A superior yet tactically avant-garde Hoffenheim failed to overcome their average Austrian opponents in this Sunday teatime friendly match between two sides gearing up for the 2011/12 season with new coaches.
Rapid drew their guests onto them right away, before scooping a ball over the caught-out Fabian Johnson for Christopher Drazan to chase and win a corner from. That was as good as it got for the hosts in the opening ten minutes,however, as their German opponents soon got a hold on things. Holger Stanislawski’s side pressed high and fast through the miniature but fierce centre-midfield duo of Tobias Weis and Dominik Kaiser: this ensured that they kept Rapid penned back in their own half and in the habit of giving the ball away whenever they did get on it. However, Hoffe’s former St Pauli coach deployed an intriguing 4-2-4-0 system during the first 45 minutes, which although giving his side width and creativity, meant that there was no one in and around the box to feed.
Rapid, on the other hand, did have a striker in Hamdi Salihi (flanked by Steffen Hofmann), but there was such a gap between the attackers and the midfield bank in their 4-4-2-cum-4-4-1-1 that their safety first tactic of always punting the ball clear meant that whenever Salihi or Hofmann did have possession, they had to wait so long for someone to feed that they ended up giving it back for Hoffe to start again.
But, as we passed the quarter-hour mark, Rapid came out of their shells a little, despite being inferior to their guests in terms of physicality, ability and athleticism. They pressed Hoffe’s short restarts and tracked the piano carriers (Weis and Kaiser), and when this failed – which it did more often than not, as Hoffe were far more comfortable on the ball under pressure than panicky Rapid were – the Austrians would then begin their retreat, encouraging Johnson and Jukka Raitala to come as far forward as possible. With the full-backs now Hoffenheim’s best bet in carrying the ball into the opposition’s half (with no strikers, the long ball was never an option), Rapid had their own opportunity to start testing Daniel Haas. This involved hoofing the ball down the channels for one of their two speedy wingers to chase, and resultantly, it was Rapid who created the bulk of the first half’s clear-cut chances.
In particular, the Austrian outfit’s left-winger, Drazan, was unplayable at times. He had the beating of Johnson for pace, and never felt the need to overdo things; the youngster just accelerated towards the byline before curling in a left-footed cross nigh-on every time. However, despite being left-footed (judging from the fact that it was the foot he used to deliver Rapid’s set-pieces), Drazan’s crosses were poor, and in fact, he looked better on the one or two occasions in which he cut inside on his right foot to shoot. Unfortunately for his side, he had the best chance of the half on 32 minutes with his left foot: after rounding Haas, the 21-year-old couldn’t get enough power on the shot, allowing the quick-thinking Kaiser to clear it off the line.
Unable to create anything from open play (or, rather, unable to feed anyone from open play), Hoffe’s best chances came from set-pieces. But despite one or two testing right-footed deliveries from the nearest thing they had to line-leaders, Gylfi Sigurðsson and Roberto Firmino, Rapid’s zonal marking was performed masterfully – perhaps unsurprising given that former Rapid defender and club legend Peter Schöttel is the capital city side’s coach. This positive part of his side’s game emphasised Rapid Vienna’s very English identity – defensively solid and winger-reliant, but lacking midfield invention. This, as I’ve already explained, was the polar opposite from what we saw of Hoffe in the first 45 minutes: they had plenty of midfield invention, but saw their widemen offer very little and looked occasionally suspect at the back – epitomised by the half’s second-best chance, when Salihi easily peeled behind Marvin Compper to head Drazan’s finest delivery of the half over the bar.
There were a few changes made during the interval, with both sides amending their formations. The hosts were now in an actual 4-4-2, with two ‘flat’ strikers, while Hoffenheim now had one – young Denis Thomalla replacing the ineffectual Ryan Babel. Elsewhere, Andreas Beck was on in place of Raitala (meaning that Johnson switched to left-back), and Prince Tagoe had replaced Sigurðsson – the Ghanaian going on the left of a 4-2-3-1. The substitutions changed the complexion of the game in more ways than one, but primarily, they made it much more open. It was end to end stuff in the first five minutes, albeit with the sides still sticking to the patterns of play they had developed in the first half – Rapid hitting Hoffe on the break, with the away side going at their hosts with a possession-based game.
As Salihi had been given a partner up front in Deni Alar, the former Panionios attacker was stripped of his holding the line duty, and could therefore start making more probing runs. But with Drazan now increasingly more withdrawn due to the arrival of the gung-ho Beck (a positioning which meant Mlapa could frequently veer inside and get involved in the game in a positive way; something he did by making a number of incisive one-twos), it was down to the Albanian striker to exploit the space abandoned by the Hoffe right-back.
At the other end of the pitch, Firmino was now free when his side were out of possession, as it was down to Thomalla to stand among the centre-backs. Thus, the Brazilian attacker was able to enact some high pressing, and this was much more penetrative for the German side: in comparison, whenever Weis or Kaiser won the ball through their pressing in the opening 45 minutes, neither had the ability to dribble past the defenders and test Helge Payer. Firmino’s best opening as a result of this new tactic came in the 53rd minute, but he wasted it after a clever dribble created the space.
Schöttel responded immediately to Firmino going close by making a number of changes, and the four pairs of fresh legs instantly gave Rapid more presence in the Hoffenheim half. On the left, Christoph Saurer proved to be just as tricky and speedy as Drazan had been, and his incisions helped bring Alar into the game. The latter’s left-footed volley in the 56th minute drew a fine save from Haas, and the sharp-of-mind Compper was on hand to sweep the ball away before Atdhe Nuhiu could pounce. With his team now on the back foot, Stanislawski also turned to his bench in a bid to give his side more presence, and made a number of changes which saw Hoffenheim’s formation change to a 4-4-2.
Thus, with the clever Bosnian duo of Sejad Salihović and Vedad Ibišević making the Rapid centre-backs and centre-midfielders more cautious, Hoffe once again gained the upper-hand in terms of territory for a brief spell. They were still trying to create things centrally, however, although Tagoe’s pace meant that they had a decent counter-attacking option down the left too. Meanwhile, over on the right, Salihović was looking to cut inside and make things happen in the space left between the two Rapid strikers and central-midfielders – something he could do with peace of mind knowing that Beck would be keeping the width.
Liking the way this worked, Stanislawski soon went back to a 4-3-2-1, with the Bosnian midfielder now behind his compatriot Ibišević, and Thomalla standing out on the right (and I mean that – the timid but tall youngster was effectively there to fill a gap). But Alar should have sealed victory for the home side in the 73rd minute, when after reading the line well and beating Hoffe’s high offside trap to go one on one with the ‘keeper, he delayed the finish before stumbling. Ibišević nearly made him pay ten minutes later following a superb through-ball from Kaiser, but Payer was off his line in a flash to block.
Tiring in the afternoon sun and pushed back by a late Rapid rally, Hoffe sat off their hosts and let the game peter out. The only incident of note in the closing stages came when right-winger Christopher Trimmel left Johnson for dead with his pace – not the first time that had happened throughout the 90 minutes, and an illustration as to where Hoffenheim’s Bundesliga opponents should target them throughout the upcoming campaign.