Hoffenheim 2-0 Schalke

The first half formations

Just like they were during their maiden top-flight season in 2008/09, Hoffenheim are the division’s early pace-setters. After overcoming last year’s runners-up by a two-goal margin in this game, Ralf Rangnick’s team maintained Schalke’s point-free start.

Initially, Die Knappen tore up the form book by dominating the early stages – oozing confidence, urgency and energy, but unable to penetrate a clumsy, panic-infected Hoffenheim rearguard.

Through a combination of luck and the away side’s profligacy, Hoffenheim rode a storm that lasted for the opening quarter of the match, before finally making some vicious weather of their own.

They were aided by the fact Schalke’s defence was as clumsy as their own. Christoph Metzelder had a wretched evening, lacking stamina, fight, awareness and speed.

Magath deployed him as a right-back in a bid to curtail the constantly side-switching direct wing threats of Peniel Mlapa and Demba Ba, but neither found it particularly troubling to evade the former Real Madrid defender.

The Schalke tactics. The yellow lines indicate the ball's path, while the white ones portray the run made. The tactics - either a centre-back locating a Huntelaar sprint towards them with a punt which the Dutchman tried scooping a header onto the peeling-towards-goal Raúl with. Or, Rakitić collecting possession from a defender, and then seeking to play early scoops over the tucked Compper, or retreating Beck for the Dutch striker.

Schalke did at least play with fantastic energy for most of the game, and new signing Klaas-Jan Huntelaar worked his socks off. Stationed at the point above the tip of a midfield diamond, his runs behind the defence were incisive.

When Schalke had some momentum in the opening stages, they sought early balls over the top to catch the Hoffe back-line, and also to push their defence high up the pitch and keep the banks close together.

However, when the home side calmed down and realised that attacking down the left-channel was pretty straightforward, their 4-1-4-1 proved more lethal via a combination of dynamism and vision.

The system, complemented by the effervescent Vedad Ibišević up-top and rampaging right-back Andreas Beck, helped win Hoffenheim the game. And like Schalke did early on, Hoffe kept up the pressure and pushed their defence on.

Yet unlike their guests, tactically superior Hoffe played their football on the floor. Mlapa tucked inside, Luiz Gustavo set the ball on its way, Tobias Weis carried through the crowds, and Sejad Salihović found space to feed the overlaps of Ba.

The Hoffenheim tactics. Gustavo fed Weis or Mlapa to carry the ball, Ibisević dropped deep to instigate first-time triangles, or play in Salihović and Ba on the left.

The deadlock was broken by Isaac Vorsah in the 37th minute. Neither Ivan Rakitić or Metzelder kept an eye on the Ghanaian, Hans Sarpei was slow in tracking a Beck and Weis short-corner, and thus Vorsah comfortably steered a bullet header goalwards.

Schalke coach Felix Magath rung the changes at the interval, hauling off the lifeless Edu for Alexander Baumjohann, and introducing Joël Matip for the shellshocked Metzelder.

Although both teams maintained the rigorous pressure on whichever man was in possession, Hoffenheim’s defence was notably flatter and deeper now. Schalke adjusted to a 4-2-3-1, width-laden thanks to Rakitić and Baumjohann.

Whereas Marvin Compper tucked in as a third centre-back (the other two each had defined roles – Josup Šimunić staying deep, with Vorsah charging upfield to cut out the balls through), Beck was man-marking Baumjohann.

Stationed on the left, the wideman sought to veer inside whenever he received the ball, and Beck never departed his shadow. Resultantly, Huntelaar began to hang in the space the right-back abandoned.

However, Rangnick soon made amendments of his own in light of Magath’s tactical brainwave – retaining a 4-1-4-1, but bringing midfielders into the wide positions rather than attackers.

How each team was set out during the closing stages

Aided by Schalke’s desperation, the game was made-for-TV open. Squeaky bum time for the home fans came courtesy of Ibišević’s greed or playing one pass too many in the final-third, thereby ruining any chance of Hoffenheim putting the game to bed.

Schalke had more than enough chances to salvage a point – one example being when Hoffe’s zonal marking system at a corner was too tight and deep, allowing Christoph Moritz to go close from a seemingly cleared cross.

But as an angry Jermaine Jones made it his mission to commit niggly fouls, a succession of tempo-cooling set-pieces allowed the home side to push Schalke back into their own half.

Moritz, who’d made some incisive runs into the channels during the first half, became as was now as anonymous as Raúl – the Spaniard cutting a forlorn figure as space to use the ball stayed unforthcoming.

Huntelaar’s movement was still good, but scoops over to his darts grew lazier and more hurried. The Gelsenkirchen outfit seemed resigned to losing the game as time marched on, Tom Starke’s heroics in the Hoffenheim goal rubber-stamping that feeling.

If Metzelder being responsible for the first goal felt obvious, how the injury-time sealer came about matched it in terms of inevitably – Jones scything down an opponent yet again, this time in the D.

