Nagelsmann (l.) has forged a strong relationship with his players since becoming the youngest coach in Bundesliga history in February 2016.
Nagelsmann (l.) has forged a strong relationship with his players since becoming the youngest coach in Bundesliga history in February 2016.

Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann encouraging his players to take more responsibility

Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann has allowed his players to make a number of important decisions ahead of the 2017/18 season, including the choice of club captain and the team's objectives for the campaign.

Nobody does it quite like Nagelsmann. Several weeks ago, the 30-year-old Hoffenheim coach gathered his players together and announced that they, rather than he and his staff, would be responsible for choosing the club captain, vice-captain and team council for the coming season.

Captain Polanski

They decided to keep faith with former Poland international Eugen Polanski, who was already captain last term but made only 14 Bundesliga appearances, frequently handing the armband over to Sebastian Rudy. With the Germany midfielder now plying his trade at Bayern Munich, new vice-captain Kevin Vogt looks set to lead TSG on the pitch, supported by fellow deputy Benjamin Hübner and the other members of the six-man players' council: Oliver Baumann, Ermin Bicakcic and Sandro Wagner.

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This week, in a further show of trust, Nagelsmann charged his players with the task of outlining targets for this season's three competitions - Bundesliga, DFB Cup and UEFA Champions League - although he says he reserves the right to make minor adjustments.

"Last year I set out the targets, but this year I wanted it to be up to the players, like the choice of captain," he explained. "If I find their ideas a little unambitious I may make some changes, but I know my players. They will be ambitious."

Ambitious aims

Before last season, Nagelsmann set out three goals - one public and two private. The former was simply to enjoy a trouble-free campaign and continue the team's sporting development, but the latter were more intriguing. The first consisted of realistic aims (finishing in the top half of the table and reaching the DFB Cup quarter-finals), the second was more ambitious (sixth place and qualification for the UEFA Europa League).

In the end, of course, Hoffenheim achieved more than even they could have imagined, finishing fourth and earning a place in the Champions League playoffs. To reach the competition proper, they face a challenge worthy of their newfound appetite for success - a double header with five-time European champions Liverpool and manager Jürgen Klopp, who knows the Bundesliga like the back of his hand.

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"We have the opportunity to play a great team in a legendary stadium, which is something truly special," Nagelsmann said after the draw. "It's great for the media and the fans, and Jürgen Klopp will be back in Germany. We'll do everything in our power to get through. Liverpool are a phenomenal side, but I already have an idea how we can snatch a result."

Klopp is unlikely to underestimate his opposite number, especially after Nagelsmann guided Hoffenheim through the first half of last season unbeaten and masterminded the club's first ever league victory over Bayern. 

"When you are fourth in Germany you are a strong side," the former Mainz and Borussia Dortmund coach told the Liverpool website. "Hoffenheim are a very interesting club, with a lot of really good young players and a very talented young coach. It's a real challenge."

European guarantee

Whatever happens against Liverpool on 15 August (Wirsol Rhein-Neckar Arena) and 23 August (Anfield), Hoffenheim are still guaranteed European football, because the losing sides from the Champions League playoffs go straight into the Europa League group stage.

But the historic achievements of last season have created a close bond between Nagelsmann and his troops, and when Polanski hands over the list of objectives for this season, no doubt they will include joining Bayern, RB Leipzig and Dortmund at European football's top table.

"I have a huge amount of confidence in my players and the whole team, so I was happy to let them come up with our goals for the season," Nagelsmann admitted. "It's up to them whether we have one global objective, or individual targets for each competition."

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Hoffenheim kick off their Bundesliga campaign at home to Werder Bremen on 19 August, but first they will warm up for Liverpool with a DFB Cup first-round outing against third-tier Rot-Weiß Erfurt. Wagner should be available after shaking off an ankle injury, although Nagelsmann may be tempted to rest him for Tuesday. Adam Szalai, on the other hand, will miss out due to a calf problem.  

Nagelsmann: 'Favourites'

"Erfurt started their competitive season a few weeks ago, so they have found their rhythm," warned Vogt. "But we know we're the favourites, and we want to live up to that billing with a focused performance. If we play to the best of our abilities, we can progress."

Nagelsmann celebrated his 30th birthday in late July, with a memorable present courtesy of kicker: the 2016/17 Manager of the Year award, as voted by almost 900 German sports journalists. After this latest example of his inspired man management, the sharpest young coach in Europe now has a chance to add another string to his bow and start 2017/18 with a bang. Liverpool have been warned.

Andy Smith

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