Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann proved that his brilliant breakout campaign was no fluke by going one better in 2017/18, guiding his club into next season's UEFA Champions League group stage with a 3-1 win over Borussia Dortmund.
The 30-year-old continues to go from strength to strength, and is likely to see his stock rise considerably after overseeing Hoffenheim's superb run-in: seven wins, three draws and just a solitary defeat in their final 11 Bundesliga outings. The final-day victory over Dortmund was enough to earn Hoffenheim a place in next season's Champions League group stage, while their coach took Man of the Matchday plaudits. The past two and a half years have been quite the whirlwind...
When Nagelsmann took over from Huub Stevens in February 2016, the world's football media fell over themselves trying to get a closer look at this 28-year-old – 28! – who had just been put in charge of a top-flight European football club. He was younger than several first-team players. Local newspapers branded the move "a crazy idea" and a "PR stunt".
After he closed a seven-point deficit to keep TSG in the Bundesliga, people started to take 'Mini-Mourinho' a little more seriously. And when he then lifted the Sinsheim club to fourth place in his first full season in charge, qualifying them for a first ever European campaign, there could be no further doubt: here was a man who knew exactly what he was doing.
Watch: See Nagelsmann's reaction to the Matchday 34 win over Dortmund
German football journalists certainly felt that way, giving Nagelsmann a memorable 30th birthday present by naming him 2017 Coach of the Year. Now, when the Hoffenheim boss is cited in the media, the talk is less likely to focus on him being the youngest coach in Bundesliga history, and more likely to centre on which European giants are trying to lure him away from the WIRSOL Rhein-Neckar Arena.
"I signed a contract which is valid until 2021, with a release clause for 2019," Nagelsmann recently told Playboy magazine – having been linked with the Bayern Munich job until Niko Kovac was announced as Jupp Heynckes' successor. "My intention is to stay here until 2019 at the very least. When there's outside interest, of course you think about it – but Hoffenheim is not a bad place to be."
Nagelsmann's players presumably feel the same way. After their 3-1 victory over Hannover on Matchday 32, Hoffenheim moved back up to fourth – their highest league position since late October. Despite a surprise 2-0 loss to VfB Stuttgart the following week, they still went in their final game against Dortmund with some serious momentum.
The calendar year did not get off to the most auspicious start for TSG, as they conceded defeats to Bayer Leverkusen (1-4), Bayern (2-5) and Schalke (1-2). But after that loss at the hands of the Royal Blues, Die Kraichgauer embarked on a nine-game unbeaten run (six wins, three draws), scoring an average of nearly three goals per match.
"We're creating a similar number of chances," Nagelsmann said after his side won 5-2 at RB Leipzig on Matchday 31, having already stormed to a 4-0 victory in the reverse fixture. "The difference is that we're now scoring three, four or five times a game, rather than once or twice. We've become ice-cold in front of goal."
The numbers certainly bear out his analysis. As well as hitting five against Leipzig, Hoffenheim scored three against Wolfsburg, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Hannover and Dortmund, and put six past Cologne in their biggest ever Bundesliga win. They managed a total of 39 goals in the 17 games of the Rückrunde, compared to 27 during the Hinrunde. Only Bayern (92) found the back of the net more often than TSG (66) this term.
"The improvement is down to our training, where we've been able to learn more about attacking situations," Nagelsmann explained. "We have more counter-attacking options, which means we're more composed in front of goal."
Nagelsmann is renowned for his innovative training methods. Along with Dortmund, Hoffenheim are one of two Bundesliga clubs to make use of the Footbonaut, while they had a giant interactive videowall installed at their training ground earlier this season. After they exited the UEFA Europa League at the group stage in December, the squad also had more time during the week to prepare for each Bundesliga outing.
"I've always tried to bring a sense of fun and the seriousness of training together in my sessions," Nagelsmann told the official TSG website. "I look forward to the challenge that the next game brings every week, and I’m convinced that that goes for all my players too."
Hoffenheim's individual talents have certainly been on inspired form in recent months. Eight of Serge Gnabry's 10 Bundesliga goals came in 2018, although the on-loan Bayern man missed the final two league games due to a groin injury. Mark Uth finished joint-third in the scoring charts after braces against Cologne and Leipzig took his tally to 14, while Andrej Kramaric opened the scoring against Dortmund to end on 13 overall, including 11 since the start of February.
Watch: The red-hot Kramaric hit a hat-trick against Hannover on Matchday 32
Nagelsmann's great strength has been to get the most out of his players while also encouraging them to take more responsibility. It was the squad who picked their own club captain at the beginning of the season – Eugen Polanski – as well as setting targets for their Bundesliga, DFB Cup and Europa League campaigns.
Back in August, Hoffenheim were knocked out of the Champions League play-offs by eventual finalists Liverpool, but they won't have any such concerns in 2018/19. Even a repeat of last year's fourth-placed finish would have sufficed for a place in the group stage - thanks to recent changes to UEFA competition rules - but Nagelsmann and his men went one better.
"We've put together a very good campaign again this year," Nagelsmann admitted. "I believe it's been 30 years since a team made its debut in European competition, and then challenged for the qualification spots the following season as well. We want to keep playing with plenty of ambition, passion and meticulousness."
Watch: Nagelsmann, the 30-year-old tactical genius
Ambition, passion and meticulousness – how better to sum up Nagelsmann, who obtained an 'A' grade when completing his DFB coaching course alongside Schalke's Domenico Tedesco. Inquisitive, hardworking and tactically astute, the Hoffenheim boss has also made waves off the pitch, becoming the first coach to sign up to Juan Mata's Common Goal initiative. But it is his on-field success that has helped to forge his reputation as one of Europe's most exciting tacticians – as TSG's chief financial backer Dietmar Hopp is all too aware.
"I'm under no illusions that if he continues to be successful, we will not be able to hold him any longer," the 78-year-old software billionaire admitted last December. "But until 30 June 2019, he will be in Hoffenheim."
Perhaps, by then, Nagelsmann will have earned the right to simply get on with what he does best: coaching a football team. Age is just a number, after all.