Salihović sent a sweet left-footed curler of a free-kick towards the right-hand top-corner. It bounced off the frame, onto the unfortunate Manuel Neuer – who’d also had a good game – before trickling into the net.

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5 thoughts on “Hoffenheim 2-0 Schalke

  1. Thanks for the article, it’s great to read about matches like these when I couldn’t watch them. Using Metzelder as a RB is a very strange decision in my opinion, how is he supposed to keep pace with wingers such as Mlapa and Ba?

    Was Schalke’s starting formation a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 or more of a lopsided 4-3-3?

    • Hi Tobi. Thanks very much for the comment. Well, I suppose the idea behind using Metzelder at full-back was to form a net of deep centre-backs that’d force Mlapa and Ba to use their brains a bit more – something that can be neglected when you’re using pace and power to weave by an on/at-you-an-instant full-back. It might have worked had Metzelder resembled an athlete, or read the game a bit better.

      As for Schalke’s formation, it was hard to fully pin down because of the constant mobility of the players. If anything, the formation preceding a 4-2-3-1 that finished the game was 4-1-4-1 – Jones sitting, Rakitic free to bob and collect the ball, Moritz the ball of energy, and Edu doing well, absolutely nothing on the left-side!

      Of course, if you were really picky, you could read it as a lop-sided 3-4-3 – Metzelder, Höwedes, Plestan//Moritz, Jones, Rakitic, Sarpei//Huntelaar, Raul, Edu. But it was Moritz who provided all the width on the right, and Huntelaar and Raul were like interchanging central attackers – Huntelaar deeper to flick on only though.

  2. I’ve been following Hoffenheim closely since their fantastic start to the 08-09 season. Rangnick is a manager who is always making micro adjustments prior to an during matches. Assignments are changed and this effects the teams shape, formation template, etc.

    Having watched the opening three matches, all more than once, I can unequivocally that the basic shape is 4-1-2-3 rather than a 4-1-4-1 or 4-1-2-2-1. I base this on the players starting positions rather than where they end up. On re-starts you can clearly see Ba and Mlapa playing even with Ibisevic and very high. When Hoff is searching for goals these two will drop back as quick outlet pass, but rarely do they do so to assist in defending. While all three forwards have license to roam, it’s the outside forwards who look to get most involved.

    As the match against Schalke progressed, Ba and Mlapa did drop more into midfield positions in what did become more of a 4-1-4-1. Shortly thereafter Vukicevic and Sigurdsson came on.

    • Thanks very much for this contribution – wonderfully informative. But as you note, all conclusions from starting points. Formations are very subjective I suppose, and thankfully for the sake of it being a spectator sport, constantly in motion! Take Beck for instance – he’d start in line with the defence on goal-kicks, but with the ball in-play, he’s higher than most of the midfield! Similarly, Ba occasionally veers in as a second-forward when Hoffenheim are trying to cover angles and force the long-ball, but never lingers there for too long.

      • Martyn:
        First off thanks for the fantastic blog. You provide some great insights.

        Since I am American and MLS is a league almost completely devoid of tactically nuance, I adopted Hoffenheim as my team 2 years ago. In the interim I have recorded @10 matches. In most, but not all, Hoff play a true 4-3-3 with 3 strikers far up the pitch and usually in close contact. The give away is not just in the positioning of the players at goal kick re-starts, but also the fact that when the Rangnick shifts out the 4-3-3, Ba is never in midfield and Obassi rarely is. I suspect that Mlapa would be the same as Ba. From what I’ve heard Rangnick specifically acquired him so that he could stay with the 4-3-3 when Ba, Ibisevic or Obassi were injured. His experiment with Maicosuel and Carlos Eduardo in these roles was not a success as they’re not forwards, but wingers.

        There are a few other aspects of what Hoff do that bear examination. If you watch a few matches you will see Ba and Ibisevic exchange positions. When this happens there tend to more balls played quickly in the air for him to knock down. The overall movement of the 3 strikers is dictated by the tendencies of the opponent. Against Bremen they realized that Mlapa could abuse that poor left back, so he stayed wide. Sometimes the two support strikers will drop deep and centrally as they did versus Rostock. At other times Ibisevic will drop deep centrally and either one or both support strikers will go screaming forward, on an angled run.

        It’s all based on very quick interplay between these 3. Everyone supports them and does so quite well. You rarely see a Hoff forward taking a lot of touches on the ball. Actually other than Weis, there isn’t much running with the ball unless there is lots of space to burn.

        I could go, but it’s getting late here. You’ve nailed the defensive set-up very well. Beck gets forward often, but he is still a defender. Compper does less so. A modern wingback versus a traditional full back? The Simunic/Vorsah pairing is relatively new. I think that in the past they played more evenly. The real key to this team is Luis Gustavo. To me he is the best holding midfielder in the Bundesliga.

        Yes Hoff play fun football and they’ve clearly made me an obsessive fan.

        Thanks again Martyn.

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