All you need to know about TSG Hoffenheim: Liverpool's Champions League qualifier opponents
Liverpool's European dreams hinge on a two-legged tie against TSG Hoffenheim with the first leg of the Champions League qualifiers set to be played tonight at the Rhein-Neckar Stadium. Along with Red Bull Leipzig, Hoffenheim were the other surprise element in the Bundesliga last season where they finished fourth - the club's highest ever finish.
Hoffenheim are a small village team whose owner, Dietmar Hopp funded the team from the fifth tier to the first division. The Rhein-Neckar Stadium is a 30,150 seater ground with the locals passionately following the predominantly working class club. Hoffenheim's manager, Julian Nagelsmann, 30, is currently Europe's youngest coach in all the top leagues. To put things into context, Nagelsmann is 18 months younger than Liverpool's James Milner.
The 30-year old took over from Huub Stephens last February when Hoffenheim were reeling in the relegation zone. Nagelsmann had 14 games to save the club from the drop and he managed that in style as Hoffenheim scored 23 points out of a possible 42 and were saved from the drop by four points. He was always thought as a future Hoffenheim manager but Stephens' bad form led the club to rush him into the job.
Nagelsmann is a lot like the manager who will stand in the opposite technical area tonight, Jurgen Klopp. He is a superb man motivator, tactically intelligent and can take risks when needed. People who follow the Bundesliga may not be surprised by the rise of Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim with the 30-year old winning the U-19 championship in 2014. He was courted by Bayern Munich to take over their U-23 side but Nagelsmann waited for his big chance with the Kraichgaus.
Hoffenheim played in a 3-5-2 formation last season, changing from their traditional 4-3-3 set up. Nagelsmann's summer buy in his first summer window, Kevin Vogt from FC Koln played a huge part in the 3-5-2 being a success. A midfielder in his previous teams, Vogt was deployed in a back three by Nagelsmann to have a ball playing option at the back and one who can be calm against the press.
The three midfielders play in just the way Jurgen Klopp manages his midfield at Liverpool. One player sitting deep with the other two taking up positions further forward. While attacking, the two strikers stay forward which leads two defenders marking them continuously. This gives the midfielders enough space to burst into the final third.
Hoffenheim tend to press intensively but often invite the opposition side to enter their half before closing down. They like to make up the numbers in midfield, making the centre of the park a crowded area. Because of this, the Reds will miss Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana tonight, two creative players who could have been helpful in the midfield with their elusiveness and quick feet.
This Hoffenheim side also scored the most number of goals from set pieces in the last two seasons (16); a stat which will worry the Liverpool defence and their fan base.
Despite losing their best players in Roberto Firmino, Kevin Volland, Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy in the last two summers, Hoffenheim and Nagelsmann have bought well to keep the team competitive. The manager has proved that he can work with a limited budget which makes him an even more wanted man by the other clubs.
Kevin Vogt is a crucial cog in their wheel along with midfielder Kerim Demirbay. The latter had a breakthrough season last time around where he had a hand in 14 goals in the Bundesliga. He dribbled 2.4 times and made 2.1 key passes per 90 minutes last season. Andrej Kramaric, the former Leicester City striker, scored 15 goals last season and can prove to be a handful. Sadly for Hoffenheim, Sandro Wagner, the German forward, will miss tonight's game due to an injury.
This preseason saw Hoffenheim lose two of their integral players in Niklas Sule and Seb Rudy to Bayern Munich. This has left them a bit susceptible at the back currently. Hoffenheim maintained a high line in all their practice games, a tactic which might prove to be suicidal against Liverpool. They looked off the pace against Genoa's counter attacks with the Italian side not even having agile wingers.
Though Hoffenheim and Nagelsmann have done a fine job to reach where they are at the moment, beating Liverpool over two legs might prove to be too much for them. But it will be a brilliant sight to see Nagelsmann go blow to blow with Klopp and play firebrand football to try and stage a famous upset.