Bundesliga Playoffs 2019/2020: Werder Bremen vs Heidenheim – tactical analysis

Bundesliga Playoffs 2019/2020: Werder Bremen vs Heidenheim - tactical analysis

On what turned out to be a miserable night in terms of the weather in Bremen, could also be used to describe the quality of football displayed as Werder Bremen drew 0-0 against Heidenheim in this year’s first leg Bundesliga playoff series. This fixture saw the 16th place Bundesliga side Werder Bremen fight to remain in the German top-flight against the third-placed Bundesliga 2 team Heidenheim, who are aiming to enter the Bundesliga for the first time in the club’s history.

In this match analysis, we take a close look at how the two sides cancelled each other out tactically, thus resulting in the stalemate result heading into the second leg at the Voith-Arena. I’ll show through this tactical analysis Bremen’s possession-based play, Heidenheim’s willingness to penetrate on the counter, and how a certain 1 vs 1 battle changed the dynamic of this game.


Two sides with complete opposite momentum heading into this fixture opted not to make any significant changes, largely sticking with the similar eleven being deployed in their more recent games.

When in possession, Werder Bremen would change into a 4-4-2 (diamond) shape with Phillip Bargfrede being used as the defensive pivot in the midfield diamond with Davy Klaassen and Maximillian Eggestein either side remaining quite narrow and reluctant to provide any serious width.

Heidenheim’s 4-4-2 shape was extremely effective nullifying any Bremen attacks in defence, and at times we would see a 5-3-2 defensive structure with one off the wide-men Dorsch or Multhaup often dropping into the defensive line.

With Bremen’s tactics set-up to control possession in the middle of the park and Heidenheim set-up to defend in their mid to low block, this largely created a game of caution and unfortunately patience for the audience with neither team keen to take any large risks for most of the 90 minutes.Bundesliga Playoffs 2019/2020: Werder Bremen vs Heidenheim - tactical analysis

Werder Bremen’s lack of direct threat

From the first whistle, it was clear Florian Kohfeldt wanted his Bremen side to control possession and move the opposition around waiting for the right opening to attack. The first part of this equation couldn’t have been done better with Bremen having an astonishing 68% possession throughout the match. Although when it came to any attacking threat to Heidenheim’s goal, it was fairly non-existent.

On the ball, Bremen’s midfield diamond remained narrow and looked to receive the ball in the half-spaces between the opposition lines. It seemed the aim of this diamond was too outnumber Heidenheim’s midfield allowing the creative playmakers of Klaassen and Yuya Osako opportunities to be freed up and unmarked.

But this was not the case for Bremen as we saw through this analysis, they struggled for large portions of the game to proceed any higher than the half-way line and never adequately broke down the oppositions disciplined defensive structure. The full-backs Marco Friedl and Theodor Selassie provided the width and were positioned with ‘paint on their boots’ in regards to the width they offered for their side, looking to stretch Heidenheim and unlock space for the Bremen diamond to receive.

Bundesliga Playoffs 2019/2020: Werder Bremen vs Heidenheim - tactical analysis

Again this was ineffective as Heidenheim didn’t see the Bremen full-backs as a threat in possession, allowing them all the time and space in the world when the pair would receive the ball in wide areas, instead focusing on nullifying the space in the middle of the park.

The character of the Bremen full-backs was exposed as neither were willing to instigate an attack when receiving the ball in the spacious wide areas, instead starting the trend of playing backward and through their own back four. This was much the theme of the game, Bremen having large amounts of possession but not knowing what to do with it.

