In rural south western Germany, the small village of Hoffenheim sits isolated by farmland. The 3000 or so residents live a simple life. Historic and small, it has been a settlement for the most part of two and a half thousand years, with its first mention in writing in 773 AD. As with the rest of Germany, the village developed sporting clubs and facilities in the local area. In 1945 the local gymnastic club merged with the young resident football club to create the modern-day club we know presently. Up until the mid-1990s the club was still playing amateur football. In the year 2000, Dietmar Hopp, a German software entrepreneur who had played for the club in his youth chose to invest funds into the place that held so many significant memories. The club experienced a quick bout of success gaining promotion on three occasions in the next six seasons. In 2006, a turning point for the club was the appointment of several key members of backroom and playing staff with top flight experience. This included Ralf Rangnick, who had previously managed VfB Stuttgart, Hannover 96 and Schalke 04. Perhaps the biggest achievement was the ability to attract promising young talents, this emphasis on youth would soon become a trend within the club and gain notoriety for developing exciting prospects.
The club reached professional status in 2007 when the club played its first game in the 2. Bundesliga. After just one season they gained promotion to the top flight, realising the dream of their owner and finishing a miraculous climb through the of German pyramid of football. The same year they had gained promotion, they constructed a new 30,000 seater stadium to accompany their federal league standing. In their debut Bundesliga season, they finished a highly respectable seventh. By using a combination of youth and experience the club had transformed themselves into a fully-fledged top flight team, able to compete for valuable silverware. Since 2008 they have been consistent in their achievements, playing attractive football and continuing to focus on the next generation of players. Former graduates of the achtzen99 academy include: Jannick Vestergaard, Niklas Süle, Sead Kolasinac and Jonas Hofmann. Sales of previous Hoffenheim II players have aided the team in acquiring first team talents. Perhaps even more remarkable is the extraordinary story of their manager and how his persistence to succeed in football saw him climb through the clubs age groups. Ending his career through injury before reaching 20 years old, Julian Nagelsmann decided to have a break away from football, studying business and sport science. After completing his studies, he broke into coaching at his former club Augsburg. Here he worked with Thomas Tuchel, current manager of Borussia Dortmund. After working at 1860 Munich for two years he arrived, knocking at Hoffenheim’s door in 2010. In four years, he had worked as assistant coach for the under-17s and first team as well as managing both the under-17s and 19s. Then in autumn 2015 he was appointed as a first team coach under the management of Huub Stevens. However, Stevens resigned due to poor health in February of 2016. Impressing the club’s board Nagelsmann, aged only 28, was appointed manager.
Under Nagelsmann the club has improved dramatically. Hoffenheim currently sit in fourth position and are looking likely to achieve European football next season. They have lost only twice in 24 games and scored 45 goals as of the 12th March. This has, along with his young age brought the manager greater fame than any of his players. Many journalists are hailing the manager as one of the best in the league with comparisons to Guardiola and Mourinho in abundance. Footballing magazine FourFourTwo named him the world’s best young coach, with The Guardian naming him a ‘prodigy’. The repetition of Nagelsmann within the club’s levels is a symbol of the persistence in expansion and development of the club and its staff. Many gaze upon the Hoffenheim model as the correct way to use financial backing to achieve success and gain respect from the footballing world. The club’s success at developing skilled youngsters has been viewed as a positive contribution. This has led to a change in opinion towards the club’s affluence which many see as the corporatisation of the working-class sport. Despite the clubs forward thinking and honesty driven expansion, criticism is rife. The team is often referred to as plastic, without history or tradition as well as being the punchline of jokes in the country’s beer houses.
Perhaps the most prominent way the club brushes away ridicule is with a distinctive style of football that is often underestimated by opposition teams, resulting in upsets and the ability to break down defences. Their usual 3-5-2 formation gives them the capability to prevent teams like Bayern from building from the back. A combination of high pressing from the front line and dominating the midfield with a dynamic blend of attacking and defensive minded players helps them disrupt their competitors runs and block typical passing lanes. Consequently, Hoffenheim can use a variety of attack options including building from the back, bursting out down the wings or by playing on the break. The formation also means the team can defend in numbers and control possession. Nagelsmann is known to continuously alter the organisation of his players, sometimes resorting to a free roaming 4-3-3, leading to an unpredictability for opposing teams. Hoffenheim’s aesthetic football isn’t going to cause a revolution, not yet at least. The system has its imperfections and small mistakes have had huge consequences as is the tightrope of an arrangement such as Nagelsmann’s. However, with the right players in future and those in the academy indoctrinated in the art of the club’s methodology, they may just start something raw and new. This season the club has clearly illustrated the potential of its dynamics. Sitting in a champions league place though has not disrupted the teams form, perhaps the surprise success of RB Leipzig has overshadowed Hoffenheim’s achievements this season potentially reducing pressure that over-achieving teams can suffer from. That is not to say that Hoffenheim are not worthy of their success, Nagelsmann may just be about to cement himself as the newest world class technician, an experimental developer who has youth and experience on his side, a rarity in today’s sport.
The escalation of the club has been unprecedented. When Dietmar Hopp invested funds into his old village team, he was effectively constructing a new club. The Hoffenheim of today has no resemblance to the club of old. The team no longer plays in the village, instead they are comfortably located in their modern arena situated outside of Sinsheim. The team have come to represent more than a small settlement, they are the pride of the Rhine-Neckar region for some 2.4 million people and in time they’ll represent the nation on the European stage. Whether the rest of the country would get behind a ‘plastic club’ is up for debate. It appears too that it’s not a matter of if they win a trophy, it is a matter of when. Whatever your opinion regarding outside investment, it is important to acknowledge that top flight football is no longer a sport for entertaining factory workers, it is a product, aimed at consumers for their money. Of course, there are exceptions but are Hoffenheim any different from Wolfsburg with their Volkswagen ownership or Leverkusen, financed from the sales of pharmaceuticals? It is true that these clubs have developed a rich history from their own merit, but it would be a miraculous turn of events if a modern day amateur side could do the same. We as supporters should accept the role money now plays in our game. If there is a way for teams to accept large funds and build an authentic foundation for fashioning a strong side, then others should use Hoffenheim’s success as an example. The club have created a successful youth academy that has invested in the local community and are enjoying the swarms of excited fans attending home games. They are a top, classy side with a distinct style, their tinkering millennial of a manager is exciting and like a determined master of the mountains, he is climbing in sight of the peak. And yet, they have not lost the innocent nature of a village side dreaming of unexpected greatness.