The meeting between Hoffenheim and Schalke on matchday five of the Bundesliga saw both teams going into the game in search of their first win of the season. Julian Nagelsmann’s home side had still enjoyed a decent start up until this point regardless of the lack of a victory, securing four draws and continuing their steady improvement under the 29-year-old since he took over in February, while Schalke were themselves without even a single point; leaving them desperate to get off the mark at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena.
Schalke adopted a flexible shape from the start of the game, switching between a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1. That mostly depended on the movement of Breel Embolo, who swapped from playing wide on the right to moving into the middle to join Klaas-Jan Huntelaar depending on the situation and phase of play.
On the opposite flank Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting would often move infield too, although, particularly defensively, he was the deeper of the two wide players. Their patterns of movement theoretically allowed the two full-backs, Abdul Baba Rahman and Sascha Riether, opportunities to push forward on the flanks.
The positions and passing networks of Hoffenheim and Schalke (credit to @11tegen11) give a nice symbolisation of what their respective shapes looked like in possession. They also show the common pass combinations of players, and for both sides the high amount of passing between defenders in relatively deep positions, compared to little linking with the midfielders, is a good reason for concern.
As for Hoffenheim, their system was probably best described as a 3-1-4-2. Nagelsmann has displayed a penchant for unorthodox but fluid shapes since becoming manager at the club and his selection followed that trend here, Sebastian Rudy operating as the deepest midfielder ahead of a back three while Kerem Demirbay and Lukas Rupp sat slightly higher up the field in the centre. Responsibilities for their width fell to the wing-backs, Pavel Kadeřábek and Jeremy Toljan.
It didn’t take long for the scoreline to change, Schalke taking the lead courtesy of a Choupo-Moting header in the fourth minute after some good work from Embolo – who received and then crossed the ball in that wider position out right which he often occupied. It meant that we didn’t see quite how the game would settle between the two sides initially, though the away side’s lead didn’t last too long due to the lively Andrej Kramarić responding with a header of his own in the 17th minute to even things up again.
Those two goals in the early stages suggest that there was a quick, attacking tempo to the match, and for the most part that continued throughout. Both teams looked solid when initiating transitions to exploit the space that appeared in the aftermath of a turnover, but the concerning thing for the pair was quite how often the switches of possession would happen, particularly so from in the final third: well-applied defensive pressure certainly contributed although selfishness, a lack of connectivity and quite simply poor technical execution in those advanced zones meant that play broke down in promising positions far too often.
Schalke’s shape both on and off the ball was something of a mix of a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1, with Choupo-Moting and Embolo being the decisive factors in that. As a result of the demand this placed on the pair there was often space behind them out wide that Hoffenheim could attack in following slow ball-orientated shifts towards the flanks, though this wasn’t something the home side utilised enough.
Other than Huntelaar hitting the post with a header in the 33rd minute, Schalke were especially guilty of such faults. Embolo was isolated from the rest of the attack, and even with his movement pattern being good, he never linked up with anyone else properly, while in total their trio of attackers managed just two touches in the danger zone (the central part of the penalty area that’s in line with the six-yard box) during the opening 45 minutes.
Kramarić and Mark Uth only combined for the same amount in the same period for Hoffenheim as well, to put that into a little context, although the home side’s predominant issue up to the interval came deeper on the pitch. For them it was in the shape of their three centre-backs, Ermin Bičakčić, Niklas Süle and Kevin Vogt, who didn’t make anywhere near enough of the numerical advantage which they held over Schalke’s first defensive line of two players in build-up phases. Rudy’s involvement in the centre slightly higher up was rather limited as well.
Neither side was particularly effective at moving the ball from the defence into the midfield in a progressive manner, with poor connectivity and bad positioning from the deeper midfielders often forcing the ball to either be circulated in a ‘U’ shape or just played long.
One of the other common things that each failed to properly utilise in that first-half was width. For Schalke that was purely a case of them being unable to get Baba Rahman and Riether into good positions where they could link with the other attackers, while for the home side, even though their opening goal came from such a situation, they didn’t make the most of the space that appeared behind Choupo-Moting and Embolo in the Gelsenkirchen-based side’s slightly asymmetric defensive shape due to slow distribution into those zones.
As a result of these issues with the ball, and the exhibition of some decent pressing from both, which could go on to penalise that, there was certainly a growing feeling that it was the punishment of one of the many mistakes which would swing the game into someone’s favour rather than a moment of brilliance.
