For the opening 26 minutes of Saturday’s match it felt a like a matter of time before the champions would take the lead, Hoffenheim’s recent record against Bayern would be forgotten and the champions would pull clear of the pack.
But then Mats Hummels switched off, the rest of Bayern’s backline failed to react and Hoffenheim led with their first shot. It was a moment that proved to be symptomatic of the Bavarians’ performance throughout their 2-0 defeat.
Despite having 72 per cent of the ball, Carlo Ancelotti’s men looked bereft of ideas, a team without a plan. After Robert Lewandowski’s seventh-minute miss, they failed to create anything more than occasional half chances and resorted to flinging balls in to the box in the final 15 minutes.
A failure to focus
Bayern’s players were flat, Ancelotti even admitted to Sky after the game that they lacked focus, and the Italian must take a significant share of the blame for this. Given the magnitude of the game, his team selection was puzzling - Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery were left to twiddle their aging thumbs on the bench while Kingsley Coman and Thomas Müller flanked Lewandowski. Javi Martinez’ selection denied Niklas Süle a rapid return to Sinsheim.
It was Robben’s omission that was particularly puzzling; Hoffenheim’s susceptibility to pace in the channel between their wingbacks and centerbacks was ruthlessly exposed by Liverpool last month. While Coman has potential, his output is poor – he’s scored only 11 goals in over 5000 career minutes of first team football – and Müller’s form slump is well documented.
Offensive recruitment an issue
After Uth grabbed a second, the Dutchman was called from the bench but it was too late, neither he nor his fellow substitutes Ribery and debutant James Rodriguez could save the game this time. All this is even more questionable given Bayern’s opponents in the Champions League on Tuesday – Anderlecht at home is about as kind a fixture as that competition throws up.
It also re-raises the thorny issue of Bayern’s attacking purchases in recent seasons. Since Robben’s arrival in 2009, only Lewandowski (and Thiago, depending on how his position is classified) has been an unqualified and sustained success in the forward areas. Douglas Costa, Mario Götze and Coman are among those who have flickered but failed to fully ignite. Of course, replacing players of the caliber of Robben and Ribery is tough – and James or Coman may yet step up – but it needs to happen sooner rather than later for Bayern.
It also needs to happen quickly for the sake of Ancelotti’s long-term job security, especially given the growing credentials of the man in the opposing dugout on Saturday.
Man with a plan
Julian Nagelsmann’s team stood in stark contrast to Ancelotti and his charges. Hoffenheim pressed hard, held a solid back five and allowed Bayern to play in front of them before landing a pair of sucker punches – in short, they had a plan.
Ancelotti said after the game that Bayern created no chances because they had no space. This was no accident. Nagelsmann is working in much less rarified air but is making the most of his resources. While Bayern’s first sub was Robben for Hoffenheim’s former midfield conductor Sebastian Rudy, Hoffenheim’s was homegrown 19-year-old Dennis Geiger for journeyman Eugen Polanski.
The 30-year-old coach consistently gets the best from his troops through meticulous organization, attention to detail and a flexibility of tactical thought that allows him to tailor gameplans to Hoffenheim’s opponents.
Ancelotti has never been a coach who relies on tactical acumen and his fine record over decades of leadership means there's no suggestion that Nagelsmann is in line to relieve him of his position any time soon. But, more than a year in to his tenure in Bavaria, he’s still yet to really stamp his mark on a club where domestic superiority is so assured that style and European success are enormous factors.
In contrast, Nagelsmann’s fingerprints are all over this Hoffenheim side. And his seven points from nine against Ancelotti have surely put him next in line for the Allianz Stadium hotseat.