We dive deep into the story of TSG Hoffenheim and Julian Nagelsmann, in an effort to understand what makes them so special.
You’re in a 14 metre square cage, feet firmly planted inside a tight circle in the middle. There’s silence, for now, but also a sense of urgency. Then it begins. Footballs are fired at you from eight different machines and you must control and pass them into one of 72 squares depending on the green light. At the risk of sounding like a fancy and niche virtual reality game, this isn’t one. It’s as real as Leicester’s fairytale last season.
Called the “Footbonaut”, this is a machine designed by Berlin-based Christian Guttler in order to improve footballers’ reflexes, to sharpen their control and awareness of the ball until it becomes second nature. It’s also flexible depending on training needs. A tablet allows the user to control the number of balls per minute, their speed and spin, it provides stadium noise, and one can also add defenders into the circle so as to heighten that “match-day experience”.
The cliché of the Germans being disciplined, organised and determined is one rooted in fact. But it was not until the stumble of World Cup 1998 followed by the debacle of Euro 2000 (for the uninitiated, they failed to win a game and lost to England in a match that Ralf Honigstein in Das Reboot describes as “an all-round embarrassment of footballing poverty”) that the Deutscher Fussball-Bund realised that was a change was essential if they wanted to continue to be relevant. This change came in the form of an extensive system overhaul – the introduction of a strong youth policy to find and systematically develop homegrown talent, the use of cutting-edge technology and statistics, the shift in footballing ideology and an evolution of tactics and thinking in order to adapt to the rapidly advancing arena of modern-day football.
When, in July 2014, Mario Gotze controlled a cross with his chest and volleyed home what would be the goal that won the World Cup for his country for the first time since 1990 (not to forget their utter humiliation of hosts Brazil in the semifinal), it couldn’t have been a more fitting culmination of a process started years before. Gotze, going through the youth ranks at Dortmund before bursting into the first team, had been using the Footbonaut for years, and the goal was symbolic of the kind of training provided by the machine which costs a whopping 3.5 million dollars.
Borussia Dortmund (fun fact – Borussia is the Latinised version of Prussia, but the team derives its name from the Borussia beer factory in the city), from the city of Dortmund, has pioneered the use of the machine, but they aren’t the only club using it. Surprisingly, the only other is the much lesser known Hoffenheim, who started using it in 2014 and use it to train all their team from their U12s to the first team. For two clubs with very different backgrounds, these two have overlapped throughout history, whether directly or subtly, and their stories are connected, sometimes maybe to their chagrin.
March 12, 1945. The city of Dortmund in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia region shook and crumbled and sparked under the weight of the most bomb tonnage ever dropped in a single raid. When it was all over, when the record 1110 RAF bombers had disappeared to where they’d come from, all that remained was dust and ruins; 98% of the inner city centre decimated. As WWII drew to a close, 54% of the city’s square area lay destroyed.
Amidst the war and the suffering, one would be forgiven in having missed out on a much smaller, rather insignificant piece of news also in 1945. Nestled in the rural landscape of Rhein-Neckar-Kreis in Baden-Wurttemberg, gymnastics club Turnverein Hoffenheim (founded July 1, 1899) and football club Fussballverein Hoffenheim (founded 1921) merged to form a new football club – TSG Hoffenheim 1899.
Fast-forward to 2017. Dortmund is Germany’s most sustainable city – culturally, educationally and technologically important. Local club Borussia Dortmund has the honour of calling their home the largest stadium in the country (Westfalenstadion or Signal Iduna Park), and they currently sit pretty in the 3rd spot in the Bundesliga.
Hoffenheim though. What can one say about them? For a club from a village comprising of only 3300 inhabitants, they qualified for European football for the first time in their history following a dramatic injury-time equaliser by Kerem Demirbay versus FC Koln in April 2017, and finished the season at 4th in the table, 2 points below Dortmund, for their highest ever Bundesliga position. Strap on your seat belts and get ready for a reverse Marty McFly because we’re going back to 1940, 5 years before TSG Hoffenheim 1899 was formed.
