Hoffenheim were the last undefeated team in Europe's five major leagues - as defined by UEFA's coefficient - in 2016/17, finally succumbing to RB Leipzig 2-1 as late as 28 January - more than two weeks after European champions Real Madrid slipped up for the first time, at Sevilla.
The Sinsheim club could join Leipzig - as well as Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund - at Europe's top table should they overcome a play-off in August, but what will they look like if and when they get there? bundesliga.com digs deeper…
Julian Nagelsmann – the Bundesliga’s youngest coach at 30 – was eminently impressive in his first full season in the Rhein-Neckar Arena dugout, building a team who worked hard for each other in a fluid 3-5-2 formation with wing backs. Niklas Süle and Sebastian Rudy proved so good that Bayern signed the pair this summer, but Nagelsmann’s greatest on-field success stories arguably played out elsewhere…
Kevin Vogt, previously a battling midfielder with Augsburg and Cologne, was rebranded as Sinsheim’s very own Sergio Busquets, dropping between his centre-backs to begin moves from deep. Up front, Sandro Wagner proved that his 14-goal season at Darmstadt was no fluke, adding 11 last term despite his primary function being to hold the ball up for top scorer Andrej Kramaric. Wagner’s performances saw him join Süle and Rudy in earning full international honours, and he went on to win the Confederations Cup with Germany earlier this month.
Süle and Rudy nonetheless left big gaps to fill, and the 1899ers have gone shopping this summer. Florian Grillitsch, Nico Schulz and Justin Hoogma signed from Werder Bremen, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Heracles respectively, but the two arrivals who most caught the eye were that of Serge Gnabry and Havard Nordtveit – two Arsenal youth academy graduates picked up from Bayern and West Ham.
Watch: Nagelsmann's tactical masterclass
Who then, will Nagelsmann plug in, and where? The innovative young coach was the first in the Bundesliga to consistently use a back three. However, he did so in all but four fixtures, so it’s fairly safe to assume he’ll line up the same way again.
Gnabry – Grillitsch’s teammate at Bremen last season prior to his own summer acquisition by the champions – had a direct hand in a goal every 97 minutes he played. A scorer of a hat-trick on his full Germany debut, the forward is likely to be given his preferred role, withdrawn on the left. With Kramaric so deadly last term – the Croatian enjoyed 15 goals as well as eight assists – Nadiem Amiri could struggle to replicate his 20 starts in 2016/17.
Nordtveit, meanwhile, has operated as a midfielder for much of his career. That’s where he featured in the English Premier League last time out; and four short seasons ago he kept a certain Granit Xhaka out of the Gladbach team. It seems Nagelsmann sees Nordtveit as a natural successor to Süle, though. “We’ve found a player who gives us additional options,” says the tactician. “He’s ideal for a central role in a back three, although can also play in a four and in midfield with quality.”
It’s a big ask, but armed with the brightest young coach in the game and two former young Gunners ready to fire on all cylinders, could Hoffenheim be the last undefeated team in Europe once again?
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