Hoffenheim – Manchester City: Disciplined Hoffenheim give City a true run for their money (1-2)
An inexperienced Hoffenheim side did everything they could to fend off Pep Guardiola’s brilliant Manchester City. After an opening goal after 44 seconds, Hoffenheim sat back and carried out their plan to keep Manchester City away from their box. A late David Silva winner gave the visitors the three points they did deserve.
Olympique Lyon beat Manchester City in the group opener, which meant that the English champions truly needed to get three points from this game. If your aim is to progress to the knockout stage, you do not want to end up with less than three points after two matches. Especially not when your next two games are against an excellent team in Shaktar Donetsk.
Club interests aside, this was also the first match between Julian Nagelsmann and Pep Guardiola. Whether it is the first of many encounters remains to be seen, but what is certain is that these are both renowned tacticians. So you could bet the house that this game would feature a tactical twist or two.
Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim had drawn 2-2 in their first game against Shakhtar. They have lined up in a 5-2-3 or a 5-3-2 so far this season. Due to various reasons, five (!) central defenders were not available for this match.
Hoffenheim thus had to make do with a severely adjusted defense, where Justin Hoogma, Stefan Posch and Joshua Brenet all got the nod, accompanied by regulars Kevin Akpoguma and Pavel Kadeřábek.
The starting eleven in itself means nothing when a team is coached by Pep Guardiola. A fullback can always unexpectedly be chosen to play at right-back for instance. Or what looks like a 4-3-3 on paper can turn out to be an exotic formation like 3-2-2-3. However, for this game, a fairly traditional 4-3-3 was chosen with Fernandinho as the holding midfielder, accompanied by David Silva and Ilkay Gündoğan further up in midfield.
First ten minutes: two goals
The match started as spectacular as you would like. Brilliant creative midfielder Kerem Demirbay slid through a classy pass to Ishak Belfodil, who finished calmly underneath City’s goalkeeper Ederson, giving Hoffenheim the lead after only 44 seconds.
They could not enjoy it for long, though. A horrendous positioning mistake by Dutch right back Joshua Brenet gave David Silva all the space in the world to pick out an inside pass to Leroy Sané. His cross found Sergio Agüero, who netted the 1-1.
Hoffenheim’s specific plan to keep the spaces tight
When the dust from the vibrant opening phase had settled, the plan Nagelsmann had drawn up to stop Manchester City was very clear to see. City are perhaps the best team in the world in building up from the back, and Hoffenheim deliberately chose not to interfere with the early stages of the City buildup at all. A line of three attackers was formed, around the halfway line or even five to ten yards behind it.
Hoogma – who played as a central defender in possession – became an extra midfielder in between Kerem Demirbay and Florian Grillitsch, as a zonal line of three was formed. Crucial to this approach was Hoffenheim’s defense, that never ceded all the way to their penalty area, but made the spaces as tight as possible.
Hoffenheim’s approach when City were building up.
The middle of the pitch became very congested this way, as all of Hoffenheim’s players barring the full-backs were positioned more or less in the center of the pitch.
Hoffenheim’s attackers were tasked to block passes from the defenders towards Fernandinho and the other City midfielders. If one of those midfielders did get the ball, Hoffenheim’s midfield would aggressively put pressure on the ball so they could not turn. If they already faced the goal and had turned after their first touch, the goal was to prevent any forward passes.
This defensive strategy by Hoffenheim was drawn up to make sure they controlled the halfspaces. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the half spaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. City was more or less invited to play a bit more through the flanks. Especially on the left this made sense, because Aymeric Laporte – nominally a central defender – played left-back. If a fullback was played in, all of Hoffenheim’s players shifted to one side and tried to take away any options forward.
City’s midfield gets more involved
The thing is, whatever plan you have against Manchester City, they probably have an answer for it. However well-disciplined and aptly-instructed the Hoffenheim players appeared to be in this match, it could not stop City from playing through the compact block from time to time.
So even though Hoffenheim did a fairly good job in containing Manchester City considering the difference in quality of both teams, the visitors still got their chances. One of the ways they did was by smart runs from Gündoğan into the box when the ball was one the right side of the field.
Another way of creating danger was Raheem Sterling or Leroy Sané getting the ball a bit deeper than normally, and ‘simply’ dribbling past two or three players. After one of Sané’s exquisite dribbles, Agüero could have scored the goal that would have made life easier for the visitors. In the 33rd minute, he fluffed a volley that was probably harder than it looked, even though the goal was empty.
The Hoffenheim defense was simply missing the speed and explosiveness to keep up with City’s world-class wingers. This was especially visible when a counterattack was launched.
Not that there was a lot of counterattacking on display, mind you. Hoffenheim’s attack was virtually non-existent after they scored the 1-0. In the first 45 minutes, in fact, they played ten passes in the final third.
Pep switches it up with Stones in midfield
The second half did not see many chances initially, with Hoffenheim controlling the ball slightly more and actually managing to get on the opponents half. City’s counterpress was very much on point for most of the game, but in the second half Hoffenheim managed to play through it a couple of times.
Especially Joelinton played a fine game. The physical Brazilian striker can be a direct threat to most central defenders because of his pace. The rather slow central duo of Vincent Kompany and Nicolás Otamendi had a slightly harder time controlling Hoffenheim’s attack in the second half, without it actually leading to scoring chances for the Germans.
In the 63rd minute, Guardiola introduced John Stones to play as a center back. However, he pulled the same rabbit out of the hat as Nagelsmann had done with Hoogma. In possession, Stones became a midfielder and was deployed next to Fernandinho to form a double pivot.
For Hoffenheim’s attackers, it is a lot harder to block entry passes towards a double pivot, than towards only Fernandinho. On the other hand City now had one player less behind the ball in case of an erroneous pass.
Building up with three defenders instead of two meant that the outside central defenders – Laporte and Walker – took over the roll of full-backs in the first half. Effectively, Guardiola made sure he had one more player between the lines without losing the counterpressing ability of his team. The only big risk he took was leaving Kompany, Otamendi and Laporte exposed on the counterattack.
Missing chances was a big theme for the visitors. And even though City tweaked their positioning and maintained the upper hand in this game, the score remained 1-1 for most of the second half. A mistake by Hoffenheim’s young defender Stefan Posch, who thought he could chest down a ball to clear it, gave David Silva a big opportunity inside the penalty area. He converted, and in the 87th minute, City finally took the lead.
In what looked like a 3-2-5, Hoffenham bravely chased the 2-2. The fact they could not produce a shot on target in these final minutes speaks volumes about their chances of equalizing. City took the three points.
Given the context, this was an impressive team effort by Hoffenheim, who gave it their all, kept the spaces as compact as they could and managed to keep the score level until the 88th minute. Manager Julian Nagelsmann deserves credit for optimally setting up his team.
Manchester City played an average game by their standards. Their sheer amount of passing and dominance in the middle of the pitch, accompanied by an excellent counterpress, eventually did the trick for them. Shaktar Donetsk awaits them in their two upcoming Champions League matches, which should be fascinating.