Unfortunately, it seemed the Bundesliga side had one pla1n in possession to play through the midfield diamond. Once Heidenheim had efficiently dealt with that operation early on, Bremen quickly seemed to run out of ideas. We would then see Bremen’s large spells of possession ended with a rather hopeful lob towards their tall and strong German forward Nicklas Füllkrug seemingly purely out of frustration of not advancing up the pitch at all. Bremen’s lack of attacking creativity and directness throughout this game couldn’t have been reflected better with the side having one shot on target, the only from both sides during the full 90.Bundesliga Playoffs 2019/2020: Werder Bremen vs Heidenheim - tactical analysis

Bremen struggles to play into the midfield as one of the Heidenheim midfielders would often step onto and pressure Bargfrede vigorously at the base of the diamond should he look to receive the ball. At times this would force Bargfrede to receive the ball between his own centre-backs, showing how Bremen struggled to move up the pitch and get their more influential players on the ball in more advanced areas. This is shown in the graphic above.

Heidenheim’s pressing triggers

Heidenheim’s discipline, patience, and structure in defence were all extremely commendable throughout this game coming up against a first division side. But to say Frank Schmidt and his side came to Bremen to solely ‘shut up shop’ and escape with a draw would be untrue.

In fact, Schmidt and his side managed to use defence as their best form of attack through pressing triggers resulting in effect and dangerous counter-attacks. Heidenheim would get set-up early out of possession in a mid/low block using their 4-4-2 formation, creating two strong banks of four behind the forward pair Denis Thomalla and Tim Kleindienst. The wingers Niklas Dorsch and Maurice Multhaup would tuck inside providing extra cover in the central areas as previously mentioned, and the central midfield pair of Sebastian Griesbeck and Kevin Sessa would front mark Bremen’s forwards cutting off any pass directly through or for Bremens midfielders Klaassen and Osako looking to receive off the line.

Heidenheim had created a functional defensive unit that was difficult to break down and well-positioned to counter the opposition swiftly when the time came. Throughout the match it was noticeable the tier two side had certain pressing triggers which meant when these certain moments of play would happen during the game, the team stepped up as a whole, applied pressure to the opposition, and aimed to dispossess Werder Bremen.

A key pressing trigger was the forward pass into the central midfield areas. If Bremen attempted to play a pass into the feet of an advanced midfielder, Heidenheims back four and midfield would squeeze up against Bremen and the receiver not allowing the player to turn or have any short pass options forward.

Alongside this action, Thomalla and Kleindienst upfront for Heidenheim would push up to the original ballplaying Bremen defender and his partner centre-back cutting off any back pass option. This would often pressure the Bremen player into losing possession due to their being no pass options immediately available and having Heidenheim players approaching from all directions, with the defending team’s wingers also moving inside with the aim to trap the Bremen midfielder in the centre of the pitch.

Bundesliga Playoffs 2019/2020: Werder Bremen vs Heidenheim - tactical analysis
Heidenheim win the ball and counter through a Bremen pass into the midfield.

Another pressing trigger would be any back pass to their own goalkeeper from Bremen. Frank Schmidt and his team recognize Bremen’s keeper Jiri Pavlenka isn’t the most comfortable with the ball at his feet and has been prone to a few individual mistakes this season. Aiming to capitalize on this, at any opportunity Heidenheim had to put the keeper under pressure they would. This started with one of the front two running directly at Pavlenka, while the other squeezed high onto the deepest Bremen defender attempting to eliminate the short pass option. This would force Pavlenka to kick the ball long, much to the liking of Heidenheim’s very aerially strong defensive line who would often win challenges in the air, ultimately gaining possession for their side.

How does this relate to Heidenheim being a counter-attacking threat?

Well as previously mentioned they would set up in 4-4-2 or even 5-3-2 defensive shape out of possession meaning in transition to attack they have the immediate threat of two forwards. As mentioned in the previous observation, in defence Heidenheim was content on leaving the Bremen full-backs Friedl and Selassie unmarked as they didn’t see the pair as an immediate danger. This gave the Bremen full-backs the false sense that they would be able to push higher up the field than usual without consequence.

For Heidenheim, this meant when possession was won off their pressing triggers in the middle of the park or in more advanced areas, Bremen were consistently short on numbers at the back sometimes left in an unfavourable 2 vs 2 scenario. The Heidenheim forwards had the opportunity to penetrate the space in the wide areas, in-behind the now advanced Bremen full-backs. This enabled Schmidt’s side to always be a threat on the counter-attack should they move the ball forward quickly enough in transition.

