"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Ralf Rangnick = Rafa Mark II?

By now, you’re probably familiar with Hoffenheim, the German upstarts from the tiny village of 3,732 souls, who, in their first season in the Bundesliga, sit atop the table. If you took a quick look at the results over the weekend, you would see that they were defeated, 2-1, by mighty Bayern Munich, who have now drawn level at the top of the German league.

Normal service has resumed, then?

Not quite. Because, even now that everyone has written the Hoffenheim feel-good story (replete with the customary caveats: this is not a pub team, Dietmar Hopp, the billionaire founder of SAP, the software giant, has invested heavily, etc.) there was nothing normal about Hoffenheim’s display on Friday night.

For a start, they deserved at least a draw, having outplayed Bayern for most of the game. “They were easily the toughest opponents we’ve played all year at the Allianz Arena,” Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the Bayern chairman, said. “Nobody else has come into our house and pushed us around like that.”

The “pushing around” bit is an apt analogy, because it speaks to the way Hoffenheim play. Their 4-3-3 is not a cloaked 4-5-1; their wingers – Demba Ba and Chinedu Ogbuke (who made the journey with John Obi Mikel from Nigeria to Norway, was his flatmate for two years and nearly joined him at Chelsea) – stay up the pitch and furiously press and harass the opposition. Their midfield trio move like clockwork and the back four push right up, applying the off-side trap with maniacal precision.

“My football ideal is Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan,” Ralf Rangnick, their manager, said. “Be aggressive in the press, never pass the ball backwards, be quick and direct in possession, move in unison.” Indeed, Sacchi gave football its last real tactical innovation some 20 years ago.

Back then, Rangnick was working in German amateur football. He would tape every Milan game, edit and catalogue every sequence and build a database of how the side moved on the pitch. And this was years before ProZone. To do this, you have to be something of a football-obsessed workaholic, which Rangnick undoubtedly is. He never made it beyond the amateur game (in fact his playing career includes a stint at Southwick, in the Sussex County League) giving him plenty of time to study the game instead.

Of course, many have tried to emulate what Sacchi achieved in his first four years at the San Siro, without succeeding. And that’s why Rangnick has provided his own tweaks, starting with the formation (a 4-3-3, rather than Sacchi’s 4-4-2). But, like all great tactical systems, the result is that the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.

Nobody embodies this more than Hoffenheim’s centre forward, Vedad Ibisevic. He has notched an outrageous 18 goals in 16 Bundesliga match-es and his story is as improbable as they come. A Bosnian refugee, his family escaped to Switzerland when he was fifteen. Ten months later, they gained a visa to the United States. After unsuccessful stints at Paris Saint-Germain, Dijon and Alemannia Aachen, he surfaced at Hoffenheim last season, where he was used mostly as a third striker.

Now he is flourishing. Tall (6ft 3in), strong and mobile, he is the offensive terminus for everything the side do and, beyond his scoring record, his runs and movement have become an integral part of Rangnick’s master scheme. With a contract expiring in 2010, he is sure to be on many clubs’ shopping lists next year, though the question of whether he can succeed away from Rangnick (or, indeed, if this season was just a freak occurrence) will remain for the time being.

From Hoffenheim’s perspective, the question also lingers, but, in some ways, it doesn’t really matter. They have already far exceeded their objectives. They’ve sold out every match between now and the end of the season (including the ones at the new 30,000-capacity ground they will move into in the new year) and they play a remarkable brand of football that is turning heads all around Europe. And, while Hopp’s millions played a part, his impact in the transfer market was negligible: just two of the club’s summer signings, Gustavo and Andreas Beck, are regulars.

Crucially, they have provided an alternative blueprint for success. One based on infrastructure, coaching and tactics. That alone makes them special, whatever may happen.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009