Manchester City are getting ready for another Champions League game on Tuesday. But they won’t have taken on a team like Hoffenheim before. That’s because there aren’t other teams like Hoffenheim.
When a team has a giant video screen installed so they can pause training and analyse what they are doing, you know this is no ordinary club.
If you have not heard of Hoffenheim the place, that is understandable. It is a village with a population of 3,272 in south-west Germany.
At the start of the millennium, they were in the fifth division. Ten years before that, they were in the eighth tier. It all changed when local businessman Dietmar Hopp – who played for the club as a youngster – first invested in the year 2000.
After two promotions in a row, they spent six years in the third tier. A season in the second division led to instant promotion and they have been a Bundesliga fixture since 2008.
Last season was their first campaign in Europe, but they were unfortunate to face eventual finalists Liverpool in the Champions League play-off round, dropping into the Europa League – where they went out in the group stage.
But a third-place finish last season meant they qualified automatically for the Champions League group stages this year, where they have already drawn 2-2 with Shakhtar Donetsk, with English youngster Reiss Nelson getting a game.
However they have only won once in their last five games coming into Tuesday’s home game with City.
Hoffenheim’s head of international relations Lutz Pfannenstiel, who has played on all six continents, showed BBC Sport around the club.
‘It’s not a hostile stadium where people are trying to rip your head off’
“It’s a very unique club all over Europe,” he said. “Not that many years ago they were in amateur football.”
Their rise has not been too popular in Germany, a country where football tradition is important. They were said to have spent more than every other Bundesliga 2 team in their one year in that division, including the signing of Demba Ba.
“It’s a bit of a myth,” Pfannenstiel said. “There was quite a bit of money invested – peanuts by today’s standards but high at the time.
“Lots of things are based here on traditional clubs – the old boys. Hoffenheim was a thorn in their side so were not so popular. It used to be Bayer Leverkusen, then Wolfsburg, then Hoffenheim. Now it’s RB Leipzig.”
Leipzig, who have had a similarly dramatic rise, have already announced that Hoffenheim boss Julian Nagelsmann will be their manager next season.
“The way we work at Hoffenheim, we try to develop players,” Pfannenstiel continued. “The way this youth set-up has functioned to perfection in the last years shows how well we’ve worked together.
“It’s a young club with a lot of young people in charge and it’s an incredible story to raise up from the lower divisions into the Champions League in such a short time.
“We’re trying to work extremely well in our youth department, we don’t want to do really big transfers – we try to have our own talent.”
Even though Hoffenheim is small, Pfannenstiel says the team represents the area and not just the village.
In 1999 they moved to the Dietmar Hopp Stadium, named after their owner. But their rise was so dramatic that only 10 years later, they outgrew it – and had to build a new stadium, the Rhein-Neckar-Arena in neighbouring Sinsheim. Their reserve and women’s teams still play at the Dietmar Hopp Stadium.
“It’s a village club,” he said. “But the stadium is in a town which is a bit bigger. Heidelberg [with a population of 154,715] is a traditional city and that’s in the area [16 miles away] – plus a lot of villages.
“It’s a team from the whole region. Reaching the Champions League is not just for the club, it’s for the people of the region.
“Our stadium is mostly sold out in the Bundesliga – the numbers of people coming here are growing. But it’s not typical football supporters – it’s a lot of families and children. It’s a family feeling. We don’t have an aggressive fan-base like some other clubs. It’s all a very peaceful, nice friendly mood.
“We have a 30,000-capacity stadium which I think is beautiful for this region. It’s not a hostile stadium where people are trying to rip your head off, it’s more like a friendly fanbase with people who enjoy football.”
Hoffenheim’s innovative technology
One thing which has caught the eye is their huge video screen at their training ground. It is used both for showing the squad videos of their upcoming opponents – and for stopping training to give live feedback to the players.
Video analyst Timo Gross told BBC Sport: “We want to give them the feedback as soon as possible. It’s easier for them to adapt to the things we want to teach them with live feedback. It’s a different feeling to get feedback after training.
“If there’s something we want to teach them, we stop and show them and review the scene. The stuff we prepare to show them after the training session is essential too. Both go hand in hand.
“It’s great to have this big wall. Whether it’s raining, snowing or sunny – you can see the screen from everywhere.
“I’m excited how other teams might use this in other scenarios. I think there are other teams who are trying to go in this direction too. I don’t know of any club using the big wall yet.
“Every player plays Fifa these days so this is not a huge step. It’s good for us to teach them in a way they like and do as usual in their free-time.”
Hoffenheim also use the Footbonaut – a room to practise passing, with a machine which fires the ball to you and you have to place it in a certain area which is lit up.
Former Arsenal youngster and West Ham defender Havard Nordtveit joined the club in 2017 and says: “This is a high-tech club. Our training centre is magnificent, we have everything from recovery to training to this area where you can train your view on the pitch.
“On pitch number one we have a big screen where we evaluate the other teams when we are training, instead of sitting in a meeting room. We are quite lucky to have these possibilities. That won’t make you win games. We have to run and work hard – the technology will help you with some percentages but not everything.”
‘Biggest game in Hoffenheim’s history’
Pfannenstiel says Hoffenheim have never had a bigger game than their match against City. But he draws strength from the fact they have beaten Bayern Munich at home in each of the past two seasons.
“For every player it’s a dream to play in the Champions League,” he said. “We had the massive game against Liverpool last season in the qualifier – you couldn’t believe the buzz in this region. Now the game against Manchester City is even topping it.
“It’s a bonus game. We don’t have much to lose. Everyone sees them as the big favourites. But the whole world saw them as big favourites against Lyon and Lyon hurt them really badly even at City’s ground [with a 2-1 win].
“It’s the biggest game in the history of the club so everyone is extremely hot, extremely motivated.
“Looking at the group with Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk and Lyon, there is an opportunity to finish second.
“It’s important as a football club you’re allowed to dream and you should live your dream. In the long term, we don’t want this to be a one-off.
“We have watched City a lot and worked on a perfect match plan to actually annoy Guardiola and try to hurt them. We are comfortable in our role as outsiders – and Man City are the big favourites. We have strong players.
“We have to be as tight as possible but also attack. There’s no point parking the bus – you need to be cheeky and try to press and hurt them.
“It would be the club’s biggest win so far but we have beaten Bayern Munich in this stadium for the last two years, 1-0 and 2-0.
“When Guardiola was managing Bayern, he didn’t like coming to Hoffenheim – it was very difficult when he came here. He’ll remember that. He knows this stadium and what to expect.”
Nordtveit said: “They are not unbeatable. We have to be tidy, compact.
“We go into the game with no pressure. With our qualities, we have more than a possibility to take those points. I’m sure the rest of the players think this is a dream come true. We’ll keep on going and hopefully we can take it to another level – by going to the knockout stage.”
Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/45686920