Some, and perhaps many, Bundesliga fans will choke on the linked words –Hoffenheim and Champions League. But it is going to happen….TSG 1899 Hoffenheim will undoubtedly play Champions League football next season, because the village team, Die Kraichgauer, have EARNED it.
Although the village team haven’t clinched Champions League play for next season, with only five league matches remaining Hoffenheim are 14-12-3, good for 54 points. Although they are a long shot to catch re-vitalized RB Leipzig (four consecutive wins after a mini-slump) who are on 61 points, and may be passed by Borussia Dortmund, at 53, Hoffenheim are a cinch to at least make the Bundesliga’s fourth spot. with an 11 point lead on Hertha Berlin, doing their usual Ruckrunde slide downwards. Hoffenheim get results every week, coming up with no points on only three matchdays this season, which means only Dortmund can surpass them in the table.
The Champions League 4th place finish is the play-in berth — that means the Bundesliga side in that spot must play and win a two-game series to make the Champions League group stage. Four of the last five years, the 4th place Bundesliga club has done so.
So it’s not premature to say ‘congratulations’ to Coach Julian Nagelsmann and the village team (the village of Hoffenheim has a population of 3,280, Hoffe’s home grounds are located in Sinsheim, population 35, 175). The rub for many German fans, though, is how a team representing such a small population got to the Bundesliga in the first place — and the quickest answer is the funds invested by Dietmar Hopp, software billionaire and onetime Hoffenheim player when the club featured in the low divisions of the German football pyramid — Hopp’s resources boosted Hoffenheim up the German pyramid until they made the Bundesliga for the first time following the 2007/2008 season.
Hopp’s money, without argument, has also kept the derivesly-nicknamed ‘Hoppenheim’ from being demoted since then — sometimes barely. Meanwhile, larger clubs with past championship glory, from bigger cities, have spiraled downwards to annual relegation worries if not dropping down one, two or more divisions in the German pyramid while Hoffenheim stays in the Bundesliga
But despite Hopp’s investment, Hoffe have little to show in their nine seasons in Germany’s top division but survival. The village side has only landed in the top half of the table three times, and those were instances consisted of 7th, 8th and 9th place finishes. Except for their riveting, swashbuckling debut Hinrunde, in which they pushed Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga’s top spot for 17 matches, and last February’s headline-making appointment of then 28 year-old Nagelsmann as coach, Hoffenheim have been rather dullish, (ok Markus Gisdol’s time in charge produced lots of goals — for Hoffenheim AND their opponents) and more a begrudged afterthought than a positive one for German fans outside of a certain section of the Baden-Württemberg state.
It’s Different Now
But the paradigm in Hoffenheim has changed…and the reality is that Hopp’s money isn’t the deciding factor behind Die Kraichgauer grabbing Champions League football. The reality is more complex…and interesting.
The new reality concerning Hoffenheim is much less about Hopp’s money and much more about the transfer market, Nagelsmann and the club’s cutting edge training and evaluation methods. For this campaign, the club spent 23.5 M euros in the transfer market — but came out ahead 13.5 M € ahead because of transfer sales of 37 M € — most notably the 20 M picked up for the sale of Kevin Volland to Bayer Leverkusen. That follows a 33M surplus from the previous transfer market, mostly provided by the sale of another striker, Robert Firmino, to Liverpool FC for a whopping 41M. That’s a 44 M € surplus in transfer fees over two seasons for the village side.
It’s not that every move Hoffenheim have made in the last two years shows the imprint of genius. Kevin Kuryani and Eduardo Vargas were brought in to stem the departures of Hoffe’s top goalscorers, but both were quickly found lacking and are gone. Jonathan Schmid developed a good reputation at SC Freiburg, came to Hoffenheim for a year and was deemed unncessary and now plays for FC Augsburg. The initial hype surrounding the signing of young Brazilian Joelinton has ended, and the 20 year-old is now on loan with Rapid Wien.