In April 1940, a baby boy was born in the city of Heidelberg. One doubts whether even his doting family had any inkling that Dietmar Hopp would go on to become a billionaire. In 1972, the same year that the village of Hoffenheim was officially incorporated into the municipality of Sinsheim, Hopp co-founded SAP AG, a multinational software corporation. He would go on to serve as the company’s CEO for many years, before putting most of his wealth into his own charitable foundation, Dietmar-Hopp-Stiftung, which remains one of the largest in Europe and supports sports, medicine, education and social programs. At this point, you would be justified in asking what the German, however impressive his resume, have to do with Hoffenheim?
Dietmar Hopp had played in Hoffenheim’s youth setup back in the day. When he returned to the club in 1999, they were in the fifth division. Eight years later, Hoffenheim played their first game in the Bundesliga, German football’s topmost tier. 9 years hence, they have qualified for European football for the first time in their club’s history. It’s not a journey that’s happened purely by luck, though of course the old lady’s played a part, but by desire coupled with a systematic plan of intent and a willingness to evolve and adapt when required. Whether that’s building a new stadium, getting in young blood, trying out new training methods and technology, buying underrated talent or putting faith in a 28 year old like Julian Nagelsmann, the club seems remarkably flexible yet resilient…and very very patient.
But we all know that the hardest part isn’t making it to the top tier, it’s staying there, improving yet remaining competitive. Through one reason or another, Hoffenheim’s flying start to their debut season in the Bundesliga unravelled around Christmas through injuries to key players. They still finished the season at a respectable 7th, but the next three campaigns saw them at a lowly 11, before they were forced to pull off a spectacular comeback versus Dortmund in May 18, 2013 and finish in the relegation play-off place at number 16.
Enter Julian Nagelsmann
On that day in May 2013, the focus was rightly on Hoffenheim’s performance. Many would not have given a second glance to the assistant manager in the dugout with his side-swept blonde hair, studious look and unassuming exterior that belied the passion and energy that lurked beneath. 25 year old Julian Nagelsmann had already started making waves when in 2012, he was offered the job of assistant manager to then interim boss Franz Kramer; in the process becoming the youngest ever in the Bundesliga.
Born in Landsberg am Lech, the southwest Bavarian town infamous for being the site of the prison where Adolf Hitler was incarcerated, and dictated much of Mein Kampf, Julian was a youth player with Augsburg and 1860 Munich. He was 21 when persistent knee injuries finally forced an abrupt end to a career barely begun. A situation that would have disheartened even the toughest of people seemed to have succeeded in only increasing his desire to prove himself through the beautiful game, albeit in a different capacity. He took up business administration at university before transferring subjects. A bachelor’s degree in sports science followed.
After his stint as assistant coach to the first team, the club handed him a full contract in 2014. He led Hoffenheim’s U19 side to the national title and a runners up spot in the season after. This time it wasn’t just his club that took notice. The opening was for the trainer of the U23 team and the club was none other than FC Hollywood: Bayern Munich. But even a pat on the back by one of his idols, then manager Pep Guardiola, didn’t seal the deal. We have to wonder what was going through Nagelsmann’s mind as he turned down an offer from the club he’d idolised since childhood. Did he realise that the gears were already in motion for him to become youngest ever manager in the Bundesliga with his current club? In retrospect, it shows remarkable poise to know, at the age of 25 or 26, what one wants and where one can achieve it. Especially when the big guns come a calling.
Following his success with their younger teams, Hoffenheim had already decided that Nagelsmann would be their first team manager in the summer of 2016; a three year contract had been offered and accepted on October 27, 2015. That would give him enough time to prepare while his predecessor, Huub Stevens (appointed to replace Markus Gisdol just the day before) took a shot. The fates however had different plans. Stevens was diagnosed with serious heart problems and handed in his resignation on February 10, 2016. At that time, Hoffenheim had won only 2 out of 20 and were 7 points short of safety. With only 14 games to go, there was hardly any settling in time for the self-confessed chocoholic, but he guided his charges to 7 wins and a 15th place finish that meant they didn’t even have to navigate the relegation play-offs.
