‘Historic’- that’s how Hoffenheim trainer Julian Nagelsmann summed up his side’s season following their 3-1 win over Borussia Dortmund, which sealed third place in the Bundesliga and direct qualification for next season’s Champions League. Tremendous, fantastic, and brilliant would be other suitable adjectives.
The Sinsheim club went one better than last season’s fourth place finish (even though they garnered seven more points last year), but the impressive thing about this season’s achievement is the way they did it despite their squad being weakened by the predatory Bayern Munich and a mid-season slump which brought the naysayers out in force.
They lost arguably their two best performers from last season in Sebastian Rudy and Niklas Süle to Bavaria in the summer before striker Sandro Wagner followed in the January transfer window. Add in Jeremy Toljan’s departure to Borussia Dortmund and that represents a considerable weakening of the squad.
Regardless, Julian Nagelsmann showed he is not a flash-in-the-pan trainer by guiding Hoffenheim superbly through the changes. The 30-year-old didn’t panic when the club suffered a dip in form and wasn’t overly affected by the rumours linking him with Bayern Munich following Carlo Ancelotti’s sacking.
They will want to swiftly gloss over their Europa League exploits which saw them finish bottom of a group that consisted of seemingly beatable sides SC Braga, Ludogorets, and Istanbul Başaksehir. Let’s call it a learning curve.
A fairly open Hinrunde meant that with seven wins, five draws and five defeats Hoffenheim finished seventh, but only two points behind Borussia Dortmund in third. The opening seven matches of the Rückrunde however saw only one win and they seemed to be in freefall with doubts starting to be cast over Julian Nagelsmann’s ability to steady the ship.
Heavy losses to Bayer Leverkusen (4-1 home) and Bayern Munich (5-2 away) dented confidence were part of a seven game spell which produced only the one win over a struggling Mainz.
The did however turn things around winning seven of their last ten games- a run which coincided with a rich vein of goal scoring form from Andrej Kramarić. They demolished Köln 6-0, beat RB Leipzig 5-2 away as well as sharing six goals with Borussia Mönchengladbach in a draw.
By the time it came to the final games of the season, Hoffenheim had got themselves into a position whereby their home clash with Dortmund represented a Cup final of sorts with a win guaranteeing Champions League football. A great display was produced leading to the club’s highest ever finish.
Their 6-0 win over Köln was the club’s biggest win in the top flight since their original promotion back in 2008. Köln at the time really needed the points, but Hoffenheim showed no mercy as they put the poor Billy Goats to the sword.
The 3-1 win over BVB that clinched 3rd was epic for the display they put on and for the importance attached to it. With Bayer Leverkusen threatening to snatch their place, the pressure really was on.
Beating Bayern for the second season in a row on matchday 3 would have given them great satisfaction even if they were helped by a very quick-acting ball boy.
Player-wise, Serge Gnabry’s magical goal from just inside his own half on matchday 14 against RB Leipzig was noteworthy as was the fantastic scoring run from Andrej Kramarić between matchday 21 and 27 when the Croatian bagged seven in seven games.
The loss to Liverpool in the Champions League play-off stopped the Hoffenheim European party before it had even got started and made all the effort and achievement from the previous campaign seemingly count for very little. Their performances in the Europa League also brought little in the way of joy as they last in a group, which on paper seemed pretty straightforward.
The poor run at the start of the Rückrunde which witnessed successive defeats (4-1 v Leverkusen and 5-2 v Bayern) was the low-point in what ultimately ended up as a brilliant season. Against the Werkself they were undone by the brilliance of Leon Bailey, while against Bayern they collapsed despite going 2-0 up in the first 12 minutes at the Allianz Arena.
Hoffenheim scored 66 which is their second highest tally in the Bundesliga (72 in 2013-14 when they finished 9th). This season TSG averaged 1.94 goals per game with Mark Uth top scorer on 14 and Andrej Kramarić one behind on 13.
Former SC Heerenveen striker Uth scored both goals on matchday 3 as Hoffenheim beat Bayern and grabbed braces against both Köln and Leipzig in the final weeks of the season. He also provided nine assists. His partner in crime Kramarić grabbed the majority of his goals during his rich scoring run in the Rückrunde (seven in seven) and helped himself to a hat trick in the 3-1 win over Hannover on matchday 32.
Kramarić led the way with shots attempted with 78 compared to Uth’s 54. Hoffenheim were particularly strong in the second half of games with 60% of their goals scored coming in the second 45 minutes of matches. Of the other forwards Serge Gnabry scored 10, Adam Szalai got 5, while Sandro Wagner scored 4 before departing to Bayern.
