Liverpool defeated Hoffenheim 4-2 in an open and attacking game at Anfield to confirm their place in the Champions League group stage. Holding a 2-1 advantage from the first leg win in Sinsheim, the Reds scored three unanswered goals inside 21 minutes that stunned the visitors and effectively ended the tie.
Julian Nagelsmann reacted with an early personnel and formation change, Havard Nordtveit replaced by Marc Uth who reduced the deficit shortly after, but it was too little too late as Liverpool cruised to a comfortable 6-3 aggregate victory. The Bundesliga side will be hurting this morning, but a spot in the Europa League group stage is a fine achievement and will help soften the blow.
Here are my talking points from the encounter:
Nordtveit slaughtered by Mané
Sadio Mané targeted Ermin Bičakčić in the first leg, the Senegalese speedster running rings around the Bosnian defender who had to be replaced by Havard Nordtveit shortly after half time. Nordtveit did a decent job on Mané for the remainder of the game to earn a start at Anfield, but it became evident early on that he was in for a rough ride.
Roberto Firmino threaded a pass through the chasm between Kevin Vogt and Nordtveit, Mané racing through on goal and forcing a save from Oliver Baumann. The warning wasn’t heeded, as just minutes later Firmino split the same hole in the defence, Mané bursting forward before delivering a clever back-heel to Emre Can whose deflected shot opened the scoring.
Nordtveit was a sitting duck, Liverpool’s second and third goals originating from his side of defence as the Reds showed no signs of letting up. It’s easy to point the finger at Nordtveit, but he was offered little assistance from the Hoffenheim midfield or right-back Pavel Kadeřábek. He was essentially a casualty of a tactical error from his manager.
Nagelsmann’s tactics come up short
Everyone’s an expert in hindsight, but Nagelsmann’s persistence in playing with three central defenders at Anfield was a big mistake. The young manager has done a tremendous job at Hoffenheim, his tactical nous and variations deservedly praised, but leaving central defenders exposed to speedy wingers is a recipe for disaster.
The writing should have been on the wall after Bičakčić got destroyed by Mané in the first leg. Nordtveit was sure to be attacked in the same fashion, and while he deserves criticism for poor positioning and an inability to stop the runs of Mané, he was like a lamb to the slaughter as there are few defenders in world football that can stop Mané one on one.
With 19-year-old Dennis Geiger making just his second appearance in the holding midfield role and Kadeřábek’s positioning rendering him unable to provide defensive assistance, Mané had a field day and the game was over before Hoffenheim knew what hit them. Nagelsmann replaced Nordtveit with Marc Uth after 24 minutes and switched to a back four, but by then the tie was over.
Nagelsmann deflects the blame
Nagelsmann shifted the blame onto his players at the postmatch news conference, saying: “The tactical structure of our game was not the cause for what happened, it was more to do with that we didn’t implement the game plan we had discussed. We didn’t start the match well at all. We were running around like headless chickens and didn’t implement that order we were going to use.”
Just which players were running around like headless chickens is debatable, but it’s likely that Nordtveit was at the top of the list. Nagelsmann added: “Maybe the team was a bit too emotional. The additional factor is maybe that in the first 30 minutes, there were two or three players who seemed to not be on the pitch.”
Failing to acknowledge his tactical error and throwing his players under the bus wasn’t something I expected from the young manager. Nagelsmann obviously knew what was coming at Anfield, saying: “Liverpool played just the way they did in the first leg.” If so, was it not foreseeable that Klopp and Mané were going to isolate and target Nordtveit after that route brought so much success in Sinsheim?
“It was not all down to Liverpool’s quality, it was also down to the way we didn’t play the game we should have. My job is to analyse everything and that’s what I’m going to do.” Perhaps when the dust has settled Nagelsmann will acknowledge some responsibility, realising that his team played much better after switching to a back four which was the way they should have started the game.
Hoffenheim will bounce back
The initial disappointment will fade for Hoffenheim who were handed a nightmare draw against the five time champions of Europe. A place in the Europa League group stage is a proud achievement for the Bundesliga side however, who will have gained invaluable experience from this defeat which will benefit them in the long run.
We saw enough against Liverpool to suggest that Hoffenheim can reach the Europa League knockout stages, where their impressive record at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena will make them feared opponents. Serge Gnabry looked lively at Anfield and will only improve throughout the season but the club may feel that additional reinforcements are required.
It wouldn’t surprise if sporting director Alexander Rosen is busy trying to add more quality to the squad before the transfer window shuts next week. Nevertheless, I expect Nagelsmann and his players to come back stronger and wiser, while we could be looking back at the Liverpool tie as a pivotal moment in the history of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim.