Hoffenheim: More of the Same in 2012?

Author of the Hoffenheim blog Hoffside and co-editor of the excellent blog Four Added On Saurabh Ananth reviews TSG 1899 Hoffenheim’s Hinrunde for the fanatic.

With the first half of the season done and dusted, let’s have a look back shall we? All the way back to June. The summer started on a real high with the arrival of Holger Stanislawski, and with him came a new sense of hope. The former St. Pauli man had achieved more than was expected of the Hamburg club with very limited resources. So with Hoffenheim looking to cut back on spending, the appointment seemed fitting. A man who had proven that he was capable of getting the best out of what he had. The small money signings made by the club definitely caused worry around the Hoffenheim camp though. Large numbers of fans had already penned the club into list of clubs who would be fighting relegation.

But the season started out well for the Sinsheim club. The team found themselves high up the table after just a handful of games, fitting the pattern of previous seasons. Talks of Europe seemed realistic this time however and the move to create a self sustaining club looked like a smart one. Stanislawski’s ambitious tactics really seemed to be working as well, getting the best out of players like Roberto Firmino and Ryan Babel. An entertaining encounter never looked like it was more than a week away. Yet, the good times disappeared fairly quickly.

Vedad Ibisevic has been a vital part of the Hoffenheim team since he has returned from his long term injury.

Stanislawski’s “Hurricane” formation really was an amazing tactic when in action. The front four featured interchangeable forwards and wingers allowing players to switch positions with ease, drawing defenders away from their positions. The tactic created vast spaces for Hoffenheim’s players to take advantage of. Defences early on were torn apart by this movement but the effect of it seemed to wear off with the return of Sejad Salihovic and Vedad Ibisevic. Of course, the two players were always going to be a vital part of the team but they did put the entire approach of the team at risk. Yet they addressed other weaknesses within the team and quickly took the weight of the team on their shoulders. So it would be unfair to be critical with the two. It is a bit strange as a fan because the necessary tactical changes are clear to see yet Stanislawski continues to stand by his philosophy, something which doesn’t look like changing any time soon.

The team’s major weakness was an obvious one. Hoffenheim had scored a majority of their goals from outside the box or as a result of set pieces. There was a serious lack of finishing ability with Vedad Ibisevic out injured and it cost the team dearly on many occasions. That problem still hounds the club even with the big man back in action up front. Yet, six of Hoffenheim’s last seven goals have come from the Bosnian pairing of Ibisevic and Sejad Salihovic. And as a result, the team has fallen into the hole of relying on the duo to deliver in every game.

Ibisevic made the difference in a tight match against Gladbach. However, the Bosnian striker and the rest of his teammates do not manage to pull off routine victories against weaker oppositions.

The worrying thing is that the team hasn’t performed when it matters. Seven big points were picked up against the likes of Dortmund, Bayern and Gladbach. All that good work was then wasted after giving up late goals against teams like Kaiserslautern, Freiburg and Hertha Berlin. The team also slumped to very embarrassing defeats to HSV and Leverkusen, both teams who have had their own problems this season. During this run it wasn’t just the players, but a majority of fans showing signs of frustration. The shocking away support of just 150 people turned their backs to the field when the team was being outplayed by Leverkusen. The calls for Stanislawski’s head grew stronger with people blaming his inexperience as a coach.

And the infighting within the club certainly didn’t help. Over the top disciplining and misplaced comments about teammates caused friction within a team still trying to gel. While some decisions could have been put down to bad judgement from Big Stan, there was still a lack of drive, focus and ability to see out games. Something that can only be blamed on the players themselves.

In Hoffenheim’s last six games in the Hinrunde alone, the team lost the lead three times, conceding four goals in the final 20 minutes of matches. It could be a case of inexperience as it’s been pointed out time and time again how young the squad is. Although you cannot excuse the defence who host very experienced players. Captain Andreas Beck and center back Marvin Compper have been with the club since their promotion in 2008. Compper’s partner in crime, Isaac Vorsah has been with the team a year longer and helped them gain promotion in their first season in the 2. Bundesliga. And goalkeeper, Tom Starke, spent a good part of his playing career in the 2nd division and has found himself in both promotion and relegation situations. That experience has shown over the course of his year and a half Hoffenheim career. He has made vital contributions and can be one of the few players in the last year or so who can say he’s won the club points on his own.

Let’s not forget all the talent up front as well so where has Hoffenheim’s poor form really come from? It’s a difficult to answer because the tactics and individual talent is there for all to see. The issues have been the club’s inability to finish off chances and defend leads. These two things will need to be solved as soon as possible if the club is going to continue to hold any hope of qualifying for European football for the first time ever. While Hoffenheim is in no immediate danger of relegation, things can change very quickly as we saw with Frankfurt last year.

Chinedu Obasi came from Lyn Oslo to Hoffenheim, a major coup back then considering that many European top clubs wanted to sign the Nigerian. The striker has now left Hoffenheim on a loan deal to possibly replace Jefferson Farfan at Schalke.

The January transfer window doesn’t look like it’s going to be a busy one. The club has already seen two players, in Chinedu Obasi and Gylfi Sigurdsson leave on loan to Schalke and Swansea respectively. The single addition at this point of the winter break is FC Basel’s young midfielder Sandro Wieser. Wieser was yet to make a proper breakthrough at Basel and so he will probably find himself in the Hoffenheim reserves for the remainder of the season at the very least.

Even though, he can’t be considered as a “new transfer”, Boris Vukcevic will be the player to watch in the Rückrunde. His development had seemingly stalled until his injury against HSV back in April of 2011, but since his return in recent weeks he’s shown flashes of brilliance. The hope is that he will get more starts and finally reach the heights that many thought he could once reach.

There was also the prospect of 1860 Munich poacher, Kevin Volland, joining the club in November. The 19 year old striker has a contract with Hoffenheim but had decided to stay on at 1860 to gain first team experience. The contract did have a clause that gave the club the option to bring him in in November 2011. However, the decision was made to bypass the option, leaving Volland to gain more playing time in Munich and make a fresh start with Hoffenheim in the summer.

So the small money signings from the summer will probably continue through the winter break. With Marvin Compper out injured for a few more weeks, Isaac Vorsah leaving for the African Cup of Nations and both players yet to serve suspensions, only Jannik Vestergaard remains to cover at center back. While injury table jockeys, Manuel Gulde and Matthias Jaissle have been touted to finally get their chances in the first team, the possibility is that Ernst Tanner could look to bring in a temporary center back for the remainder of the season.  (Tanner has brought in FC Twente defender Stefan Thesker, but the 20 year-old German has little top flight experience and looks to be more of a prospect than a player ready to play for the senior team.  Thesker has played most recently in the Dutch Eerste Divisie for Fortuna Sittard).

When looking to the second half of the season, the safest bet would be to say that Hoffenheim will finish just around where they did last year. The team still has a long way to go before they can truly be considered as contenders for the Europa League spots. Still, with Hoffe still in the DFB Pokal, there’s always the slim chance of qualifying via the cup competition. Hoffenheim fans can definitely share some optimism though.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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