In a league deemed weak at the top and otherwise competitive, Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim have an opportunity to establish themselves as one of the Bundesliga’s top sides.
Huub Stevens led the club to a poor start during the 2015/16 campaign, though his resignation in February 2016 brought forward their planned appointment of Nagelsmann.
Then 28, he became the league’s youngest ever manager in history and has embraced the challenge. Managing to avoid relegation during that tumultuous campaign was an achievement in itself.
They earned seven victories from mid-February to the season’s end, a stark contrast after only two wins before Christmas. This saw them finish a point above the relegation playoff spot and they have since continued to surpass expectations.
After a fourth-placed finish in 2016/17, they qualified for the Champions League for the first time in their history. Although they struggled among tougher European opposition, it has served as an effective barometer of progression.
Improving consistency and the late-goal syndrome
On the domestic scene last season, goal difference saw them finish above Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen in third place.
The main issue has always been surrounding consistency, managing to avoid losing runs at tough points in the season and turning draws into victories. So far this term, it’s been no different. They have already lost on four occasions in Germany’s top-flight and dropped important points too. Conceding a late winner at Fortuna Dusseldorf, missing out on all three points against rivals Dortmund the following week – not all has been positive.
You could argue the same for their tricky Champions League group. In the first two matchdays, they conceded late on to draw away at Shakhtar Donetsk before David Silva’s 87th minute winner was enough for Premier League champions Manchester City. The roles have reversed somewhat since: Joelinton and Pavel Kaderabek with stoppage-time equalisers against Lyon on matchday three and four respectively, but the sentiment remains the same.
So how do they improve upon this evident weakness?
Well, it’s important to know Hoffenheim’s best players are usually sold every summer. Both Jannik Vestergaard (Southampton) and Fabian Schar (Newcastle) have joined England’s top-flight this past summer, while Niklas Süle’s excellent displays caught the attention of none other than reigning champions Bayern Munich. All three are centre-backs, whose consistent defensive displays naturally caught the eye of other European sides.
So with that in mind, you should spare a thought for defensive mainstay Ermin Bičakčić. The Bosnian international has been at the club since 2014, played alongside all three in central defence having had to adapt to different partnerships and playing styles.
They need to establish stability and importantly, concentration throughout the 90 minutes within their backline. Easier said than done, it’s perhaps telling that three of their four key players are creative minded and flourish in the final third.
Key players to watch
Joelinton: The 22-year-old Brazilian has impressed with goals, assists and his general contribution out of possession in a manner that is befitting of the club’s first-choice striker. Back from a two-year loan spell at Rapid Vienna, he has relished the opportunity to emulate the success of those before him by leading from the front and is clearly improving.
Reiss Nelson: How they wish they had the English teenager on a two-year loan deal. Has already excited supporters with his contributions in Germany, from Arsenal – having netted five goals and created one more in six Bundesliga appearances. The club’s best player so far this season.
Kerem Demirbay: Has been unfortunate with injuries but returned to the squad in late September and impressed. The creative midfielder, who made his Germany debut last summer, still has a way to go before an unlikely recall – but is making progress. Three assists and some encouraging displays in recent weeks.
Pavel Kaderabek: The dependable fullback, versatile as he is, has been a consistent performer for Hoffenheim this term and set a precedent for his defensive-minded teammates to follow. Played further forward as a right-sided midfielder, he has created chances aplenty while balancing his defensive responsibilities well.
Four important players – even without mentioning Nico Schulz, Andrej Kramarić, Nadiem Amiri (injured) and an out-of-form Florian Grillitsch. Nagelsmann has agreed a deal to join rivals RB Leipzig once the season is complete next summer. Provided the club’s recruitment remains the same and they can complete some shrewd deals, there’s no reason why Hoffenheim cannot continue to improve in his absence at the helm.