Hamburg 1-1 Karlsruher SC: HSV Promotion Hopes Narrowed by KSC’s Compact Defensive Tactics

Article by Ben Griffis

Daniel Thioune’s Hamburg (HSV) came into the game against Karlsruher SC (KSC) on April 29th in 3rd place, 1 point ahead of Holstein Kiel, 2 ahead of Düsseldorf, and 3 ahead of Heidenheim. 3rd place in the 2. Bundesliga enters a playoff against the 16th-placed 1. Bundesliga team and the winner over two legs competes in the 1. Bundesliga next season. Winless in their last 4, Hamburg’s form has dipped since the start of the season. Hamburg have topped the table in 16 of the 30 match weeks this season, but found themselves 9 points below 1st-placed VfL Bochum.

Thioune, who won the 2018/19 3. Liga and manager of the season with VfL Osnabrück, is in his first season as the manager of the historic Hamburg. Hamburg were relegated in 2018 for the first time—since being founded in 1919—and have been itching to rejoin the top flight of German football they know so well after staying up for 99 straight years.

After a slow start to the season with 4 losses, 1 win and 1 draw from their first 6 matches, Christian Eichner’s KSC won 4 straight, then lost 3, then went unbeaten for 8 games—6 of which were victories. Winless in the previous 6 games before the Hamburger match (5 draws and a loss), KSC were looking for a win to start another streak of victories and hopefully challenge Hamburg for the coveted 3rd spot, still hotly contested by at least 6 teams with a few matches to go.

Christian Eichner’s only managerial experience is with KSC, the club he came through the academy of and spent 13 total years with. Karlsruhe appointed Eichner interim manager in February 2020 after being an assistant manager for 3 seasons. KSC signed him as permanent manager at the beginning of this season. This is the second season in the 2. Bundesliga for KSC, having been promoted after 2 seasons in the 3. Liga. Eichner no doubt has his mind on bringing his squad back to the 1. Bundesliga for the first time since 2008/09.

An interesting fact pre-match is that KSC are better when playing away than at home, taking an average of 1.93 points per away game compared to 1.13 points per game at home. Hamburg are better at home, taking an average of 1.87 points per game compared to 1.5 points per away game. Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion was ready for a strong contest of two teams with differing degrees of promotion hopes.

Hamburg were missing one of their starting center backs, Stephen Ambrosius, who tore his ACL during training 2 days before the match. Jeremy Dudziak, an important squad player and attacking midfielder with 10 goal contributions this season, was also unavailable for Thioune because of sickness. Karlsruhe’s striker Philipp Hofmann and winger Choi Hyoung-rok were both injured in their previous match and were unavailable for this match. The two attackers have 23 total goal contributions between them, so their presence was missed in a 1-1 draw where KSC couldn’t get their attackers into the game with continuous possession.

Starting formations, players, and substitutes.

Hamburg’s Buildup and Attack

Hamburg built up in their 4-3-3 formation, with Gjasula dropping to just in front of the center backs. The fullbacks stayed relatively deep in buildup, but very wide. Both Wintzheimer and Hunt (later Kinsombi) pushed forward almost in line with Narey and Kittel on the wings. This shape left the midfield wide open, a signal to their game plan of playing long balls from deep. Many times, Ulreich came up and acted as a fourth man, forming a diamond with him and Gjasula at the points and Leistner and van Drongelen beside them.

HSV played long balls to wingers from one of the center backs for most possessions. The fullbacks were available as outlets, though used less sparingly to play ground balls around KSC’s narrow defenders. A lack of players in midfield and a lack of movement in front of the ball forced the center backs to play long balls most of the match. Thioune may have instructed this, but KSC effectively blocked the midfield for HSV, anyway.

One of the most striking components of HSV’s buildup was, as mentioned in the previous two paragraphs, their tendency to leave the midfield barren. Gjasula dropped near the center backs while Hunt and Wintzheimer pushed forward, forming a front 5 of sorts. The only players in the middle third for HSV were their fullbacks on the touchline. Gjasula never turned to run at KSC’s midfield, so the ball almost always went long. HSV’s attackers were no better than KSC’s defenders in the air, and both teams picked up second balls at similar rates, so this decision to vacate the middle third of their buildup is confusing. While this tactic could be forgiven if used during the first 15 minutes, the lack of adjustments always meant HSV would have no hope in scoring from open play.

When HSV got the ball in the final third, they tried to get it to the winger or fullback on the flank. They would then cross it into the box after loading it up with most of their attacking players. The crosses were never consistently threatening to KSC defenders, however, as they dealt with them accordingly.

A pattern in HSV’s attack was their limited use of a cross-field switch. Karlsruhe defended narrowly, and many times left a flank open with one defender but two HSV players. HSV used the switch a few times, but their attacks might have been more threatening had they switched the ball to a side where they had a numbers advantage. That may have also baited KSC’s defenders out of position.

Oftentimes, the switch was on for Hamburg, like here in the 17′. HSV didn’t use this option as often as they should have. They might have drawn KSC defenders out of position if they did.

HSV’s goal came after a KSC defender’s arm struck the ball in the box after a shot from a corner. Gersbeck saved Terrode’s initial penalty, but palmed the ball into Terrode’s path who finished it.

Overall, HSV continuously played long balls that were not dangerous over the midfield—which had been left empty—that played into KSC’s favor. While having most of the possession, HSV could not create chances from open play, and their inability to adapt their tactics caused them to keep playing non-threatening long balls from deep.

