2016-17 Season Preview: 1899 Hoffenheim March to the Youth Banner

Basics

Name: TSG 1899 Hoffenheim (Turn- und Sportgemeinschaft
1899 Hoffenheim e.V.)
Nicknames:
Die Kraichgauer (regional reference); “Hoffy” or “The Hoff” (social media)
Founded: 1 July 1899
Club colors: blue and white
Primary rivals: SV Waldhof Mannheim.
Fan friendship: Anyone? (Leave a comment if you’ve got anything.)

Wir-Sol Rhein-Neckar-Arena

Capacity: 31,150

2015-16 attendance: 469,462 (27,615 per match – 3rd lowest in Bundesliga)

Hoffenheim's Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena opened in 2009.
Hoffenheim’s Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena opened in 2009.

Trophies

(No significant trophies won to date.)

2015-16 Finishes

2. Bundesliga: 15th with 37 points (39 goals scored, 54 allowed, -15 GD)

DFB Pokal: 1st round (2-0 loss at 1860 Munich)

Number of Matches won by 2 or more goals:  3
Number of Matches won by 1 goal: 6
Number of Matches drawn:  10
Number of Matches lost by 1 goal: 7
Number of Matches lost by 2 or more goals:  9
Number of matches in which a led was blown, resulting in loss:  4
Number of matches in which a led was blown, resulting in draw:  4
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn a draw:  3
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn victory:  3

Top 2015-16 Scorers

Kevin Volland, Mark Uth: 8
Andrej Kramaric: 5
Nadiem Amiri, Jonathan Schmid: 4

Summer Test Results

Record: 4-1-0
Goals Scored: 16
Goals Allowed: 2 (!)

Hoffenheim 4:0 FC Vaduz

Hoffenheim 1:2 KV Oostende

Hoffenheim 2:0 Chievo Verona

Hoffenheim 2:0 Athletic Bilbao

Hoffenheim 7:0 PAS Giannina

 

Questions with an Expert:

For this segment, I tapped Ryan O’Grady of @HoffenheimUK (and others) for his expertise on the club with everyone’s favorite blue hue. Ryan, we are all grateful for your devotion to Hoffy.

Keep an eye out for . . .

I think the obvious ones are Nadiem Amiri and Philipp Ochs after they played a prominent role in our revival in the second half of last season. I expect them both to kick on this season, especially Amiri. Perhaps a lesser known player is Baris Atik, a 21 year old promoted from TSG II. He’s an attacking midfielder and that area of the pitch is pretty crowded at the minute so perhaps only an injury will give him a chance but 10 goals and 24 assists in 62 games for TSG II is quite impressive.

Terrace favorite . . .

Well, a few have left in recent years but it’s probably Nikas Süle. He’s one of our own as the chant goes, with the club since he was 14 and he’s a great player on top of that. I have no doubt that we would have been relegated last season were it not for Süle at the back. He’s destined for great things.

Player that should be driven to another club . . .

When I saw this question I thought there isn’t really anyone, then I remembered Adam Szalai is still at the club. If we were just talking about him as a player I would say give him another chance but there is all this stuff going around about a bad attitude and all that nonsense and I’m sure Julian Nagelsmann doesn’t want to deal with that.

Advice you’d give your manager . . .

I’m not sure I’m in any position to tell Nagelsmann, especially after how well he did last season. I guess just don’t take any nonsense from the players. We’ve had too many players throwing the toys out of the pram over the years and we just don’t need it.

Opposition player you despise . . .

Not really sure about this one, Hoffenheim being a new kid on the block and yet to really challenge for any serious silverware means we don’t have any major rivals. Wasn’t a big fan of Stefan Kießling after his ghost goal a few years ago but like I just said it was a few years ago.

What will opposing sides underestimate?

Our counter attacks. I think most teams assume, quite rightly in recent years, that our defence is a weakness and hence go on the attack and we always seem to be able to catch teams on the break, even the top sides. Something that I’m not sure was noticed much was Amiri’s impact off the bench. When he started matches he was always less impressive but when he came on around 60 minutes into games his ability to drive with the ball had tired midfielders on their backsides, I point to his winner vs Ingolstadt when he made the difference after coming on.

What are fans overestimating?

Tough one. I personally have got to the point where I always go into a season expecting the worst and I feel most fans would agree.

