Cologne - “I’m sick to the back teeth of it,” TSG 1899 Hoffenheim coach Markus Gisdol famously remarked after a 4-4 draw with SV Werder Bremen just over a year ago, one of his many tirades against his side for a lamentable defensive display.
Drama never far away
In the early weeks of this season, the ailment seemed to have been cured, as Hoffenheim went nine games unbeaten, conceding just seven goals, compared to 22 at the same stage of the 2013/14 campaign.
However, after that period of relative sobriety, Gisdol's troops are at risk of a relapse and a regression into the free-scoring but defensively vulnerable outfit they embodied 12 months ago. Their have yielded no clean sheets and 15 goals conceded, with two 4-3 scorelines, one that went for them and one that went against. Great entertainment for the neutrals, less so for the coach.
Their most recent outing ended in victory in the second of those two seven-goal thrillers against Hannover 96, and it was a 90 minutes that encapsulated the TSG of 2013/14. They were 2-0 up after 37 minutes, were pegged back to 2-2 and then led 4-2, before conceding once again late on to ensure an all too familiar tense finale. Gisdol was less critical in his post-game comments this time, calling Hannover’s third goal “unnecessary”, but despite the three points, it was unsettlingly similar to their last home game, a defeat by the same scoreline to previously goal-shy 1. FC Köln.
It is certainly worth returning to the above statistic. Hoffenheim's defensive record is much improved from last season, when they shipped a grand total of 70 goals and only Hamburger SV leaked more. The acquisition of goalkeeper Oliver Baumann from SC Freiburg has been an astute one, and his mistakes against the 96ers should not detract from an impressive four clean sheets in the first seven matches.
Meanwhile, Pirmin Schwegler has formed a solid midfield partnership with hard-tackling Eugen Polanski, protecting a defence that, with the development of youngsters Niklas Süle and Tobias Strobl complimenting the impact of Bosnian new recruit Ermin Bicakcic, has looked generally more organised.
Cold turkey in Dortmund?
Nevertheless, high-scoring games need to be the exception rather than the rule. The Hannover encounter undoubtedly lived up to its billing as Matchday 13’s top game on Saturday evening primetime, but the role of the Bundesliga’s entertainers is one that TSG have played before. This season Gisdol wants consistency as he aims to establish the club in the top ten, and with six points separating second-placed VfL Wolfsburg with Hoffenheim in seventh, as well as the well-documented struggles of Borussia Dortmund, even European qualification looks within reaching distance for the Sinsheim outfit.
Dortmund, incidentally, are 1899’s next opponents, and securing a shut-out at the Signal Iduna Park this weekend (three teams have done that this season so far) would represent the first step in their long-term bid to kick the habit of conceding sloppy goals. At the end of another long, hard campaign, that could well be the key to a first-ever top-six finish.