Season Preview – 1899 Hoffenheim – Europe or Avenue of Broken Dreams

1899 Hoffenheim is the suburban strip mall of the Bundesliga: unhistorical, placeless, charmless, unstoried, and sometimes not even functional.  Hard to love, yet easy to forget. Hoffenheim could vanish and be replaced with a more romantic club from 2.Bundesliga, yet would many care? I doubt it. Do we mourn the razed strip mall that is replaced with a mixed-use development?

Suburban metaphors aside, the un-nicknamed squad is named after a Sinsheim suburb of 3,272. Yet their Rhein-Neckar Arena (30,150) is in Steinfurts, another Sinsheim suburb. To escape the suburbs, the club ventured to the Mühldorf castle in Austria where it is training on a pitch overlooked by turrets and gables. After a busy transfer season, many newcomers are enjoying the castle grounds.

Hoffenheim’s royal training camp

By now, you are probably familiar with Hoffenheim’s well-documented tale of sensational upward mobility; the yokel amateurs from the Kraichgau made good, thanks to the monied pockets of club alumnus, software mogul, and billionaire, Dietmar Hopp. As recently as 1999, Hoffenheim was a fifth tier team. Hopp swooped in as benefactor-savior and the rest is recent Bundesliga history. Hopp and Hoffenheim are still resented by some for their rocketing rise, then identity-less statis in top flight play. For instance, the beloved Uli Hesse backhandedly critiques Hoffenheim’s empty identity here, then is more direct in his critique by dubbing the club  “faceless” here as it struggled during the beginning of the 2012 Hinrunde.

Hoffenheim’s divisive owner is hoping for a more rewarding season

In Purgatory’s Clutches

Hoffenheim’s mid-table purgatory continued in 2011-12, albeit with some soul-searching as Hinrunde opened; it claimed the 11th spot in the final table. But the going was tough — and no one seemed to care.

Hoffenheim finished 2011-12 with 42 total points from 10 wins, 11 draws, 13 loses, and a goal differential of -6. (For perspective, Borussia Dortmund finished with 81 points and a goal differential of +55!) So what happened? They scored only 42 goals and gave up 47.

Perhaps muted optimism could describe Saurabh Ananth’s outlook in his preview of Hoffenheim’s 2011-12 season. In particular, hope rode upon the craggy wrinkles of ex-St. Pauli boss, Holger Stanislawski, who arrived to inject some spirit and identity into Hoffenheim. Unfortunately, Stanislawski’s arrival coincided with Hopp looking to cut costs after splashing cash on his upstart club’s ascent to 1.Bundesliga. However, by midseason this new fiscal philosophy was at odds with Stanislawski’s young tenure.

The season began brightly. Stanislawski instituted his entertaining “Hurricane” formation in six early games, featuring five attackers up front in an exciting 4-1-4-1 formation. And the season started well with four wins in six games.

Hoffenheim’s “Hurricane” Formation

However, Hoffenheim could only score on set pieces — a damning harbinger. Although the club eventually balanced out its attack, it still struggled to score goals.  Ironically, the hurricane formation lost its charm with the return of injured Sejad Salihovic (midfielder) and Vedad Ibsevic (forward). Additionally, the centerback pairing of Isaac Vorsah and Marvin Compper became a leaky seive, too. By the holiday break, the club was sitting on 22 points from 6 wins, 7 losses, and 4 draws. The “Hurricane” was phased out for a 4-2-3-1 formation used in 25 fixtures, resulting in 9 wins, 8 draws, and 8 losses:

The revised 4-2-3-1 used for much of the remainder of the season.

