Having been an assistant manager at FC Twente, Hoffenheim, and Ajax under the likes of Steve McLaren, Huub Stevens, Julian Nagelsmann and Erik ten Hag, Alfred Schreuder took over as Head Coach of Hoffenheim in the summer, following Nagelsmann’s departure.
The man who has spent so much time as an assistant has seemingly begun to find his feet as a head coach, despite a very slow start to the season, with just five points from their first six games. Now Hoffenheim sit comfortably inside the top half of the table in the Bundesliga and within striking distance of the Europa League places. Perhaps European qualification may be asking a little much for Schreuder’s first season, bearing in mind the summer exits of first-team regulars Nadiem Amiri, Kerem Demirbay, Nico Shulz and Joelinton, however, the Dutchman has certainly begun to instil his own philosophy to the team and they are a side with plenty of potential to improve over time.
Formations and personnel
When discussing Schreuder’s Hoffenheim it’s important to note that they have been very flexible with their formations this season, often changing week-to-week. When playing four at the back we have seen them using a 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 and with three at the back, a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2. As the season has worn on, Schreuder has used a back three slightly less than at the beginning, possibly down to the decision to send Kevin Vogt to Werder Bremen, who had previously been a mainstay as part of the back three.
One of the quirkiest things about Schreuder’s reign so far has been his decision to frequently play players in different positions to what they are used to. He has clearly been a little disappointed with his squad depth and has had a difficult time with injuries, so perhaps Schreuder has done this to send a message to the board.
Either way, there have certainly been some eye-raising decisions. Robert Skov scored 31 goals and made nine assists for FC Kobenhavn last season as a winger, but this season has seen regular minutes as a left-back. He currently has three goals and four assists for the season. Florian Grillitsch has been impressive in central-midfield this season but has also played as a centre-back, but more bafflingly, his central-midfield teammate, Sebastian Rudy has been deployed at right-back at times. There are more examples of this with other players but it demonstrates that Schreuder isn’t necessarily just a tinkerer with formations.
Playing out from the back
The basics of Schreuder’s build-up play is for a number six to drop deep and create space in behind whilst supporting ball progression themselves, as well as to have options in wide spaces. He likes to see them build play centrally, and if the opposing defence gets too narrow then they have the ability to hurt teams from these wide areas. Their team crossing accuracy is 34.7% which is the fourth-highest in the league, and other than Eintracht Frankfurt, they have had the most shots coming from headers this season.
The image below demonstrates what Hoffenheim often look like when the keeper has possession from a goal-kick. We can see the number six is very deep as are the two centre-backs, positioned either side of the goalkeeper. It is normal for Schreuder to give the wing-backs a lot of space on their flanks too, and we are also able to see options beyond the number six in central areas, staggered to aid ball-progression.
Schreuder will encourage his side to build from the back even when under pressure from a high and intense press. Hoffenheim will happily draw the opposition forward with passes between the defenders and the pivot before looking to hit the space in behind either with direct passes into attacking midfielders or forwards’ feet, or over the top in the channels for their forwards to run onto behind the opposition defence.
When playing against similar strength or possibly weaker teams Schreuder favours a patient build-up approach and although his side are no doubt encouraged to play forward when they have the chance, it’s clear when watching them that they’re in no rush to take any risks doing so.
This patient approach is seen all the way through the pitch with only Borussia Monchengladbach and Hertha Berlin taking less shots from outside the box than them this year too.
When building up from the back in a more advanced position, but still inside their own half, they will have the central-defender from their back three drop deep as a pivot. Dropping deeper than his two teammates the central-defender is used to orchestrate the build-up play and circle the ball from side to side until there is a clear opening to play forward.
When the ball is with the right-sided or left-sided centre-back Hoffenheim don’t stretch as far wide as some back three’s do. In the picture below we can see that the right-sided centre-back is relatively tight to the central-defender, and that is perhaps down to Schreuder’s more reserved approach than his predecessor and by playing like this they are theoretically less vulnerable to the transition, given the little space between the back three.
This can vary based on the location of the press. For example against Mainz, who pressed very narrowly, their centre-backs would spread wide. With their double pivot dropping deep to offer support in the build-up, it brought Mainz even more narrow and created easy passing options out wide.
Nevertheless when playing the back three it’s still wide enough where they can stretch the opposition press whilst looking to have two of their three central-midfielders drop in deep to create space to play directly into the forward line. The third central-midfielder that doesn’t drop will be on whichever side the ball isn’t. The image below shows the midfield three’s stagger which provides wing-backs or central defenders more passing options.
With the third midfielder taking a higher and wider position than his two teammates he is also able to offer support if the centre-forward receives the pass.
By playing directly from the defence into the forward line it allows the central-midfielders to offer an option to the centre-forward and they can now receive the pass facing the opposition goal, rather than with their back to it. Upon receiving the ball they can drive into the space created by the initial midfield box.
