Manchester City defeated Hoffenheim by a score of 2-1 in Germany on Tuesday in what could most accurately be described as a stressful experience. Ishak Belfodil put one past Ederson within the opening minute of the match, providing a gut punch we were hoping to avoid coming off the loss against Lyon in the Champions League opener. And just like that, the possibility of getting zero points from the first two matches became a terrifying reality.
Luckily, Sergio Aguero got City on the board quickly, equalizing six minutes later to restore some order to the match. But the Blues took their time getting the game winner, waiting until the last few minutes to secure the victory in what was a must-win scenario. This game was incredibly stressful in between City’s two goals though and let’s be honest, it was from the 87’ to the final whistle as well.
I was forced to watch this game in public, and I don’t mean a sports-bar-where-everyone-cares-about-it public, I mean headphones-in-at-a-library public. I tried my best to keep my emotions in check, at least on the surface, but am fairly confident I look like someone experiencing a mental collapse. If the slow rocking in my chair and cold sweat weren’t enough to scare people away, the nervous hand-wringing probably did the trick. But this is exactly why sports are so great, because all that stress became happiness when City pulled this one out. It wouldn’t be fun if it was too easy and this was so oh so far from easy.
Overall, Manchester City played well despite the fact that they were far from their best against a Hoffenheim side that presented a more difficult challenge than may have been anticipated. Their manager, Julian Nagelsmann, prefers an attack-minded style of play that encourages high pressure and quick ball movement. I think he’d actually be a manager who Pep Guardiola would have a great appreciation for. Nagelsmann generally sets his team up with a three-man backline, though predominantly abandoned that shape in favor of a 4-3-3 against City. Hoffenheim were missing a slew of defenders which may have influenced Nagelsmann’s decision making.
On the other side, Pep Guardiola was definitely aware of Hoffenheim’s attacking capabilities when he chose his starting eleven. He went with Aymeric Laporte (at left back) and Ilkay Gundogan instead of Oleksandr Zinchenko and Bernardo Silva, presumably due to their more natural defensive aptitudes.
With Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi as the center back pairing, City’s defenders were aggressive trying to thwart counter attacks from Hoffenheim, closing down on opponents in the midfield regularly. Doing so did expose the Blues occasionally due to the German side’s ability to recognize the backline’s movement and play smart one-two passing combinations in response. The defense looked chaotic at times, especially in the first half, but Kompany and Otamendi adapted to the game flow well and chose their spots to be aggressive as the match progressed.
Laporte’s role in this game is one of the main story lines from the match. When I first saw the team sheet, I thought it would be a three-man backline with Kyle Walker being a shuttling option from the defense to attack down the right. However, Pep used Laporte in the same way that we’ve seen him use all the other left back options with the exception of Benjamin Mendy. He stepped into that inverted role regularly and his presence did loosen up Walker’s positioning. But Hoffenheim were very compact and clogged the midfield, giving the fullbacks tons of space to carry possession forward.
This trap was designed to pull the outside defenders well forward and then counterattack into the space they deserted. Laporte has faced criticism for his performance and allowing himself to get out of position was a primary reason for that. He would often let himself dribble into the areas Hoffenheim were giving him, leaving an exposed right wing behind him. That being said, Laporte did have his moments and his defensive awareness was showcased, most notably when he snuffed out a strong Hoffenheim attacking opportunity all the way on the opposite wing.
Nagelsmann certainly encouraged City to build up down the flanks and bypass the clogged midfield. Doing so shows signs of promise, especially given how good Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling were in this game. But Hoffenheim also played a high defensive line, pushing Sergio Aguero into the midfield, making it more difficult for City to get numbers in the box when the wingers would get in positions to provide service.
A component of Hoffenheim’s plan in its midfield defense was to closely man-mark David Silva. They might have wanted to commit two players to him in hindsight.
This isn’t the first occasion when teams have tried to dedicate a defender to the Spaniard, but the result it always the same. It is impossible, and I mean literally impossible, to prevent that man from controlling a match. David Silva is too skilled and too intelligent for any mortal being to stop him. He has an uncanny ability to recognize what the other team’s gameplan is and doing the exact thing to counteract it. I still can’t completely wrap my head around the fact that David Silva and I are the same species.
Silva was the best player on the pitch, and it was even close (how many times have we said that?). He created the first goal with a perfectly weighted through ball to Leroy Sane who ultimately found Sergio Aguero. He created another amazing chance by cutting through multiple layers of the defense to put Sterling through on goal. Then of course, he popped up right when and where he had to secure the victory with the game-winner. Start designing the statue now, but I don’t want to ever live in a world where David Silva is not wearing a Manchester City kit.
In closing, here are a few more quick thoughts. John Stones as a defensive midfielder is apparently a real thing now and I don’t hate it. He came on as a substitute and operated primarily in a double pivot with Fernandinho. Gundogan wasn’t noticeable at all in this match, Hoffenheim’s tactics forced him to constantly adjust his position but he needs to be more active on the ball. Bernardo should always be chosen ahead of him in the starting eleven in big matches. This isn’t the time to complain though! Manchester City pulled out a win in a brilliant game on Tuesday and we can take all the positives from it onto Anfield.