After getting raided during the holiday transfer window — Chinedu Obasi and Gylfi Sigurdsson left on loan (now permanently),  and Ibsevic sold to Stuttgart (on the heels of fellow attackers Carlos Eduardo and Demba Ba leaving the year before) — and amid speculation of Stanislawski’s questionable disciplinary tactics, the ex-St. Pauli man was axed in mid-February. Former VfB Stuttgart and Hertha BSC manager, Markus Babbel, was brought in to finish out the Hinrunde. Florian Teimann attributes Stanislawski’s failure largely to the club’s lack of squad stability and youth. Meanwhile, Raphael Honigstein documents some of the personnel issues Stanislawski was up against. Finally, the transfer market effectively gutted the club of the attacking front that leveraged Hoffenheim into 1.Bundesliga. Symbolic new chapters were being penned.

Under Babbel, however, Hoffenheim finished the season with three straight losses, including an embarrassing 3-1 loss in the closer to soon relegated Hertha BSC. A sour ending for the 11th place team in the Bundesliga.

Bosnian Sejad Salihovic led the squad in scoring with 9 goals, while American international Fabian Johnson led Hoffenheim with 5 assists. Other optimistic performances were registered by Brazilian attacking midfielder, Roberto Firmino, and his Dutch midfield partner Ryan Babel.

Despite the lackluster year, it’s hard to find many statistics in which the club finished drastically in the bottom of the league; they were mostly a deviation below the mean, it seems. Staid mediocrity. (No wonder they are “nameless”!) On paper, the club is not in dire straights, it’s just insipidly stuck below the middle: table purgatory. Neither heaven nor hell.

Who’s Out

The list is long and spans the entire 2011-12 campaign and ensuing offseason: Daniel Haas (destination unknown), Andreas Ibertsberger (destination unknown), Chinedu Obasi (FC Schalke 04, was loaned out there), Tom Starke (Bayern Munich), Knowledge Musona (FC Augsburg, one-year loan), Srdjan Lakic (destination unknown), Philipp Klingmann (Karlsruher SC), Manuel Gulde (SC Paderborn), Franco Zuculini (destination unknown), Tobias Strobl (1. FC Köln, on loan) , Gylfi Sigurdsson – player of the year for Hoffenhem in 2010-2011 – (Tottenham).

Despite this list of losses, only the GK spots needs to be filled from the most used XI in 2011-12 though. However, this information is hardly comforting considering the mediocre play Hoffenheim received from its starting XI. To improve in 2012-13, Hoffenheim must field a different XI. Hoffenheim’s transfer market losses signal a club remaking itself from the squad that drove it into 1.Bundesliga.

Who’s In

Hoffenheim was busy, bringing in the following players: Stephan Schröck (SpVgg Greuther Fürth), Matthieu Delpierre (VfB Stuttgart), Kevin Volland (1860 München), Eren Derdiyok (Bayer Leverkusen), Tim Wiese (Werder Bremen), Takashi Usami (Gamba Osaka/Japan – on loan), Filip Malbasic (FK Rad), Joseph- Claude Gyau (Vereinigte Staaten U23; dual Ghanian and American citizenship), Chris (Christian Maicon Hening; VfL Wolfsburg).

Wiese, the German international and former Bremen GK,  is arguably Hoffenheim’s biggest offseason acquisition name-wise, replacing Tom Starke, who moved onto Bayern’s bench. Even if Wiese has had better seasons, statistically, than last, he will still be a dependable asset for Hoffenheim, given his experience and leadership. 

However, I think, these three new players are more intriguing:

  • Matthieu Delpierre (centerback from VFB Stuttgart): the 6’4″ 31 year old Frenchman (and former Lille man) is brought in to bolster Hoffenheim’s defensive center. He anchored Stuttgart’s backline en route to their league title in 2006-07. He also roomed with manager Markus Babbel when the latter was still a player. Delpierre is coming off a lost season due to injury. He could be Stuttgart’s defensive rock for a couple seasons. However, he is known as a penalty card magnet.
  • Takashi Usami (attacking midfielder from Gamba Osaka, on loan): the 5’7″ 20 year old youngster comes to Hoffenheim from Bayern, where he was phased out by Alaba. Usami was a highly-touted Japanese talent, being voted young player of the year in 2010. Currently, he’s unused on Japan’s Olympic squad in London. Usami brings quickness and a golden touch around goal.
  • Eren Derdiyok (forward/attacking midfielderfrom Bayer Leverkusen): the 6’3″ 24 year old Swiss international (hat trick against Germany in May!) arrives from Leverkusen, where re struggled (perhaps unjustly) to break into the starting XI. He still scored 7 goals in 24 appearances this season. He can play both forward and attacking midfielder. I’ve always thought he was overshadowed at Leverkusen and underrated. Expect him to be slotted into the old poaching spot occupied by Ibisevic or scrambled together with Schipplock, Babel, and Salihovic up front. He will start. He also scores golazos: 
Hoffenheim will field new faces this seasons, more than most 1.Bundesliga squads. The questions are who and where. Naturally, the pre-season hasn’t answered these two questions. Unsurprisingly, Babbel is playing most of the roster, as a perusal of pre-season games lineups and substitutes reveals.

