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ISSUE #28: Timo Gross & the Secrets Behind TSG Hoffenheim’s Bundesliga Success
From working with Julian Nagelsmann, to unleashing the best out of David Raum, Timo Gross gives us an exclusive look behind the curtain at what makes TSG Hoffenheim such a formidable Bundesliga outfit
With 44 points after 27 matchdays, TSG Hoffenheim are well-placed in the race for Europe; dazzling the German topflight with innovative football and an approach that emphasizes long-term development.
To unpack all of the secrets behind Die Kraichgauer’s success, The German Football Weekly sat down with Timo Gross (assistant coach (Video) and head of analysis at TSG Hoffenheim) earlier this week.
In just short of an hour, we discussed Hoffenheim’s evolving identity, the use of technology as an important tool to support the players, and Timo’s own unique career path to his current position, as well as his personal insights on what makes Julian Nagelsmann such an exceptional team builder, his successful work with other managers like Sebastian Hoeneß and Alfred Schröder, and countless other topics key to Hoffenheim’s lasting presence in the German topflight.
*The original transcript of the interview has been modified for brevity and focus.
Timo, it’s a pleasure to have you here for an exclusive interview with The German Football Weekly. Before we get any further, why don’t we start with your introduction. Tell us a bit about the work you do!
Thanks for having me. My name is Timo Gross, I’m 31 years old, and in my role at TSG Hoffenheim I am an assistant coach for the first team, and head of the analysis department
And what does that role entail, head of the analysis department?
Yeah, so primarily I am concentrating on implementing structures, determining how we analyze the game, and developing other analysts within the club. We have a very big analysis team, so getting them on the next level is one of my big duties.
And as Assistant Head Coach (Video)?
That’s the daily routine. Supporting the coaches and players, throughout the week with various tasks like opponent preparation, and training, individual, and data analysis.
The topics are big, but what I love about the job is that I can build a bridge between my work with a more theoretical background and analysis, and then translate it back to the coaches and players for the practical application on the field.
You mentioned earlier that you’re just 31-years old, so what did your pathway into football look like?
I always played football when I was younger, but because of a lot of injuries going professional never seemed feasible. Thus, in a professional sense it all really started in University with a Bachelor of Science in Sport and Performance. That’s where I got the first impression of what analysis really means in various sports.
When I watched my own games as a player, it always became apparent to me that other possibilities were available on the field in different game situations. When I started my University career in Cologne, it was great to see how many opportunities there were to get involved in an analysis program.
And how did it ultimately come to a job at Hoffenheim?
In our course in Cologne we had the opportunity as a group of students to support the Deutsche Fußball-Bund (DFB, or German equivalent of the English FA), and their analysts, that worked directly with the coaches and players of the German national football team with opponent preparation.
As a leader of a student group I was able to work through the night to compile opposition reports on various potential opponents. After this went well, the opportunity came about to work at TSG Hoffenheim as the head of analysis in the youth department.
And you joined TSG Hoffenheim in 2013, just 5 years after they earned promotion to the Bundesliga. What was the analysis department like at that point?
The Bundesliga was in its first stages of detailed analysis. Before me there was just one other analyst who had the full time job in the youth department. So it was both a new beginning for myself, and also a great opportunity to evolve the role further.
What was so special about Hoffenheim at that time, though, was that there was great focus on this topic at a very early stage in the process. It was great because both the knowledge from the coaches and the technological background of the club allowed us to collectively work on bringing a more ‘scientific’ approach to the task of developing a player.
Even today, these are core principles at Hoffenheim. We always look to give the players something to utilize as practical feedback, rather than just theoretical advice. This way they know exactly what is asked of them, and the club can turn its technology background into success on the pitch.
And in the subsequent years since you joined the club, you’ve worked in different roles all the way from the youth academy up to the first team. Has this experience with different age groups, and in different moments, helped your own development?
It’s definitely given me more experience and a deeper expertise in the end.
For example, learning how to deal with different age groups… in different situations. How do you handle your assignment at a moment when the squad is performing poorly versus when it has the opportunity to compete for Europe? How do you do it when you have a whole week to prepare for an opponent versus just 3 days?
What also helped me a lot was my role as an assistant coach (Video). I was getting the chance to work with managers like Domenico Tedesco (Now RB Leipzig), Marcel Rapp (now Holstein Kiel), Julian Nagelsmann (now FC Bayern), Alfred Schreuder (now FC Bruegge) and now Sebastian Hoeneß (current TSG Hoffenheim).
These coaches have helped me see football through different perspectives, but they also help the club evolve by combining Hoffenheim’s identity with new ideas and different approaches.
You mentioned quite a few managers who you’ve worked with at Hoffenheim. Is there a common thread, or some shared characteristics, which tie them all together?
They definitely have a lot in common, which isn’t surprising given that one of the core values of the club is to work with a coach that is open to analysis, who wants to develop the overall project, and who sees the big picture to build stable and lasting organizational structures.
This is something which all the first team managers, and even youth team departments have internalized at the base of their identity. Only from there, do we see small differences in the perspective of things.
And how does your job change depending on which manager you’re currently working with?
For my job as assistant coach (video), it means I always must be empathic to the current situation. I need to understand exactly what the coach wants to achieve in a certain phase, or situation during the season.
Sometimes it’s video, sometimes it’s just a bit of information, and other times it's stats, but regardless of who is in charge, the clear club identity means that, in every situation, there is always a plan for what we are looking to achieve, and how we are planning to get there.
Hoffenheim have also had quite a few tremendously successful managers in their short history in the Bundesliga, but Julian Nagelsmann stands out. How would you describe your relationship with the current FC Bayern boss?