An interesting fact at this point – when appointed, Nagelsmann was still a month away from completing his senior coaching license exams, but such was the faith in his abilities (bolstered no doubt by his impeccable record) that the German FA gave him the go-ahead anyway. They couldn’t have been more correct, as he has increasingly proved despite the fierce opposition in the media and other corners of German football in the light of his appointment. But he isn’t the first renegade to adorn German football, or even Hoffenheim. No, he had a ready path before him, thanks largely, to the foundations painstakingly laid by a man from Backnang, Baden Wurttemberg.
The Godfather of Gegenpressing
Ralf Rangnick, current Director of Sports at new Bundesliga trailblazers, Red Bull Leipzig (who might have been contenders for successful gritty underdog of the Bundesliga season if not for Hoffenheim), was not always as well-known or more importantly, well-respected. An amateur player with a degree in English and PE at the University of Sussex, Rangnick had a brief and rather unremarkable playing career. When he became a player-manager for FC Viktoria Backnang, he was unaware that his sixth division hometown club would have an indirect part to play in changing the trajectory and purpose of his career, and ultimately the face of German football in the years to come. The humiliation of 2000 was still a while away, and the national football scene was comfortable and confident in its traditions and longstanding methods; secure in its footballing identity. As Honigstein pointed out,
“Its heroes were doers, not thinkers; men who could take leave of their critical faculties to run, shoot and score as if on autopilot, plugged into one big determination to succeed that existed independently of themselves.”
In February 1983, Dynamo Kiev arrived for a friendly. They were coached by Valeriy Lobanovskyi, a Soviet-Ukranian highly lauded for his scientific (as well as notoriously strict) approach to football coaching and management; and in January 2017 he was named among the 10 greatest coaches since the establishment of UEFA in 1954. It was to be Rangnick’s first introduction to a systematic, relentless pressing of the ball. The team returned every season for the next few years and the German, who was by now studying for his pro coaching badges in Cologne, was there every day with a notepad, trying to wrap his head around what they were doing and how. He was also fascinated by Arrigo Sacchi – one of the earliest proponents of the kind of defensive work needed to maintain a counter-press – who would go on to lead AC Milan to becoming double European Cup winners, and raise the standards of what football was capable of, and indeed what a team was capable of.
All of this clearly had an impact on Rangnick, who was the youngest person on the course (he went on to graduate at the top of his class, as would Nagelsmann many years later). He absorbed all these different, new inputs and experimented with the boundaries of the then-norm. One of the earliest results of this experimentation was him taking his old club SSV Ulm 1846 from Regionalliga Sud to the Zweite Bundesliga (second division). But it’s never easy to change the old order, a majority comfortable with the status quo – and he faced a lot of opposition, many of it openly, from the media, from colleagues, from players, from the higher-ups. Did that deter him? The evidence continues to points to the contrary. His second fairytale would follow the pattern of his very first, but all the way to the topmost tier. When Dietmar Hopp appointed him Hoffenheim’s manager for the 2006-07 season, the team were in the Regionalliga South. The next season, they were in the Zweite Bundesliga for the first time in their history, followed by a consecutive promotion to the bright lights of the Bundesliga for the 2008-09 season.
It was here that the fairytale began to slow down, though the first half of it promised unimagined-for horizons, when the newly promoted “Hoffe” were top of the table going into the New Year, unofficial Herbmeisters (autumn/winter champions). This included a 4-1 victory over Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund, which resulted in Klopp saying it’s the kind of football they wanted to play one day, and 5-2 and 3-0 wins against Hannover 96 and Hamburger SV respectively.
