Sinsheim - There is one statistic that 1899 Hoffenheim supporters read with particular pride at present, and quite probably will when the season comes to an end.
In the league table’s ‘goals for’ column, the figure beside Hoffenheim’s name is 67, second only to Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern München as the league’s entertainers.
Of those 67 goals, most have been notched by an attacking trio that is one of the most dynamic, fluid and exciting in Europe. Germany U-21 international captain Kevin Volland, Brazilian Roberto Firmino and French goal-poacher Anthony Modeste - aged 21, 22 and 26 respectively - have accounted for 36 of those 67 goals. While they have notched from all areas of the field from open play, however, Hoffenheim are also a danger from set-pieces. Sejad Salihovic, a relative veteran at the age of 29, has hit 12 goals himself this season, including three free-kicks and a staggering eight penalties.
Now the club’s longest-serving player after joining from Hertha Berlin in 2006 when the club was still in the third tier, Salihovic recently became TSG’s record scorer in the top flight when he grabbed his 48th goal with a spot-kick against FC Augsburg. Alongside players such as Eugen Polanski and Andreas Beck, who have amassed close to 300 top-flight appearances between them, he helps provide the experience that has helped a side on the brink of relegation 12 months ago, re-establish itself as a stable Bundesliga club - at least in terms of their position in the standings.
Never a dull moment
Indeed, stable is hardly an appropriate word to describe how the team have fared this season, for as good as they are in attack, they are just as bad at the back, and only Hamburger SV, now in 16th and themselves threatened with the drop, have conceded more goals (67) than Hoffenheim’s 66. It is only due to the ease with which 1899 have opened up opposition defences up that they have lost a modest 11 games.
Then there was the controversy surrounding Stefan Kießling’s ghost goal last November which was awarded against them, despite going through a hole in the side netting., and even going back to last season, Hoffenheim’s games have been characterised by chaos. On the final day of the 2012/13 season, Salihovic scored two penalties to seal a thrilling and wholly unexpected 2-1 win at Dortmund and save the club via a relegation play-off win over 1. FC Kaiserslautern. It would seem that such drama could only befall a team like Hoffenheim and it comes as no surprise that coach Markus Gisdol labelled his first full year in charge of the team as “a year of extremes” in an interview with kicker recently.
Found their niche
Ultimately, Hoffenheim are a club that frequently revert from the sublime to the ridiculous - a 6-2 win over UEFA Champions League chasing VfL Wolfsburg was followed by a 4-0 defeat to FC Schalke 04 and a 4-2 home loss against 1. FSV Mainz 05, in which they squandered a two-goal lead. Ultimately, though, Hoffenheim are grasping the opportunity they were presented with following the play-off success against Lautern and seem to have found an identity as a club that excites.
Entertainment delivered by a young and dynamic team was their hallmark back in 2008/09, when they led the Bundesliga table at the halfway-mark in their maiden top-flight campaign. TSG went on to record an admirable seventh-placed finish that year, but the success then slowed with three consecutive 11-placed finishes in 2010, 2011 and 2012 as the club stagnated into mediocrity, having lost their aura of exciting football due to a string of managerial changes.
Their possible relegation last season threatened to be greeted with indifference from Germany’s football-loving majority, but having survived in circumstances and in such a fashion as only they can, Hoffenheim have grasped their opportunity to re-forge themselves a label and a reputation, which for a club with a relatively unremarkable history (1899 were in the old fifth tier as recently as 2000), is a necessity in a country such as Germany, where fans take so much pride in tradition.
Gisdol deserves credit
It is also a hugely successful achievement and few people deserve more praise for its realisation than Gisdol himself. The 44-year-old has tackled his first post as a Bundesliga head coach with verve, energy and no little tactical nous, putting his trust in a style of play which, although high-risk, stays true to the Bundesliga’s mantra of keeping fans on the edge of their seats and has given the club itself a new lease of life. That is set to continue next season, with Volland verbally committing himself to the club and both Firmino and Beck both agreeing new contracts.
Just over a year since Gisdol was appointed, the club have come back from the brink to secure what looks like being a steady mid-table top-flight finish at the end of this season, and although it has been a road with plenty of ups and downs, it has been one of progression for a coach, who has just as much potential as his young and adventurous team.