This season has seen the usual competitive nature of the Bundesliga diminish slightly. Bayern München are running away with the league title, with them being 15 points clear at the top of the table. At the bottom, the lack of competitiveness is also noticeable. Augsburg and Greuther Fürth have been the whipping boys of the Bundesliga so far, with them having notched a paltry four wins between them. In typical Bundesliga fashion, there is one shock relegation candidate. After an appalling start to the season, 1899 Hoffenheim remain lurched in 16th place, the relegation play-off spot.
It has been an anti-climax of a season for Hoffenheim. Eccentric owner Dietmar Hopp said at the start of the season that his ambition was “to reach the Champions League.” He equipped manager Markus Babbel with eleven new players, totalling £11.7million. Many of these were of a high-calibre and consistent Bundesliga performers, such as Bayer Leverkusen striker Eren Derdiyok and Werder Bremen goalkeeper Tim Wiese. Other signings, such as striker Joselu and Japanese midfielder Takashi Usami, had a risk element to them, due to their limited or no Bundesliga experience.
The Champions League dream disappeared quickly, with the Sinsheim-based club faltering in the Hinrunde. In the first 17 games, the club picked up a disgraceful total of 12 points: this consisted of three draws and three victories, with these coming against Hannover, Stuttgart and Schalke. If the results were not bad enough, the way they were defeated was beyond embarrassing. Markus Babbel’s negative tactics won him no fans, with it being abrasive, limited and lacking attacking play and panache. The players often displayed little passion, effort or spirit, which saw them routinely criticised: examples include the now-departed defender Marvin Compper and goalkeeper Tim Wiese.
Unsurprisingly, Babbel was given the boot two games before the winter break, with Hoffenheim lodged in 16th place. The season so far had been a disaster in every way possible for Hoffenheim, and a change of management was desperately needed.
With Babbel out of the picture, a new manager was needed to drag them out of the relegation zone. Someone with charisma – someone who could make the team click. Step forward Marco Kurz. The 43-year-old has been out of a job since March 2012, when he was sacked as Kaiserslauten manager after a run of 16 games without a win. On the whole, his spell at 1. FC Kaiserslauten was a success, with him leading them to the 2.Bundesliga title and 7th place in the top-tier of German football the following season.
It has not taken long for Kurz to make his mark on the team. Many Hoffenheim players have commented on an added desire to perform, as well as a defiant belief that they can get out of the relegation zone. This has been showed by the first four games of the Ruckrunde, which has seen Hoffenheim gain a win against Freiburg, a draw against Borussia Monchengladbach, and defeats away to Hannover and Eintracht Frankfurt. The four points gained in these games saw them pick up a quarter of the points they won in the Hinrunde. One reason for this recent turnaround has been the form of 20-year-old striker Kevin Volland. His three goals in four games leave him as Hoffenheim’s sole 2013 goal scorer; with him starting to live up to his reputation as one of Germany’s best young strikers.
Another reason for their upturn in form has been the influx of players Kurz has brought in, as he aims to put his own imprint on the squad. A total of £9.3million has been spent on eight players; while three – including former captain Marvin Compper – have departed for a total of £200,000. Cultured centre-back David Abraham and tenacious midfielder Eugen Polanski were the biggest buys, at £2.5million apiece. Highly rated Ghanaian midfielder Acquifie Acquah was snapped up from Palermo for a fee of just over £2million. Two players – goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes and striker Igor De Camargo – were brought in on-loan from Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Monchengladbach respectively. The acquisitions of Peruvian’s Luis Advincula and Junior Ponce, as well as Brazilian striker Biteco, show long-term planning with them all being under the age of 22. All of the signings have a risk element about them, with only Polanski and De Camargo having prior Bundesliga experience previously. This means that the majority of the incoming players will have to adjust to the rigours of the Bundesliga quickly to help Hoffenheim in their relegation fight.
A potential barrier to them escaping the drop-zone is the form of others around them. The only other teams above Hoffenheim who can be pulled out as potential relegation contenders are 1. FC Nürnberg and Fortuna Düsseldorf. It is the form of 17th place FC Augsburg, though, who could be their biggest threat to them avoiding the drop. After a dire first half of the season, Augsburg coach Markus Weinzeirl took drastic action to help his team pick up form in the second-half of the system. Several new players – such as on-loan Sunderland striker Ji Dong-Won and American international Michael Parkhurst- were brought in, whilst a new tactic was implemented. So far, so good for the Fuggerstadter. They have picked up a win and two draws since the return on the Bundesliga, with them impressing and surprising many due to their sudden upturn in form: this has led many to think that Augsburg may pull off what many people would have deemed impossible at the end of the Hinrunde – escaping the drop.
The main question is, “Can Hoffenheim avoid the drop?” This is a question that I will have to give a tentative ‘yes’. Since Marco Kurz’ arrival, there has been a significant change at the Rhein-Necker Arena in a number of areas, from form to mentality. This has seen the form and performances improve, as well as a positive mood sweep around the club. There are two factors which could affect their survival chances, one direct and one indirect: how their new additions adapt to life in the Bundesliga, and the form of other relegation rivals, notably Augsburg. The one thing that is for sure is that things look brighter for Hoffenheim now than they did at any point under Markus Babbel.
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