Our next opponents: TSG have options even without Wagner

Werkself on tour 2018: After Heiko Herrlich and his team completed this year's mid-season build-up at home, the first trip in the New Year takes them south to the Kraichgau. Bayer 04 are away to TSG 1899 Hoffenheim at the Wirsol Rhein Neckar Arena on Saturday (15.30 CET). In an evenly balanced end-to-end encounter earlier in the season, the two sides drew 2-2. Will there be a repeat on Saturday? Here is the lowdown on our next opponents TSG.


Hoffenheim go into 2018 without having to play any extra matches. The first campaign on the European stage in the club's history ended in the group stage of the Europa League with just one win from six games, and the DFB  Cup was over in October with the defeat against Werder Bremen. That is where Hoffenheim kicked off the second half of the Bundesliga season with 1899 now fully focused on the league. The result at Werder was more positive than in the autumn meeting but Nagelsmann and Co. were not completely happy with the 1-1 draw in the Hanseatic city where they dominated the first half and were deservedly 1-0 ahead at the break. A weaker display in the second half led to the equaliser and stopped Hoffenheim from going above Bayer 04. In an extremely tight top half of the table, TSG are in seventh place just one point behind the Werkself.


Feelings of disappointment remained within bounds when Sandro Wagner's departure was officially announced just before Christmas. The transfer of the central striker had been on the table too long. The club were relaxed about the Wagner case. In spite of generous notice, the sporting management led by sporting director Alexander Rosen and CEO Hans-Dieter Flick decided not to find a replacement for Wagner over the winter break. What initially sounds so incredible about the loss of quality with the exit of the Germany international at first sight, makes sense if looked at again in terms of the remaining strikers in the squad. In Serge Gnabry, Mark Uth (pictured above), Andrej Kramaric and Adam Szalai, Julian Nagelsmann has a wealth of renowned strikers at his disposal as virtually no other Bundesliga side has. And another tale of the unexpected: The input of two proven creative players in Nadiem Amiri and Kerem Demirbay. The duo missed the away game at Bremen due to injury. It remains to be seen whether the two midfielders will return against the Werkself and Demirbay is more likely to remain sidelined.


The match at Werder Bremen was a fair reflection of the Hoffenheim season to date. After a strong start and deservedly taking the lead, the Nagelsmann team were unable to earn their full reward for the effort invested. Not for the first time this season: TSG have taken the lead in 14 out of the 18 games played this term with only Bayern Munich having netted more openers (16). In the final analysis, from the 14 games where TSG took the lead they were only able to register a meagre seven wins. In fact, three of those games ended in defeat– sadly the highest number in the league and indication that there is a failure to be clinical at crucial moments. After the Bremen game, Nagelsmann described his team's approach in the final third as "too dozy." If the two leaders in midfield, Amiri and Demirbay, also miss the game against the Werkself then Hoffenheim could find transition up field difficult.


After construction comes reconstruction in the Kraichgau. Of the squad that enjoyed the most successful campaign in the history of the club last season, there will not be many players left by the summer. The last transfer window saw the departure of key players Niklas Süle, Sebastian Rudy, Jeremy Toljan and Pirmin Schwegler, and that is followed now by the loss of another leading player in Wagner. Mark Uth (to Schalke) and Serge Gnabry (to FC Bayern) are about to start their final second half of the season in a TSG shirt. The solution to the wave of departures probably lies in the  proclaimed youth concept that existed at the time of promotion to the Bundesliga in 2008 and now it is supposed to bear fruit. Up to the winter break, Nagelsmann gave youth players Robin Hack, Stefan Posch and Dennis Geiger time on the pitch and the latter has established a position as a regular first choice in central midfield. While this approach does have short-term risks, it should contribute in the long term to TSG establishing themselves in the top half of the Bundesliga.


After exits from the cup competitions, Hoffenheim can now focus completely on the league. Nagelsmann will no longer have to rotate his team as he did in the first half of the season and that should make the side more composed and less susceptible to conceding late goals. Even if Wagner's departure has left a hole on several levels, it is completely realistic that the club from the province will again qualify for European football next season in spite of the stiff competition at the top of the Bundesliga.


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