TSG 1899 Hoffenheim – Borussia Dortmund: Hoffenheim thoroughly outplay Dortmund, but fail to obtain the deserved three points (1-1)

Football is not fair and sometimes the ‘Football Gods’ like to remind us of that fact. The point with which Dortmund left Hoffenheim can be seen as such a reminder. How talent can make up for faulty tactics.

Julian Nagelsmann’s final season as manager of Hoffenheim, before he takes over the reigns at RB Leipzig next summer, is not going to be easy. For the second time in a row, he saw his best players leave. With Serge Gnabry heading back to Bayern München and Mark Uth signing with Schalke 04, the wonder boy coach – still only 31 years old – lost two of his three biggest attacking talents. Last season – when Nicklas Süle, Sebastian Rudy and Sandro Wagner all signed for Bayern – Hoffenheim already lost its best player in each line of the formation.

What Hoffenheim does possess as a club, is the ability to find underrated talent in the ‘scrap heap’ of the transfer market. Each year, Hoffenheim signs players who were cast-offs at their former clubs for a variety of reasons, and turns them, within the tactically sophisticated playing style of Nagelsmann, into very useful players.

Against Dortmund, Hoffenheim had to deal with a whole slew of injuries. With center-backs Kasim Adams and Benjamin Hübner still out, Ermin Bičakčić and Stefan Posch flanked captain Kevin Vogt in the back three of Nagelsmann’s 5-3-2-in-defense, 3-1-4-2-in-possession system. Joshua Brenet made his Bundesliga debut on the right flank of defense. With Dennis Geiger, Lukas Rupp and Nadiem Amiri all out injured, Leonardo Bittencourt and Kevin Zuber played the two ‘eight’ positions in midfield. Nagelsmann furthermore chose not to start the Hungarian battering-ram Adám Szalai up front, despite his three goals in three Bundesliga matches this season. He opted for explosiveness and dribbling ability with an attacking duo of Andrej Kramarić and Joelinton.

Hoffenheim’s positions and general movements when in possession

Lucien Favre, Dortmund’s new manager, opted for a sixth consecutive different starting eleven, with Shinji Kagawa coming in at the ‘ten’ position. Favre’s continued tinkering with his starting squad is indicative of two problems.

First off, Dortmund, despite good results – wins in a cup and Champions League game, plus seven points from the first three Bundesliga fixtures – have not played well for longer than fifteen minute stretches here and there this season. It might sound harsh, but Dortmund has lucked out a bit so far. Its tally of eight goals scored in three league games and one Champions League outing is mostly the result of above-average finishing, with these eight goals coming off chances totalling a value of 4.58 Expected Goals This indicates that on average, teams would be expected to score 4.58 goals from the shots Dortmund has taken. Scoring eight goals is very efficient, but such efficiency has little chance of persisting..

Hoffenheim’s positions and general movements when in possession

Favre’s conservatism suffocates Dortmund’s play in possession
Lucien Favre is no Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel or even Peter Bosz. The Swiss manager is a ‘safety first’ kind of tactician. Even though Dortmund’s results under his guidance have been good, Favre’s conservative choices have had a negative effect on the quality of play.

Especially the way Favre sets up his double pivot in midfield seems to hinder Dortmund to play attacking, free-flowing football. Against Hoffenheim, midfielders Witsel and Dahoud constantly received the ball between the attack and midfield of the hosts. This, in combination with conservative positioning of fullbacks Lukasz Piszczek and Marcel Schmelzer, meant that Witsel and Dahoud had to search for their four attacking teammates against a Hoffenheim block consisting of eight defending players. And, as we all know, ‘four against eight’ is not a real sexy proposition if you want to create chances from open play.

In the past half year, Dortmund have uncharacteristically splurged on the signing of a new, young and very talented central defending duo. It paid upwards of 50 million Euros for Manuel Akanji (23 years old, from Basel) and Abdou Diallo (22, Mainz). This pairing has all the looks of a building block that Dortmund can use as the starting point of a big team renovation. But in the current system, the extra quality of Akanji and Diallo, center-backs who are excellent in ball-carrying and breaking the midfield line of the opponent with pin-point passes, is basically not utilized.

