Hamburg hauled themselves out of the relegation zone for the first time this season by winning their first home match in eight months. They beat former St Pauli hero Holger Stanislawski’s Hoffenheim side 2-0, although if the visitors had been a bit more clinical in front of goal, the outcome of this match – which saw two 4-4-2 systems cancel one another out for large spells – might have been quite different. However, Hamburg were good value for their win, and remain unbeaten under new coach Thorsten Fink.
It took a few minutes for both teams to settle, with the pressing hard and fast, and the midfield area congested. However, José Paolo Guerrero’s clever turn and powerful run drew a good save from Tom Starke in the second minute, and so began a spell which saw HSV on top. They bossed possession, and made it difficult for Hoffenheim to get out of their own half. Nevertheless, the visitors showed good off-ball discipline in the opening ten minutes – working in tandem so that when one player sprinted out with the man he was marking, a colleague would plug the gap. As a result, Hamburg, for all their control, could barely get out of the second-third area of the pitch.
The next time they did, it was another moment of magic from Guerrero. The Peruvian’s reverse through-pass fed the disguised dart of Dennis Aogo, but his cross was a bit too long for Marcus Berg to do anything with. That Guerrero could only get and use the ball on the chalk spoke volumes about Hoffe’s defensive nous – the corridor between the midfield and defence was as narrow as could be, forcing the 27-year-old to go in hunt of the ball elsewhere. With Hamburg deploying two primarily defensive-minded players in the centre of midfield, quick crosses into the box such as the aforementioned one by Aogo meant that there were too few targets to aim for – and Berg, the out-of-form Swede, was easily guarded by both Janick Vestergaard and Marvin Compper early on.
The visitors had a turn on the ball between the 11th and 12th minute, with nigh-on every midfielder and defender getting a touch as HSV were forced into a brief spell of shadow-chasing. However, with patience comes the opportunity for the other side to set their two banks of four up, and thus, it was difficult for Hoffenheim to go anywhere in the final-third. The move came to an end when Sebastian Rudy tamely shot from range at Jaroslav Drobný.
Four minutes later, the away side enjoyed another spell of possession. Guerrero had suffered a cut to the face, leaving Hamburg temporarily down to ten men. Looking to metaphorically rub salt in the wound, Hoffenheim spread the ball hurriedly from side to side; making the pitch big by stationing their full-backs extremely high and pushing Fabian Johnson and Sejad Salihović – who had switched channels – inside to join in the first-time pass-and-move football. They found their chink in the 16th minute, when Tobias Weis was fed down the left, and feigned a square before pulling back to Salihović on the D. Yet, despite the chance looking easier to score than miss, the Bosnian international did the latter, and Hamburg were off the hook.
Gökhan Töre, so often Hamburg’s dangerman this season, was quiet in the opening 15 minutes. Most of Hamburg’s attacking seemed to be coming down the left-hand side; mainly because it was the wing being defended by the rampaging Andreas Beck and inexperienced Vestergaard, and the one down which HSV had their better attacking full-back in Aogo. However, in the 25th minute, the home side showed that they didn’t necessarily need Töre to threaten. Dennis Diekmeier scooped a ball out from his own half to Berg, standing on the left-hand side of the D. Beck, the captain, tried to take command by sliding in to clear the danger. However, he seemingly didn’t tell his centre-back colleagues of his plans, meaning that they too came across to deal with the danger. Thus, when Beck’s clearance went awry, landing at the feet of Guerrero, the Peruvian was in acres of space. His first shot hit the post, but the second, the rebound, was calmly dispatched by the same man for 1-0!
A few minutes after the goal, Hoffe were forced into a change – left-back Edson Braafheid, injured in a collision eight minutes previously, was replaced by an attacker, Peniel Mlapa. As a result, Johnson moved to left-back, and Mlapa went onto the left side of midfield. Meanwhile, Töre was now popping up onto the left-hand side of midfield more often, such was his desire to get involved. However, this gave the away side space to attack in down that flank, and Vedad Ibišević should have done better – by not heading over or veering offside – from Mlapa’s 32nd minute cross.
In a bid to placate and better utilise Töre, Fink seemed to station him out on the left for a several-minute spell thereafter. And, when Hoffenheim surged forward during a chance in the 35th minute (Babel’s weaving on the left was clever, and drew the hosts’ centre-midfield across, leaving space for the reverse lay-off inside to the Dutchman’s own centre-midfield colleagues), Rudy’s clever through-pass being snatched at by both Ibišević and Salihović, Töre collected the loose ball from the left-hand side of his own box, and seemed to be in Starke’s about five seconds later. Although his decision-making let him down, it epitomised the fact that he was the man to exploit Beck’s tendency to come so high up the pitch.
It was still a fairly even and generally bitty game as we neared the 40-minute mark, though, with both sides working extremely hard out of possession, cancelling one another out and looking comfortable in their 4-4-2 systems – hence why it had taken an error for the deadlock to be broken. Hoffenheim, with four more offensive-minded players in the midfield plus an energetic bridging player in Babel (who went on to switch roles with Mlapa in the final five minutes of the half), were creating more chances than Hamburg, who couldn’t really get Berg into the game. Luckily for Fink, however, was the fact that Guerrero was his usual battle-thirsty self: shirking no duels, and flicking on even when the odds were stacked against him.
