With the appointment of Julian Nagelsmann 1899 Hoffenheim made huge waves around the Bundesliga, but really it should have had impact much further afield than that. The 28-year-old (that in itself is newsworthy) is the youngest ever manager in the Bundesliga by quite some way and has made an immediate impact on the club who promoted from within to astounding effect. The Rhein-Neckar club managed to secure their Bundesliga future with two games to spare after being adrift at Christmas, something which previous coach Huub Stevens didn’t look capable of achieving despite his fantastic record (although given his resignation for health reasons there is quite possibly a reason behind that). Nagelsmann’s youth has worked in his favour and he has a visibly close relationship with his players and the club itself is starting to move in the direction it wants to for a sustainable future. So, Hoffenheim: what now?
The interesting thing about the tactics of Nagelsmann is how closely they resemble the Hoffenheim of old, back when Roberto Firmino was supplying Anthony Modeste with bullets and Kevin Volland was simply a part of a destructive 3-piece attacking unit. Nowadays Volland is back to that form, possibly thanks to the pressure of the captaincy being placed elsewhere, and he has a talented ensemble cast around him. Nagelsmann has developed a real squad feeling and that is visible in the way they pulled themselves out of relegation trouble. Volland is still top scorer, but with 8 goals he is by no means the star of the show and with Sebastian Rudy getting an international call up he is also not the only international player in the squad. Oliver Baumann once again takes a lot of credit for the defensive ability and if (as I fear he will) Ralf Fährmann is sold by Schalke 04 then Baumann would be a fantastic replacement. Fabian Schär took a while to adapt to the Bundesliga despite coming from the Austrian version, but has now settled into his role as an important figure in the centre of defence. Andrej Kramaric, loan star from Premier League champions Leicester City, has been a lively and productive outlet and they will be hoping to add him permanently in the summer. It would be hard to say that any of them have really stood much above the rest of the squad though, which shows most pointedly their progression as an entire unit.
The Hoffenheim that neutrals grew to know and love was incredibly unpredictable and exciting. Months would pass without them keeping a clean sheet, whilst at the same time they couldn’t stop scoring. They were so open and vulnerable defensively that it was a miracle they weren’t relegated. Except it wasn’t a miracle; it was a combination of excellent scouting and even better timing. The aforementioned Modeste, Firmino and Volland were all unheard of players (in the case of Firmino and Volland, youngsters) who lit up the Bundesliga with their flair and mesmerising attacking play. Firmino was sold for millions to Liverpool, where he is growing into a role as a star in the making, whilst Modeste sought pastures new and has had an up-and-down season in Cologne. Volland was, rather surprisingly, left behind minding the fort, but the real issue for Hoffenheim came in the fact that their defence was not improved and their attack was torn apart. On that note they parted company with trainer Marcos Gisdale early in the season and replaced him with Stevens, a well known pragmatist and a man who seriously improved their defence.
In solidifying the back-line he did something which I thought was impossible just a few months before; he made Hoffenheim deadly dull to watch. The signs were there that they would be able to avoid relegation if a balance could be struck and the attack could start firing to support the newly functioning defence. Nagelsmann replaced the unfortunate Stevens, who was planning on retiring soon anyway but was sadly forced into it early through ill health. At their final match of the season Hoffenheim aired a video of him congratulating the team on avoiding relegation and he was roundly applauded by home and away fans, with the Schalke fans acknowledging his contribution to them and German football over the years. He is a giant of the coaching game who we all wish a healthy and happy retirement. Nagelsmann took over under the cloud of relegation trouble and Stevens' illness, saddled with the pressure and additional spotlight of being the youngest ever trainer in Bundesliga history, looked at his squad and what worked before, and very quickly hit a winning formula. His record in the first few months of being in charge was simply phenomenal and his side climbed quickly away from Hannover, then to within touching distance of safety and, with 2 weeks to spare, finally confirmed their place in the Bundesliga for next season. The transition was not just quick, it was mighty impressive.
The next step has to be taken with one eye to the summer transfer window and, ultimately, next season. With envious eyes and Premier League cheque books looming over Hoffenheim’s star assets (if the papers are to believed, which they often aren’t) there will first be a tense summer trying to hold on to the likes of Baumann, Volland and Rudy. If any of them play any sort of role in Germany’s European Championship then expect them to be even more heavily linked with moves up the food chain. If they can retain their stars and bring another few young players through, either through their successful scouting system or their less impressive academy, then there is no reason why they can’t be pushing much further up the table next year. They have all the basics in place for a successful team and their success will hinge on the style and chemistry the squad have developed this year. Too many new egos and Nagelsmann may start struggling; too many young stars and the defensive stability could slip. It will be a tricky recruiting summer for the management team but if they get it right there is no reason why Hoffenheim shouldn’t be looking towards a Europa League place as a target for next season.
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