Saturday’s closing act of the Bundesliga season saw 36 goals,
Bayern Munich’s first home league defeat in 37 games and Hamburg’s 54 year stay
in the German top flight brought to an end.
Matchday 34 also marked a poignant day for Hoffenheim who
qualified for the group stages of the Champion’s League for the first time in
their 118 year history with victory over Borussia Dortmund.
The architect of their third place finish – 30-year-old head
coach Julian Nagelsmann.
As a youth player with Augsburg, a knee injury would force
Nagelsmann into retirement at the age of only 21.
With his fledgling career prematurely ended, the German would go
on to study Business Administration, and Sports Science, before being offered a
job as a salesman for German automotive giants, BMW.
In a bid to fund his academic pursuits, Nagelsmann returned to
Augsburg to work as a scout for recently appointed PSG manager, and former
Dortmund coach, Thomas Tuchel.
Various youth coaching roles were to follow with 1860 Munich,
and subsequently Hoffenheim where a 26-year-old Nagelsmann would lead the U-19
side to their first ever youth Bundesliga title.
In October 2015, Hoffenheim announced that Nagelsmann would
leave his post as manager of the club’s U-19 side to become head coach for the
2016/17 campaign, replacing interim manager Huub Stevens.
Stevens would go on to step down due to health issues on 10th February
2016, meaning 28-year-old Naglesmann’s reign would begin six months early.
The pressure of becoming the Bundesliga’s youngest ever manager
was exacerbated by Hoffenheim’s need for immediate results, sitting one from
bottom and seven points from safety.
Two days after his appointment, Nagelsmann, nick amed
“Mini Mourinho” by former Germany goalkeeper (and now WWE wrestler) Tim Wiese, saw his ten-man side hold on for a 1-1 draw away to Werder Bremen.
The following week brought a home managerial debut as Mainz
visited the Rhein-Neckar-Arena. Two goals from Mark Uth helped the home side to
all three points and a first win for their prodigious head coach.
A total of 23 points from his fourteen games in charge saw
Hoffenheim reach the safety of 15th position, avoiding the
relegation playoff spot by a single point.
With the benefit of a full preseason, Hoffenheim would
go seventeen games without defeat at the start of the new campaign.
Victory over perpetual Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich, a
feeling Nagelsmann likened to “a drug”, would follow en route to a fourth place
finish, securing a Champions League playoff with eventual finalists, Liverpool.
His side would go on to lose 6-3 on aggregate, including a 4-2 defeat at Anfield.
Criticism of the Bundesliga’s “Manager of the Year” followed, as his side conceded three goals in 21 minutes. A result that will do little to win favour with the Arsenal faithful. However, given the Merseyside tribulations of Messrs Guardiola and Di Francesco this season, it should not undermine Nagelsmann’s credentials.
Hoffenheim’s turnaround from relegation candidates, to Champions
League qualifiers in only two and a half seasons is impressive.
Even more impressive is doing so with a manager four years younger
than his goalkeeper, and working on a limited budget (record signing Andrej
Kramaric, for example, cost only €11 million).
With tactical astuteness drawing comparison to José Mourinho,
ability to work under financial constraints, and the bravery to take on a
pressurised role at a young age, it’s easy to see why the Gunners have come calling.