“A man with new ideas is a madman, until his ideas triumph.”
– Marcelo Bielsa.
During the season of 2015/ 2016 TSG 1899 Hoffenheim was struggling in the relegation zone of the German Bundesliga. They were led by the Dutch manager Huub Stevens who had to retire due to his health. His successor was named Julian Nagelsmann, a young and aspiring German coach. Since he took over, Hoffenheim managed to avoid relegation. On top of that they even managed to reach fourth place in the season of 2016/2017. Because of this achievement and the way Nagelsmann made his team play Nagelsmann is currently seen as one of the most talented managers in modern day football. But what is his Secret? Let’s dive into the tactics of Hoffenheim.
Hoffenheim plays in a 1-5-3-2 or 1-3-1-4-2 formation. One of the key features of this formation is the movement of the wingbacks. When Hoffenheim plays against a better opponent the wingback plays in a more defensive role. Then the formation is then set to a 1-5-3-2. If Hoffenheim appears to be the better team the wingbacks can play offensively, as if they are wingers. The formation is then more like a 1-3-1-4-2. Also the central midfielders play a crucial role in the system of Nagelsmann. With their runs to the wings and in behind of the center forwards, they can outnumber the opponent.
2. Defensive structures
Hoffenheim has various strategies to put pressure on the opponents’ half of the pitch.
2.1 High pressing by the central midfielder
First of all, the striker (Wagner) drops off to the opponents defensive midfielder (6). This movement is followed up by the central midfielder (Amiri), who puts pressure on the right fullback (2). At the same time, the other striker (Kramarić) makes the run to the right center back (3) to make sure that the backwards pass can’t be played. The defensive midfielder (Rudy) and the right central midfielder (Demirbay) are both tilting towards to the left-hand side of the pitch to cover the space in behind Amiri. They leave their direct opponent unmarked in order to narrow the playing field. The right wingback (Kaderabek) has by then dropped inside and will cover the opponents’ left winger (11).
2.2 Pressing by the left wingback
Another frequently used way of putting pressure on the opponent by Hoffenheim is the movement of the left wingback. For example: Zuber runs straight at the right fullback of the opponent (2), who has the ball in his possession. Again, this happens after Wagner has fallen back to mark the defensive midfielder (6). Kramarić will do the same thing as before. He cuts of the passing lane to the center back (3). The center midfielder (Amiri) has a different role this time. He drops off into the marked zone to cut of the passing lane to the striker (9).
2.3 Defensive triangle
When the pressure is starting to mount on Hoffenheim, they switch to a 1-5-3-2 formation. The wingbacks drop off to the position of fullback. The midfielders stay in front of the three central defenders to prevent shooting opportunities. Noteworthy is the zonal marking of the central defenders. Their responsibility is to mark the player who comes into their zone. When the opponents’ right-winger (7) has possession and tries to move inside, he will be closed off by the triangle of Zuber, Hübner and Amiri. When the ball is played to the upcoming right fullback (2), Zuber will challenge him. Hübner then covers him in behind. Amiri stays on the edge of the box to prevent the low cross from being given.
3. Offensive structures
3.1 Build-up play
Center back Hübner dribbles with the ball into the midfield area, where he has various options that are created by the movement of his teammates. The first option is the pass to Amiri, who has dropped a little bit to the side. He will be followed by the opponents’ defensive midfielder (6), which brings us to the second option. The space between the midfield and defensive lines can now be exploited by Kramarić, who has dropped off from the center forward position. The last option is the direct pass to the striker, Wagner. With his strength he keeps possession most of the time. Zuber makes himself available on the side for the return of Wagner.
3.2 Wingbacks in an attacking role
The center back, Vogt, defines many aspects of the ball possession. With his way of crossing he reaches the wingbacks without any problems. He varies between the short and long pass. Especially the long pass is difficult to defend for the opponents’ wingers.
After reaching the wingbacks the attack starts. Wagner makes the run into the corner, trying to be followed by the opponents’ center back (4). If Wagner is not being followed the ball goes from Kaderabek to Wagner (2). He can then get a cross in or challenge his defender (4) When the defender decides to chase Wagner into the corner, the ball is then played inside to Demirbay. In this case Demirbay will cause a direct threat for the opponent.
3.3 Center movement
When the center midfielder Demirbay possesses the ball in the middle of the pitch, for example by the pass of Vogt, it is Wagner who tries to move into the ball. This way he creates space for Kramarić, who can make the run in behind of the center backs (3 and 4). The center back (3) has to chase Kramarić, otherwise he’s a threat to score. The different runs then open up the opponents’ defensive back. Demirbay now has the opportunity to reach Amiri, who can exploit the space between the center back and the fullback (2 and 3).
3.4 Creating overload
Hoffenheim tries to create an overload of offensive players when they attack. We mentioned the system change from 1-5-3-2 to 1-3-1-4-2, but in this example it can even be changed to a 1-3-1-6. The runs between the center backs (3 and 4) and the fullbacks (2 and 5) by Amiri and Demirbay are very difficult to defend. When the central midfielders (6 and 8) chase Amiri and Demirbay, Zuber will cross the ball into the box because of the many players who are in the zone. If the opponents’ central midfielders (6 and 8) chose to stay where they are, Zuber will then choose to play the ball into the space behind the fullback (2) to Amiri. This is a very innovating way to challenge the opponents’ defensive line, invented by Nagelsmann.
4. Fast counter attacks
4.1 Interception by the wingback
When Hoffenheim intercepts the ball on their own half, they counter attack very quickly. In this case Zuber wins the ball on the left-hand side. His first pass is directly forward to Wagner (1). Wagner then returns the ball to the moving Kramarić (2). Kramarić exploits the space between the opponents’ defender and midfielders. After receiving the ball from Wagner, he gives the trough ball to the moving Demirbay. Demirbay again exploits the space between the center back and the fullback (4 and 5).
4.2 interception by the central midfielder
If the opponents’ left fullback (5) loses the ball to the central midfielder Demirbay (1), Amiri will right away run into the area between the fullback (2) and the center back (3). When the fullback (2) decides to cover up the space, the ball can then be played to Zuber (2). Who immediately runs along the left-hand side. This way Hoffenheim creates an overload on the left hand side with Zuber and Amiri playing against the right fullback (2).
5. In conclusion
Nagelsmann is an innovative coach. His team plays in a very dynamic way with lots of movement. During the game they can switch from a 1-5-3-2 to a 1-3-1-4-2 formation, depending on the strength of the opponent. This way they can switch from a very tight defense to putting pressure on the opponents’ half. One of the key features is the important role of the central midfielders. They press on the fullbacks and also make runs in behind of their center forwards. Also the role of the attacking wingbacks shouldn’t be underestimated. Many attacks start with the wingbacks pushing up high, creating an overload which Hoffenheim uses to confuse the opponents’ defensive line. With his innovating way of playing and with getting great results (like the fourth place in the season of 2016/2017) it’s safe to say that a great future lies ahead for the 29-year old Nagelsmann.