Liverpool have been drawn against Bundesliga side Hoffenheim in the Champions League play-off round, and the Reds will face a tough obstacle before reaching the group stage for the first time since the 2014/15 season.
It means Jurgen Klopp will once again return to his native Germany, whilst striker Roberto Firmino will play his former club.
A different Hoffenheim
Klopp will be familiar with Hoffenheim from his time managing Borussia Dortmund, during which he won two Bundesliga titles and reached the final of the Champions League, but the club that finished fourth in the Bundesliga are a different beast to the one Klopp knew.
Coached by 30-year-old Julian Nagelsmann, Hoffenheim outperformed their rivals in Germany and stormed to a fourth-placed finish, playing some wonderful football along their way.
They finished the campaign with the second-best defensive record in Germany and only champions Bayern Munich suffered fewer defeats. However, a significant portion of this defensive effort can be attributed to Niklas Sule, who left the club to join Bayern over the summer.
The 21-year-old admirably commanded Hoffenheim’s defence and made five defensive actions per game, completing a massive 90 clearances and 74 interceptions, as well as winning 46 tackles and 64 headed duels. Such a loss won’t go unnoticed and this is an area Liverpool can look to exploit.
Hoffenheim will also be without commanding defensive midfielder Sebastian Rudy, who also left the club to join Bayern.
Gnabry vs Liverpool’s defence
Nagelsmann is an astute young manager and he’ll be well aware of Liverpool’s defensive weaknesses, particularly through the middle and at left back. The loan signing of Serge Gnabry from Bayern, therefore, will be a massive bonus coming into this tie.
The 22-year-old impressed for Werder Bremen last season and earned a move to the German champions as a result, as well as a call-up to the German senior team. He scored 11 goals and assisted one, creating 32 chances in the process and such attacking threat will be a key weapon against a lacklustre Liverpool back line.
Liverpool’s new-look attack
Hoffenheim will know Firmino and his game all too well, but what they won’t be familiar with is Liverpool’s new-look attack for the coming season. The record signing of Mohamed Salah has injected further pace into the final third and coupled with Sadio Mane on the opposite flank, it makes a scary proposition for Hoffenheim’s defence.
However, the key for Liverpool is creating space in behind the defence for Salah and Mane to exploit. The story was the same as last season against Atletico Madrid and they once more struggled to break down a low-block defensive team that sit deep in their own half.
If Liverpool retain most of possession, they need to use it effectively. That means passing the ball around the midfield to suck Hoffenheim out of their own half to close the ball down, creating gaps in the defensive line and space in behind. This will also allow Firmino to roam these areas as he did so well last season.
Will Liverpool still have Coutinho?
Another important issue facing the Reds is the future of Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian is the crowning jewel of Liverpool’s attack and Klopp can’t express his desire to keep him at Anfield enough.
With Neymar now officially joining PSG, however, the struggle to keep him out of Barcelona’s clutches is very much real. He’ll be a decisive influence against Hoffenheim and his ability to pick out a pass and create space for himself against a packed defence will be crucial.
It won’t be easy to navigate their way past Hoffenheim in the play-off round, but they’re a young side that Liverpool do have the quality to beat. It helps, furthermore, that the second leg is at Anfield, allowing them to hold their future in their own hands.
Want to share your opinion? Why not Write For Us?