Oliver Baumann was ever-present in goal with the usual three-man defensive unit of Kevin Vogt, Benjamin Hübner and Kevin Akpoguma in front of him. The wing back roles were covered well by Pavel Kaderábek and Nico Schulz.
Hoffenheim conceded 48 goals which was 11 more than last season. Eighteen were conceded from set-pieces with corners accounting for half of that figure. Benjamin Hübner managed to get himself on the scoresheet three times and also led the team on aerial challenges winning 67% of his 168 duels. Kevin Vogt’s passing game saw him leading the Bundesliga (jointly with Sven Bender and Denis Zakaria) for pass accuracy on 91%. He also led the league for phases of ball possession edging out Bayern’s Joshua Kimmich.
The youngster of the defensive trio, Akpoguma, made 14 mistakes which led to goals but was only booked once all season (Hübner and Vogt were both cautioned nine times).
The predominant formation from Julian Nagelsmann was the 3-1-4-2 which saw summer signing from Werder Florian Grillitsch occupying the key defensive midfield role in front of the defensive three. He was the team’s top tackler with 126 over the season (63% success rate).
The stable base Grillitsch provided allowed the more attacking midfielders the freedom to get forward and create. Nadiem Amiri scored two, provided three assists and was second on the team behind Andrej Kramarić for key passes made.
Julian Nagelsmann wasn’t afraid to give youth its chance with 19-year-old Dennis Geiger making 20 appearances.
Improvement for Next Season
Having outdone themselves this season it will be extremely difficult for Hoffenheim to improve on their best-ever third place finish, but Julian Nagelsmann will be looking at a few areas to get a tiny percentage of improvement from his squad.
The ability to protect a lead is one such area, while working with the forwards to avoid being caught offside so often will also be part of the pre-season preparation.
The squad had no real weakness in their squad with defenders, midfielders and strikers all executing their roles superbly. That said, they will want to improve their European form and like RB Leipzig this year, may suffer from the added burden of midweek Champions League action.
Transfer Review/ Preview
Alexander Rosen has already been busy and completed what looks to be some decent early transfer business. Midfielder Leonardo Bittencourt has arrived from relegated Köln. The 24-year-old was on top form towards the end of the season doing his level best to keep the Geißböcke in the top flight.
The midfield has also been strengthened by Max Meyer’s surprise arrival from Schalke. His acrimonious departure from Gelsenkirchen should not take away from his undoubted talent and it remains to be seen whether Hoffenheim deploy him in an attacking role, or as Domenico Tedesco did, as a converted number 6.
The signing of Ishak Belfodil looks slightly more curious when you consider the Algerian didn’t exactly pull up any trees at Werder Bremen and is clearly not a like-for-like replacement for Uth. The other arrival thus far is fullback Joshua Brenet, who has signed from PSV Eindhoven for around €3.5 million.
You’d imagine that more attacking arrivals will be forthcoming to cover the loss of both Serge Gnabry and Mark Uth. The pair contributed 24 goals and 12 assists between them so the club will need to compensate for that somehow. Personally, I’d love to see young HSV talent Jan-Fiete Arp move to Hoffenheim and develop under professor Nagelsmann. Alfred Finnbogason is another name that could be considered by Hoffenheim.
There have been recent rumours concerning Bayern Munich interest in Kevin Vogt and his loss would be extremely hard to compensate and be a bitter pill to swallow following the departure of Niklas Süle last summer.
Player of the Season
He may have scored one less than Mark Uth, but my nod for Hoffenheim’s ‘Player of the Season’ actually goes to Andrej Kramarić. The Croatian ended the season with 13 goals- seven of which came in a vital seven game spell in during which Julian Nagelsmann’s side made their surge into the top four.
He had a shoot-on-sight policy going leading the club with 85 efforts on goal putting him fifth in the Bundesliga (Robert Lewandowski led with 124). He also led the team for key passes making a total of 48. Only Serge Gnabry completed more successful dribbles and Kramarić contributed eight assists.
He did have an 18-game scoring drought after getting on the scoresheet in both Hoffenheim’s opening games, but he came good at just the right time as the club emerged from their Rückrunde mini-slump.
Honorary mentions should however go to the likes of Nico Schulz, Serge Gnabry, Mark Uth and Benjamin Hübner for their own outstanding seasons.
Having enjoyed their best-ever season and surpassing last year’s success, anything less than an ‘A’ grade would seem stingy to say the least. Hoffenheim were one of only three teams to defeat Bayern Munich over the Bundesliga season and also beat Schalke, RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund at home.
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