Hard-working Hoffenheim punished a surprisingly unimaginative Dortmund side to deny the league leaders what would have been a record-setting 12th away win of the season.
These two teams came into this game on largely differing runs of form. In-form Dortmund, top of the table by 12 points, having racked up 11 away wins in the league so far this season. Hoffenheim, on the other hand, had fallen from credible Champions League contenders to the mid-table positions they’ve made their home these last few seasons. They sat in ninth place haven taken just seven points from the last 18 available. Both sides had only failed to score on three occasions this season, so goals seemed certain. Definitely absent from the scoresheet by virtue of being absent from the teamsheet for Marco Pezzaiuoli’s hosts were Andreas Ibertsberger, Tobias Weis, Chinedu Obasi and Peniel Mlapa. For the visitors, Mats Hummels, Shinji Kagawa, Patrick Owomoyela, and Damien Le Tallec were all out.
Despite fierce pressing, Hoffenheim immediately looked to get on the ball and impose their system upon Dortmund’s as far away from Tom Starke’s goal as possible. With Dortmund keeping their banks close together and ensuring there wasn’t a spare inch in the centre of the pitch, things soon got rather bitty: and whereas Dortmund stuck to playing first-time triangles, Hoffe went for the more direct route. They were looking to stifle the league leaders in the final-third by playing an interesting take on the Christmas tree formation – Sebastian Rudy, the nominal right-sided centre-midfielder, was deeper than David Alaba, and essentially man-marking Robert Lewandowski, who gravitated towards the left-hand side.
Results might not be going Pezzaiuoli’s way at present, but it demonstrated that the rookie manager has been doing his homework, and is willing to sample new things to stop his side leaking goals. Likewise, for a team not in the greatest run of form, it was nice to see Pezzaiuoli encouraging the two other centre midfielders to push as high up the pitch as possible, attempting to impose his system on Jurgen Klopp’s.
Nevertheless, Dortmund have been just as effective in the defensive phases of play as they have in the offensive phases this season. They chased their opponents high and hard, and got their banks higher and more compact in the blink of an eye. Even when Sejad Salihović managed to swing in a delightful early ball that Vedad Ibišević met superbly in the box, the Bosnian striker was only able to do so by creeping offside. With quarter of an hour played, it would be false to suggest Hoffe were in the driving seat at this point – BVB were getting the ball, but facing more obstacles on the path to the opposition’s goal than they normally do, they found it difficult to get their playmakers involved in key areas of the pitch with enough targets in the opposition half to feed.
It didn’t take Klopp too long to find a novel way of overcoming the puzzle, however. With Edson Braafheid looking to get as tight as possible to the infield and backwards-going Mario Götze, Łukasz Piszczek suddenly had room to run into. At the top-level of the game, it’s not necessarily as simple as man sees space, so man runs into it – Piszczek was timing his runs to perfection, aided by quick bursts of acceleration and sublime ball control.
It wasn’t just the assured touch of the full-back which was causing panic among the home side’s rearguard either – all over the pitch, the away side’s ability to take the ball under and use it positively in an instant meant they began to threaten far more than the slower to break Hoffe could. Resultantly, the hosts were dropping further and further back as a unit, and committing more desperate fouls in their own half (none more so than Rudy, who was now let off his leash and charging into fouls all over his own half). In an attempt to give his side some width whilst maintaining their presence in the centre of the park, Pezzaiuoli had switched to a 4-1-4-1. Despite Dortmund continuing to get their full-backs involved thanks to their sharp, snappy exchanges, dogged defensive work by the defences and midfields from both sides meant chances were few and far between in the first half.
Neither side was helped by playing a lone forward either, especially as it was against disciplined backlines who pushed high collectively on the ball, and retreated sharply and collectively off it. Thus, there was little room for either Barrios or Ibišević to make incisive runs, and nor were there midfield playmakers making the kind of passes these runs thrive on anyway.
Klopp’s side started the second half with real intent. They were far more expansive in their play, drawing Hoffenheim out and onto them by knocking the ball about quickly amongst their defenders, with the two central midfielders (Antônio da Silva having replaced the injured Sven Bender late in the first half) moving about, looking to collect hurriedly in more probing positions. Ahead of them, the three attacking midfielders bobbed behind Lucas Barrios, closer to him, and closer to one another, generating space for either Şahin or Da Silva to bring the ball into. The best way through for Dortmund still seemed to be coming down the right flank, however, with Götze and Piszczek forming such an intelligent and penetrative partnership. The Pole was now making his darts to receive the return pass from the young German infield, exploiting the space left in the heart of midfield by Hoffenheim’s less compact 4-1-4-1.
The difference in quality was highlighted in a minute-long passage of play that began in the 52nd minute. Hoffe started short, and held it high in their own half through Andreas Beck, who looked set to lay on one of the incoming collectors, Alaba or Rudy. But they were decoys, obvious decoys, and the attempted slow-ish long diagonal pass over Schmelzer to Babel was obvious, and dealt with. Roman Weidenfeller quickly bowled the ball out to the already charging left-back. The one-two he played with Kevin Großkreutz was clincial in its accuracy and pace, and Hoffenheim were carved open. Eventually, after a series of passes in the final-third, the ball fell back to Schmelzer, who drew a great save from Starke.
As the hour mark approached, it looked like becoming a backs to the wall job for the hosts. They were still pressing fiercely in their own half, but this time doing so zonally, and individually. Although they continued to look to attack and involve their full-backs in all such forays forward, they were now quicker to line up behind the ball. But BVB again nearly found a way through in the 61st minute – Felipe Santana using the deep, tracked retreats by his two centre-midfield colleagues to charge through the centre, pulling the surprised hosts out of position, and thereby finding himself able to locate Lewandowski in the hole. With three runners in and amongst the defence, the Pole was able to play in Groβkreutz, but the so-far quiet winger could only draw a corner.
But Hoffenheim took the lead just one minute later from the same set-piece, giving Dortmund a taste of their own medicine. Beck was released down the right after a sharp hold-up by Ryan Babel, followed by a visionary pass from the oncoming Ibišević which caught the Dortmund defence more off-guard than they already were. Beck followed suite, showing the kind of assured touch and pass that had so far evaded him and the rest of his colleagues. The square ball laid on Ibišević for a tap-in, catching Weidenfeller flat-footed!
Post-goal, Ibišević looked like he could the game to bed by himself. With Klopp now camping his full-backs in the opposition half, the Bosnian striker had greater space to make runs into. Standing offside behind the close together centre-back pairing, Ibišević was pulling Neven Subotić and Santana away from their colleagues, leaving them in limbo, and was in the perfect position to receive scooped passes over the top.
After creating what seemed like hundreds of chances last weekend against Cologne, it was incredible to think that as the 72nd minute and a sky-bound Subotić header came and went, Dortmund had only called Starke into action once. Up against it, it was interesting to witness them failing to deal with the pressure. Their passing become sloppier, the tackling messier and dafter, and with the centre-backs still isolated from the yellow-shirted players ahead of them, the chances were still all Hoffenheim’s. The home side now only pressed from halfway, and kept their banks compact. While the likes of Salihović had failed to make much of an impact offensively in the first half, the work rate defensively was now brilliant from all those in blue. With Mohamed Zidan having joined Kuba on the pitch, it was necessary for Hoffe to keep space to a minimum in their own half, as Dortmund were now effectively playing 2-4-2-2. They struggled to find a way through, however, despite finishing the game with Santana as an auxiliary forward. A forgettable day at the office for the likely Bundesliga champions.