It will always be a special occasion when Bayern Munich head coach Julian Nagelsmann returns to Hoffenheim - the place where his Bundesliga journey started at the age of 28.
Few could have expected Nagelsmann to be so successful – and so swiftly - when he was installed as head coach of Hoffenheim on 11 February 2016. He had, after all, been thrust into the role four months ahead of schedule following the resignation of Huub Stevens on health grounds.
The situation the Hoffenheim U19 boss walked into didn’t bode well either. The senior team were second bottom in the table, above Hannover on goal difference after managing just two wins from 20 matches. With 14 games left, Hoffenheim were five points off the relegation play-off place and seven points adrift of safety.
“Together with Julian, we again carefully weighed up all the risks we considered in the autumn and have now decided the best way is for him to start earlier,” Hoffenheim managing director Dr. Peter Görlich said when explaining the appointment. “He's keen and he can also give the team fresh impetus.”
Watch: Julian Nagelsmann's instant impact at Hoffenheim
If making Nagelsmann the youngest permanent head coach in Bundesliga history was a gamble, it proved an inspired one. His first game in charge - a couple of days after he was appointed - ended with a point at third-bottom Werder Bremen. Andrej Kramaric scored before later being sent off.
Nagelsmann switched to three at the back for the game, playing a more attacking style and encouraging his team to be brave.
“He told us that we should play with self-confidence and freedom,” defender Ermin Bicakcic said in Bremen. “He’s a man of clear words. Both a motivator and an analyst.”
A former youth player at 1860 Munich and Augsburg - where he learned from former Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea supremo Thomas Tuchel while doing some scouting - Nagelsmann began coaching after retiring due to injury at the age of 20. Although he was yet to graduate from the DFB coaching school when he took the Hoffenheim job, it soon became clear that he was more than ready for life in the Bundesliga.
Nagelsmann’s home debut was against high-flying Mainz, and Hoffenheim fell behind early. But a Nadiem Amiri goal and a double from Mark Uth gave them a 3-2 win. Both goalscorers noted how much fun it was to be on the pitch, while Hoffenheim attacker Kevin Volland also highlighted the new coach’s impact.
“This victory has Nagelsmann written all over it,” he said. “Hoffenheim were known for attacking football in the past and we are looking to return to that.”
Hoffenheim sporting director Alexander Rosen, meanwhile, suggested the best was yet to come.
“I’ve known Julian Nagelsmann for six years, while to most others he may be fairly new to the game,” said Rosen, who watched the coach make the U19s German champions in 2013/14. “I understand all the questions concerning his age, but I’m not all surprised with the way he is handling himself… He sets an example and the team followed him all the way today. I’m firmly convinced that we will remain in the top flight.”
Watch: Nagelsmann transformed Hoffenheim, his way
It was a bold, but accurate prediction. The Mainz win was the first of seven that Nagelsmann’s team managed over an 11-game period. Going into the final day they were already safe from automatic relegation, and they finished one point ahead of third-bottom Eintracht Frankfurt, despite losing 4-1 at home to Schalke.
Afterwards Nagelsmann said one of his most important tasks had been to clear the minds of the players and get them back to enjoying their football - highlighting the hard-fought point in Bremen as a key moment. But he also promised that there was plenty of work to be done.
“I want to confirm the last few weeks with the team in the new season,” he told the club website. “We’ve stayed up, but in three weeks nobody will care about that anymore.”
Volland left for Bayer Leverkusen that summer, but Kramaric’s loan move from Leicester City was made permanent. Defenders Benjamin Hübner and Kevin Vogt arrived, while Kerem Demirbay and Lukas Rupp strengthened the midfield sector. Sandro Wagner joined from Darmstadt, while Hungarian forward Adam Szalai returned from a loan at Hannover to add another attacking option.
There was frustration on the opening day of the 2016/17 season when Marcel Sabitzer levelled in the 90th minute for promoted RB Leipzig in a 2-2 draw. Hoffenheim then came from 4-1 down to hold Mainz on Matchday 2, part of a run of four consecutive draws.
Rupp’s second goal of the season gave Hoffenheim a first victory against Schalke on Matchday 5, which was the start of a five-game winning streak.
