Last season, TSG Hoffenheim were one of the most exciting teams to watch in Europe. At 29, manager Julian Nagelsmann found a unique blend of youth and experience which, in tandem with a constantly metamorphosing playing style, took the club to the dizzy heights of fourth place in the Bundesliga.
However, with the loss of talismanic midfielder Sebastian Rudy and technically gifted centre back Niklas Süle this summer, both to FC Bayern, the Kraichgauer have lost a large proportion of that 2016/17 team’s foundation. On the one hand, this is a huge negative; both were crucial pillars of the team during attacking, defensive and transitional phases. The pair were renowned as much for their work against the ball as they were for being the foundation of Hoffenheim’s creative play, with Nagelsmann always tasking the team with building attacks from the back.
On the other hand, this state of affairs has gifted opportunities for bit-part players and youth talents among Hoffenheim’s ranks to stake a claim for a regular place in the team. Perhaps the best example of this is young midfielder Dennis Geiger. Geiger, who turned 19 over the summer break, was handed his debut in a brief cameo against third tier Rot-Weiß Erfurt in the DFB-Pokal in August, and has already gone on to become a fulcrum of Nagelsmann’s new-look midfield. Make no mistake, his progression to the first team has been a meteoric one; until this season, the youngster had not even made the club’s matchday squad.
What is all the more remarkable is the standard of play the midfielder has been able to offer. Domestically, Geiger has been instrumental in victories over Werder Bremen and Bayern Munich this season – the latter all the sweeter for Hoffenheim after the summer departures of Rudy and Süle – and even took like a duck to water to European competition. Despite playing in Hoffenheim’s heavy defeat to Liverpool at Anfield, Geiger was by far Hoffenheim’s most impressive performer, consistently playing probing passes and with a canniness beyond his years.
At his base level, Geiger functions brilliantly as a replacement for Rudy in the sense that he offers much of what the more experienced midfielder did last season. Metronomic in position – Geiger currently has a 94% passing rate in the Bundesliga, in an albeit small sample size – his passes very rarely go astray, and this allows Hoffenheim to stay fairly stable in central positions.
His movement is intuitive and intelligent, exactly of the ilk required to star in Nagelsmann’s system. While not particularly physical, standing at just 5”7, and particularly weak in the tackle, winning just 18% of his duels so far in his career, it is his positioning which makes him help Hoffenheim stay secure defensively, consistently finding pockets of space in which to make interceptions and start TSG on the counter once more.
Despite having played a relatively small amount of games in the wider context of a professional career, the youngster already appears to glide across the pitch with the exuberant confidence of a much more established player.
This early part of the season is of course a very small sample size on which to gauge the full abilities of a player or see what he may achieve in his later career. There are pages and pages of history dedicated to young players who promised much early on and then failed to deliver on that promise. Before Geiger even reaches these sorts of conclusions, he has to turn this current excellent form into consistent performances at Bundesliga level. This, though, is equally something which has been said about his manager, Julian Nagelsmann. Having finished the season very strongly in 2015/16, few expected the young coach to be able to push the side onto even better things in 2016/17. Sometimes, when the talent and motivation is there, things just fall into place.
Thankfully, Geiger seems to have a manager who fully trusts him, and this will be absolutely crucial in the coming months and years. The likes of Niklas Süle and Jeremy Toljan have graduated from Hoffenheim’s youth academy in recent years and have gone on to be leading players for the club, and eventually leave for pastures anew. Like the pair, Geiger has shown a lot of ability early on, and has a very clear pathway to the achievements expected of him at this point.
It is potentially his lack of experience that would prevent pundits from labelling him an absolutely crucial part of Hoffenheim’s team. Clearly, in terms of ability, Geiger has a great deal to offer on the pitch. However, as a player who has only recently turned professional, there is an element to which he must still become accustomed to the fine-tuned details of a dressing room of more experienced players. Equally, Nagelsmann’s management of Geiger so far has been canny.
The youngster has featured enough to bring his obvious qualities to the team, and gain a lot of plaudits from fans who have watched him going about his business. However, he has only completed two ninety-minute games, being subbed on once and subbed off in his other two appearances, and was rested from the squad an entire game having gone the distance on
the pitch at Anfield at the end of August. This is the sign of a coach being careful about burning out the talent at his disposal; something which will, likely, be an absolutely crucial factor in Geiger being able to continue his strong performances to date.
However, let one thing remain clear: in Dennis Geiger, Hoffenheim and Nagelsmann have a very talented young man among their ranks. With Nagelsmann’s recent admission that it is his ambition to coach Bayern in the near future, it will be interesting to see whether Geiger’s playing career continues to follow the same meteoric trajectory of his coach.
By: Conor Garratt/@conorgarratt