Explaining Hoffenheim's struggles this season
Julian Nagelsmann and Hoffenheim have looked more vulnerable this season after the loss of several profiles and with another tournament to focus on.
Last season, Julian Nagelsmann guided TSG 1899 Hoffenheim to the club’s best ever league position as ‘Die Kraichgauer’ finished fourth in the Bundesliga. A sensational achievement by the just 30-year-old coach who was deservedly named German Football Manager of the Year after the season.
However, this season, Nagelsmann and Hoffenheim haven’t looked as convincing. The side are yet to take three points in 2018 and haven't won since the 1-0 win over Stuttgart in the middle of December. After the first 21 Bundesliga matches, the club are ninth with seven wins, seven draws and seven losses – 1,3 points per game on average. In the 2016-17 campaign, the club won 1,8 points on average, only lost four matches and remained unbeaten until January.
Hoffenheim had the opportunity to qualify for the Champions League for the first time, but Nagelsmann’s team didn’t make it and deservedly lost 3-6 to Liverpool on aggregate. That meant ‘Die Kraichgauer’ went into the Europa League, but that didn’t turn out as a success either as the team finished rock bottom in a group behind İstanbul Başakşehir, Ludogoretz Razgrad and Braga – three opponents that on paper looked manageable. In the DfB-Pokal, Hoffenheim crashed out of the second round as they were beaten 1-0 by Werder Bremen.
That means there is only the Bundesliga left to focus on for Nagelsmann’s side this season. And looking on the bright side, that may be a good thing, because at the moment, the Hoffenheim squad simply doesn’t seem geared for spreading out their focus on several tournaments.
After last season, Nagelsmann lost his defensive anchorman Niklas Süle and the versatile holding midfielder Sebastian Rudy who was a very important link between the defense and the offense. Jeremy Toljan also left the club as he headed to Dortmund, and although the full-back wasn’t always a starter, he would definitely have come in handy during this season.
Nagelsmann has been looking for a new defensive formula since the beginning of the season, but he doesn’t seem to have found it yet. In the 2016-17 Bundesliga campaign, Hoffenheim conceded just 37 goals, and only Bayern München let in fewer goals than ‘Die Kraichgauer’. However, this season, Hoffenheim have already conceded 33 goals. Lately, Hoffenheim have registered some big losses as they were beaten 1-4 by Bayer Leverkusen as well as 2-5 by Bayern München after having been 2-0 up.
Generally, Nagelsmann's team have been caught too far up the pitch too many times this season – as for instance in the away game at Anfield when Liverpool scored three goals within the first 21 minutes. Nagelsmann’s approach to the match was obviously too offensive, but the condeded goals weren’t down to his tactics alone, but also happened because of individual errors on the pitch – very symptomatic for Hoffenheim’s defensive struggles this season.
Nagelsmann’s type of football demands a lot of the players, and it can be questioned whether some of his players have the talent – or the experience – for his innovative style of play.
Lack of experience
With an average age of just 23 years, Hoffenheim have one of the youngest squads in the Bundesliga. And while it’s great to see a lot of young players given the chance to play, Nagelsmann could arguably use some more experience in his side.
In big matches such as the Champions League qualifier at Anfield or the recent away match against Bayern München, it’s useful to have players with experience to lead the way and calm down the young players, and Hoffenheim currently have very few players who can do that.
During the season, youngsters such as Kevin Akpoguma, Stefan Posch and particularly Dennis Geiger, who has been a very impressive replacement for Sebastian Rudy in the midfield, have showed their potential, but they are all still far from finished products and have a lot to learn.
With three tournaments to focus on this season, the squad depth has looked too narrow as some of the young fringe players in particular understandably haven’t looked ready for the big responsibility they have been given.
In January, Hoffenheim’s top scorer, Sandro Wagner, joined Bayern München, just like Rudy and Süle did last summer. It’s also expected that Serge Gnabry will join the Bavarians when his loan deal expires in the summer while it has been announced that Mark Uth will join Schalke 04 on a free transfer. That leaves Andrej Kramaric, Robert Zulj and Adam Szalai as the only remaining strikers.
The skilled central midfielder Kerem Demirbay is also linked with an exit as it’s rumoured that both Arsenal and Liverpool are ready to activate the €32 million release clause in his contract.
The biggest question, however, is whether Nagelsmann will remain at the club himself. The 30-year-old has been linked with the job at Bayern München that will be vacant in the summer as things stand.
Right now, though, it seems like he will continue at Hoffenheim. German media are reporting that Bayern’s main candidate is the former Borussia Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel, and in the end of January, Nagelsmann made it clear that he is planning to stay.
"Yes, as I have said a lot of times," he told Sky when asked about his future.
If Nagelsmann indeed stays, it will be interesting to see how he will act during the summer transfer market. His willingness to use young players is admirable, but his impressive side from the 2016/17 season are falling apart, and if this season has shown anything, it is that he needs reinforcements and and more experience in his squad if he wants to replicate that success.