Friday , September 30 2022

How Hoffenheim established themselves as a Bundesliga force from a village of just 3,000

In this edition of his weekly column, ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae examines TSG Hoffenheim ‘s push for a Champions League return by embracing the very opposite of the traditional German model but getting plenty of things right with smart decision-making.

I’ll start by posing a question: Have you heard of Alexander Rosen? If you haven’t, then he’s a name you must become familiar with immediately. A former journeyman footballer at various clubs, including Eintracht Frankfurt, Rosen ended his career with Hoffenheim in 2009-2010, where he simultaneously began studying sports business and economics.

This was around the time when Hoffenheim had emerged as the new kids on the Bundesliga block. In England they might have been viewed as a breath of fresh air. In Germany, the prevalent opinion among traditionalists was that an ill wind had buffeted them to the top. What used to be an unimportant team, from a southwestern village of little more than 3,000 people, had seemingly been artificially bankrolled to success by local software engineer and billionaire businessman Dietmar Hopp, who had played for the club as a teenager.

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The combination of Hopp’s considerable means and (now-Manchester United manager) Ralf Rangnick’s modern coaching and tactical acumen meant Hoffenheim were able to short-circuit their way into the Oberhaus (upper house), landing in Germany’s top flight for the first time in 2008. They have remained a Bundesliga club ever since, despite a couple of narrow brushes with relegation. The fact is, nowadays, we tend to think of the team from the hilly Kraichgau region as far more likely to challenge for Europe than to face a messy Abstiegskampf (relegation fight).

But let’s go back to Rosen, who spent almost three years as Hoffenheim’s performance centre manager — building one of the most modern and innovative facilities in Germany at the time — before ascending to the position of director of football in 2013 at the age of 34. He has been at the heartbeat of Hoffenheim’s rise from that point on, and while we can legitimately talk about the club’s financial and structural advantages over others, continuity through Rosen’s ubiquitous presence and intelligent decision making must not be overlooked.

Rosen smiles a lot and doesn’t carry himself as a big timer, almost blending in with the chirping of birds around him in the Kraichgau. This past weekend he did a series of interviews following Hoffenheim’s feisty and not undeserved 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich, a result that cemented the club’s Champions League credentials.

The common theme was to underscore how Hoffenheim try to present themselves: courageous, attack minded, attractive. Merely grinding out results and treading water from season to season is never going to be the Rosen way. After all, he had the foresight to take a chance on Julian Nagelsmann, 28 years old at the time, while in the middle of a relegation scrap and reaped the rewards of that decision. How many other sporting directors would have been that bold?

Rosen prides himself on combining modern technology with old-school ways. On his office desk is a magnetic board that he uses to move around players in the Hoffenheim squad according to form, injuries, suspensions and above all, with an eye on future squad planning.

Rosen will be the first to acknowledge that the planning aspect has changed from his early years when players would come and go with greater frequency. Now you have a generation that has stayed at Hoffenheim and feels at home in the Kraichgau. The best example is Andrej Kramaric, who has just extended his contract until 2025 and is every bit the perfect Identifikationsfigur (a player fans can identify with).

When Hoffenheim first signed the Croatian forward in 2016, on loan from Leicester City, no one could have predicted his impact and longevity at the club. Back then, Rosen and his chief international scout Lutz Pfannenstiel (full disclosure: he’s now my regular commentary partner, as well as the sporting director for St. Louis City SC, who join MLS in 2023) forged a terrific duo. With his extensive contacts and knowledge, Pfannenstiel would travel the world and frequently come up with gems according to the Rosen blueprint, to match the Hoffenheim style.

The acquisition of David Raum from Greuther Furth didn’t make waves when the pre-contract was agreed in January 2021, but what an impact the 23-year-old has made and deservedly received his full Germany debut in November. A constant menace on the left, Raum’s assist for Christoph Baumgartner‘s equaliser on Saturday was his eighth of the season, thus sliding him ahead of the usual assists king, Kramaric, with seven.

I backed Hoffenheim to finish sixth in my preseason predictions, mostly down to squad strength, and that is the ultimate tribute to Rosen and his staff.

The standouts this season — in addition to Kramaric and Raum — have been goalkeeper Oliver Baumann (another Pfannenstiel find), veteran defender Kevin Vogt and the vibrant, youthful Georginio Rutter emerging. The truth is that Hoffenheim are far better placed to deal with player absences than most of their competitors.

I’ve deliberately left speaking about coach Sebastian Hoeness until now. Not because the son of Dieter and nephew of Uli is a bad coach — on the contrary — but to emphasise that the environment under Rosen is the key to the club’s success. Hoeness, a former Hoffenheim player, is certainly an excellent fit for all the qualities the club seek to embody, but the direction the club is heading in starts with Rosen at a time when Hopp has cut back his financial commitments to TSG.

Young, hungry players with potential are certainly part of the story. Americans Chris Richards and Justin Che are in a good place for their careers to flourish. Richards, who’s back on loan from Bayern this season, has had his ups and downs — and injuries, too — but the main thing is he’s learning and developing in the right ambience.

Che, yet to appear since joining on an 18-month loan in January, will have to be patient for now. The end-of-campaign scramble for Champions League places is not the place for a raw 18-year-old to find footing amid a team of more seasoned defenders. Hoeness has said they don’t want to rush him. His time will come.

At Hoffenheim’s Zuzenhausen training complex, you’re allowed to get on with it, far away from the siren call that has hampered many in big cities like Stuttgart, Hamburg or Frankfurt, playing for Traditionsvereine (traditionally followed clubs).

Hoffenheim are never going to be top of the Bundesliga popularity charts. History and geography have seen to that. But as long as Rosen is at the helm of football operations, players will continue to see the benefits of spending a few years — and perhaps then some — in the Kraichgau region.


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