Hoffenheim’s four-game streak without a point in the Bundesliga continued on Sunday against the ruthless FC Bayern at the Rhein-Necker Arena.
The Bavarians created limited chances in the first-half – but one touch was all that was required for Mario Gomez to bundle home the decisive goal on 38 minutes. The 27-year-old finished for the sixth time this season from Franck Ribery’s cross-field header to maintain the 17-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga.
If their form continues, Jupp Heynckes could collect the earliest-ever championship victory in the history of the league in April. The FC Bayern boss was afforded the luxury of leaving out Mario Mandzukic, Toni Kroos, Arjen Robben and Manuel Neuer after their exertions last Wednesday – and with their Champions League clash against Arsenal on the horizon.
The changes disrupted the normal flow to their game but the league-leaders came close on two occasions through Bastian Schweinsteiger at set-pieces, hitting the crossbar, then the left-hand post.
Hoffenheim unusually high-pressing:
A common feature now for sides facing Borussia Dortmund, in particular, and now FC Bayern is the importance of forward players pressing as high up the pitch, as possible. In the case of Dortmund, for example, both Dieter Hecking and Thorsten Fink have been successful in blocking space ahead of Mats Hummels to force the champions to work through the less-adept Neven Subotic.
Hoffenheim enforced a similar pressing strategy with Kevin Volland and Igor de Camargo positioned high up the pitch in a more traditional 4-4-2 style attack. This forced a more direct approach for FC Bayern with Brazilian defender Dante and Jerome Boateng unable to play short passes to Bastian Schweinsteiger in the ‘Sechser’ position in-front of the back-four.
The two-prolonged attack also meant that Hoffenheim had the strength in attack to press Philipp Lahm and David Alaba in possession of the ball.
Aside from that, Volland and de Camargo are strong out-balls for the counter-attack, holding up the ball that comes from deeper positions and bringing Takashi Usami and Stephan Schröck into the game.
Neither forward looked for a one-on-one challenge with Dante or Boateng and instead positioned near-side of the defender to be in a position to make an effective first-touch in the move.
Schröck was a fine performer in blue on Sunday on the right-hand side of the midfield, working hard, pressing with tenacity and desire. Behind their front-two, Kurz looked for a rigid set of defensive-attacking lines to keep the two banks of four behind the ball for as long as possible. FC Bayern were forced wide more often than not due to the positional play of both wide-men to press even in the middle of the pitch.
Bayern’s devastating counter-attack and importance of Toni Kroos:
After a very decent display from Hoffenheim, FC Bayern’s goal was exactly the potency and strength on the counter-attack that we have become accustomed to this season. Hoffenheim looked to break from a loose ball in their own penalty box with De Camargo taking a neat first-touch before making a misjudged pass to Volland that was well-anticipated by Boateng, leading to the perfect execution of a quick counter-attack inside Hoffenheim’s half of the pitch.
Boateng found Ribery in acres of space behind the already committed Patrick Ochs on the left-side of the box and the Frenchman headed across the box for Gomez to bundle the ball over Heurelho Gomes. It took three touches for FCB to find the back-of-the-net from a situation forced by a breakdown in Hoffenheim’s counter-attacking transition.
FC Bayern had more of the ball with 52% possession in the match, mostly through Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez in deep-midfield areas. The two banks of four in blue created more time on the ball for both defensive-midfielders – as you would expect of the Bavarians in their dominant style of play.
Xherdan Shaqiri’s responsibilities included finding the pockets of space between the lines of defence but the Swiss attacker found that fairly difficult. It might have been his lack of game-time in the past that affected him but he was more dangerous on attacking runs from either the left or right-hand side of the pitch. FC Bayern’s system was pointing in the direction of Toni Kroos.
The German has thrived in the ‘No.10’ role this season because of spatial awareness, effortless movement into dangerous positions behind opponents and finding areas around the box to exploit. Kroos would have given Hoffenheim’s midfield two more to think about in a defensive sense with Tobias Weis and Daniel Williams inclined to push further forward to bridge the gap with the front pairing.
Gomez’s 38th minute strike was the sole difference on the day – and FCB’s lack of clear chances will be a positive outcome for Kurz. Even at the other end, the forward play of De Camargo and Volland allowed some action to be played in Tom Starke’s penalty box.
Hoffenheim’s focus will be on taking three points in a relegation showdown with Greuther Furth next weekend.
Follow Senior Editor Ross Dunbar on twitter @rossdunbar93