Making sense of Mainz’s and Hoffenheim’s Sunday spectacle

Mainz and Hoffenheim starred in the best game of the Bundesliga weekend. Let us take you everything that happened.

It took a while for the Bundesliga to return properly this season. The first matchday came later than every other major league in Europe and an international break to negotiate before each team had to play again.

Still Sunday evening’s game proved that the wait was worth it. Mainz took on Hoffenheim at the OPEL-Arena and drew 4-4 in a topsy-turvy encounter. The game may just prove to be one of the best Bundesliga fixtures in recent years. At least, from a neutral’s perspective, anyway.

A clash of coaches

The game pitted two of last season’s much-touted managers against one another. Mainz’s Martin Schmidt took on Hoffenheim’s baby-faced relegation saviour Julian Nagelsmann. Schmidt secured the Nullfünfer a sixth placed finish and historic Europa League group berth in impressive fashion. Nagelsmann is of course the youngest manager in Bundesliga history, but he also made headlines for his exciting, attacking playing style. It secured enough results for the club to retain Bundesliga status at a relative canter.

Neither side got the results they wanted last time out. Mainz lost narrowly to Dortmund, while Hoffenheim were perhaps unfortunate to draw with Leipzig. Thus, all eyes looked on Sunday’s encounter to see what both sides were made of.

In the end, Nagelsmann’s men proved to be the mentally stronger of the two sides, but Mainz started the game in fine fashion. Argentine winger Pablo de Blasis opened the scoring after just three minutes with nothing other than a header. That’s right, he scored with a header, despite being the Bundesliga’s shortest player. He then doubled it not long later after Levin Öztunali broke down the right and slid him in for a fairly simple but stylish finish.

Goalkeeping errors abound

Oliver Baumann, the usually steady custodian who made a name for himself at Freiburg before his move to Kraichgau two seasons ago, didn’t paint himself in a good light for either of those two goals. He virtually placed the ball on De Blasis’ head for the first and was easily beaten at his near post for the second. However, those two errors were made to like miniscule in comparison to his next, moments later. He palmed a tame Jhon Córdoba shot into the net. It is hard to understate how much that goal wouldn’t have happened without Baumann. Córdoba probably only deserves an assist for his initial shot.

Thankfully, from Baumann’s perspective anyway, there wasn’t much he could do about Mainz’s fourth. Öztunali launched a  stinging volley which came after slightly lucky interplay in the box. Still, the stopper’s performance was nothing short of catastrophic in the first half. Öztunali, on the other hand, seems to be enjoying a positive start to life as a Mainz player. He did well in moderation as a substitute against Dortmund. He also bagged a goal and assist on Sunday.

Goalkeeping errors became somewhat of a theme, however. Mainz’s Danish goalkeeper Jonas Lössl was caught out a couple of times as well. Sandro Wagner reduced arrears in the first half with a neat volley after smart play by Andrej Kramarić, but Lössl was caught all at sea and completely unprepared for the former Darmstadt striker’s shot. He did not even manage to get down and try to save the attempt. It instead whistled into the bottom corner. In the second half, Lössl’s positioning let him down. Kramarić’s cross caught the big Dane off guard. Mark Uth emphatically nodded it home.

Hoffenheim’s fightback

Uth’s goal did, however, come after what has to go down as a game-changing decision by referee Markus Schmidt. The Stuttgart native sent left-back Gaëtan Bussmann off for a foul on Kramarić. While this was a clear foul, Giulio Donati was quite clearly covering and the former Leicester man didn’t have a clear route to goal. By the letter of the law and pretty much every interpretation of it, Schmidt did not quite have a leg to stand on.

Kramarić, however, was at the centre of everything good that Hoffenheim did going forward. You can imagine him becoming the lynchpin to his side’s attack under Nagelsmann. He is, at any rate, the best attacker the club possess and have possessed since Roberto Firmino. The Croatian set up both of the first two goals that Hoffenheim scored. He thread a clever ball for Wagner paired with a looping cross towards Uth, and his pressure eventually set up the equaliser for Adam Szalai. It hasn’t been credited with an assist, though.

Uth came on after 35 minutes for Fabian Schär, who had endured a torrid afternoon. His second, and Hoffenheim’s third, will go down as one of the best of the weekend. It left Lössl hopeless, and with it coming just one minute after his first goal, it completely knocked all of the wind from Mainz’s sails. Mainz lost a man and two goals of a three- goal advantage, after being in a commanding position. Thiis clearly affected to the team as they started to play more timidly. The nerves showed, and Lössl unnecessarily conceded the corner from which Hoffenheim bagged the equaliser. It was yet another footnote on a bad day for goalkeepers.

Hoffenheim's Hungarian forward Adam Szalai (L) celebartes after scoring the 4-4  during the German first division Bundesliga football match between FSV Mainz and TSG Hoffenheim in the Opel-Arena in Mainz, central Germany on September 11, 2016.  / AFP / DANIEL ROLAND        (Photo credit should read DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images)

On balance…

So, in such a ridiculous game, was the end result of 4-4 fair? Well, even if the first half went heavily in Mainz’s favour on the scoreboard, yes. After the mild success of containing Dortmund with a defensive 4-1-4-1 last time out, Schmidt used the same formation against Hoffenheim on Sunday. French youngster Jean-Philippe Gbamin sat just behind Fabian Frei and Yunus Malli. Nagelsmann, on the other hand, stuck to what has generally been his plan as Hoffenheim coach. He attacked throughout, and so it was largely the visiting team who instigated everything throughout the ninety minutes.

Mainz’s assembled their huge lead on the back of effective counter-attacking. They even did this off of the back of pretty much every shot the team took nestling in the back of the net. This proved to be clearly unsustainable over ninety minutes, with the conversion rate dropping eventually. Counter-attacks dried up after Bussmann’s unfair red, and so it absolutely cannot be the game plan for Schmidt’s team over the whole season, or even just a portion of it.

Take-away thoughts

Lest we forget, Mainz played only the first of seven games in twenty-one days on Sunday. Schmidt will have to find real solutions very fast.

The fact that communication between goalkeeper Lössl and his defence is strained by language barriers does not help him; much of the success of last season was built upon clean sheets. On the other hand, he should not feel like such a reactive system is needed against clubs like Hoffenheim. He has one of the best attacking sets of the league’s mid-ranks in Öztunali, Malli, Córdoba, Muto, Onisiwo and De Blasis. They should probably be given the initiative, rather than asking them to stifle their opposition.

This hardly takes anything away from Nagelsmann or Hoffenheim. Indeed, the side were clearly set up better throughout the game. They drew only because of awful goalkeeping by Baumann – something that he rarely does so heavily in one game. The side showed spirit and came back in remarkable fashion, even in spite of the helping hand of a poor refereeing decision. Despite only collecting two points from a possible six in their opening fixtures, Hoffenheim have shown more than enough over 180 minutes this season to suggest they’ll hugely kick on from last season’s survival effort.

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