With Oliver Baumann solid in goal, a young Niklas Süle a mainstay in a back three alongside Hübner and Vogt, and Sebastian Rudy protecting the defence, Nagelsmann’s team were increasingly hard to beat. Further evidence of that came on Matchday 10, when the Hoffenheim coach guided his side to a 1-1 draw at Bayern - the club he supported as a boy.
Belief kept growing, character kept building and the goals continued to flow for Wagner in particular in the first half of the campaign. By the midway point Hoffenheim were third - and one of only six teams in Bundesliga history to have reached that stage unbeaten.
By February 2017 - when Nagelsmann had been a year in the job - Wagner was on 10 league goals for 2016/17, while Rudy and Süle’s form had secured them moves to Bayern for the following season.
Nagelsmann’s team happily switched between variations of 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 systems with plenty more besides, all with the goal of winning the ball as high up the pitch as possible and finding the shortest route to goal. Kramaric took over the goalscoring burden from Wagner after the winter break, and the Croatian striker ended with 15 goals. Hoffenheim - despite eventually suffering four defeats - finished in the top four for the very first time. They were only five points off a runners-up finish - and had 15 points more than fifth-placed Cologne.
Hoffenheim were an innovative organisation, and Nagelsmann was comfortable embracing new technology in search of an edge. The club followed Dortmund by using the Footbonaut to aid the players’ touch, and in 2017 they introduced a videowall on the halfway line of their training pitch. This allowed Nagelsmann and his coaching staff to film his squad in action and then to show them what they were doing and better explain what he wanted on a matchday.
Watch: Nagelsmann the revolutionary
A summer arrival that year, Havard Nordtveit joined the long list of people to be impressed by the young coach.
“I’ve never had to get my head around so many drills,” the Norwegian said, when reflecting on a pre-season he stressed was more demanding mentally than physically. “We meticulously played out all manner of in-game situations.”
Nordtveit also suggested that Nagelsmann “appears to know everything there is”, and tipped him for “tremendous success in football”.
And while Nagelsmann’s first full season at Hoffenheim was a triumph, he went even better in 2017/18. Serge Gnabry arrived on loan from Bayern and scored 10 goals, while Nico Schulz and Florian Grillitsch also suited Hoffenheim’s high-octane style.
Czech wing-back Pavel Kaderabek became increasingly influential, and - with Wagner joining Bayern over the winter - Uth finished as the 14-goal top scorer with one more than Kramaric.
“Tactically he’s the best coach I’ve ever head,” Uth told bundesliga.com that season. “Julian has clear ideas and he knows exactly how to play against every opponent. I’ve never experienced anything like this before… he’s made me much better.”
Hoffenheim had lost to Liverpool in UEFA Champions League qualifying at the start of the campaign, but by the end of it they had qualified for the group stage.
Hopp, though, had previously conceded that he would have trouble keeping such a talented coach at the club. And in June 2018 it was revealed that the following campaign would be Nagelsmann’s last in Sinsheim. Leipzig announced that one of Europe’s most sought-after tacticians would be heading northeast for the 2019/20 campaign.
Ninth with ten games to go, they won four of their last five matches to improve on the previous season. The second top scorers in the Bundesliga with 66 goals, they won 3-1 against Dortmund on the final day to leapfrog the visitors.
“We’ve finished third in the Bundesliga, which is almost unbelievable,” Hoffenheim owner Dietmar Hopp said after Kramaric, Szalai and Kadarabek scored against Dortmund. “When we were in ninth place, we were lacking that bit of luck. But Julian Nagelsmann found the formula to get everything out of the players.”
In Nagelsmann’s last year, his ultra-attacking team got even more Bundesliga goals - 70 - with Kramaric (17), Ishak Belfodil (16), Reiss Nelson and Joelinton (both seven) all contributing heavily. But the Champions League took its toll and Hoffenheim lost at Mainz in Nagelsmann’s last game in charge. As a result they missed out on a European place by ending the season in ninth.
It was a disappointing end, but only a minor blemish on an incredible three-and-a-half-year period of calling the shots at the club. Only Bayern and Dortmund picked up more Bundesliga points, after all, than the 191 he managed in 116 league games.
There’ll be plenty of fond memories, then, whenever Nagelsmann returns to Hoffenheim.
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