Hamburg’s Defense

Hamburg defended in a 5-2-2-1 shape. Gjasula dropped between the center backs while the midfielders and wingers dropped deeper. Terrode stayed high up the pitch. This shape was effective at stopping KSC’s attackers, and the back 5 meant there were enough players to pick up KSC players’ bad touches.

HSV pressed KSC with intensity for the first half of the match, but when KSC attacked less frequently in the second half, HSV didn’t press as much. Instead, their defenders relied on poor touches or possession giveaways from the KSC attackers. KSC’s ball possession was very sloppy, so there was not much need for Hamburg players to get into a strong defensive shape to quell attacks.

What HSV defended well was crosses and corners. Most of KSC’s threats came from the wings, and Hamburg defenders were both well-positioned and much better in the air and dealt with them accordingly. KSC’s goal, however, came from a cross. Gjasula’s slip while marking Gordon meant the opposing center back had an open angle and put a good header past Ulreich. Outside of this mistake, though, HSV defenders were by far the better players in the air.

Karlsruhe’s Buildup and Attack

KSC built up from their center backs, but Gersbeck booted the ball up the pitch often as well. When playing through Kobald and Gordon, either Gondorf or Breithaupt—whoever was closest to the ball—would come deep for a passing option. Fullbacks Wimmer and Thiede stayed high and wide, but Wimmer would come near the center backs if there were few other options.

Once the ball left the back line, KSC played with a relatively high tempo. They tried to move the ball into the final third quickly, making use of their midfielders’ movement around a relatively static HSV midfield. Many times, though, the center backs or Gondorf played a long ball to a high fullback or winger. KSC played through the midfield much more often than HSV, however. Toward the end of the match, their players realized they were making many mistakes on the ball and they changed to playing more long balls. KSC attackers were always second-best in the air, though, leading to turnovers nonetheless.

KSC were potentially lucky to score after Gjasula’s slip while marking Gordon, but the cross was exceptionally well-placed, had pace, and Gordon had a size advantage. KSC were hesitant to commit many players forward after the goal, instead focusing on their defensive shape, wary about a long-ball counter from HSV.

Finally, KSC’s attack was very sloppy and for much of the second half, their possessions were short after fizzling out from a poor touch, bad pass, or dispossession. They didn’t have time to string together many passes and try to attack HSV’s box methodically.

Karlsruhe’s Defense

While KSC’s attack was sloppy, their defending was anything but. Eichner employed a narrow 4-2-3-1 shape which effectively forced HSV to play long since their midfielders were outnumbered. The distance from the back 4 to the 3 attacking midfielders was very short as well, which led to further difficulties for HSV, who could not break KSC’s shape.. Most HSV players surrounded KSC’s tight shape, but this was no issue for Karlsruhe. They suppressed any ball movement centrally, and their shape was key to their game plan.

KSC players pressed Hamburg ball carriers at a high tempo, and when they realized they wouldn’t win the ball, retreated to their shape and another player switched to press. This tactic worked, as HSV could not play through the press and were instead forced wide. Both KSC’s narrow shape and aggressive pressing when the ball came central made HSV play through the wings, which caused few issues for KSC defenders and Gersbeck in net.

A perfect representation of Karlsruhe’s narrow and compact defensive shape, from the 86′. Notice how many HSV players are situated around KSC.

When Hamburg approached the final third, Karlsruhe’s wingers and Wanitzek joined Gondorf and Breithaupt in midfield, creating a 4-5-1 shape. With little space between defenders and midfielders, KSC effectively had 9 players they could use to defend HSV’s crosses from the wings. A simple tactic, but this helped KSC outnumber Hamburg players for final balls and was a factor in preventing HSV from creating quality chances.

Final Thoughts

Both teams played relatively sloppy in one phase of the game. HSV had sloppy defense after starting well by applying pressure. As the match went on, HSV’s defensive plan seemed to center on Karlsruhe taking bad touches, making poor passes, or losing aerial duels to Leistner and van Drongelen. HSV’s strongest aspect was defending crosses and set pieces into the box. However, a loss of balance from Gjasula while marking Gordon on a cross led to Karlsruhe’s equalizer. A lack of attacking fluidity—coupled with resorting to long balls—meant Hamburg could hardly create quality chances outside of a rebounded penalty save.

Karlsruhe players’ poor touches and inability for attackers to win aerials led to sloppy attacking play. While Karlsruhe varied up their style between quick ground passes through the midfield and longer balls over the midfield, their inability to keep possession for any amount of time led them to play sloppier as the match progressed, trying to get a decent chance.

Karlsruhe’s defensive shape, a narrow 4-2-3-1, was very effective at limiting HSV’s attacking play and probably the best part of the match. They forced their opponents into playing long balls to the wings after failing to bring a midfielder—besides Gjasula—into the game consistently. Much like Karlsruhe, as the match went on, HSV’s attacking problems got worse as well. Had HSV kept a few players in the center of the pitch to force KSC into a wider shape, they may well be one step closer to automatic promotion. A draw in this match certainly suits Karlsruhe better than Hamburg. Hamburg could have been 3 points from an automatic promotion spot and 4 points clear of 4th place Kiel, but find themselves just 2 points ahead of Kiel, who have 3 games in hand. Hamburg—who have fallen apart at the tail end of their 2. Bundesliga seasons in recent years to finish just outside the top 3—may be in a similar situation this season as well. Fnally, Christian Eichner can be happy with his team’s defending as a strong unit, while Daniel Thioune should work on coaching his squad how to break through a compact and rigid defense.

Header image source; Travelswiss1, flickr.

Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion, where the match took place.

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