To say the final match day scenes at the Signal Iduna Park were dramatic would be a gross understatement. You could try breath-taking, emotional or thrilling, but words could never truly do the events justice.
On Matchday 34, Hoffenheim’s faint hopes of survival hung in the balance as they trailed Borussia Dortmund 1-0 with roughly 13 minutes remaining. Only a win would secure them the relegation play-off spot ahead of Fortuna Düsseldorf. Then, out of nowhere, two penalty decisions went their way, resulting in two Sejad Salihović goals, in Kevin Großkreutz replaced Roman Weidenfeller in goal as BVB went down to ten men, as the travelling Hoffenheim faithful went absolutely berserk.
As stoppage time drained away, Hoffenheim hearts were seemingly shattered. A Marcel Schmelzer strike was diverted past Koen Casteels by talisman Robert Lewandowski. The Sinsheim club had been demoted down a division in cruel fashion. Or so it seemed.
With everyone in a state of confusion, the goal was eventually rescinded after post-mortem discussions between the linesman and the man with the whistle. Die Hoffe were back from the dead. It was one of the most intense final day events in Bundesliga history. Many compared it with the last day of the 1998-99 season.
Having regrouped, Hoffenheim showed little weakness in disposing of second tier Kaiserslautern across two legs, making sure that the giant killing of Dortmund was not achieved in vain. With at least another Bundesliga season to savour at the Rhein-Neckar Arena, fans will be expecting a vast improvement. 2013/14 will be a make or break season for the club. Improve now, or face another season on the brink.
What Needs To Change
More than anything, expectations must alter for the club. Whereas fans over recent years have lamented the club’s mid table mediocrity (and rightfully so), now more than ever that is precisely what they need, stability. The club must face its shortcomings. Owner Dietmar Hopp may have lofty dreams and deep pockets, but even he would admit that the current crop is a far cry from their debut Bundesliga squad. The fearless attacking flair of Demba Ba, Chinedu Obasi and Vedad Ibišević is a very distant memory. They need a slow rebuilding process, in order to climb back up the ladder one step at a time.
Starting from the back, Hoffenheim are in dire need of regeneration. 67 goals conceded over 34 games was the highest of all 18 teams. 21-year-old Koen Casteels manned the posts in the final run in, and largely proved a success. He was at times erratic however, and Hoffenheim may look to sign another option in net, as want-away goalkeeper Tim Wiese’s status in the squad remains tenuous.
The back four chopped and changed throughout, and it is here where coach Markus Gisdol must build his foundations for next season. Veteran captain Andreas Beck remains a constant, as does rightback Fabian Johnson. In the centre, however, Hoffenheim could do with a few more additions. David Abraham and Jannik Vestergaard were largely the preferred pairing under Markus Gisdol, but were by no means convincing. Shipping 13 goals in the final 5 games on the season, the defence crumbled when needed most.
Further up the pitch, Hoffenheim’s goals were shared amongst a myriad of players, leaving a gaping hole up front where a 20 goal a season striker would fit right in. A lot of pressure was placed on the likes of Joselu, Kevin Volland, Eren Derdiyok and Sven Schipplock. All had their chances, but all largely fell short of cementing regular starting positions.
Above all else, Hoffenheim must shake their habit of letting their brightest talents leave. Keeping hold of Sejad Salihović, Roberto Firmino, Sebastian Rudy and Kevin Volland will be crucial. These starlets can provide a bedrock of stability for new signings and academy graduates to compliment.
- Anthony Modeste (FC Girondins de Bordeaux)
- Tarik Elyounoussi (Rosenborg BK)
- Kevin Akpoguma (Karlsruhe)
- Luis Advincula (Associacao Atletica Ponte Preta loan)
- Joselu (Eintracht Frankfurt loan)
- Sandro Wieser (SV Ried loan)
- Stephan Schröck (Eintracht Frankfurt)
- Igor de Camargo (Standard Liege)
- Daniel Williams (Reading)
- Chris (released)
Potential Line-Up (4-3-1-2):
The 21-year-old Brazilian has been at the club now for two and a half seasons, though it feels longer. Following in the footsteps of other lauded Brazilians Luiz Gustavo and Carlos Eduardo, Firmino provided creativity and flair in abundance last season. A greater contribution is needed in the assists department, but that should come with time and maturity.
At the club since 2006, he’s been the mainstay throughout Die Hoffe’s recent transition years. Top scorer from midfield, he will hope that others can carry the goals burden next season. As a calming and assuring influence in midfield, he is vital.
Sebastian Rudy and Kevin Volland
The German under-21s pairing should step up in importance next year. Rudy scored two penalties in Germany’s unsuccessful under-21 campaign in Israel, and impressed many as an anchor in midfield. Volland will hope for a more impressive return up front than last season (6), but 12 assists prove why many tout him as a hot prospect for the future.
Tarik Elyounoussi and Anthony Modeste
Two fresh attacking options, both hoping to take the next upward step in their careers. Elyounoussi, who can play on the wing or up front, has already earned 21 caps for Norway and scored 6 goals, captaining his country in the process. With Joselu loaned out to Eintracht Frankfurt, new signing Anthony Modeste will look to seize the opportunity and become the man the club has been looking for. 15 goals for Ligue 1 side Bastia last season was a decent haul, though the Bundesliga is an altogether different beast to tame.
The forgotten man of the Bundesliga, but not of the club. After a serious car accident that left him comatose for several weeks in September 2012, Vukčević is on a long road to recovery. Little is known of whether we will see him on the Rhein-Neckar turf this season, but regardless of that, his strength and determination will act as an inspiring catalyst for fans and players alike.
The Gift of Gisdol
Was it luck? A fluke? Or was Markus Gisdol genuinely the decisive factor in Hoffenheim’s survival scrape. Only time will tell as Gisdol prepares for his first full season in charge. Though if last season is anything to go by, he may struggle to last!
Gisdol was the fourth in line after Markus Babbel, Frank Kramer and Marco Kurz were all deemed surplus to requirements by the hierarchy. His turnover was good enough, three wins, two draws and two losses. Just one clean sheet is a worry, but the fighting spirit shown towards the dying embers of the season was promising. The 2-2 comeback from 2-0 down away at relegation rivals Werder Bremen was decisive, inspired by Gisdol’s substitute Sven Schipplock. And then of course came the final day dramatics at Dortmund.
If Gisdol can permanently instill that grit and determination along with some more fresh faces, he may just be the right man for Dietmar Hopp. It’s a big ‘if’ though.
Unless the defence is strengthened with at least two new faces, I struggle to see a scenario where Hoffenheim won’t be languishing between mid table and the relegation mire. Their attacking flair is like a diamond in the rough. The likes of Volland, Schipplock and Firmino need nurturing and guidance in order to fulfill their potential. If Markus Gisdol can unlock their talent and use it to its capacity, Hoffenheim may be able to climb back up from fallen territory.
Gisdol ultimately has a lot to prove, and whether he will last the season is questionable. Seven games is nothing to judge a manager on, and his true ability will become evident when the season commences. It looks it is going to be another season of disappointment for Hoffenheim.
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