Tip you’d give foreign fans visiting Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena for the first time  . . .

I’ll be honest: there is not a lot there. The stadium itself is about a 20-30 minute walk from Sinsheim station and the only thing really of note on the way is the Auto & Technik Museum which has all sorts of cars and planes and the like but if that’s not your thing then I’m afraid you’re pretty stuck. The bar/restaurant at the station isn’t bad for food.

Where will Hoffenheim finish?

Going back to my answer to a previous question, I always expect the worst. I personally would be happy with 8th/9th after the disaster that was last season and then build on that the following year, I really believe the this is a long term project with Nagelsmann. Europa League would be a dream finish at this point.

What is your standout Hoffenheim memory from last season?

Has to be the 1-0 victory vs Wolfsburg in March last year. The week before we got a hiding from Stuttgart (5-1 in case you forgot, I haven’t) and it looked we were well and truly finished but the team pulled together and somehow pulled it off and kicked off a 5-match unbeaten run which saved us.

When last we saw them

A season ago, Hoffenheim burned through managers, fell to the league cellar, and thrashed around there until hiring the jejune Julian Nagelsmann, who led the team to just out of the relegation zone (15th place) by season’s end. On the macro level, Hoffenheim scored 39 goals (13th best) and conceded 54 goals (4th worst) with a putrid -15 GD. 

Hoffenheim's 2015-16 season was entirely spent in or close to the table cellar.
Hoffenheim’s 2015-16 season was entirely spent in or close to the table cellar.

To Nagelsmann’s credit, TSG *only* conceded 12 goals over the last 10 matches, while scoring 13 goals during this same stretch (whew!). However, the season’s beginning is what really crippled Hoffenheim, who didn’t win their first match until MD 7 against FC Augsburg and didn’t win again until MD 16 (!) against Hannover 96.

The club was a mess, as Markus Gisdol, who’d previously saved Hoffenheim from relegation a few seasons ago, was canned in favor of defensive football man, Huub Stevens, who, in turn, resigned for health reasons in the middle of the Rūckrunde. So in stepped 29 year old and Hoffenheim reserves coach, Julian Nagelsmann, who, by MD 34, guided Hoffenheim to top flight safety.

Basically, Hoffenheim couldn’t get their defense organized until deep into the Rückrunde, while the attack sputtered after the loss of the sensational central attacking midfielder, Roberto Firmino (to Liverpool). Without Firmino’s creativity, forward Kevin Volland was anonymous half the time, while another consistent scorer never materialized. By season’s end, an exciting core of young players – Jeremy Toljan, Niklas Süle, Nadiem Amiri, Mark Uth, and Philipp Ochs – claimed spots in die Startelf, piquing interest for this coming season. Watch out for these guys.

Aspiration

Europe. Ever since software tycoon Dietmar Hopp took over his boyhood village club (from the Sinnheim region) and pumped money into TSG’s stunning rise to the Bundesliga, the stated goal has been European football. Although TSG reached the Europa League after their first Bundesliga season in 2008-09, the club hasn’t repeated this feat.

With the young Nagelsmann coaching a new core of players, it’s not hard to imagine Europe being the goal over the next few seasons.

Reality

Lower mid-table. Seriously. Although Julian Nagelsmann seemed to stabilize the club, as they conceded goals at a diminished rate, TSG concluded the season sloppily with losses like a 1-4 match to Schalke or 3-1 to Gladbach. Moreover, Nagelsmann’s sample size is small (10 matches), so it’s hard to say confidently what exactly allowed to Hoffenheim to avoid relegation – his coaching? luck? sheer movement toward the statistical mean? opponents’ mistakes? – or to predict confidently that TSG will play better defense this season and score enough goals.

We just don’t know enough.

But I’m excited about the young players, especially Toljan, Süle, and Amiri. In general, the German Bundesliga functions as a fantastic place for young players to thrive, leading their clubs to happy height – just see SC Freiburg, Schalke 04, Mainz 05, etc. in recent seasons.

The Boss

Julian Nagelsmann is the Bundesliga’s youngest coach. If legend can be believed, he was once dubbed “Mini-Mourinho” by former die Nationalmannschaft keeper and current WWE wrestler, Tim Wiese.