What To Watch For

Can Hoffenheim break out of mid-table purgatory? This is the question. On paper, the club seems to have upgraded the squad offensively and defensively. However, the problem of chemistry always emerges when a squad is being made over like this. Can the new acquisitions become a team? Look for this question to define Hoffenheim’s Rückrunde, which could replace and postpone the purgatory question. Existential crises could be sidelined by the distraction of Babbel trying to get this group of newcomers to click.

Nonetheless, chemistry is fascinating. Babbel’s tinkering with the centerbacks, parts of the midfield, and the attack up front will be intriguing. Will a hurricane-like attack return with the glut of attacking midfielders and the likes of Salihovic and Derdiyok? Or will Babbel stick with his preferred 4-2-3-1? Regardless, he has a personnel puzzle to solve — a situation that should provide plenty of season-long analytical fodder for the  Zonal Marking minds among us.

For narratives, keep an eye on 25 year old captain Andreas Beck (flanker on the right), who’s been with the club since the 2008 promotion to 1.Bundesliga. In 2011-12, The captain played in 31 league matches, establishing his defensive presence on the right side of the pitch. Beck, a fearless tackler averaging 3.7 per game, was booked with 13 yellow cards. Drama surrounded Beck, as Juventus coveted him, while the captain certainly didn’t gush happiness about being with Hoffenheim. Will Beck attract more interest from other clubs on the flank during 2012-13?

Americans should care about Hoffenheim with its three Americans: Fabian Johnson, Daniel Williams, and teen Joseph-Claude Gyau. Johnson, especially, has been a revelation for Hoffenheim and the USMNT. Link-up play between he and Derdiyok could be very intriguing on the pitch’s left flank.

In 2011-12, Johnson mostly appeared as a fulback on the left, but also played seven games as a midfielder. He finished with 2 goals and 5 assists. Naturally, he provides the “right” answers about the upcoming season.

Finally, my preview wouldn’t be complete without me predicting the starting XI, muddling through the puzzle that Babbel is trying to crack. My bet is that Babbel will stick with the 4-2-31 he used prominently last season, simply because Derdiyok can be slotted into the the “1” spot, while Babbel can tinker with the attacking midfielders. Here’s a guess for how the lineup might look:

Hoffenheim’s potential formation for the new season

My Prediction

Given the nature of the alechemy project Babbel has on his hands for his attack, as well as “only” the slight upgrade the squad appears to have received as a whole, I don’t see Hoffenheim breaking out of mid-table purgatory.

Perhaps I’m wrong and the attack will click, the centerback pairing of Delpierre and Compper will be granite, and Hoffenheim will sneak into a Europa League spot. Or Babbel can’t get the alchemy right, Hoffenheim’s existential crisis becomes inescapable, and the magical run in 1.Bundesliga ends.

I predict Hoffenheim will finish between 8th-13th. But if I were placing my Vegas bet on a table finish, I’ll take 9th with 44 points. Derdiyok will lead the team in goals with 12 — a breakout year for the Swiss international.

Here’s to hoping the Bundesliga’s suburban strip mall surprises us!

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Howler magazine, 11Freunde, America Magazine, The Short Pass, Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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