“I’m not in awe of this club. We know it’s a big name with a lot of history. But I’m looking forward to it. We’ve shown in the first leg that we coped well with them. We can deal with fast attackers.”
The words of Hoffenheim manager Julian Nagelsmann during his pre-match press conference, ahead of his side’s second leg tie with Liverpool at Anfield. The 30-year-old was similarly outspoken in the aftermath of their 2-1 defeat in the first leg.
“We had the ball in many important spaces. He has to say that and defend his team. He can’t say, ‘Hoffenheim played great and we were shit,‘” was his feisty response to Jurgen Klopp’s claim that Liverpool limited their opponents to possession in unthreatening areas.
There is a thin line between confidence and arrogance and, on this occasion, it seems Nagelsmann has fallen on the side of the latter after being tactically destroyed by Klopp in the opening twenty minutes at Anfield. Hoffenheim made the surprising decision to switch to a back three from kick-off, playing a particularly high line in doing so.
That, inevitably, left huge space in behind for Liverpool to exploit – perfect for the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. Gini Wijnaldum’s defence-splitting pass in the build-up to the Reds’ third goal of the evening exemplified the mistake of the young German coach, as Mane broke into the clear and passed to Roberto Firmino, who deftly crossed for Emre Can to tap in at the far post.
An ounce of credit must at least go the way of Nagelsmann for sticking to his principles, encouraging his team to play out from the back and keep their preferred high defensive line. However, that is exactly what Liverpool want their opponents to do – particularly at Anfield – allowing them to press high and win the ball back in dangerous areas, just as Jordan Henderson was able to do before allowing Firmino to tap in their fourth of the evening.
Havard Nordtveit was the unfortunate man to be hooked after 25 minutes in order to accommodate the switch back to a more familiar back four, with Marco Uth replacing him. Although it may be taken with a pinch of salt given the tie was virtually over when Liverpool stormed into a 3-0 lead, Hoffenheim won the game 2-1 from the moment they switched back to their orthodox formation.
Former Hoffenheim man Firmino was a menace all evening and the quality of his movement was key to dismantling the disjointed back three, allowing Mane and Salah to attack the space he vacated when dropping deep to link with the midfield. It was exactly how the space for the third goal was created and Kevin Vogt couldn’t get to grips with the illusive Brazilian in attack.
The blueprint of how to play against Liverpool had been set long before Hoffenheim visited Merseyside on Wednesday evening. Teams that have found success playing against Klopp’s team at Anfield have done so by sitting deep, packing bodies behind the ball and leaving little space in the final third, with the aim being to frustrate the Reds and hit them on the break.
It may well go against all of Nagelsmann’s beliefs and ideas, but even Manchester United used that gameplan at Anfield last season, coming away with a 0-0 draw. If it’s good enough for Mourinho and United, it’s certainly good enough for Nagelsmann and Hoffenheim.
Admittedly, they were going to have to go for it at some stage, having conceded two away goals in Germany the week prior, but the tactics deployed played right into Liverpool’s hands from the offset. They have seen off teams far more accomplished than Hoffenheim at Anfield in recent years in a similar fashion, most notably Arsenal who were 4-0 down after 20 minutes during their meeting in 2014.
Fortune too may not have been completely in their favour either, as Wijnaldum’s shot hit the post and fell straight at the feet of Salah, who couldn’t miss from close range to make it 2-0. But, play Liverpool like that and they will inevitably score goals – both their first and third of the night came as a result of Mane being released on the inside channel between Vogt and Nordtveit.
What wasn’t surprising is that Nagelsmann thought his team could trouble Liverpool’s defence – particularly with a left-side of Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno.
Hindsight could make Nagelsmann believe this was perhaps a risk not worth taking and proved how at a European level of football, you must never dismiss the qualities and threat of your opponents.