As we know now, the ultimate culmination of Rangnick’s story with Hoffenheim would never be, and he would leave in a huff over Hopp selling Luiz Gustavo to Bayern Munich in 2011. But what he left behind is undeniable, including prodding Hopp to build the 30,000 capacity Rhine Neckar Arena in 2006, formulating a youth academy modelled on Arsenal’s, and a new training centre; all with a vision to make the club sustainable. It’s a bit sad that he is now at a rival club when Hoffenheim are starting to realise their potential, but one only has to look around the Bundesliga and beyond to see just how gegenpressing (a style of play when, on losing possession, the team presses and harries the opposition in trying to win it back, instead of falling back into a defensive position) is being effectively adapted and adopted and refined, whether by Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and now Julian Nagelsmann.
Before we get back to the young Nagelsmann, there’s another piece in the puzzle that needs to be brought to light, and that’s in the form of recently ex-Dortmund manager, Thomas Tuchel, who is broadly considered as the best young German manager of his generation. It should come as no surprise that he was Rangnick’s ward at SSV Ulm, and a youth coach at Stuttgart while Rangnick was manager –
“I’m infected and inspired by him.”
From Mentee to Mentor
Thomas Tuchel was at Augsburg FC when Julian Nagelsmann worked under him; an influence the latter still talks about, and one that is evident in his style of coaching and thinking. He even followed in Tuchel’s footsteps by being awarded the Trainerpreis des Deutschen Fussballs 2016 (DFB Coach of the Year). But it isn’t just his age that defines him, though that’s impressive enough (there is a 11 year old difference between him and Hertha Berlin’s 39 year old manager Pal Dardai, the second youngest) – it’s his understanding of football, his technical insights, and his ability to be tactically flexible in a way maybe even his heroes Rangnick and Tuchel aren’t. For example he hasn’t shied away from mixing it up with his formations and willing to take risks – 3-5-2, 4-3-3, 3-4-3, 4-2-3-1 – depending on their opponents.
“I work like a baker. I mix things, put them in the oven and see if I like what comes out.”
At the same time, this mixing of things is in no manner haphazard; there is a logical thinking and intelligent mind behind it. In order to comfortably and successfully pull off any sort of formation, players are drilled on the training ground in shadow marking, in keeping a tight shape going forward and coming backward; they, as a team, rehearse pressing and counter-pressing movements. Nagelsmann overloads them with information, of the strong belief that this will aid them in making the best instinctive decision on match-day. There is, as much as anything else, a focus on constantly improving and moving forward, albeit in sometimes whimsical ways – Nagelsmann is currently working with a voice coach to learn how to shout “healthily”, from his stomach instead of his throat and prevent the inflammation of his vocal cords!
When questioned about his philosophy, Nagelsmann stresses on a few principles he terms non-negotiable. These include the circulation of the ball through the creation of triangles and trying to win the ball back without being sucked into a one on one. The opponents are strictly and individually analysed on the basis of the formation that will allow Nagelsmann’s players to be effective yet maintain their non-negotiable principles. This is the system that allowed them to introspect and change after conceding 6 goals in the opening 2 matches of this season, and build the second best defense in the Bundesliga for 2016-17, bested only by Bayern. This is the system that allowed Nagelsmann to become the first TSG coach to beat Bayern Munich in 18 attempts on April 4, 2017 through Andrej Kamaric’s 21st minute effort, and a three man backline that pressed high up the pitch. And this is the system that puts them in third in terms of chances created vs shots attempted vs goals conceded (only Munich and Dortmund have more points than them since Nagelsmann took over). What is even more commendable is that he’s achieved all of this with the same squad that was so close to relegation at the time of his appointment – with relatively underrated, even unwanted players like Wagner, Kerem Demirbay, Lukas Rupp, Kramaric (from Ranieri’s Leicester) and Kevin Vogt.
Innovation and Youth at Hoffenheim
Julian Nagelsmann makes for a dynamic presence on the touchline, never still, rarely sitting. This zeal and passion aren’t without their repercussions, though in Nagelsmann they are balanced with a mature, sure way of handling himself. Last year Koln sporting director Jorg Schmadtke threw chewing gum at him on the touchline, while Bayer Leverkusen’s Roger Schmidt got himself a two-match ban for yelling, “What sort of a nutter are you? Kiss my arse. Do you think you invented football?”
