Liverpool defeated Hoffenheim 2-1 at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena to put themselves in a commanding position in the Champions League playoffs ahead of the return leg at Anfield next week. Undefeated at home in the Bundesliga last season, Hoffenheim dominated possession but were unable to take their chances and face an uphill battle to qualify.
Andrej Kramarić missed an early penalty with Trent Alexander-Arnold’s free kick putting the visitors 1-0 up at the break. With Hoffenheim pressing for an equaliser, James Milners’ deflected cross found the top corner, but a late goal to Marc Uth gives the German side a slim hope of overturning the deficit. Here are five things we learned from the match:
Exciting game lives up to the hype
The pick of the playoffs, Hoffenheim couldn’t have hoped for a more difficult assignment in Liverpool but it gave the Sinsheim club global exposure and more reason to praise Julian Nagelsmann. Much of the pregame build up focused on the tactical battle between Jurgen Klopp, Hoffenheim’s 30-year-old manager and their mutual devotion to a high press attacking game.
Both sides were intent on rapid attacking play from the outset which made for an exciting spectacle. Hoffenheim’s wing-backs and Liverpool’s wide attackers were the main outlets early on but both sides found plenty of joy attacking directly with long balls over suspect defences. The open and attacking game lived up to the hype with the return leg set to be another must watch contest.
Nordtveit wins Süle’s replacement audition.
Niklas Süle’s departure left a hole in Hoffenheim’s central defence, Ermin Bičakčić stepping in against Liverpool but clearly targeted by Sadio Mané and given a torrid time. Not many defenders can keep up with the Senegalese speedster but Bičakčić was clearly struggling, earning a yellow card for a foul on Mané that conceding a free kick that Alexander-Arnold dispatched past Baumann for the opening goal.
With Mané skinning Bičakčić once more shortly after the break and teeing up Roberto Firmino, Baumann saved Hoffenheim from going down 2-0 but Nagelsmann had seen enough. Replacing the Bosnian with Håvard Nordtveit, Hoffenheim’s most expensive summer acquisition applied himself well and was largely able to contain Mané.
Nordtveit was credited with an own goal but was in no way culpable as Milner’s attempted cross took a fortuitous deflection into the top corner. It was Nordtveit’s pinpoint long pass that assisted Marc Uth’s goal which keeps Hoffenheim’s faint qualification hopes alive. The Norwegian showed enough composure and ability to suggest he will be a starter sooner rather than later.
Sebastian Rudy tough to replace
Sebastian Rudy joined Süle at Bayern Munich and might be harder to replace. With Eugen Polanski unavailable, Nagelsmann started with Lukas Rupp and Kerem Demirbay in front of the back three but when Rupp made way for Nadiem Amiri, Hoffenheim were alarmingly exposed in the middle of the pitch.
With Demirbay and Amiri both attacking midfielders by nature, neither player appeared to be able to provide the necessary cover once Hoffenheim started chasing an equaliser. With 19-year-old rookie Dennis Geiger on the bench, Nordtveit is surely required at centre-back which just leaves new arrival Florian Grillitsch as the only other central midfield option.
Replacing Rudy was always going to be a tall order, but on the evidence against Liverpool surely a holding midfield specialist is required before the transfer window shuts in September.
Liverpool defence there for the taking
Liverpool’s defending left a lot to be desired last season and was on show once again in the dramatic 3-3 draw against Watford in the Premier League opener. Looking shaky early on, Lovren might consider himself unlucky for the penalty call on Gnabry but too often Liverpool were caught out trying to keep a high line.
The efforts from Matip and Alexander-Arnold leading up to Uth’s goal highlighted a lack of communication and effort required at the highest level. If that wasn’t enough, Liverpool’s continual inability to defend set pieces was continually exposed, Demirbay’s injury time free kick finding an unmarked Hübner who headed over the bar when he really should have scored.
Any game involving Liverpool provides enthralling viewing for the neutral observer, but surely Klopp will be frantic trying to find solutions. Defeating Hoffenheim at home is no easy task and the Reds deserve huge credit for emerging victorious, but regular defensive blunders continues to be a hindrance in their quest for trophies.
Liverpool target Hoffenheim’s weakness
Julian Nagelsmann has done a tremendous job at Hoffenheim with his tactics and man management deservedly praised. Playing with a back three often leaves the two wide central defenders exposed to speedy wingers however, which was a weakness ruthlessly exploited by Liverpool.
Bičakčić’s struggles against Mané and Hoffenheim’s lack of a dedicated holding midfielder have been discussed, but those two factors combined to play the decisive role in the defeat. Playing in Europe is a step up for Nagelsmann and many of his players, who will be tested in different ways than they are accustomed to in the Bundesliga.
The tactics employed by Nagelsmann at 1-0 down were bold, but his team appeared to lose their composure and shape, leaving themselves extremely exposed to counter attacks. Hoffenheim were terribly unlucky in the draw, but being tested by a manager as accomplished as Klopp and a team as talented as Liverpool will be an important learning curve.