The deeper positioning of the two central-midfielders in the image below doesn’t just facilitate this forward passing option, but also helps the back three play through the opposition press. In the image below Werder Bremen are blocking the lateral pass from the left centre-back to either of his defensive teammates. The two central-midfielders are able to receive the ball and continue circling the ball, playing back to one of the two open central-defenders and breaking the press.
Having a single or double pivot drop deep and then having a third midfielder sit higher is something we see in lots of Hoffenheim’s build-up under Schreuder. If they play with a midfield four it will likely be a single pivot that drops deep, and if with a midfield five then it may well be a double.
As mentioned earlier Schreuder encourages his players to be cautious with the ball. They will work the ball until there is the option to break the lines with a high percentage through pass.
Hoffenheim average 8.53 through passes per game, above the league average of 7.59, and have a 37.6% pass completion these which is the second-highest in the Bundesliga.
Benjamin Hübner and Florian Grillitsch have the first and second highest completion on through passes in the league with 51.85% and 50% respectively. Tied with Grillitsch in second is Phillipe Coutinho.
The recipients of these through passes will often be the wing-backs, centre-forwards or the higher positioned midfielders operating in the half-spaces as we can see in the image below. They will have these options regardless of formation. In the earlier example, they were playing a 3-5-2, but in the game against Bayern below, they were playing a 4-1-4-1.
To continue to have these third man options in more advanced areas, Schreuder will commit plenty of players forward to open up space. In the image below Hoffenheim have five players further advanced than the player highlighted. The back three are wide enough to stretch the Mainz press and create space to play through the lines to the midfielder.
These principles are evident in their counter-attacking football too, which they have used so effectively against the top teams in the division where they have beaten Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke and Bayern Leverkusen.
Against these stronger teams Hoffenheim will drop considerable numbers back, whilst leaving a forward up, but close enough to receive a pass to feet as soon as they win back possession. We will then see the simple up, back, and through passing pattern which they use regularly with their use of third man runners.
In the image below as soon as the forward receives the pass he has three central options to play back to.
Hoffenheim work hard to commit numbers quickly on the counter. The image below shows how they will ensure the ball-carrier has two options in more central areas on the counter, but also a third-man option with the right-winger in this case not moving centrally, but ready to receive a through-pass should one of the other arriving midfielders receive the ball from the forward.
Schreuder doesn’t favour an intense press, which is backed up by Hoffenheim’s 11.67 PPDA average this season. This isn’t to say they will sit back and concede possession. Against Bayer Leverkusen earlier this season they showed that they could use a high press successfully should their game plan require this.
The image below shows how Schreuder set up to prevent Leverkusen’s midfield three getting on the ball with man-marking, whilst Hoffenheim’s front three press Leverkusen’s central-defenders to force them to either play wide or long.
Protecting central areas is a recurring them in their defensive shape though and they will look to do this regardless of formation. In the below example against Werder Bremen, where they did play a 3-5-2 we can see their midfield three in a narrow triangle, showing the opposition ball-carrier away from the middle of the pitch.
Schreuder uses a back three to allow him to drop into a defensive five when out of possession. As mentioned earlier they will often leave one forward up, and therefore will drop into a 5-4-1 when defending deep. The wing-backs in the back five will be expected to pressure opposition wingers should they receive possession, whilst the wing-back on the opposite side will tuck in to ensure they keep a back four. Their midfield four will stay narrow, again protecting the central areas, forcing the opposition to play wide. Despite them playing a back four more frequently recently, we still seem them drop into a 5-4-1 out of possession when defending deep. To create the five either winger will drop in, or Grillitsch will, who operates close to the defence, acting as a screen in midfield. There is an example demonstrating this shape against Bayern Munich.
One thing we see Hoffenheim do that other back three/back five’s don’t do in quite the same way, is how aggressive their defence press the ball-carrier to push them backwards. In the below example we see central-defender Kevin Akpoguma and defensive-midfielder Florian Grillitsch push forward to drive the ball-carrier backwards. As this happens their left-wing back tucks in to make sure they still have a back three.
As Bremen play the ball backwards we can see Akpoguma and Grillitsch are sat in front of a back three.
This year was always going to be a year of transition for Hoffenheim with key players and their manager moving on to pastures new. However, Schreuder has perhaps surprised a few people by ensuring the transition has been relatively painless. He has instilled some of his own ideas, particularly with a more patient build-up phase than Hoffenheim fans will be accustomed to, but also tried to keep elements of Nagelsmann’s style intact (the up, back and through passing pattern).
It is promising that Hoffenheim are challenging for Europa League qualification whilst having so many injury problems and next season, with a chance to strengthen the squad and therefore perhaps play his players in their favoured positions next season, we may see Schreuder’s Hoffenheim continue to grow into a top six German side.