Hoffenheim v Liverpool: Bundesliga side’s strength from set-pieces a concern for Jurgen Klopp’s defence


Liverpool will be without Adam Lallana for at least a couple of months with a thigh injury, while Daniel Sturridge also succumbed to a thigh problem during the friendly win over Bayern Munich and Nathaniel Clyne missed Saturday’s 3-3 draw with Watford with a muscular problem. Then there is the issue of Philippe Coutinho, who has developed a back problem just as Barcelona have made a bid for him. Hoffenhieim have sold the central defender Niklas Sule and the midfielder Sebastian Rudy, key figures last season, with both having gone to Bayern.



Hoffenheim recorded their best-ever league finish last season, coming fourth to qualify for European competition for the first time. They lost only four of 34 Bundesliga matches, although they did draw 14 times. Pre-season, for what that’s worth, has gone relatively well, with victories over Standard Liege, Derby and Bologna before the 1-0 Cup victory away to Rot-Weiss Essen at the weekend. Liverpool also had an encouraging pre-season, demolishing Bayern 3-0, but Saturday at Vicarage Road showed none of the old defensive problems have gone away.



This will be a first game between Liverpool and Hoffenheim, but Liverpool’s recent record against German clubs is good: they’re unbeaten in their last six. Their overall record shows 17 wins and six defeats from 36 games. In Germany, they’ve won only twice, but lost just four of 14 games. Jurgen Klopp has faced Hoffenheim 16 times as a manager. He drew one and lost one with Mainz, and won five, drew five and lost four with Dortmund. The concern is Liverpool’s recent away form in Europe, with just one win and six defeats in their last 12.



The great positive from Liverpool’s first Premier League game of the season was the interaction of their front three, with Robert Firmino’s movement and capacity to drop deep helping create space for the rapid wide man, Sadio Mane and the new signing Mohamed Salah (although there must also have been the thought of how it might have been even more exciting with Coutinho operating as a playmaker behind them). Given Hoffenheim are likely to play a 3-1-4-2, that pace in wide areas represents a huge threat for Liverpool. Even if they end up having less of the ball than usual, Salah and Mane could be devastating on the counter.



Julian Nagelsmann, who only turned 30 in the summer, is one of the new breed of German coaches who espouse a hard-pressing game. His version of the approach, though, is rather different to Jurgen Klopp’s. Where the Liverpool coach is all sturm und drang and the football is highly percussive, Nagelsmann is far more about closing down passing options.

Where Liverpool made the second-most tackles per game in the Premier League last season, Hoffenheim made the third-least in the Bundesliga. Hoffenheim, though, averaged 19.5 interceptions per game compared to Liverpool’s 10.8. In one sense, that is of academic interest: two different ways of achieving the same result of winning the ball back high up the pitch. But it does perhaps suggest that Liverpool might be able physically to impose themselves, as they did, say, on Villarreal in the Europa League two seasons ago.



All the problems Liverpool suffered in defending set-plays were in evidence at Vicarage Road on Saturday and that is a particular concern against Hoffenheim, who last season scored the joint most goals from set-plays in the Bundesliga with 16, representing a quarter of all the goals they scored. They also had the fourth-best defensive record from set-plays. Although the sale of Sule may weaken them in that regard, dead balls are clearly something Naglesmann works on – and that perhaps is something for Liverpool to bear in mind as negotiations drag on over Virgil van Dijk. The Dutch centre-back will not solve their defensive woes alone: a lot of defending is to do with coaching and practice and keeping out corners and free-kicks is something that Klopp hasn’t got right in his time in England.



Given how good Liverpool’s home record is in Europe, a draw would be an excellent result and even a one-goal defeat could be overcome. Hoffenheim didn’t seem quite at their sharpest in Essen on Saturday, suggesting they are still edging towards full readiness for the Bundesliga season which starts next weekend. Still, given recent away form in Europe and their vulnerability to set plays, it’s a slight surprise to see Liverpool as favourites and that means the home side to win at 2.95 represents an opportunity, although it may be worth a little insurance by backing them either +0 at 2.18 or +0.25 at 1.82.