Will Hoffenheim prove why they're becoming one of Germany's top sides?
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In a league deemed weak at the top but otherwise competitive, Julian Nagelsmann's Hoffenheim have an opportunity to establish themselves as one of the Bundesliga's top sides.
Huub Stevens led the club to a poor start during the 2015/16 campaign. His resignation in February 2016, brought forward Nagelsmann's planned appointment. Then 28, he became the league's youngest-ever manager. You may have noticed he's embraced the challenge.
Managing to avoid relegation during that tumultuous campaign was an achievement in itself. Achtzen99 earned seven victories from mid-February through season's end, a stark contrast to their two wins before Christmas. After finishing a point above the relegation playoff spot, they've continued to surpass expectations.
Hoffenheim finished fourth in 2016/17, qualifying for the Champions League for the first time. While they struggled among tougher European opposition, it served as an effective barometer for their progression.
Improving consistency and late-goal syndrome
On the domestic scene last season, goal difference lifted them above Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen into third place.
The main issue has always been consistency, managing to avoid losing runs at tough points in the season, turning draws into victories. So far this term, it's been no different. Die Kraichgauer lost on four occasions in Germany's top-flight, dropping important points. Conceding a late winner at Fortuna Dusseldorf preceded a loss to rivals Dortmund. Not all has been positive.
You could argue the same for their tricky Champions League group. In the first two matchdays, they conceded late-on to draw away at Shakhtar Donetsk before David Silva's 87th-minute winner benefitted Premier League champions Manchester City. The roles have reversed somewhat since: Joelinton and Pavel Kaderabek produced stoppage-time equalisers against Lyon on matchdays three and four respectively. Regardless, the sentiment remains.
How to improve?
It's important to know Hoffenheim's best players tend to be sold every summer. Both Jannik Vestergaard (Southampton) and Fabian Schar (Newcastle) joined England's top-flight this past summer. Niklas Süle's excellent displays caught the eye of reigning champions Bayern Munich. All three are centre-backs whose consistent defensive displays were valuable to the squad.
With that in mind, you should spare a thought for defensive mainstay Ermin Bičakčić. The Bosnian international has been at the club since 2014, played alongside all three in central defence, adapting to different partnerships and playing styles.
Hoffenheim must establish stability and, importantly, concentration throughout 90 minutes within their backline. Easier said than done when three of their four key players are creative minded and flourish in the final third.
Players to watch
Joelinton: The 22-year-old Brazilian impressed with goals, assists and his general contribution out of possession in a manner befitting a club's first-choice striker. Back from a two-year loan spell at Rapid Vienna, he relished the opportunity to emulate his predecessors' success, leading from the front. He's clearly improving.
Reiss Nelson: How they wish they had the English teenager on a two-year loan deal. The Arsenal product already excited supporters with his contributions in Germany, netting five goals and created one more in six Bundesliga appearances. The club's best player so far this season.
Kerem Demirbay: Has been unfortunate with injuries but returned to the squad in late September and impressed. The creative midfielder made his Germany debut last summer but still has a way to go before an unlikely recall. He's making progress with three assists and some encouraging displays in recent weeks.
Pavel Kaderabek: The dependable fullback. Versatile as he is, the Czech's been a consistent performer for Hoffenheim this term, setting a precedent for his less defensive-minded teammates to follow. Played further forward as a right-sided midfielder, he has created chances aplenty while balancing his defensive responsibilities well.
Four more important players: Nico Schulz, Andrej Kramarić, Nadiem Amiri (injured) and an out-of-form Florian Grillitsch.
Problem: Nagelsmann has agreed a deal to join rivals RB Leipzig once the season is complete. Provided the club's recruitment remains the same and they can complete some shrewd deals, there's no reason why Hoffenheim cannot continue to improve in his absence. Still, constant turnover inevitably comes back to haunt ambitious sides.