“The teams surrounding us are consistently playing good football. We’re trying our best to climb the table and if they bend, then we’ll attack.” Since coming into the Bundesliga Julian Nagelsmann has never been backward in coming forward, and there’s no sign he’s planning to start now. His days at Hoffenheim are numbered and despite his side’s defeat at Eintracht Frankfurt six weeks ago standing alone as their sole loss in the last 11, they still have their hands full in order to get themselves back into European competition.
Yet with time ticking towards the date of his long-since agreed departure to RB Leipzig, there’s no suggestion that Nagelsmann’s eye is wandering just yet. His Hoffenheim have been the dictionary definition of implicated this season, reflecting his burning desire to go out with a bang, reinventing themselves while playing with the same level of enterprise they’ve always displayed under his stewardship. They’ve not been faultless, certainly, and there has always been the sense that they might do better stymying the ambitions of others this season than fulfilling their own.
There were moments against Hertha Berlin on Sunday in which they looked slick, irresistible. There were others, in their profligacy – and they “should have killed off the game much sooner” in the words of Arsenal loanee Reiss Nelson, who scored the clinching second, his first goal since mid-November after an early-season glut – in which it was clear why they haven’t made a top four place theirs. Not yet, anyway.
After Eintracht’s surprise home loss to Augsburg a Champions League place is still a possibility, even if it would take an optimist to really believe in it (they are five points behind fourth as it stands). They are increasingly likely, though, to have at least something to show for this campaign’s efforts, which have taken in a thrilling if ultimately unrewarded maiden Champions League campaign, mixing it with and inconveniencing relative competition cornerstones in Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk and Lyon.
What’s increasingly clear is that Nagelsmann himself is nailed on to get a second crack at the Champions League next season. Twenty-four hours earlier, 460km to the north-east of Sinsheim in his future home of Leipzig, the team that waits for him under the steady guiding hand of Ralf Rangnick had continued their steady march back towards Europe’s premier competition with an impressive 2-0 win over Wolfsburg, extending their own unbeaten Bundesliga run to 11. Goals by Kevin Kampl and Timo Werner were pretty enough but defender Ibrahima Konaté hit the nail on the head when he spoke glowingly about his team’s 15th clean sheet of the season, a mark of this young team’s pragmatism and maturity, as well as underlining Leipzig’s status as the Bundesliga’s best defence.
“While the 4-2 win against Bayer Leverkusen was a result of will and passion,” wrote Leipziger Volkszeitung’s Anton Zirk, “Die Roten Bullen bristled with tactical discipline and, with the exception of the final part of the match, efficiency.” They were so organised, in fact, that the absences of the excellent midfielder Tyler Adams and under-the-weather top scorer Yussuf Poulsen barely merited a mention. Emil Forsberg’s return to fitness and form has been handy but the strengths of this Leipzig team are very much collective. They are a tribute to Rangnick, with some voices even mischievously suggesting that maybe Nagelsmann isn’t even required, with everything going so well under the current regime.
That seems a touch on the glib side to these ears but there’s little doubt that Nagelsmann, in any rare moments allowing himself to project into the middle distance, must be rubbing his hands at the prospect of working with young talent such as Adams, Konaté, Dayot Upamecano, Amadou Haidara and Konrad Laimer. One suspects that there will be more to add to that list, with funds likely to be supplemented by the sale of Werner, who CEO Oliver Mintzlaff frankly admitted will not extend his expiring (in 2020) contract in an interview with Sky. His replacement might already be there in the Brazilian teenager Matheus Cunha, liberally sprinkling flecks of his own dazzling potential over the closing weeks of the season.
Standing to inherit the stable base of a project that has the chance to be something really special, Nagelsmann is coming for a reason. Not to raise the club’s profile, make them fashionable or gain them respect, but to break the current ceilings of those youngsters’ futures. It’s what Nagelsmann – as with all truly great individual coaches – does, unlocking parts of players that they never knew were there. It’s happening again this season, with the continuing progress of Andrej Kramaric and Florian Grillitsch and the way-out-of-leftfield leaps forward of Ishak Belfodil and Nico Schulz. The latter two, it’s worth adding, are 26 and 27 respectively. It’s seemingly never too late to benefit from Nagelsmann’s touch.
In the meantime Leipzig go to Borussia Mönchengladbach next and if they win a top four finish will be almost secure. The only question that remains is if Hoffenheim can sneak under the door with them, so Nagelsmann can point to a storied past as well as a bright future.
• If it’s like this for the rest of the season, few will complain. Dortmund briefly went back to the top by beating Mainz 2-1 in the late game on Saturday – a typical split personality effort, with an imperious first-half including a Jadon Sancho brace followed by a jittery second in which the outstanding Roman Bürki again saved their skins – before Bayern retook the lead in breezing to a 4-1 victory at Fortuna Düsseldorf on Sunday. Friedhelm Funkel’s side were missing a raft of injured players and de-contracted after Stuttgart’s loss against Leverkusen guaranteed their safety (the club’s Twitter profile was re-dubbed “Bundesligist 2019-20” as part of a staying up party), though Bayern were still formidable. Kingsley Coman put his training ground scrap with Robert Lewandowski behind him to strike twice and keep Niko Kovac’s team a point clear.
• There have been considerable tremors at Borussia Mönchengladbach with confirmation that coach Dieter Hecking is on his way at the season’s end with Salzburg’s Marco Rose signed up as an exciting replacement. So it was comforting to see a genuine Gladbach pillar, Raffael, enter the fray after a season dogged by injury to strike the decisive blow and see off bottom club Hannover, uninspired by the presence of celebrity fan Gerhard Schröder as they slumped to an eighth straight league loss.
• Hannover’s fellow strugglers Nürnberg missed out on a vital potential win against Schalke through a series of tough breaks – a controversially disallowed Hanno Behrens goal, then Behrens missing a penalty before Yuya Kubo broke his goalscoring duck at last to give them a late lead, only for Boris Schommers’ team to almost immediately concede an equaliser to Matija Nastasic. If Die Königsblauen escape this season unscathed it is unlikely to be as a result of their own competence.