All things come to those who wait, and as Hoffenheim’s owner Dietmar Hopp said as night drew in on Tuesday: “The 18th attempt against Bayern was the most beautiful.”
Hopp, the 76-year-old software billionaire whose funds have propelled his local club from village obscurity to the Bundesliga’s podium, had every right to enjoy the moment. His team’s 17-match winless streak against German football’s gold standard had encompassed a mix of near misses and – naturally – a few genuine spankings, but this was no fluke or pig-headed rearguard action. Hoffenheim were simply better than Bayern on the night, even if the suspicion that Carlo Ancelotti and company had their forthcoming encounters with Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid on their minds is a legitimate one.
It felt like a moment, “something special” as the Hoffenheim keeper Oliver Baumann put it, and there was giddiness in the air as Andrej Kramaric, scorer of the game’s sensational winning goal, took a piggyback around the pitch on the club’s ubiquitous moose mascot Hoffi at full-time. Yet if Julian Nagelsmann’s rapid ascension from becoming the youngest coach in Bundesliga history to standing at the gates of the Champions League – at the ripe old age of 29 – looks like a fairytale, but there was nothing Hollywood (or FC Hollywood) about this victory. It was all very real and credible.
Hoffenheim’s prowess on the counterattack is without question – Kerem Demirbay’s opening goal at the Allianz Arena in a 1-1 draw in November will surely remain the finest Bundesliga goal scored on the break this season – but Nagelsmann’s side have other gears, as they proved during a first half in which they swarmed all over Bayern and dominated to a quite astonishing degree.
Bayern’s Sven Ulreich, who was followed by a curious iso-cam in the weekend thrashing of Augsburg as ZDF’s Das Aktuelle Sportstudio tried to work exactly what a goalkeeper does with himself when his team is so preoccupied with pulverising their far weaker opponents, was much, much busier as Manuel Neuer’s stand-in here. “If not for him, it could have been three or four-nil,” remarked Niklas Süle, the imperious centre-back who will leave Hoffenheim for Bayern this summer, along with his team-mate Sebastian Rudy.
“There are many reasons as to why Hoffenheim continue to surf the wave of success,” wrote the local newspaper Rhein-Necker-Zeitung, “[but] it is primarily the Nagelsmann effect.” Bild asked in a big spread how long Hoffenheim can keep Nagelsmann and even if an exit right now seems premature, it’s a question that is both valid and becoming an inevitable part of the discourse surrounding him.
It has all moved very quickly for Nagelsmann since he took the reins last February, four months early after medical advice forced Huub Stevens into early retirement. It was an appointment, incidentally, that had been dismissed as “a public relations stunt” from an inexorably sinking club by Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung. Yet a big part of Nagelsmann’s success has been his demeanour of control, which has frequently made the extraordinary seem almost everyday.
From the moment of his swiftly brought-forward appointment to the end of last season, Nagelsmann’s team picked up more points than any team apart from Bayern and Dortmund to escape the drop, or even the need to circumnavigate a relegation play-off. Hoffenheim had been seven points short of safety when he arrived, with only 14 games to go.
The statistics since are even more startling. Hoffenheim were the last team in Europe’s top five leagues to lose a league game – at RB Leipzig, in late January, after the star striker Sandro Wagner was sent off – and have lost only one other Bundesliga match. They have yet to lose at home this season, and never looked like doing so against Bayern. It looked almost cruel on Renato Sanches, given a rare start here by Ancelotti, that he had been dropped into the middle of this tempest, and he looked – for once – like a rabbit in the headlights.
It isn’t exclusively about Nagelsmann, and his combination with the sporting director, Alexander Rosen – a relative old head at 37 – helping to give Hoffenheim the feel of a cutting-edge tech start-up, which is perhaps what Hopp was aiming for all along. With their main attacking star, Kevin Volland, making his long-awaited move to contenders when he joined Bayer Leverkusen in the summer, Rosen helped to re-up the ranks with shrewd signings such as Demirbay and Lukas Rupp, who didn’t quite make the grade at Dortmund and Mönchengladbach, respectively. The reliable Kevin Vogt arrived from Köln and the much-travelled and controversial striker Wagner was brought in from Darmstadt.
Kramaric, who Claudio Ranieri couldn’t have been more clear about not wanting at Leicester had he personally driven him to East Midlands airport, drew level with Wagner as Hoffe’s top goalscorer in the Bundesliga, with 11, after his pivotal strike. The Croatian has also chipped in with seven assists during the league campaign.
