Hoffenheim hit the heights to make Nagelsmann more desirable than everJulian Nagelsmann barks instructions from the touchline during Hoffenheim’s resounding 5-2 win at Leipzig.
It was, according to Julian Nagelsmann, “a strange game”, as he resisted basking in the latest episode of his Hoffenheim side’s increasing thrilling end to the season. Given that their afternoon in the sun at Red Bull Arena went to form, emphatically so in fact, with RB Leipzig as leaky at present as Hoffenheim are lithe, one might take issue with the description. It’s pretty much the only area in which Nagelsmann can be challenged.
His sporting director, Alexander Rosen, had told Kicker in an interview on Friday that a top-six finish, and Europa League qualification, would be “a sensational achievement”. Now, after tearing Leipzig to shreds on their own turf, Hoffenheim are well poised to finally capture a prize which looked impossible until very recently – Champions League football, with Die Kraichgauer only two points behind fourth-placed Bayer Leverkusen three games before the end of the season.
Moreover, this time, with Uefa’s changes to the competition’s qualifying format, that would guarantee group stage participation in contrast with last time around, when the Sinsheim club were denied third place by Borussia Dortmund on the season’s final day and subsequently dumped out by Liverpool in the play-off.
The bullet points on Nagelsmann’s coaching resumé are well documented. He turned down a role in charge of Bayern Munich’s under-23s before becoming the youngest-ever (permanent) Bundesliga head coach just over two years ago, at 28. With his appointment brought forward because of Huub Stevens’s ill health, he improbably saved Hoffenheim from the drop, before improbably transforming a modest squad into hard-to-beat, enterprising contenders for European football, something that the owner Dietmar Hopp’s significant investment had failed to win before.
READ MORE: What next for Salah after PFA award win
You might have thought, then, that you had Nagelsmann’s number by now. Yet just as recent months saw him drift from red-hot favourite for the Bayern job – many sensed he was trying too hard by drip-feeding details of his attachment to Munich, and that he and his partner are currently building a family home back there – recent weeks have caused a rethink. Nagelsmann is on the brink of something even more spectacular than what went before.
Hoffenheim can now look beyond a pat on the head for keeping it together in the midst of the increased workload brought on by the club’s first European qualification. In the shadow of that and a mini-exodus – losing their team’s spine to Bayern, with Niklas Süle and Sebastian Rudy exiting last summer and the talismanic Sandro Wagner jumping ship in the winter – they have crept up to the Champions League scrap on the back of an eight-match unbeaten run. They are doing it in some style too, having scored 20 times in their last six matches, with now only Bayern and Dortmund having scored more Bundesliga goals this season.
It would be an extraordinary landmark for club and coach. That they definitively entered the equation by tearing past Leipzig was significant too, a club with a not-entirely dissimilar rapid rise fuelled by plentiful investment and smart planning, while roundly offending popular sensibilities (though Hoffenheim are keen to make distinct their story and Leipzig’s).
It was Leipzig who were meant to be able to cope with the extra workload but they – despite holding on to key men, for this season at least, in Naby Keita and Emil Forsberg – have crumbled of late. Their own feted coach, Ralph Hasenhüttl, was ashen at the end of this 5-2 thrashing, having seen his side exit the Europa League and their aspirations of a return to the Champions League all but disappear in the last four games, during which they have conceded a whopping 15 goals.
Hasenhüttl knows they had it all in their own hands. They took a 1-0 lead to Marseille for the second leg of their Europa League quarter-final and added an away goal inside two minutes before capitulation. In the Bundesliga, their two defeats in the last three games have been to direct competitors in Leverkusen and now Hoffenheim, both at home. They let in four in the first and five in the second.
Sporting director Ralf Rangnick intimated after the game that talks over a new deal for Hasenhüttl were shelved for now, with minds needing to be focused on the field. They will have to pick themselves up for the run-in minus Forsberg, sent off in the second half, even if Florian Grillitsch seemed to overreact to being caught by the Swede’s arm.
Rangnick’s opposite number Rosen believes his side already have the necessary tranquillity to visualise the task at hand. In fact, being written off as yesterday’s news has suited Hoffenheim. “We are definitely benefiting from the fact that there is absolute peace and quiet here with us,” he told Kicker last week.
Nagelsmann’s future is unlikely to be a distraction either. He casually brushed off speculation linking him with Arsenal to Sky’s cameras pre-match, though Bild claim that Hopp would not stand in his way in the event of a concrete approach from a foreign giant. He is more likely to consider his next move when a release clause in his contract activates in 2019.
So Hoffenheim’s players should continue to enjoy what seems like a fun way to aim for the top, not least via the enormous screen on the halfway line of the team’s main training pitch, which the coach uses to break down images and sequences of play in-session. If the players behave themselves, they get to play Fifa on it too.
They will probably need maximum points from the last three games to reach the Champions League places – anything less and “it will be difficult,” conceded Nagelsmann – but this time, at least, they know fourth will be enough. Then, Nagelsmann would have achieved the near-impossible – making him an even hotter property than before.
Augsburg 2-0 Mainz, Cologne 2-2 Schalke, Eintracht Frankfurt 0-3 Hertha Berlin, Hamburg 1-0 Freiburg, Hannover 0-3 Bayern Munich, Rb Leipzig 2-5 Hoffenheim, Stuttgart 2-0 Werder Bremen, Borussia Dortmund 4-0 Bayer Leverkusen, Mönchengladbach 3-0 Wolfsburg.
The only negative news for the Hoff this weekend was Dortmund’s surge back to form, as they hammered Leverkusen 4-0 in the top four tussle of the weekend. A week after their abject showing in the Revierderby, BVB were terrific in their best performance of season, and the scoreline doesn’t do full justice to the extent of their dominance. Jadon Sancho was sensational, scoring the opener and laying on two assists and Marco Reus scored two, missed pen, and had one ruled out via VAR in front of watching Nationalmannschaft coach Jogi Löw. The weakened Peter Stöger made his point too, with his big decision to drop Marcel Schmelzer from the matchday squad vindicated.
Hamburg are still alive after beating potential relegation rivals Freiburg with a single Lewis Holtby goal - the league’s “undead” team, as Bild described them. “When you’re getting ready for the funeral,” they wrote, “they jump out of the coffin again.” Losses for Wolfsburg and Mainz as well kept Christian Titz’s men five points behind the struggling trio.
Bayern again rocked a very illustrious substitutes bench in the 3-0 win at Hannover ahead of the Champions League semi-final with Real Madrid, including Robert Lewandowski, Franck Ribéry and Javi Martínez. Thomas Müller came on at the interval to subsequently score the opener and there was a debut for defender Lukas Mai, who turned only 18 three weeks ago.