Upon taking over as coach, Nagelsmann immediately moved players around the pitch, changed Hoffenheim’s shape, and set clear priorities. His players were given roles that could be flexibly adjusted to various scenarios and opponents.

During his tenure, Hoffenheim did a bit of everything: pressing, possession play, a back-three, two strikers on top, heavy winger play, or a midfield diamond, which does seem to be a more stable part of his tactical philosophy.

Hoffenheim's 29 year old head coach, Julian Nagelsmann.
Hoffenheim’s 29 year old head coach, Julian Nagelsmann.

Because of Nagelsmann’s age, he’s a fascinating study, given how many more years (presumably) we’ll be watching him coach. In terms of both on-pitch and leadership, he’ll be intriguing to watch in the long term, regardless of Hoffenheim’s table position this season or next.

Philosophy

Ball circulation with a midfield diamond and fast wing play seem to be traits at the center of Nagelsmann ultra modern philosophy of on-pitch flexibility (cp. Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel); however, Nagelsmann’s side doesn’t have the make up to play a Bayern or Dortmund-styled possession game, so Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim express flexibility in other ways.

Plan B

Picture this: Hoffenheim’s defense (despite the anchoring provided by Süle, or perhaps the big guy is sold during the Winterpause) still isn’t very good and that GD is looking mighty negative. Nagelsmann pulls his boys back into a box of nine defenders and Hoffenheim become yet another “counter attacking” team. Like we need another. Riding the season out to top flight safety becomes the all-consuming purpose.

Notable Transfers 

Out:

  • Kevin Volland (Leverkusen)
  • Joelinton (Rapid Vienna)
  • Antonio Colak (SV Darmstadt 98)
  • Tobias Strobl (Gladbach)
  • Jonathan Schmid (FC Augsburg)
  • Kevin Kuranyi (Unemployed!)

In:

  • Andrej Kramaric (Leicester City, loan made permanent)
  • Lukas Rupp (VfB)
  • Sandro Wagner (SV Darmstadt 98)
  • Kerem Demirbay (HSV)
  • Kevin Vogt (Köln)
  • Benjamin Hübner (Ingolstadt)
  • Marco Terrazzino (VfL Bochum)
  • Baris Atik (Hoffenheim II)

Strengths

Youth, youth, youth. With their young coach and core, Hoffenheim spark hope. It’s natural. In particular, TSG is talented in the attacking half and along the flanks. Expect excitement, flair, and even a bit of razzle-dazzle.

Nagelsmann is also hoping that flexibility itself becomes his squad’s strength, so expect some interchangeability, positional shifts, and angling play from the pitch’s half spaces.

Weaknesses

Youth, youth, youth. Yep. God knows how the young coach and core will really work out. Perhaps another 10 matches will reveal Nagelsmann to be out of ideas and losing control of the squad. Perhaps not.

Additionally, defensive stability is not guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination. Aside from Süle, questions remain with the other centerback(s) – Fabian Schär, Ermin Bicakcic, and Benjamin Hübner – especially if Süle is sold. Finally, how effective will the midfield crew (Eugen Polanski, Pirmin Schwegler, Lukas Rupp, and Kevin Vogt) surrounding Sebastian Rudy (TSG’s best player?) be in preventing own half turnovers, cutting off attacks, and distributing the ball to maintain possession?

Questions remain, my friends.

Crucial Stretch in Schedule

Honestly, the opening 10 matches will over-determine the season, a run culminating with an away trip to Munich and the likely “Bayern Treatment.” During this stretch, Hoffenheim will also play RB Leipzig, Mainz 05, VfL, SV 98, Schalke, Ingolstadt, SC Freiburg, Leverkusen, and Hertha.

Given how disastrous the Hinrunde was for Hoffenheim last season with its attendant chaos (two mangerial changes, etc.), avoiding major instability early in the season especially seems to be a crucial goal with the club’s young coach and young core. Hell, even coming away with just 3-4 wins during this stretch will a big improvement over last season.

Verdict

11th place. TSG will be better than last season, but it’s all a dice roll with the small Nagelsmann sample size and the youth. I won’t be surprise if Hoffenheim yo-yo around the midtable all season, perhaps sniffing at an Europa league slot and even vaguely sniffing at a relegation playoff spot.

But the kids’ll be alright.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website, as well as The Short Pass where he covers the USL and other topics. 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 Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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