There is real personality in this group of players, and not just in those grasping a second chance. The midfielder Steven Zuber, who talked after the game about the need to “prepare myself extensively for my opponents”, is perhaps even more meticulous than Nagelsmann, watching endless videos of adversaries. Wagner, never backwards in coming forwards, seemingly revels in opprobrium and claimed last weekend that “I’m still the best German striker, 100%” in an interview with Bild.
Nagelsmann, a childhood Bayern fan whose prized possessions were a pair of Mehmet Scholl shirts, is not getting carried away, though. “We might celebrate,” he said, “if we have something to celebrate at the end of the season.”
With a run of three successive wins, each more impressive than the other – beating the underachieving but previously fancied Leverkusen, winning at Hertha on Friday and now besting Bayern – Hoffenheim have grabbed a place in the top three. Their form is such that the visit on 6 May to Dortmund, currently a point behind in fourth, is shaping up to be a real red letter day.
Even if it’s getting easier by the day to imagine him on an even higher stage in the near future, Nagelsmann will be fixed firmly on what counts right now – and Hoffenheim will enjoy it while it lasts. They already are.
Dortmund warmed up for Saturday’s Klassiker with a 3-0 win over Hamburg that wasn’t quite as comfortable as it sounds, but which continues their astonishing unbeaten home run – now stretching to two years. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who didn’t enjoy his most efficient night in front of goal, did get one at the death but has reportedly been fined a hefty €100,000 by the club for Saturday’s sponsor-annoying mask stunt at Schalke.
There really is no stopping Werder Bremen, who swept past Schalke, also 3-0. OK, they were a bit lucky referee Robert Hartmann didn’t whistle for a Fin Bartels foul on Benjamin Stambouli in the build-up to the third goal, a first in the Bundesliga for the 20-year-old Maximilian Eggestein, but the jig was up by then. The flying form of Alexander Nouri’s side is even more impressive when considering they’re doing without the injured Serge Gnabry and Clemens Fritz. As for Schalke, they’re only five points clear of the play-off place and face a big game with Wolfsburg – whose recent surge in form ended with a home loss to Freiburg – on Saturday.
What was handy for Schalke was the clutch of reverses for teams just below them – Hamburg and Wolfsburg’s defeats being matched by Mainz (beaten at home by Leipzig) and Augsburg, with Bild asking in both the latter two’s cases if it’s time to call for the Krisen-Trainer – relegation-specialist coaches who might be able to halt their alarming slides. The Augsburg sporting director, Stefan Reuter, backed his man, Manuel Baum, after the potentially ruinous 3-2 home derby loss to Ingolstadt, preferring to focus on his team’s spirited end rather than what Kicker called the “frighteningly weak” first 70 minutes. Now not only are Die Fuggerstädter still in the relegation play-off spot, but Maik Walpurgis’s written-off team are only four points behind, and automatic relegation is a danger once more. Mainz’s coach, Martin Schmidt, really needs a result at Freiburg on Friday night, while Augsburg go to Hertha on Saturday.
It’s hats off to Laszlo Benes, with the 19-year-old bagging an excellent maiden first-team goal for Gladbach on Bundesliga debut to snare all three points against Hertha – much-needed to escape the crowded scrap at the bottom, and to end a run of five without a win in all competitions. The teenage Slovakian couldn’t have picked a better moment to flag up his strengths; days after the announcement of Mo Dahoud’s imminent move to Dortmund, the chance of extended playing time is up for grabs.
Leverkusen badly needed a win too, and got it at bottom side Darmstadt. It was a first victory for the coach, Tayfun Korkut, who waxed lyrical over his side’s “two high-class goals”. Julian Brandt, scorer of the first, was rather more pragmatic, even if the points potentially put a Europa League spot back in view for Die Werkself. “Europe? I’m thinking about Saturday,” said Brandt – a very wise move, given both the flops of recent weeks and that the team’s weekend trip is to Leipzig.
Results: Köln 1-0 Eintracht Frankfurt, Dortmund 3-0 Hamburg, Hoffenheim 1-0 Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen 3-0 Schalke, Augsburg 2-3 Ingolstadt, Darmstadt 0-2 Bayer Leverkusen, Mönchengladbach 1-0 Hertha Berlin, Mainz 2-3 RB Leipzig, Wolfsburg 0-1 Freiburg.