Against Hoffenheim’s 5-3-2 block, Akanji and Diallo had to constantly play short passes to the nearby fullbacks and central midfielders. This led to Dortmund looking dominant in the first fifteen minutes without actually doing much other than ‘having the ball’. In the first half, Hoffenheim started in a pretty low block, which gradually moved further upfield after Nagelsmann’s players were consistently winning their individual battles. Dortmund’s stars Reus and Pulisic were seldomly reached in the first 45 minutes – even though the front four of BVB constantly switched position to try and create confusion. Their offensive problems were illustrated nicely by the fact it took Dortmund until the 56th minute to take a shot.

Hoffenheim’s excellent use of the flanks
Dortmund was slow, almost lethargic, in possession. In contrast, Hoffenheim was very dynamic when it got hold of the ball. Every time Hoffenheim won possession through its excellently organized press and counterpress, it looked to play directly into the dynamic duo of Kramaric and Joelinton.

Especially Joelinton proved to be a headache for Dortmund’s defense today. The Brazilian rewarded himself for an excellent half of football by sliding the ball in the bottom left corner from fourteen yards out for the opening goal in the 44th minute. Joelinton combines impressive physical strength, explosive dribbling and a very methodical approach to his game to create danger time and time again.

Hoffenheim got its first half chances through some explosive breaks, capitalizing on its excellent team-wise defensive positioning and a well-timed press against a hapless Dortmund. In the second half, they started to dominate in open play as well. Between the second kick-off and the 70th minute, Hoffenheim created a host of chances – including a VAR-disallowed goal from Bicakcic – from which they should have scored to seal the game.

The main weapon for Hoffenheim in this game was switching play from one flank to another. In center-back Vogt and midfielder Florian Grillitsch, Hoffenheim has two excellent long passers in the center of the pitch, who are able to find open wing-backs or wide-drifting midfielders or attackers on the open wing. Dortmund’s fullbacks, Piszczek (33) and Schmelzer (30), struggled a lot in this game, and where often found in disadvantageous one-versus-two situations. That no player scored from any of the crosses that ensued these cross-field passes, cost Hoffenheim the game.

Talent beat tactics today
After center-back Diallo was sent off in the 75th minute for pulling down Kramaric, who had a clear path towards goal after a nice long pass from Posch, the game seemed over for the visitors. But in football, pure talent can at times overcome any tactical disadvantage. Dortmund was straight-up outplayed, but the visitors had one thing going for them: better individual players than Hoffenheim.

With the introduction of Jadon Sancho in place of the workman-like Marius Wolf, Dortmund had three great individual dribblers on the field in Reus, Pulisic and Sancho. In the 84th minute, Sancho and left-back Schmelzer were able to stretch the Hoffenheim defense horizontally with some smart positioning. Sancho stayed out wide on the left side, with Schmelzer underlapping him and cutting inside. Schmelzer found his captain Reus in a one-on-one with the bigger, slower Vogt on the left side of the Hoffenheim penalty box. Reus dribbled past Vogt with ease, and put in a low cross that was converted by Pulisic.

Hoffenheim’s ensuing last-gasp efforts to win the game were almost rewarded, but substitute striker Ishak Belfodil was not able to convert an absolute sitter of a chance created by another beautiful low cross by wing-back Nico Schulz. With his performance, the young defender once again made a strong case to become number one choice at left-back for the German national team.

What you decide to take away from this game is strongly influenced by how much you ‘trust the process’. From a ‘process over results’ point of view, Borussia Dortmund has had a worrisome start to the season, whilst Hoffenheim played an excellent game today, but simply was not rewarded with the three points that this performance deserved. You know, the low scoring nature of football allows this to happen sometimes.

From a pure result-based point of view, Dortmund is still alive in the cup, won its first Champions League outing, and has not lost in league play. While Hoffenheim has only gathered four points from the first four Bundesliga games, and let a win at Shakhtar Donetsk slip away in its first Champions League game. However, the ‘eye test’ – looking at the underlying performances – tells us a different story, because at the moment Hoffenheim seems a lot closer to where they want to be than Dortmund.


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