Admittedly, this wasn’t the most eye-catching fixture of round 28 given that it pitted the team in 9th against the team in 7th. Neither of these sides will be relegated, and only Hamburg have a slender hope of reaching the Europa League. Nevertheless, they’ve both been good sources of news on and off the pitch in 2011 – Hamburg have been beaten by six and won by six in recent weeks, Hoffenheim have been hammered by Bayern but beat Dortmund, and neither side has stuck with the manager they started the season with. If tiredness was to play its part in proceedings, it was always going to affect Hamburg more, who saw 12 of their players called up for service in the recent international break. Yet although Hoffe’s training ground *only* saw ten players absent, it still managed to play host to a scrap between midfielder Sejad Salihović and defender Marvin Compper. Nevertheless, the only notable absentees at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena were José Paolo Guerrero, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Salihović, who all failed to make the pitch or bench.
Hoffenheim used possession positively from the kick-off – attempting to scoop a pass over to the infield dart of David Alaba, before taking the subsequent clearance down, getting the opposition chasing, and then attempting another scooped pass to the young Austrian. It was a sign of things to come, as Hoffe continued to take the game to their guests, with Hamburg looking to push their defensive line higher, keep their banks compact, and narrow up. But when this allowed Andreas Beck to seize upon the space out wide and put a cross on Vedad Ibišević’s head, Gojko Kačar’s inattentiveness nearly ruined Hamburg’s gameplan inside the first five minutes (the young Serb letting his man go far too easily, spared only by the Bosnian’s wastefulness).
Nevertheless, Hamburg carried a potency on the break early on, going closest from a Joris Mathijsen header (via a Änis Ben-Hatira free-kick). Yet if such chances were few and far between then because of Hoffenheim’s command of the midfield, they became even rarer as the half progressed. Hoffe were commanding the primary area of the park thanks not only to having a man advantage (Beck was effectively a midfielder too, occasionally making it a two-man advantage, and keeping Dennis Aogo pegged back), but also because they played with more hunger and urgency. When Hamburg tried to take the sting out of the game, they were pressed so furiously in either half that they were forced to squander possession. Even in the 10th minute when Dennis Diekmeier got lucky and found space to run forward into with the ball, he didn’t have the pace or nous to do anything productive with it, and was panicked into passing towards Tom Starke. While Hamburg didn’t press with the same level of ferocity high up the pitch, they did continue to stand their banks as high as possible, often having their foremost six players in or on the fringes of the final-third when a Hoffe defender collected a pass from Starke.
As Hoffe’s early energy began to subside, it seemed as though Hamburg were edging into the game. Becoming more expansive, direct and hasty in their passing, the game began to open up halfway through the first half. Yet Hoffenheim shifted their early lethality into attacking on the break, and should have taken the lead in the 21st minute when Ryan Babel skipped down the left, cut back inside, played a disguised through-ball for the well-timed burst of Ibišević (Kačar clueless, yet again), only for the Bosnian striker to fluff his lines and blaze over. As the half-hour mark approached, Hoffenheim were once again seeing far more of the ball, aided by their willingness to send their full-backs forward and press high and hard off-ball. Briefly being forced to play on the break had actually worked in their favour, as it forced Hamburg into relinquishing their hold on the initiative.
Hamburg’s inability to find time and space at the heart of the midfield meant their widemen and attackers were isolated and uninterested, very much on the periphery of proceedings (Andreas Ibertsberger kept a close eye on Mladen Petrić too, frustrating him further). This lack of action resulted in Hamburg’s tactical discipline and rigid formation disappearing, increasing the size of the corridors in which Hoffenheim could work in. With Roberto Firmino, Sebastian Rudy and Babel impressing and confident on the ball, this was the last thing Hamburg needed, and further piled pressure on the beleaguered centre-midfield duo of Heiko Westermann and Zé Roberto, making his 331st Bundesliga appearance (the most ever made by a foreign player).
Yet despite this one-way traffic and monopolization of every second-ball, Hoffenheim had stopped carving out chances: thanks, primarily, to a combination of Hamburg stationing their deepest 4-2 so narrow and near to Frank Rost, and the home side being stuck in the comfort zone of knowing that possession was their’s to lose. Luckily for Pezzaiuoli, Ibišević is a fantastically effective player outside of the box, and following the rare moments were Hamburg attacked, a quick punt upfield saw the striker hold onto the ball despite the attempts of several opponents to nick it off him, waited patiently, before feeding an oncoming winger. Despite his work helping to keep Hamburg away from the driving seat, Ibišević wasn’t rewarded with another sniff at goal before the interval; the only real chance falling to Edson Braafheid, who swept a shot past the diving Rost’s left-hand post.
Although neither side made a change at the break, there were two early substituions – injury forcing Mathijsen to be replaced by David Jarolim (with Westermann dropping back into defence), and Firmino being replaced by Boris Vukčević. The latter’s introduction was needed, as the opening ten minutes of the second half had been flat. Hoffe still pressed well out of possession, and kept Hamburg’s lacklustre midfield at bay – the centre-midfielders never able to get their foot on the ball, and the obvious runs of Eljero Elia and Ben-Hatira easily halted. Rudy was still a driving force for Hoffe, and nearly looked to have spliced the Hamburg defence open when his cheeky scoop through-pass released Babel, only for Kačar to save the day with a bruising slide tackle. The former Liverpool attacker was now in a more central attacking role, as Pezzaiuoli went 4-4-2-cum-4-2-3-1 (the former for attacking, the latter for defending). This switch made sense given the limited impact Hamburg’s centre-midfielders were having on the game, as by putting the emphasis firmly on flank attacks, the hosts had more chance of prising the Hamburg defence out of their narrow set-up, and therefore, having the bodies in the box to feed if they achieved that. Nevertheless, if Hoffenheim did want to utilise the space available in the centre of the park, they had their full-backs there to maintain the width should the attacking midfielders veer infield.
After having little impact on the game (he made few clever runs,had an inability to hold the ball up, and established no link with the midfield), Heung-Min Son was replaced by Marcell Jansen. Oenning retained a 4-4-2 formation, with Elia up alongside Petrić, seemingly relishing the chance to be fed rather than having to do the feeding. The change coincided with a more assured approach to attacking by Hamburg. The wingers made it a 4-1-1-4 when a full-back held the ball in the Hoffe half, all four attackers looking to pull Hoffenheim’s defenders out of position and create space for Zé Roberto to collect the ball in, or ghost into.
Gylfi Sigurðsson got his chance in the 69th minute as Vukčević picked up a game-ending injury. The former Reading player was joined on the pitch by Peniel Mlapa, who replaced the tiring and marginalised Babel. The fresh legs helped Hoffe stick to their good off-ball pressing, restricting Hamburg’s attempts on goal. But it came at a cost, as the bridge to Ibišević was eroding more and more. But with 20 minutes to play, the spectacle became far more enjoyable for the neutral, with the sides taking turns at attacking and defending, as any hope of keeping formations compact was abandoned.
In spite of this, there were no efforts at goal to speak of until the 83rd minute. Even then, Mlapa was looking to cross the ball, and this came after he did his best to put in as little of his body into a 50:50 challenge on a dropping ball. Rost was alert enough to parry the volley-cum-cross wide. The game petered to a drab finish and an unsurprising stalemate. Hoffenheim weren’t able to turn their early pressure and possession into goals, while Hamburg contributed next to nothing, barely deserving their point.