Sebastian Hoeneß and Hoffenheim produced a tactical masterclass to achieve what the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and many more had all failed to do: beat Bayern Munich in 2020.
It ended the treble winners’ 32-match unbeaten run stretching back to December 2019, and ground their top-five-European-leagues record of 23 consecutive victories to a shuddering halt.
Hansi Flick’s side had only claimed that record less than 72 hours earlier when beating Sevilla 2-1 in extra-time to lift the UEFA Super Cup and a quadruple. Did the effort required in Budapest on Thursday catch up with them in Sinsheim?
Captain Manuel Neuer refused to be drawn on that: “There are no excuses. We know we’ve got a game every few days this year, so we can’t talk about being tired but just accept it.”
Regardless of the tight schedule, few would’ve confidently predicted defeat for this Bayern team on their current form, aiming to break another record with 11 straight victories away from home in the Bundesliga.
Watch: Highlights from the 4-1 win on Matchday 2
Hoeneß, however, was one of the few not shocked by the result. “No, I’m not surprised,” he told broadcaster Sky after the game. It was a confident response from a coach in just his second Bundesliga match.
Perhaps the more surprising element wasn’t the outcome but the margin of victory. After all, Hoffenheim have proven themselves somewhat of a bogey team for Bayern in recent years. Since 2017, no team has beaten the Munich giants as often as the Sinsheimers (four), while they had been the only club to score more than two goals in one game against Flick’s Bayern in his 38 matches in charge prior to Matchday 2, doing so in the 4-3 loss in the DFB Cup round of 16.
There was also a great sense of irony that it was in fact Hoeneß who masterminded this victory. The 38-year-old did so just 85 days after leading Bayern’s reserves to the title in the third division in their first season after promotion. He is also a Bayern fan.
Moreover, the Hoeneß name is synonymous with Munich success. Sebastian’s father Dieter scored 145 goals in 302 appearances for the Bavarians, winning five Bundesliga titles in the 1980s. And uncle Uli, a three-time European Cup winner with the club, is the man credited with building Bayern into the powerhouse it is today in his roles as general manager and president. Both relatives had previous played against Bayern, but never before had a Hoeneß opposed them as a coach.
Perhaps it was that insider knowledge that allowed the current Hoffenheim coach to create the perfect set-up for his team, but either way, he got it spot on. As two-goal hero Andrej Kramaric said, “It was a perfect game.”
TSG were disciplined in their approach. When Bayern had possession, which they did for 73 per cent of the match, Hoffenheim fell back into a rigid, clearly recognisable 5-3-2 formation. They were perfectly content to let their opponents play the ball around, but began to press the moment they crossed the halfway line.
Watch: Kramaric: "We had to be at 200% against the best team in the world"
And once the home side had taken the lead through Ermin Bicakcic’s header from a corner, the pattern of play fell into their hands. This Bayern team aren’t accustomed to being behind, meaning they want to push forward even more than usual.
That was how the second goal came about. The strong press on the halfway line bore fruits in the 24th minute when the ball broke to Munas Dabbur. Perhaps a somewhat fortunate break off the legs of Benjamin Pavard, but Hoffenheim had created that luck.
The Israel international then raced clear on goal before lifting the ball over Neuer to make it three goals in just two appearances against the record champions. As with Hoeneß’s pre-match planning, the striker also admitted to having an idea in such a scenario.
“Like everyone, I watch a lot of Bayern games and know Neuer is a big keeper and for me the number one in the world,” he told bundesliga.com afterwards. “A lot of strikers try to put the ball at his feet, where he’s very good. In my head before the game, I thought that if I had a one-on-one, I would try the chip.”
Watch: Dabbur: "I thought about a chip before the game"
Bayern got one back before the break through Joshua Kimmich, but the scoreline didn’t tell half the story. The Munich side had dominated the play on paper with over 75 per cent possession and over three times as many passes (336-109), but Hoffenheim had shown their clinical streak while keeping the champions at arm’s length, allowing no gaps and using the occasional foul to disrupt their flow, but nothing over the top.
TSG registered eight attempts on goal in the first half, which would equate to one every 13 passes, and hit the target with four of them. On the other hand, Bayern had carved out seven shots, but Kimmich’s goal was the only one that hit the target.
The exact same happened after the break. The Bavarians were on target with just one of their seven attempts – the only save Oliver Baumann had to make, tipping a Joshua Zirkzee shot onto the crossbar – while Hoffenheim carved out nine more chances, hit the target with four and the back of the net with two.
Recent viewers of Bayern games will have seen or heard comments about their high defensive line and the chances they concede. Indeed, they did ride their luck to an extent in some matches where opponents failed to take their opportunities/came unstuck against Neuer before going up the other end and showing them how it’s done.
Against Hoffenheim, they faced a team that both created a multitude of chances through front-foot defending and, above all, took them. Neuer still made four saves from the eight attempts on target, but was generally powerless against a side that had done its homework.
Hoeneß set up his team to battle, with the front three of Kramaric (19), Dabbur (24) and Christoph Baumgartner (29) among his side’s top five for contested duels as the first line of defence, while starting wing-backs Pavel Kaderabek (26) and Kevin Akpoguma (17) also played their part in limiting any service.
Once the ball was won back, no matter where on the pitch, the first thought from all in blue was to get it up the pitch. It wasn’t an aimless clearance to relieve the pressure, but targeted up to one of the forwards, either direct or looking in behind.
“Hoffenheim closed down the spaces, they were very strong physically and they played the ball forward very well,” Flick said in summary after the game.
His first point was demonstrated by the goal from Dabbur. His second and third were seen in Kramaric’s first, as Kaderabek won a header from a long goal-kick ahead of Alphonso Davies, Dabbur beat Jerome Boateng and David Alaba to the follow-up to play in Ihlas Bebou before squaring for the Croatian to turn past Neuer after a touch at the near post. And it was seen again as Bebou rode lunges from Kimmich and Alaba before winning the late penalty against Neuer.
Even with the speed of Davies back in defence, a player Hoeneß knows well from their time together with the Bayern reserves, TSG knew they had both the speed and the strength to get in behind when needed, as seen by the fact they were caught offside just once despite playing on the break against a high line.
A similar tactic was used by former Hoffenheim boss Julian Nagelsmann when RB Leipzig became the only team this calendar year to stop Bayern scoring. In that 0-0 draw, he diverged from the club’s new-found desire to control the ball and draw opponents out, instead opting to play on the break, even using the speed of Timo Werner in a withdrawn wide position to stretch Bayern.
The difference here was that TSG took the chances they created in the wake of that bold but measured approach.
Hoeneß got his team selection right, the tactics right, and his players carried it all out to the letter. Fingers can be pointed at the fatigue in the Bayern line-up, but two of the starting back four had played fewer than 25 minutes in the Super Cup.
A fatigued Bayern or not, Hoeneß’s Hoffenheim fought fire with fire and won - deservedly and emphatically.