Perhaps the best measure of a coach is their ability to take diamonds in the rough and polish them into the finished article, and in Julian Nagelsmann, Hoffenheim may well have the best in the business.
A lot has changed since the 31-year-old took charge at the Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena in February 2016, with Die Kraichgauer in the relegation zone and five points adrift of safety.
A first tilt at European football followed for the Bundesliga's youngest-ever coach, who ended 2017 as the German Football Manager of the Year, and he now has a good chance of leaving them with UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League football to look forward to when he heads for RB Leipzig this summer.
Nagelsmann himself says "a basis of trust and good ties are important" in building a successful squad. With that in mind, bundesliga.com looks at five players who have benefitted most from the Nagelsmann method…
Watch: Julian Nagelsmann - Hoffenheim's revolutionary coach
Before Nagelsmann: The Berlin-born son of a German mother and Italian father, Schulz showed enough potential to convince hometown club Hertha to sign him as a boy. In nearly 100 first- and second-tier appearances, the left-back impressed despite his progress being stunted by a bout of glandular fever, and he earned a 2015 switch to Borussia Mönchengladbach. Disaster struck in the form of a serious cruciate ligament injury that limited him to just 13 Bundesliga appearances for the Foals, and meant when he joined Hoffenheim in summer 2017, his career was at a crossroads.
Since Nagelsmann: After starting slowly, Schulz built up momentum and with four of his five 2017/18 assists coming in the closing seven games of last season, gave more than a hint that 2018/19 would be better still. A senior Germany debut came in August — more than three years after his last U21 appearance — and his dramatic winner in March's UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier with the Netherlands was just desserts for a players whose "outstanding athletic qualities and incredible speed" — as Nagelsmann himself put it — have shone through on the Hoffenheim left.
Before Nagelsmann: A Borussia Dortmund youth product, Demirbay’s career had drifted into no man's land after he left Die Schwarzgelben aged 20 in 2013. A fruitless spell at Hamburg followed before the midfielder looked to have found his level in Bundesliga 2 with first Kaiserslautern and then Fortuna Düsseldorf. Ten goals in 25 games were admittedly a good return for the latter in the 2015/16 campaign. It was then that he joined Hoffenheim, but at the time, few expected the Ruhr-born Turkey U21 international to blossom into the player he is today.
Since Nagelsmann: Demirbay was thrust into the heart of the Hoffenheim midfield beside Germany international Sebastian Rudy, starting 27 games as the club finished the 2016/17 campaign in fourth. Demirbay’s wonder-goal in the 1-1 draw at champions Bayern Munich proved he could mix it with the best of them, while it was the left-footer’s injury-time strike against Cologne on the final day which booked the club’s passage into the UEFA Champions League play-off places for the first time in their history.
Little wonder he soon joined Rudy in the senior Germany side — having switched allegiance from Turkey — winning the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. He missed out on the 2018 FIFA World Cup after an injury-peppered 2017/18, but his return of four goals and five assists for this term has him approaching his 2016/17 best.
Before Nagelsmann: He scored 450 goals for Dinamo Zagreb's youth teams, and unsurprisingly made the step up to the senior side. It wasn't until a switch to HNK Rijeka that he recaptured his boyhood form, catching the eye of English Premier League side Leicester City, but — just like at Dinamo — the 12 months he spent in England were a battle, and he made just two top-flight appearances in the first half of the Foxes' miraculous title-winning 2015/16 campaign before Hoffenheim offered a way out in the form of a loan move.
Since Nagelsmann: The Hoffenheim boss cannot claim to have discovered Kramaric, but he has certainly made him. The Croatia international arrived at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena just a month before Nagelsmann replaced Huub Stevens, and their upward trajectories have been entwined ever since. His five goals and four assists in the 2015/16 Rückrunde convinced the Bundesliga outfit to make his move permanent.
After double-digit goal returns in his last two Bundesliga seasons, the 27-year-old signed a contract extension last summer, having been an ever-present for his country as they finished 2018 FIFA World Cup runners-up. He is on course for his best-ever season's tally in Germany after equalling his previous record of 15 from 2016/17 with his Matchday 28 strike in the 4-0 win over Augsburg, strengthening his place as Hoffenheim's all-time leading Bundesliga goalscorer.
Watch: Andrej Kramaric's Hoffenheim journey
Before Nagelsmann: "For me, Europe was always a dream," said Joelinton, his bantamweight boxer's build belying his tender 18 years when he inked a five-year deal at Hoffenheim in 2015. The transfer was monumental for the Brazilian teenager but made fewer waves than his new club's swoops for Fabian Schär and Jonathan Schmid at the same time, and Joelinton initially struggled to keep his head above water. A solitary Bundesliga appearance followed before he was sent on a two-season loan to Rapid Vienna, where he tasted both UEFA Europa League and regular first-team football.
Since Nagelsmann: "The two years in Vienna were good, but I'm happy to be back," Joelinton said last summer, extending his positive vibes to the rest of the club with a hat-trick in the 6-1 DFB Cup demolition of Kaiserslautern in August — his first competitive Hoffenheim appearance since late 2015. Seven Bundesliga goals and five assists have followed as he has snugly married up his qualities with those of Kramaric and Belfodil to make life hell for Bundesliga opponents. "He's already a beast who is a nightmare to defend against," says Nagelsmann of the 22-year-old, who stands an imposing 6'3". As Leipzig coach next season, he may regret having created such a 'monster'…
Before Nagelsmann: Like Kramaric, Belfodil's potential was never in doubt. Unlocking it though — that was another question. Paris Saint-Germain tried to do that for the Algeria-born forward, who grew up in the suburbs of the French capital, before Lyon also had a go, hoping to shape him into 'the new Karim Benzema'. They couldn't though, and an underwhelming, nomadic three-year spell in Italy, where he played for Parma (twice), Inter Milan and Livorno, ended with him joining Baniyas in the UAE, and his career seemingly on the wane. A promising return to Europe with Belgian outfit Standard Liege suggested to Werder Bremen Belfodil could do a job for them — he did, to an extent, with four Bundesliga goals in 26 appearances last season.
Since Nagelsmann: "He fits our sought-after profile just great," said Hoffenheim sporting director Alexander Rosen after orchestrating Belfodil's move from Standard last summer, and Nagelsmann has used the striker's "variability in attacking positions" — another bit of praise from Rosen — to great effect alongside Kramaric and Joelinton. His 2018/19 Rückrunde in particular has been stunning, with nine of his 13 league strikes so far, including his first professional hat-trick in the Matchday 28 win at Augsburg, arriving since the turn of the year. Finally — at the age of 27 — he seems to be coming good on the natural talent which had so many people tipping him to be a star a decade ago.
Kramaric extends Hoffenheim contract
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Scoring or setting up goals, the Hoffenheim forward is just happy to help his team as he reflects on his career to date and looks ahead to facing Borussia Dortmund.
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The former Bayern man was among the first people to congratulate his compatriot on breaking Olic's Bundesliga record for most goals by a Croatian.