Despite both Töre and Guerrero going close in the final 30 seconds, Hoffenheim definitely edged the last five minutes of the first half. They did this by standing their defence extremely high (Vestergaard, too, seemed to be growing in confidence), and making clever runs in and around Hamburg’s central defenders and midfielders, prising them apart. However, for all their hard work, neat flicks and tricks and canny bank-splicing passes, Drobný remained relatively untroubled. Hoffenheim, much like the accusation levelled at Arsenal down the years, seemed reluctant to shoot – always looking to make one more pass. Thus, the hosts went in for the 15-minute break with a surmountable one-goal lead, and game still very much on.
Vestergaard continued from where he left off by stopping HSV adding to their lead in the 49th minute. Diekmeier burst down the right, reaching the byline and pulling a very good ball back to the penalty spot. Following suit, Gojko Kačar had also made a surprise burst, and positioned his body mid-run in preparation for a volley. However, the young Danish centre-back put his head on the line to stop the Serb from blasting into the net, doing enough to make Kačar lean back and blaze over.
The ghosting into the box idea clearly wasn’t infectious, though, as two minutes later, the determined Guerrero ran from the left-wing into the box, and pulled the ball invitingly. However, no one took a risk, Berg had already made the near post run, and the chance went begging. In fact, absolutely nothing had changed from the first half in the opening ten minutes of the second – the tactics, players and end-to-end bittiness were exactly the same.
In the 56th minute, Hoffenheim had the perfect chance to put Hamburg under pressure when Babel used his experience to win his side their first corner of the match. Rudy curled it on his right foot, but the first ball was cleared, and the second ball blazed over from the D. If it wasn’t working for Stanislawski’s side in front of goal, then at least it was defensively. As we approached the hour mark, they were still making life extremely difficult for HSV, forcing the hosts into aimless sideways passes, pressing well, and keeping the likes of Töre – who did put in the 59th minute free-kick which Heiko Westermann headed straight at Starke – deprived of space and the ball. The hosts’ own wave-breaker, Tomás Rincón, was also still doing a top-notch job, making life easier for his defence. It was this inability to cut through the centre of midfield that resulted in Salihović – at this point playing up front alongside his compatriot, Ibišević – having to collect the ball on the right and step inside to shoot in the 60th minute. Drobný, however, was equal to the 27-year-old’s effort.
But, at the other end, Starke had no such luck with an effort from Jansen five minutes later Despite slowing the pace of the HSV attack down and seemingly having all the gaps plugged, the left-sided midfielder burst through the left-hand side of the box past three defenders after being fed by Rincón and absolutely smashed the ball into the net past a helpless Starke for 2-0!
Needing to better the movement and invention in his midfield, Stanislawki replaced Rudy with Roberto Firmino two minutes after the restart. In the 120 seconds or so played after the switch, Jansen and Babel had good chances at either end – the former shooting at Starke, the latter shooting wide. Despite Firmino’s clear desire to make things happen, Hoffenheim looked leggy and sloppy as we neared the final 15 minutes. Hamburg, meanwhile, were content to ease off, and with more space starting to emerge between the visitors’ defence and midfield, even Berg was starting to prove a thorn in Hoffenheim’s side. However, Töre was too often being his usual greedy self – it’s as if whenever he brings the ball into the final-third, the end-product has to be a shot by him (which the opposition defence know is coming, and can prepare for). Therefore, it was unsurprising to see him replaced in the 76th minute by Ivo Iličević. Kačar also got replaced, with David Jarolím – this week told he can leave if a club bids for him in January – taking his place, as Fink looked to add more steel to his midfield.
And, it was needed, as shown in the 78th minute, when Firmino ran about 50 yards with the ball glued to his feet and Rincón following him all the way. The Brazilian showed great power and technique to hold the Venezuelan off, but Ibišević delayed the shot put on a plate for him by Firmino’s through-pass for too long, and the opening went to waste. Despite this sight of goal, by and large, Hoffenheim were making life too easy for Hamburg. They seemed too tired to try and launch wing-assaults and stretch the home side, and so instead, made tired triangles in the congested centre.
Knowledge Musona, fresh from scoring a match-winning brace for Zimbabwe against South Africa in the week, took the place of Weis in the 84th minute. But one minute later, it was another midweek hero, Mlapa (scorer of three goals for the Germany U21 side), who had a glorious chance to pull his side back into the game. Alas, his right-footed half-volley was tipped over the bar by former Ipswich Town goalkeeper Drobný.
Babel’s well-timed dart made an incision two minutes later, yet his pull-back was weak, and once again, Hoffenheim’s toothlessness in the box proved to be their undoing. They had an even better chance in the 90th minute, when Musona started an attack by switching the ball, and then got into the box to play a dink cross to the back post. Babel met it with his head just a few yards out from goal, but, somehow, Drobný pulled off a wonder save. Although it looked as if the Croatian would not have been beaten had the game gone all night, given the width, creativity and vigour injected into the Hoffenheim attack by the subs, it did make you wonder why Stanislawski elected to wait so long before bringing them on.
One minute after Drobný’s heroics, Starke pulled off an equally athletic and fantastic save – diving to his right to tip a whipped Aogo free-kick over the bar. That was the last action of the match, and Hamburg could celebrate knowing that they had shaken that home-win monkey off their back. Ninth-placed Hoffenheim, meanwhile, remain equidistant between fifth-placed Werder Bremen, and second-bottom Freiburg.