Round six of the Bundesliga began on Friday night with Hoffenheim travelling north to a ground where they’d never tasted defeat.
Both sides lost in the midweek round of fixtures, but Cologne had sealed a first victory of the season on home soil last weekend, and Hoffe had made a decent all-round start.
The first half began slowly with caution fully in charge of both sides’ operations. Eventually Hoffenheim began to test the waters, and the home side retreated; encouraging their guests to do something with the ball.
Several stabs at ‘something’ saw Cologne’s deep defence put under pressure by the last-shoulder lurking Vedad Ibišević, and goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón was forced into a series of clumsy hoofs upfield.
After realising scoops over the top weren’t going to grant the Bosnian room to reach and then use the ball, Hoffenheim decided to let the home side show their hand.
Cynical batches of Hoffenheim melina drew jeers from the partisan RheinEnergieStadion crowd, and Ralf Rangnick’s side only halted it via occasional surges down the right-hand flank.
After scores of long-range shots and crosses came to nothing, the hosts regained territory by kicking the ball upfield – the general aim being for Lukas Podolski to flick on for Christian Clemens’s dart towards the box.
While this tactic never really triumphed, Cologne had now discovered that Hoffenheim were uncomfortable dealing with the opposition team being in their half.
Zvonimir Soldo’s team had two chances to take the lead, but Martin Lanig and Fabrice Ehret – a great overlapping presence throughout, if a little awkward on-ball – wasted openings after sneaking behind Isaac Vorsah and Andreas Beck respectively.
Podolski showed great hunger off-ball to keep the defence pressed, and this helped force mistakes like the ones just mentioned. However, he was often so isolated that the away side’s centre-backs could pass sideways to one another before launching a run into the Cologne half.
Despite the German international striker following the carrier with robotic discipline, he’d developed the nasty habit of staying stood amongst his crop of ‘parked bus’ teammates deep in Die Geißböcke’s half.
Resultantly, Cologne struggled to cause menace on the counter-attack, and looked cumbersome, overly-negative, and very much a side fighting a losing battle.
Podolski soon began to stay higher up the pitch, however, perhaps after being barked at to do so, and as Lanig and Adam Matuszczyk increased the fantastic up-and-down attacking-midfield runs they’d been injecting, the hosts soon looked more lethal.
Unsurprisingly, their opening goal came from some defensive dozing. A well-drilled Hoffenheim zonal marking system cleared a corner (set-pieces were easily defended in the first half due to a lack of attacking movement), giving Cologne a throw.
Mato Jajolo was fed with his back-to-goal, and as Tobias Weis scampered over to help Beck dispossess the signing from Siena, the Hoffe pair got in each other’s way and allowed Jajolo to spin 180°.
The Croatian’s quick through-ball easily slid past the ball-watching and flat-footed Josip Šimunić to Podolski, standing there in the box and onside courtesy of Christian Eichner.
Podolski quickly dispatched a left-footed drive across the face of goal, and although it nestled hastily and snugly into the bottom right-hand corner, goalkeeper Tom Starke should have covered the angle better.
There was a newly discovered energy to the home side after the goal, and they began to harry and hurry the Hoffe melina just as eagerly as they closed their guests down in their own, much-packed half.
As the game opened up, fouls flew in more freely, and the ball changed hands with greater regularity. Hoffenheim tried mixing things up tactically, but although several balls on the floor to Ibišević were pretty, they were in no way penetrating.
Responding to this plan, Cologne pushed their defence higher and looked to play the offside trap. This was a fantastic initiative by Soldo as it kept his side’s banks closer together, making the ball easier to get and retain.
This hold on the game showed as Cologne looked comfortable attacking down both flanks, while Hoffenheim’s left-side saw Eichner and Sejad Salihović collecting more cobwebs than passes.
A few tweaks here and there was the minimum I expected from Ralf Rangnick during the interval, but the coach surprised the watching world by throwing caution to the wind.
Šimunić and Weis were given early showers by the coach bill as Hoffenheim turned to recent signings Gylfi Sigurdsson and Peniel Mlapa to ensure they salvaged something from the game.
To maintain his side’s balance, quarterback Luis Gustavo switched to centre-back, Salihović moved to quarterback, Sigurdsson played as a central attacking-midfielder, and Mlapa as a chalk-lurking right-attacker. It was 4-2-1-3, and game on!
Cologne altered their system to a central-pitch-suffocating 4-2-3-1, with Soldo realising that pushing Lanig higher on Salihović was one of the ways in which he could cut the supply line to the three strikers.
Although Hoffenheim kept their full-backs permanently camped in the opposition’s half, Podolski’s lurking by and peeling off the nervy Gustavo began to cause problems.
Hoffenheim’s attacker-heavy XI were unsurprisingly doing most of the running, although Cologne were willing to come out with numbers on the break – no more than one full-back at a time, however. Unfortunately for the vociferous home crowd, their side’s final ball was often wasteful, and any chance of increasing the lead was soon replaced with regaining it.
Cologne’s Colombian ‘keeper launched a needlessly high and hard punt towards his opposite number’s D – one which the side facing the ball were always going to bring down.
That they did, and Eichner was fed to play a pass from the final-third. Demba Ba was the recipient, and hovering in and on the line of the box’s joint, he stepped sideways and curled a shot around the covering Pedro Geromel to the bottom corner. 1-1!
It all got a bit slapdash after the equalizer, with both teams nearly capitalising on mistakes – Mondragón dropped a few easy catches, while Beck let Mohamad and Petit sneak into his zone and have chances during set-pieces.
The game continued as a bout of end-to-end combat, but as the stopwatch neared the 90-minute mark, the pace and formation banks began to slow and drop deeper.
Ultimately, a point apiece was a fair result, although a more lethal counter-attacking side than the hosts might have found Hoffenheim’s dodgy rearguard easy to notch a few goals by.
As for Rangnick’s side, Ibišević never really entered the game, and two primary reasons for this were Cologne’s occasionally exaggeratedly-deep defence, plus some poor aerial and on-floor service to the Bosnian.
One game further in to the season than the Bundesliga’s 16 other competitors, Hoffenheim remain in third spot on 11 points (they could drop to eighth by the end of the weekend, however), while Cologne stay in 13th on five points.