It doesn’t seem to faze the guy whom ex-Germany goalkeeper, Tim Wiese nicknamed “Mini-Mourinho” while they were working together in the Hoffenheim reserves – he continues to share an office with his assistants and locks himself in a room with just a pen and pad to tactically prepare for a game. This doesn’t mean he eschews modern-day methods like sports science and football data, far from it. He’s aware of the possibilities and the necessity of using these tools in a swiftly shifting modern-day world where the peak of physical performance might already have been scaled.
“The athletic side of football has reached its limit. The players can’t get much quicker. But we can try to be quicker mentally. As a midfielder receiving the ball with your back to the play, you need to know exactly where your teammates are and where the spaces are. We can train the players to calculate the situation quicker and help them make the right decisions.”
This is a venture made easier because of the club’s connection with SAP and their proximity to the newest technology. Apart from the Footbonaut, the club use Helix to train 180 degree peripheral vision. It is a huge, curved monitor with eight players. One has to keep an eye on four of the eight who light up, and make sure to run through the entire virtual field that appears onscreen. Another is the use of an application where various analytical and statistical data is uploaded by Nagelsmann and the coaching staff for players to access; an “extension of training” he calls it.
Hoffenheim are the only German club to combine the uses of the Footbonaut and the Helix; using them for all their teams from the U12s. But these machines have limitations when pitted against older players whose instincts and reflexes are already set and honed. But in the case of youth…now that’s where the conditioning from the earliest ages can help, and is helping, though it’s a patient process. It isn’t just Niklas Sule’s god-gifted talent that dazzled Bayern Munich enough to already sign a deal with him for next season. Sule, Hoffenheim’s star defender is a graduate of their Achtzehn99 academy; he’s proof that their system works and can produce complete footballers with faster reflexes and a better technical and spatial understanding because it’s been drummed into them in a way that doesn’t hamper their inherent talent or flair.
It’s an emphasis on youth development, the subsequent sustainability and sound economic management that echoes the philosophies of German football since 2000. It’s confirmed by the consistently high ratings received by their youth academy (as per the new system in place, Belgian company Double Pass monitors the development of young talent and awards ratings every three years). Why then is Hoffenheim, and with it, their owner Hopp, considered the enemy? In fact, before Red Bull Leipzig got promoted to the Bundesliga, Hoffenheim were considered the original “enemy of football”. Even recently, their happiness at finally qualifying for European football was marred by the Cologne Ultras chanting “football whores Hoffenheim” (Hopp has actually written to the German FA to say that the open discrimination faced by them should be treated as racism).
To understand the genesis of this, one must understand the national importance placed on “traditions” and equality. The most significant being German football’s 50+1% rule. It is a safeguard against one shareholder acquiring a majority stake in a football club, with the belief that a football club should be a democratic organisation where the fans hold a majority stake; a prevention of an economic and hence talent imbalance. But there’s a caveat – majority control’s allowed if the shareholder has provided “significant and uninterrupted financial support for 20 years”. On July 1, 2015, Dietmar Hopp did just that. Hoffenheim, the club without a historically significant fan-base with a “sugar daddy” are posers in the eyes of many, a plastic club without the honourable traditionsverein tag despite having more than earned their place fairly as well as the right to dream of more.
It might be difficult to imagine for followers of the big teams elsewhere in Europe where the power of money is light years worse, and for whom Hoffenheim are the prodigal underdogs proving the magic of football against all odds, but it’s the reality faced by the club that has fought its way from the Kreisliga A (ninth tier) to the big leagues of the Bundesliga. But lucky for fans of the beautiful game, the club, just as their current manager, don’t seem to let opposition stop them from their hopes and goals – and for all purposes, they seem to have already taken their first steps towards finding a football identity for their future legacy that is beyond and apart from any wealth it will incur.