This match was eloquently described by Pat Nevin on BBC radio as an “elongated five-a-side match,” his assessment summed up perfectly a bizarre game at the Etihad which saw Manchester City top group F.
It was a basketball match without the hoops but full of the up and down nature of attacking play. Hoffenheim took inspiration from Lyon’s double testing of City earlier in the competition and went for it all guns blazing.
In truth, they had to. A place in the Europa League was up for grabs, but as they were without a win in five Champions League matches this season, it was always going to be a tough ask for them to beat the reigning Premier League champions. Even if City have regressed an inch from last season, they are a formidable opponent and given the quality that Leroy Sane showed with a sweetly struck free-kick at the stroke of half time.
Relentless attacking but little defending
It was a five-a-side match in the respect that there was so much space for both sides to stride into. It appeared defending was optional and, although Pep Guardiola thrives for purist football of this kind, it will irk the City head coach that his side gave away so many chances. It was Hoffenheim’s slightly wayward finishing that let them down even though Andrej Kramaric’s first-half penalty to give the visitors the lead was well struck.
Like City, Julian Nagelsmann’s side often neglected defensive duties and were solely focused on scoring and ensuring a third-place finish. At times though it did appear ridiculous; in one instance, Hoffenheim lost possession inside of the City area, presenting their opponents with a counter opportunity.
When Raheem Sterling picked the ball up on the edge of the area he looked up and saw no Hoffenheim defender in front of him. Not Kasim Nuhu, or Benjamin Huebner, or Pavel Kaderabek. Only Oliver Baumann was visible in Hoffenheim colours, and he was at the opposite end of the pitch.
The fact that City wasted the chance, which had turned into a three-on-Baumann, kind of summed up the whole match. Whether it be the lack of real jeopardy on the outcome that led to City being casual, sloppy and too guilty of conceding possession, it was still a City victory and one in which they had to come from behind.
Changes led to lack of City rhythm
Five changes to the team that lost at Chelsea on Saturday did affect City’s rhythm; out went the injured David Silva and Fernandinho, plus Riyad Mahrez, Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph, who were all on the bench. Ilkay Gundogan, Nicolas Otamendi, Phil Foden, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko came into the starting XI.
One constant in Ederson played well and produced a miraculous flying save to deny Kramaric following a corner-kick. At times City’s defence does still appear vulnerable – it certainly gave Hoffenheim confidence here – but luckily for City, they have a tremendous goalkeeper to eliminate much of the danger that bypasses the defence in front of him.
Sane was City’s star performer
City’s attack was free-flowing and they hogged the ball as usual, searching for the quick passes and movement that has undone so many sides before. Foden, in particular, was incisive with his work and played one neat one-two with Sterling that came close to unpicking Hoffenheim.
But spurned chances were the feature of this match. Whether it be Reiss Nelson for the visitors or a miss-directed header by Foden or a stuttering strike from Sterling, the goal tally did not corroborate with the chance count. Sane, however, was on target twice for City and shone the brightest on a clear Manchester evening.
His free-kick was precise and driven, whilst his second was well-worked with Sterling and slotted past Baumann. It took City top and sent them through with a win, whereas Hoffenheim’s fearlessness ultimately led to a fourth-place finish and an exit from European competition. Yet this was a bizarre spectacle more so than anything else, and as Nevin correctly said: “It was all rather fun.”