But despite those signing misfires, Hoffenheim have been mainly on-target over the last two years, signing Oliver Baumann to fill their ever-problematic goalkeeping position, bringing in Sandro Wagner, Andrej Kramarić, Mark Uth and Kerem Dermirbay to fill the shoes of Firmino and Volland when it was obvious that Kuryani and Vargas couldn’t while getting glue guys like midfielder Lukas Rupp, Kevin Vogt, Pavel Kadeřábek and Benjamin Hübner to add veteran experience to the defensive efforts. Along with young talents nurtured in Hoffenheim’s youth system such as Niklas Süle, Jeremy Toljan and Nadiem Amiri, Hoffenheim have a quality, relatively deep squad.
That Nagelsmann Guy
Under Hoffenenheim’s now 29 year-old coach, only Baumann has played in all 29 league matches thus far. Süle and Sebastian Rudy, the two players already signed by Bayern Munich for next summer, are the only others to feature in more than 26 of the club’s Bundesliga fixtures this season. Nagelsmann has gotten five or more goals from five players, and perhaps even more remarkably, three or more assists from six players, with four more Die Kraichgauer players adding two assists. Nagelsmann has created an environment where many contribute to the attack, which is one reason that his side is a gaudy +25 in goal differential, proving that their record is no fluke.
Nagelsmann also thinks outside the box. Against a Gladbach side this weekend that features the rugged, talented central defender duo of Andreas Christensen and Jannik Vestergaard, the young Hoffenheim coach went old school, starting both of his rugged, veteran strikers, Ádám Szalai (who’d only started three matches this season) and Sandro Wagner. Did it work? Szalai scored an early opener from the rebound of a Wagner shot and added a second goal before 20 minutes had expired. Gladbach showed the quality to mount a comeback, but when it was all said and done, Hoffenheim won 5-3.
Like one of his major influences, Thomas Tuchel, Nagelsmann changes his tactics, formations and starting XI to fit the situation he envisions prior to each matchday. Moreover, the former Hoffenheim youth coach likes to keep every player on the squad involved, and takes an egalitarian approach, sharing his office with his assistants rather than going the more traditional route and maintaining a private office. Nagelsmann tries to keep practices and drills fresh, not routine, and has handled the imminent departures of two of his key players, Süle and Rudy, as if nothing happened. He can be relaxed with his players, but is not above delivering an old-fashioned chewing out when he feels his team has been complacent despite a positive result.
Moreover, Nagelsmann is a modern guy, and is absolutely comfortable with the philosophies central to the club.. Hoffenheim emphasizes the latest in technology, data collection and analysis to get an edge on its opponents. Stephan Uersfeld’s excellent February ESPN FC article chronicles the inner workings of Hoffenheim, explained by the club’s Executive for Sports, Peter Gorlich, The study that the club puts into gleaning new insights about player performance and ways to improve it are part and parcel of Hoffenheim’s current success. Joining Dortmund as the only other German club to use the Footbonaut to improve players’ instinctual reactions is only a small part of the recent technology available that Hoffenheim use. The club invests and studies new ways to better develop players at the club from the professional level to the U12 kids. The effort is obviously paying off.
The Bottom Line
Unless the unlikely occurs over the next five matchdays, Hoffenheim will have Champions League play next season, and deserve it. They took the risk of hiring a coach younger than previously imaginable to run a club in Europe’s top five leagues (although I doubt many inside of Hoffenheim’s braintrust saw Nagelsmann’s hiring as a great risk). The village team has taken four of six points from Bundesliga rekordmeisters Bayern Munich this season and have beaten all the other Bundesliga clubs but BvB that qualified for Europe last season — Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Mainz — Hoffenheim drew with Dortmund, in their only meeting thus far. The village side have only lost four times all season — three times in the league and once in the Pokal. Hoffenheim were also the last team in Europe’s Top Five leagues to suffer a loss in domestic play.
It’s simple to point to Dietmar Hopp’s money and begrudge the village side their due. Simple, and inaccurate. Hoffenheim have done the work, made a fortune in the transfer market, developed their youngsters and improved their veterans — and will reap their reward, with the Champions League anthem ringing in their ears, shortly.