As a result of Heidenheim’s strong defensive structure and patience, Bremen would often have all ten outfield players being lured into more advanced areas of the pitch during long possession spells, leaving themselves especially vulnerable to a Heidenheim counter.Bundesliga Playoffs 2019/2020: Werder Bremen vs Heidenheim - tactical analysis

The Battle Within the War

The 1 vs 1 onfield battle of Bremen forward Füllkrug and Heidenheim centre-back Patrick Mainka was most definitely won by the latter and one which set the mood of the game. Two players whose main strengths include their aerial ability and strength, and who both are key players for their side.

By winning this 1 s v1 battle, Mainka successfully eliminated Bremen’s most dangerous threat going forward, massively contributing to their troubles advancing up the pitch in this game. As Bremen struggled to find a way through the Heidenheim defence they turned to their big man up front as an outlet to hold up the ball in advanced areas of the pitch bringing teammates into the game.

Bundesliga Playoffs 2019/2020: Werder Bremen vs Heidenheim - tactical analysis
s wins the ball of f in a tackle, resulting in Heidenheim regaining possession.

But it wasn’t to be. Bremen ball carriers would lob the ball towards Füllkrug looking for either flick-on’s for the on running Klaassen, Osaka, and Rashica, or for the German forward to get a foot on the ball and allow Bremen some breathing space further up the field.

Bremen struggled to break Heidenheim lines throughout the game and pre-match they would have seen playing through Füllkrug as a way to resolve this. Unfortunately for Bremen from minute one the forward was dominated and marked extremely tightly by Heidenheim centre-back Mainka who constantly pressured Füllkrug into poor touches, inaccurate passes, and unused runs (not his strength). In fact of the five aerial duels the pair had throughout the 90 minutes Mainka won all five, and three of which resulted in obtained possession for Heidenheim.

This was the start of Bremen’s problems. By not having an effective outlet upfront, Bremen’s only way forward was to force play through the midfield zone which Heidenheim defended extremely well squeezing the space at every opportunity using this as a pressing trigger. Mainka was aided by his teammates, as often when the ball was aerial bound for Füllkrug they would surround the forward anticipating and often successfully winning the second ball and rebounds. Füllkrug was subbed off in the 65th minute.

Bundesliga Playoffs 2019/2020: Werder Bremen vs Heidenheim - tactical analysis
Notice the number or Heidenheim players surrounding in an attempt to cut-off this supply for Bremen.

The combination of a well-prepared plan to deal with an opposition key player from Frank Schmidt and a man-marking masterclass from Patrick Mainka shows the importance and consequences on your opposition when you radically reduce an individual’s actions.

This also showed us Bremen’s inability to adapt to a situation during the match, criticism which has been sent towards Florian Kohfeldt and his sides way already this season. If Mainka and Heidenheim can carry this man-marking excellence into the second-leg, I struggle to see Bremen creating in and around the goal.


In conclusion, this game was dull and uneventful for the neutral as a result of incredible defensive organisation from Heidenheim accompanied by a lack of attacking creativity and spark from a possession driven Werder Bremen.

The game started to open up more in the final 15 minutes or so with a few shots from each team due to more risk-taking later on in the game. In my eyes, a draw was a fair reflection of the game, with neither team conjuring up enough genuine attacking chances to suggest the scoreline would change should this game had gone on for another 90 minutes. Neither team showed the necessary quality to compete in the Bundesliga with the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.

Of the two teams, Heidenheim would be happier with how the game turned out, and for me are better equipped to win the second leg at home based on this performance and their threat on the counter-attack. Werder Bremen showed next to no answers going forward despite their huge possession periods, and seriously need to ‘flip a switch’ should they want to avoid Bundesliga relegation come Monday.

This first leg was played with plenty of caution from both sides, but I expect a more open, passionate, and overall entertaining match-up in the second leg.