As continental football emerged from winter hibernation, there were just two sides in the big five leagues who remained unbeaten. But with Real Madrid’s defeat at title rivals Sevilla last Sunday night, we are down to just one.
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim’s unbeaten run in the first half of the Bundesliga season is an impressive feat in itself.
However, the story takes on a much more newsworthy angle when you consider they’ve gone the first 16 games of the German league season without defeat (6 wins and 10 draws) under the guidance of a manager who is only 29-years-old!
If the 44-year-old Zinedine Zidane (who has taken so many plaudits of late) is considered both young and inexperienced in the managerial game, then what can we say about Julian Nagelsmann, 15 years his junior, who threatens to knock the conventional wisdom of the game on its behind?
Even at park football level, managers tend not to be in their 20s. Or if they are, they are still also playing.
The Hoffenheim boss hasn’t played, however, since a series of injuries ended his career at 19. Nagelsmann clearly didn’t dwell, heading to university to earn a business degree before moving into sports science and ultimately coaching.
Success at youth level saw him pitch up at Hoffenheim, who believed they had a singular talent on their hands.
Nagelsmann became manager only last February, when veteran Dutch coach Huub Steevens had to relinquish the job due to ill health. The move raised eyebrows, but reportedly the club had planned to give the youngster the position in the summer, before events on the ground forced their hand.
Alexander Rosen, Hoffenheim’s director of football, admitted at the time that it “was a courageous step,” but added “we see in Nagelsmann such a huge coaching talent that we want to give him a chance.”
The club’s centre half Niklas Sule backed up Rosen’s view on his manager’s talents in a recent interview with bundesliga.com, saying”
Julian is one of a kind. He understands how a player thinks but always exudes authority. He is an absolute expert and cannot be worked out by opponents.
That understanding of players, his ability to communicate allied with impressive tactical awareness and flexibility have been critical to the impressive progress of club and manager.
When Nagelsmann took the job, Hoffenheim were next to bottom of the league, having won just 2 of their 20 games. Incredibly, Die Kraichgauer won 7 of their next 14 games to finish one place above the drop zone.
Their improvement this season has been marked. Nagelsmann’s men sit fifth in the table as the Bundesliga sides prepare to renew hostilities, just one point off the Champions League places.
Capable of switching formations fluidly mid game, opponents have found them difficult to unlock. The concession of just 17 goals in those 16 games a testament to their organisation and resolve.
But they are not a defensive side, and their attractive, possession-based football is certainly reflective of a manager who cites Guardiola and Cruyff amongst his inspirations.
The fact that he club’s revival hasn’t been driven by the chequebook is also noteworthy. Eight players from Hoffenheim’s academy are in the first team squad and they’ve had the youngest squad in the Bundesliga for the last three seasons. (Only three players in the squad are older than the manager!)
That said, perhaps the club’s most impressive player this season has been striker Sandro Wagner. Signed from Darmstadt in the summer for just €3 million, the 29-year old scored more Bundesliga goals than any other German player in 2016 (19).
The former youth international is thriving under Nagelsmann and there’s even talk of a first senior cap.
So how far will Hoffenheim’s young manager go? He’s certainly done a lot to dispel the doubters in the first half of the season. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough, they say in football.
The second half of the season will tell us a little more about whether Nagelsmann can prove that old adage right.