Much ink has been spilled about the away goal advantage in a knockout competition, and we will not relitigate it here. What we will say is undeniably it gives the result of the first match an outsized advantage as it alters the tactics of the second leg. If there was any doubt about this statement, the second leg of Liverpool’s Champions League qualifier against Hoffenheim provide the point perfectly.
The German side entered the tie down one goal on the scoresheet but realistically two with Liverpool having twice scored away. That left manager Julian Nagelsmann with a critical decision: do you push forward from the start and hope to score a quick goal? Or do you play a more “normal” balanced game plan that allows you to hold off an attacking Liverpool side long enough to get the goals you need, but certainly protect yourself from going deeper in the hole?
Nagelsmann decided to be more aggressive, and that aggression cost them the tie within the first twenty minutes. Hoffenheim lined up in a 3-5-2. Normally in a 3-5-2, the wings in the “5” are the hard workers. They have to track back on defence when their club loses possession and push forward when they have the ball. From the start, though, Achtzehn99 kept their wings forward and relied on their back three to defend any wide runners. In addition, Dennis Geiger earned the start in the midfield over Lukas Rupp and was counted upon to add that extra ball-winning presence in the midfield to take the pressure off the defence.
From kickoff, though, the strategy fell apart. Playing so aggressively meant that Hoffenheim needed to dictate play and pressure Liverpool every time the home side had possession. The opposite happened, as the visitors looked like players playing together for the first time. Passes were sloppy and the defence looked shaky from the start. Seeing space on the wings, the Liverpool front three carved up the visitor’s back three out wide. This was exactly how the first goal in the tenth minute was scored. Hoffenheim carelessly turned the ball over in the midfield and Firmino found Mane on the left side. His nice backheel to an overlapping Emre Can created a deflection and goal to break Hoffenheim’s backs early.
From a Hoffenheim perspective, the early goals allowed prevented what could have been an epic comeback. When they did have possession, the German club looked dangerous. Serge Gnabry made some good runs (and missed some good chances) and runners from the midfield were finding space in the Liverpool defence. Combine that with a somewhat shaky performance by Mignolet, and as the Hoffenheim goals showed there were chances to mount a comeback from the beginning. Yet by going aggressive early, Naglesmann gambled on grabbing a quick goal and momentum, and lost big.