Hoffenheim’s second goal shortly before half-time gave proof to that, with Nabil Bentaleb sloppily giving possession away cheaply in his own half while under pressure from Demirbay. The midfielder then surged forward into the open space, pushing into the box before playing a lovely ball through the legs of Matija Nastasić for Rupp to tap home from a few yards out.
Considering that Schalke had struggled to create much when things were level – and even in the brief period where they were 1-0 up – going into a game state where the onus was on them to make chances if they wanted to get any points was a concerning situation. Especially when Hoffenheim would now be content to sit deep and look the kill the game off on the counter-attack.
During the second half, Hoffenheim were happy to let Schalke build from deep and regularly took up what was a more compact 5-3-2 type shape with the ball (the wing-backs dropping and the two midfield lines coming together), before then applying some pressure as the ball moved higher up the field. With Schalke not moving the ball smoothly, this was an effective method and ensured lots of turnovers of possession.
Neither manager made any changes at half-time, though at the start of the second half Schalke instantly looked to pick up the intensity of their game. A seemingly aimless hoof from the kick-off by Huntelaar – something which initially may have been thought of just as a waste of possession – went straight out for a goal-kick, and from that situation they quickly signalled their intentions by pushing three players extremely high up the pitch in order to prevent Hoffenheim from playing out from the back.
Holding a higher line and putting more pressure on the opponents when they had the ball was something Markus Weinzierl’s men maintained for a while, in turn rushing Hoffenheim into low percentage long passes and thus ensuring that the away side would have more possession for themselves. Contrastingly, whether intentionally in reaction to that or just because they had a lead to protect and wanted to maintain structure instead, Hoffenheim were now pressing less and waited for Schalke to progress higher up the pitch before attempting to engage the ball-carrier.
With Nagelsmann’s team applying less pressure in the build-up phase during the second half, Schalke could afford to push their two full-backs higher up the pitch. One of the midfielders, typically Bentaleb, still dropped between the centre-backs in order to guarantee smooth progression of the ball, but while that was often a relatively pointless exercise which they persisted with during the opening 45 minutes, it did become more useful at this stage of the game.
There were plenty of opportunities for Hoffenheim to extend their lead and secure a win in the latter period of the second-half as a result of some excellent play in transitions, but generally what they did after that in the final third was ineffective and wasted the chances that arose.
As things developed and Hoffenheim established a stronger foothold in the game again, this became something of a catch 22 situation in a couple of ways for Schalke. Firstly, their more expansive shape helped to give them the dominance of possession which they desired, but with one of the midfielders deep and Hoffenheim outnumbering them in the centre, they couldn’t play effective vertical passes through the middle. Alessandro Schöpf coming on for Benjamin Stambouli helped to resolve this a little, though.
Secondly, Schalke having bigger distances between their players was hugely beneficial to the home side’s hopes of killing the game on the break.
Initially, Hoffenheim only generated a couple of long shots from these kinds of situations although the quality of the attacks gradually got better and better; the transitions were quick, the passes direct and the movement penetrative. That was especially the case in the last 25 minutes when the talented Nadiem Amiri came on for Uth and looked threatening.
Eduardo Vargas being brought on in the 73rd minute for Rupp, the scorer of the second goal, helped with that in a similar way due to his energetic play style. It enabled some neat combination play to occur at an even more impressive speed, but still, the only thing they lacked, in true keeping with the rest of the game, was a clinical edge once they got to the final third to give them a quantifiable reward for all their progress.
The ‘expected goals’ map of the game, courtesy of @MC_of_A, shows that Schalke struggled to create many high-quality chances other than Choupo-Moting’s early header to break the deadlock. Hoffenheim, meanwhile, could well have had a much higher ‘xG sum’ – and more goals – if they were more decisive on the counter-attack in the closing stages of the match.
Such an inability to extend their lead despite getting into so many promising positions must have been pretty worrying for the home crowd. There’s been countless examples of teams wasting chance after chance when in the lead only to throw everything away late on, and while Schalke still looked surprisingly toothless in attack themselves during this period, a lack of ruthlessness almost came back to haunt Hoffenheim in the final minute when the away side had a strong penalty shout.
Fortunately for them that was turned down, though, leaving the score at 2-1 as the final whistle was blown. It granted Hoffenheim their first victory of the league season, while simultaneously extending their unbeaten run to five and ensuring that there’s lots of reason for optimism within the club.
It was yet another blow for Schalke, however, who return to Gelsenkirchen without a single point in the knowledge that they’ve now made the club’s worst ever start to a Bundesliga campaign. They’ve certainly got the pieces at their disposal to pull everything back together again, but they sure need to do so quickly.
By Daniel Butler. Follow @TheTacticsRoom