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.
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 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.
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.