Raphael Honigstein has explained the challenge awaiting Liverpool against Hoffenheim – who he describes as a 'chameleon' because of the flexible nature of their game.
The two teams clash for the first time in history in the opening leg of their Champions League qualifying play-off at Rhein-Neckar-Arena on Tuesday night.
For an expert take on the Bundesliga side and their incredible ascent from a humble provincial club to European competition, we spoke to German football expert Honigstein…
Tell us about the history of Hoffenheim and their climb through the leagues…
It’s not disrespectful to call Hoffenheim a village team. They hail from a village and they effectively came into existence in the form we know today only at the turn of the century, when a local benefactor, Dietmar Hopp – a very wealthy man – decided to invest heavily and made it a point to see how far he could take them, all the way from the lowest divisions of German football to the Bundesliga, which he achieved when they went up in 2008. It’s a real testament to the way they have spent their money and been really clever, signing the right people in the background. On the pitch, within 10 years they have made it all the way to the Champions League.
How remarkable is their rise?
It’s a hugely impressive rise. You struggle to call it a fairytale because it has come off the back of significant investment. But at the same time, other people have tried to do similar things in the past and haven’t been nearly as efficient or clever or innovative as Hoffenheim. They have a reputation for being very smart with player scouting and they have a wonderful training ground. Even by Bundesliga standards, they’re not really one of the richer sides. So for them to come fourth shows you how much good work is being done.
What impact has their young manager, Julian Nagelsmann, had?
It’s hard to overestimate the impact Julian Nagelsmann has had since coming in a season-and-a-half ago. He saved Hoffenheim from relegation and then a year later managed to take them into the Champions League. It’s an incredible turnaround with no real change of the squad from year to year; it has come on the back of him being able to channel a lot of his smart ideas into the squad and make them perform in a way that hadn’t been seen from Hoffenheim in a long time. Not since their first season in the Bundesliga under Ralf Rangnick, where they briefly threatened to win the title, have they had any season nearly as good as the one last year. That was their best ever finish in fourth. Being so young and effectively inexperienced at this level shows you he has got something very, very special – not just in terms of his technical and tactical ideas but also the way he can connect with players who are the same age or sometimes even older than him. There is a very good reason why he is being seen as the No.1 German coach of his generation. He won’t be at Hoffenheim for too long because so many clubs are interested in him.
Who are the danger players for Liverpool to look out for?
Hoffenheim have a very interesting set-up. It’s hard to look at them and think they play in a certain way, they are very flexible and change during games. They are sort of a chameleon. They lost two of their best players, which is good news for Liverpool, in Niklas Sule – a big centre-back and a very dangerous guy at set-pieces – and Sebastian Rudy, who was pulling the strings in central midfield. But Sandro Wagner is a big No.9, a classic target man. He is a handful. There is also Andrej Kramaric, who Premier League fans might remember. And there is Serge Gnabry, the former Arsenal player who has really come into form since moving back to Germany – starring for Werder Bremen last year, being bought by Bayern and now on loan at Hoffenheim very much with a view to taking the next step and playing international football. They have maybe not the most illustrious squad when it comes to names, but collectively they have shown they can be very dangerous.
Hoffenheim have been prolific from dead ball situations. Does the manager pride himself on set-pieces?
The manager prides himself on all aspects of coaching but of course he realises that a team of Hoffenheim’s means, who can’t hope to have the best players available – they’ll be at Bayern or Dortmund and even Schalke and Leverkusen probably have a better squad – have to find other ways of winning a game. Set-pieces are always a great leveller, they give you an opportunity to strike a ball without pressure and find pre-practised ways of scoring. They have maximised those opportunities. Last season, they had a fantastic record. With Liverpool’s well-documented struggles, certainly against Watford, that’s an area the Germans will be looking to exploit.
How big is this game for them?
It is easily the biggest game of their history. They have never played in the Champions League, they have never played against a club of Liverpool’s stature in Europe before. So it is huge. At the same time, I would say the pressure isn’t nearly as strong on them as it is on Liverpool. I think Liverpool not qualifying would be a huge disappointment for the whole club after they worked so hard getting into the fourth spot last year. Whereas for Hoffenheim, people would say: ‘We played Liverpool, you can lose against Liverpool, we’re still in the Europa League and we’re still having a good season.’ The pressure is much more on the English team and Hoffenheim might try to exploit it a little bit by maybe giving them the ball and seeing if a bit of impatience comes into the game. It’s not by any stretch of the imagination an easy tie. I think Jürgen Klopp is putting a brave face on it when he said it was hugely exciting, I think it’s really a very difficult draw for Liverpool – but of course also for Hoffenheim.
Roberto Firmino returns to his old club. What kind of reception do you expect him to get?
I think he’ll find a very friendly reception. Hoffenheim is not exactly a cauldron or the most hostile of environments for teams to go to. These are fans who are happy that there’s a big team in the area. The club was basically set up to provide professional football in an area that was a little bit devoid of big sides. They’re all happy to be there and happy that Hoffenheim are doing well, but it’s not the sort of atmosphere where they’ll greet a returning player with any negativity or real hostility.