View from the Other Side: Hoffenheim in the Champions League

Michael Mongie spoke to the co-founders of Germany’s first “Akademikerfanclub” about Liverpool’s Champions League playoff against Hoffenheim on Tuesday evening.

Liverpool aren’t quite back in the Champions League just yet but the excitement of a big European tie midweek will still be appreciated by supporters.

Having been absent from Europe’s elite for a few years now, Liverpool fans are practically salivating at the thought of Wednesday nights being back at Anfield.

In order to get into the Champions League proper, Jürgen Klopp needs to guide his side past a familiar face in Hoffenheim. Roberto Firmino will also have insider knowledge on Die Kraichgauer after spending four years at the club.

After a disappointing 3-3 draw with Watford on Saturday, Liverpool will be looking to really kick their season off with a win in Germany.

To get the lowdown on Liverpool’s opponents, I spoke to the co-founders of Germany’s first “Akademikerfanclub” which I am told, “is not restricted to professors and doctors but strongly opposing stupidity on the stands and elsewhere.”

Stefan Landmann and Karl Denz have brought us insight on what to expect from Hoffenheim.

RB Leipzig dominated headlines last summer as far as up and coming Bundesliga sides are concerned, but what can you tell us about Julian Nagelsmann’s exciting Hoffenheim setup?

Well, they did what we did in 2008 when we turned up in the Bundesliga, though we managed to gain the unofficial title of a first season’s “Autumn Champion” – i.e. we were first at the end of the first half of the season by an understanding of football that was unseen till then in Germany.

Our team manager was Ralf Rangnick, incidentally the man in charge in Leipzig now. Within these first 17 matches in the Bundesliga, we also played Dortmund and won 4-1. Their manager was a man named Jürgen Klopp who allegedly said that that was exactly the way he wants football to be played in his team’s thereon.

And now, we are as revolutionary and successful as we used to be in that first and very short period of time – for a much longer period since Julian Nagelsmann went back to the origin of our football and improved it.

There is a much greater variety as far as tactics are concerned. Our way is no longer based on stealing the ball and trying to move it towards and ideally across the opponent’s goal-line. We are now also capable of possessing the ball and creating the match, waiting patiently for chances. Now, there is more structure than speed – i.e. we have improved the former without having reduced the latter.

And there is the age of both him and the team. As you probably know, he is the youngest manager ever in the Bundesliga, he became Manager of The Year in 2016/17 and there was even an article in a well-respected newspaper in Germany about the new managers in the Bundesliga. Its headline read “Generation Nagelsmann.”

This is very helpful in a team like ours with very young and eager players. It seems as if he represents the perfect balance between buddy and boss. So they believe in him, his ideas, his plans. And quite rightly so.

They did not only become 4th at the end of the last season but more than half of the team (Wagner, Demirbay, Süle and Rudy (now Bayern Munich) – Amiri, Toljan) got a nomination for our national teams at the Confederation Cup and the U21UEFA Championship – and, as you know, both squads won their respective finals.

Liverpool conceded two set-piece goals away to Watford on Saturday. How much of a threat are Hoffenheim from these situations and who are the key men in such scenarios?

We used to be much better. I can hardly remember a set-piece goal. (There was one last season against Mönchengladbach but that was more by accident than intention.)

With Salihovic, these situations used to be really dangerous for our opponents. But ever since then, we have no real striker or key player for such moments – except a penalty. These are usually done by Kramaric who used to play for Leicester until Christmas in their championship season.

However, as far as corner and free-kicks are concerned, we do have pretty tall players as well as technically well-talented ones. And a manager who usually changes the things that ought to be improved.

Which Hoffenheim players should Liverpool watch out for?

Wagner may not be the player to be watched out for but always to be watched. He might not be the fastest or the neatest technician, but he has an instinct and a will that can always create chances for our side. The speed and precision of Demirbay, Amiri and now Gnabry can also be extremely breathtaking and potentially dangerous.

Roberto Firmino is returning to the Rhein-Neckar Arena after a £29 million move to Liverpool in 2015. What kind of reception can the Brazilian expect and are Hoffenheim supporters worried about coming up against him?

I think that he will be welcomed here wholeheartedly. He was an essential player when we were about to be relegated in 2013 and also very important for the club regaining self-consciousness after that very year.

So, we know what he did for us and this is what he now could do against us – and this is worrisome. However, the damn thing about your squad is he is just one of eleven outstanding players with loads of experience.

With the second leg of the tie being played at Anfield and this seen by British press as something of a powerplay, will Hoffenheim have a particular game plan in the first leg?

I am sure Nagelsmann will have one but he won’t tell anyone the plan in particular. I just hope that it is “a very cunning plan” which is more successful than Black Adder’s Baldwicks’s plans ever were.

Tell us more about Julian Nagelsmann. How has he found success in Germany at such a young age?

An early injury made him end his dreams of becoming a professional football player. He quickly decided to become a manager and so he did. He managed our U17 and U19teams.

With the latter, he won the German title a few years back with players such as Amiri. Then he was asked by the club whether he feels strong enough to take over the Bundesliga team when Huub Stevens had to cancel the job due to heart problems – he did.

Well, he would have taken over the team at the end of that season anyway – but he did in a situation when there was no reason for hope – but him. And he managed to keep the team in the league. One and a half years later, we are playing against you.

What should Liverpool look to target when they play Hoffenheim? What weaknesses does the Bundesliga side have that the Reds can look to exploit?

Our defence lost a key player. So did our midfield. Süle and Rudy are now playing for Bayern Munich and it would be a miracle if Nagelsmann managed to substitute them both fully.

But maybe he has, we can’t know. The season hasn’t really started yet hence it is difficult to say. But you simply have one advantage: You are so effing experienced.

For our young team and despite all the success in last year’s season or the national teams, the first opponent will be their nerves. Tomorrow and even more next week’s Wednesday.

But, as we call ourselves, “academics”, we are bound to be wrong.

I’d just like to say thank you to Stefan Landmann and Karl Denz for their help on this article. Follow Akademikerfanclub on Twitter to get great insight on German football.

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