In-form Hoffenheim are once again threatening a top-four finish. But how did Sebastian Hoeneß and his team get to where they are?
bundesliga.com examines the reasons behind the Sinsheim club's success…
Hoffenheim started 2022 like they began the season - with a victory over Augsburg and, with plenty of their rivals for European places dropping points around them, they suddenly found themselves third in the standings.
"We're on a good run and managed to pick up where we left off," said Bebou, who also hit a hat-trick in the 6-3 triumph at Greuther Fürth on Matchday 13. "We can build on this win - the result gives us even more belief and self-confidence."
Watch: Ihlas Bebou's two goals against Augsburg
David Raum - who added an injury-time goal after setting up Bebou's equaliser - was more circumspect.
"I don't even look at the standings during the season," said the Germany left-back, who unveiled a rather fitting "living the dream" tattoo while celebrating his strike. "All this calculating doesn't help in any way. We try to play our best in every game and then we'll see what happens in the end."
His coach took a similar line. You don't get anything, Hoeneß stressed, for being third after 18 matches.
An inspiring leader
Regardless of whether Raum or Hoeneß are looking at the table, expectations are rising, but they already were when Hoeneß was appointed Hoffenheim head coach in summer 2020. For starters, he's the son of former West Germany international Dieter and the nephew of former Bayern Munich player and president Uli.
Football pedigree is one thing, but coaching credentials are another. And Hoffenheim's new man had those as well, having guided the Bayern Munich reserve team to their maiden third division title in 2019/20.
The 39-year-old led Hoffenheim to 11th in 2020/21, but in his second year in charge his methods are really starting to bear fruit.
There were few changes over the summer, with midfielder Sebastian Rudy making his temporary move permanent and American defender Chris Richards - who worked with Hoeneß at the Allianz Arena - joining on loan from the champions for a second season. Angelo Stiller - another of the coach's old acquaintances from Bayern - left Bavaria for good, while Raum - a star of Fürth's promotion campaign and Germany's Euro U21 win - also signed on a free.
A crucial change
A 4-0 success at Augsburg on the opening day was promising, although the four-game winless streak that followed - which became a run of only one win in six - will have given pause for thought. Since the middle of October, however, Hoffenheim have hardly put a foot wrong.
An upswing in form coincided with a switch from four at the back to a three-man defence for the Matchday 8 visit of Cologne, a game Hoffenheim - then 11th in the table - won 5-0. Since then they have used either a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formation, ending 2021 in fifth and as the league's fourth-highest goalscorers.
Sporting director Alexander Rosen felt the team could look back on the Hinrunde with both pride and satisfaction.
"It's our third best since Hoffenheim have been in the Bundesliga," he said. "I think you could see from roughly the midway stage what we stand for: lots of chances, attacking football, power, running, sprinting and transitions."
Here to stay?
Hoffenheim have been here before, of course, placing fourth and then third under Julian Nagelsmann in 2016/17 and 2017/18 as well as sixth as recently as 2019/20. Some key members of those sides are contributing again this term, including goalkeeper Oliver Baumann, defenders Kevin Vogt and Pavel Kaderabek, adaptable defensive stalwart Florian Grillitsch, Germany international Rudy and Croatian attacker Andrej Kramaric.
That experienced spine has been supplemented to great effect by a combination of developing talents and newcomers. Bebou and Raum have impressed along with the likes of USA international Richards, midfielders Dennis Geiger and Diadie Samassekou, as well as young attackers Christoph Baumgartner and Georginio Rutter.
It all makes for an exciting line-up, and Augsburg sporting director Stefan Reuter was full of praise for Hoffenheim after the Matchday 18 encounter against his side. He pointed out that Kramaric's movement between the lines makes him difficult to mark, while Baumgartner and Geiger's swift passing in midfield means it's hard to get a tackle in.
"Hoffenheim play calmly, quickly and with purpose towards the opposing goal," Reuter told German sports magazine kicker. "They are right up there [in the table] and they can be expected to stay there until the end despite the intense competition."
Never say die
Hoeneß has clearly got his squad pulling in the same direction. By the halfway stage of the league campaign Hoffenheim had 16 different goalscorers, while they had earned 15 points from losing positions after again coming from behind to beat Augsburg.
"We showed character today - as we have done all season," Richards said after that triumph, the American having been Hoffenheim's unlikely matchwinner against Freiburg on Matchday 15. "We play for each other and fight together. Teams know that when they face us."
Watch: Hoffenheim home from home for Chris Richards
"Over the last few matches, we have shown we can turn games like this around," Rudy said after Hoffenheim hit back from 2-0 down to draw at Bayer Leverkusen on Matchday 16. "The fact we never give up is one of our strengths."
Stiller and Munas Dabbur came off the bench to get the goals in the final 10 minutes in Leverkusen, something Rudy believes is a demonstration of how strong his team is.
"We have an unbelievable level of competition for places and we're especially strong in attack," Israeli striker Dabbur later told club media in January. "As a footballer in such a situation, you have to perform when called upon."
Watch: Hoffenheim's dramatic comeback in Leverkusen
Dabbur is one of 11 players to have scored at least two Bundesliga goals for Hoffenheim in 2021/22, with Bebou leading the way. The club's leading goalscorer highlighted the togetherness at Hoffenheim when he signed a new contract - running until 2026 - in mid-December.
"I found the perfect mix of support, trust and good training opportunities here," Bebou declared. "It's a team that... not only promote the idea of team spirit but also practise it day after day. That's why I'm looking forward to and am excited about what the future holds."
The Togo international, who joined the club after Hannover were relegated in 2019, has carried through his form from last season. He was voted Hoffenheim's Player of the Month for both October and November, and the 27-year-old - with seven goals after his double against Augsburg - is fast closing in on his 2020/21 tally of nine.
Watch: Bebou's first Bundesliga hat-trick
A top keeper
Baumann succeeded Bebou as the club's Player of the Month for December, meanwhile, earning 64 percent of the vote to finish ahead of Vogt and Dabbur. He, too, signed a new contract that month. It will keep him at the club until 2024 - by which stage he will have been a Hoffenheim player for 10 years.
"We have achieved a lot as a team in the past few years, qualified twice for the Europa League and even made it to the Champions League once, and I am sure that we all have an exciting future ahead of us here if we continue to work together like this," he said.
The former Freiburg netminder - who has now made over 275 appearances for Hoffenheim - was praised by Hoeneß for his "positive ambition" as well as his "will to improve every day in training."
Fortune favours the brave
Hoffenheim are steadily improving as a team under their talented young coach, who was at the club as a player before they were promoted to the Bundesliga for the first time in 2008. In what is their 14th season in Germany's top flight, they have lost only one home game so far - and are starting to add results on the road as well.
At the club since 2016, Vogt is another player enjoying a revival under Hoeneß. The 30-year-old senses that something special could be on the cards this season - if Hoffenheim stick to their principles.
"We're playing brave football right now," he said after his team came from behind to beat Eintracht Frankfurt 3-2 on Matchday 14. "If you show courage on the pitch, you will be rewarded in the end."