Halting Hoffenheim is about more than just revenge for Klopp
Hoffenheim denied his first club promotion in 2008 season
Liverpool head coach Jurgen Klopp during a training session in Sinsheim, Germany. Photograph: PA
The rise of Hoffenheim has been swift, steep and has already cost Jürgen Klopp one shot at an elite.
That was nine years ago when the club built on the fortune of the German software entrepreneur Dietmar Hopp pipped Klopp’s first employers Mainz to promotion to the Bundesliga. Halting their Champions League ambitions with Liverpool is not simply a matter of revenge, it is imperative to his Anfield aims.
With Philippe Coutinho’s head turned by Barcelona, Emre Can’s Anfield future still unresolved and Virgil van Dijk unable to remedy any defensive deficiencies from Southampton, the Liverpool manager can ill-afford last season’s exhausting pursuit of Champions League qualification to unravel before the lucrative group stage has arrived.
The play-off first leg at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena represents Hoffenheim’s debut in European competition, a decade after their first season as a professional concern. By contrast the game is Liverpool’s 364th in Europe and 182nd in the European Cup in its various forms. Personal history tells Klopp to ignore the contrast.
“I’m not really interested in the experience my opponent has,” said the Liverpool manager, who has faced Hoffenheim 16 times in total with Mainz and Borussia Dortmund. “You have to learn these things and get your own experience. We are together 20 months and we always try to give good analysis to our players and analysis that is the truth. We show them images that speak for themselves. We know Hoffenheim will be confident, very aggressive and do tactical fouls. We know everything. We know about their quality.
“Personally I have known Hoffenheim since 2007-08 when they got promoted instead of us at Mainz. They were third and we finished fourth. They did it, if I can say, a bit like PSG back in the day when they bought a lot of new players in and we couldn’t. I suppose I could say I have a little part in their promotion. I can also say I know the team, it is nothing new to me, but I don’t think people in Liverpool know how many people even live in Hoffenheim [3,272 according to figures for 2006].”
The Liverpool manager could be forgiven for going into the game distracted by the Coutinho speculation but Klopp continued to cut a relaxed figure in the glare of the spotlight. “I’m not thinking about it,” he said. “I will answer questions but I’m not in the car, on the way to this press conference, thinking, ‘If they ask this question, what can I say?’ because I have to think about the session in a few minutes.
“It was always like this. I work with the players I have. I don’t think about the players I don’t have at the moment.”
Klopp’s association with today’s Hoffenheim runs deeper. Their coach, Julian Nagelsmann, shares an agent with the Liverpool manager and the pair have exchanged text messages since the play-off draw was made. Nagelsmann became the Bundesliga’s youngest-ever coach when appointed in February 2016 aged 28 – he is younger than James Milner – and guided the club to their finest finish last season, fourth behind Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich.
The Liverpool manager explained: “I’m really happy for my friend and my agent, Marc Kosicke. I’m getting older and am a lot older than Julian so I am the old horse in the stable. He is a big coaching talent. We don’t know each other very well because when I left Germany he was an under-19s coach but we send each other messages.
“I have really followed his way since then because I like good football and his teams play interesting football. I follow his way. He’s not the only one but he is a really good example for a lot of young managers in Germany. It is a really interesting time for the manager’s market in Germany at the moment.”
Nagelsmann said: “I said to him (Klopp)it was Murphy’s Law that we would meet in this match but we have not discussed tactics or our preparations. It is a good thing for our adviser. The connection between the two of us is cool for him.”
Under their young coach Hoffenheim have gained a reputation for adventurous, attacking football that Klopp also expects to include “a lot of tactical fouls” to disrupt Liverpool’s rhythm. That was not dispelled on the eve of the play-off when Nagelsmann was asked whether he might start the biggest showpiece occasion in the club’s brief history with three forwards. “We might play with four,” he replied. “There are no rules against that. I can do whatever I want but I’m not going to say here because I want to retain an element of surprise.”
On a more serious note he said: “We like to possess the ball, create spaces and go fast into the spaces. When we don’t have the ball I like us to press very high and defend very high for the counterattack. In the past we have been quite courageous. That is one of our strengths.”
Nagelsmann has treated the first leg like a normal Bundesliga match at home. His players spent Monday night at their homes and will report for a tactical debrief before kick-off. No doubt it will involve Roberto Firmino, who scored 49 goals in 153 appearances for Hoffenheim before moving to Liverpool in 2015 and whose creative responsibility has increased in the absence of the injured, distracted Coutinho.
Klopp, for his part, needs to check Hoffenheim’s momentum.