Why Hoffenheim have been the overlooked surprise package this season

Why Hoffenheim have been the overlooked surprise package this season

As the European mass media will deservedly accolade the top European performers around the continent this season; that of Antonio Conte’s revolution at Chelsea, Monaco’s outstanding title win and Champions League efforts and even RB Leipzig’s extraordinary first top-flight season; there is another success story from the Bundesliga that has not received the same widespread coverage.

Meet Julian Naglesmann (29), appointed as 1899 Hoffenheim coach on a permanent basis in February 2016; the youngest ever Bundesliga managerial appointment (aged 28 at the time). A truly animated touchline figure; routinely fist-clenching and arm-waving his way through every 90 minute period at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena, willing his team on so.

At the time of his appointment Hoffenheim were in dire straits domestically. 17th in the table and seven points from safety, few would have criticised him at the time for making plans for life the following season in the 2. Bundesliga. Quite the opposite. A remarkable turn of form gleamed 7 wins from the final 14 games, finishing a point above the relegation play-off.

A year on and the club has been transformed. After a 0-0 home draw on the final day to FC Augsburg, Hoffenheim have finished in 4th place; just 2 points behind Borussia Dortmund and will contest a Champions League qualification play-off in August to qualify for Europe’s ultimate competition.

Naglesmann has certainly had limited financial resources to work with since his arrival. In fact, one of the key attributes to the club’s success this season has been his ability to get the best out his arguably average Bundesliga squad, particularly the likes of Kerem Demirbay and Sandro Wagner.

Naglesmann’s most lavish purchase last summer was Andrej Kramaric (£8.5m); the forgotten man of Leicester City, managed of course at the time by Claudio Ranieri.

A fringe player at best at the King Power Stadium, the Croatian made only two appearances in the Foxes’ title-winning season last year. Since his move to the Bundesliga, Kramaric has been instrumental behind Hoffenheim’s success this season with 15 league goals and 8 assists to his name.

Naglesmann should be hailed as one of the coaches of the season; not only for Hoffenheim’s impressive domestic performance but for his ability to get inside of the heads of certain first team individuals. Take Wagner as a case in point; an individual who has certainly been around the block in Germany having appeared for Duisburg, Werder Bremen (II & first team), Kaiserslautern, Hertha Berlin (II & first team) and Darmstadt since graduating from the Bayern Munich academy in 2007/08. Barely four months younger than Naglesmann, Wagner has flourished under his coach this season, having longed throughout his career for a manager that believed in his ability. Wagner has now received a call-up to the German national side squad for the 2017 Confederations Cup this summer.

Naglesmann had worked for Hoffenheim for 5 years prior to being named as head coach of the first team. He first joined the club as an assistant coach in the academy after having his playing career cut short by chronic injuries problems. His innovative and meticulous coaching methods are reflected not only by the club’s upturn in domestic performance but by the close bond he has with his players.

Naglesmann still underlines the importance behind preserving Hoffenheim as a stable top- flight Bundesliga side and he will realise the need to keeping his young players in check. But there can be no denying the fact he is only one qualifying play-off away from leading the club into their most prominent moment of their history.

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Bilic position to be in question after lacklustre second season

Bilic position to be in question after lacklustre second season

It has been a testing season for the fans of West Ham United. After bidding farewell to their beloved Upton Park in a campaign where the Hammers almost earned a Champions League qualification berth, their fans have this year had to become accustomed to new, contrasting and somewhat alien surroundings at their new home at The London Stadium.

Whilst that was never going to be an easy transition, the fruition of their football played in Slaven Bilic’s second season has become the more alarming agenda in East London in recent months. Questionable tactical decisions, an alarming rate of losing games from winning positions, lack of attacking outlets in the team and a very disjointed look to West Ham’s first x11 has resulted in this season proving every bit as uninspiring and anticlimactic as last year’s was exhilarating.

Sitting in 15th place in the Premier League on 39 points, the Hammers appear to have just about secured safety for next year, any other outcome would simply have been a financial calamity with serious implications for the club to ponder in the new stadium. However, one win in the last eleven games doesn’t signify progress for a side that were riding the crest of a wave last year and claimed the scalps of Man Utd, Tottenham, Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool (the last three away from home).

There is a considerable degree of sympathy to be had for Bilic in this difficult season of transition; particularly the 2016 summer transfer window which significantly highlighted the somewhat haphazard recruitment policy at the club. 9 incomings were signed last summer (to improve the squad size in preparation for the Europa League); from 5 different European leagues with only Andre Ayew and a 34-year old Alvaro Arbeloa boasting any Premier League experience. Not only have the majority of the recruits failed to settle, the squad chemistry and unity has been affected, so much so that last season’s star-man Dimitri Payet saw fit to demand a transfer back to his previous club Marseille; a mutiny which the club could only make way for, receiving £25m in January for Payet in the process.

Another cause for bemusement among West Ham fans is the tactical choices in most of Bilic’s squad selections; frequently opting to play experienced players out of position such as the likes of Havard Nordtveid and Jonathan Calleri rather than playing younger squad members like Sam Byram and Ashley Fletcher in their natural positions. Only last Saturday in their 0-0 away stalemate at Stoke, West Ham’s main attacking threat Andre Ayew was withdrawn on 69 minutes with no signs whatsoever of any injury for Mark Noble. Ayew’s clear bemusement at the substitution was evident for all to see.

It must be pointed out that this isn’t the first time a Slaven Bilic side has waned in the final furlong of a season. In 2014/15 at Istanbul club Besiktas, the Black Eagles had spent much of the campaign at the top of the table, but flagged badly in the final third of the season and eventually finished third (eight points behind the eventual champions Galatasaray). Besiktas have in fact gone from strength-to-strength since his exit, currently on course for a second straight Super Lig title in Turkey.

West Ham have three ominous looking fixtures before the owners will review Bilic’s position at the end of season; Tottenham and Liverpool to visit the London Stadium on the 5th and 14th May respectively along with a tough final-day away fixture at Turf Moor. Three fixtures that despite not being so domestically crucial given West Ham’s virtually assured safety, will do so much to shape their future and direction from the dugout. Much to ponder for Messrs Gold & Sullivan.