Benjamin Glück (current FC Bayern, and former TSG Hoffenheim Video Analyst) is a good friend of mine and he introduced me to Julian Nagelsmann. During his [Nagelsmann’s] time in the first team my role was as a second analyst supporting Benjamin and the coaching staff, but even so, he did a tremendous job of always involving me in discussions.
I wasn’t always there sitting in the coaching room, but with Julian you always had the feeling that you were, because he knew how to involve people by giving them the possibility to develop, and grow through his direct exchange.
Therefore, it’s really great to see him performing again on a next level, working with new characters - more experienced players - and doing a great job.
And one common theme amongst most of the managers during your time in the Bundesliga was just how young they all were when taking the Hoffenheim job. Why do you think the club has been so keen to work with a young technical staff since arriving in the Bundesliga?
What seems to be key at Hoffenheim is how willing you are to invest time, and show passion for the project - regardless of age.
Hoffenheim’s identity isn’t just to develop players, but also the staff. So providing space to innovate and then seeking out individuals with the passion to grasp the opportunity is what makes us successful.
But of course, this [seeking out new, hungry, playing and technical staff members] is something the club has to do often, because at some point these players are viewed by other clubs who can offer them a bigger stage.
Perhaps we are getting to a point now, though, where players and staff members are coming to a place where they say the current environment is so great here in Hoffenheim that there is no more reason to leave.
And just one look at Hoffenheim’s recent contract extensions shows that players are buying into the long-term project. Since the turn of the year, 7 players extended their contract with the club, chief amongst them fullback David Raum. What have you made of his first steps in the Bundesliga?
Yeah, he’s a good example of how the club is thinking.
David is taking the right steps in his career to go to a club which affords him the time to develop. It’s a step which many players have taken because it is our duty as staff members to show the developing players that it doesn’t need to go from 1-100 in a couple of days. Now he [Raum] is at the level where he is getting it right with great performances.
He’s also earning a lot of attention in the media, but it’s not only him… you need to look at the whole surroundings. For example, he is doing a great job if you compare him in the stats for crosses, but on the other hand, there are also other players in the box who are on a very high level.
Yesterday I held a presentation where I showed the number of players in the box when crossing, and there isn’t a single club [in the Bundesliga] which gets more players into the box than us. Raum then has clear targets to aim at, which is a tactical design he has benefited from.
So ultimately, this is how it all comes together, and there is always a wider context around these great individual performances.
A big factor which hindered Hoffenheim’s success last season was the combination of European football and massive COVID-19 outbreaks. We saw firsthand how this impacted the playing squad, but from an analyst’s point of view, how difficult was it to work under these straining conditions?
This is again a factor where experience is so important. Just compare it to players at Bayern Munich. They do it for several years, performing at the very highest level every 3 days, and rarely getting injured in the process. So there are many factors which come into play when speaking about success.
All I can say, though, is that what we do, when talking about game preparation and analysis with the players, is all about giving the right amount of information at the right time. When you have games so often, you can’t force them [the players] beyond what they can handle, so sometimes it’s better to just give small adjustments rather than create entirely new situations when it isn’t possible.
And how does technology play a role in this work? TSG Hoffenheim are of course funded by Dietmar Hopp, owner of the multinational software corporation SAP, so since his arrival the club have always looked for innovation off the field as well.
With this you have the ability to build a bridge between the tech-background and performance environment. You can bring the meeting room onto the pitch.
With so many games, time is everything, so when we can automate our processes with camera systems, or Artificial Intelligence, we then have more opportunities to work with the players during these busy phases. We try to develop automated pattern recognition whereby we can analyze in a faster way, but this development is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
At the time of recording Hoffenheim have 14 more points than they had after 27 matches last season? What do you think is the biggest reason for this impressive resurgence?
It’s not an easy topic to answer, with a lot of factors coming together.
Last season we did a lot of good things, but we also had a squad which wasn’t used to playing European football, a new coach with a very short preparation time, and a lot of Corona and injury issues. At some points we even had all of our defenders out, then all our midfielders, and then all of our attackers!
But what we did really well was stay calm, to take the experience into this season where everyone can now see the results.
It’s going really well, but it’s still our duty to invest every day to perform at the very highest level and not become complacent. It’s something the players, staff, and club have to be aware of. It’s always about the next day, and not what was yesterday - in good and in bad times.
And just 1-point off the final Champions League spot, it is all still to play for in the final 8 matches of the season. Is there a bit of excitement creeping up in the back of your mind at the prospects of playing in this prestigious competition next year?
Yeah, definitely. This is a great thing, because for everybody in sports, performing at the highest level is what you strive for.
The evening games with the evening atmosphere, floating lights, and the Champions League hymn are a big, big goal and something we want back. For me, personally, I get goosebumps thinking back to when we played Manchester City and Lyon in the Champions League or Liverpool in the qualification round [15 August 2017]. Seeing these moments through the eyes of the players who then translate my work as an analyst onto the pitch, is why I love my job.
As for the person Timo Gross, where will he be in 5-years time? Are you passionate about the project you guys are building in Hoffenheim? Or is there potentially a head coach role somewhere else in your near future?
Football is so dynamic. It changes so much, and in the future you don’t even know how much impact your work will still have. So at the moment, I can only look at the here and now, and right now I am happy to do the work I am doing. It’s definitely the best situation.
To see my own development coincide with the development of an analysis structure at the club, and the players on the pitch, is the very best you can achieve. That’s why I know I shouldn’t worry too much where I’ll be in 5-years from now.
For Timo Gross and TSG Hoffenheim, a home game against VFL Bochum awaits this weekend, before a crucial UCL 6-pointer against RB Leipzig comes around the following Sunday.
Through the exemplary work of Timo and his colleagues, the prospects of returning TSG Hoffenheim to the UEFA Champions League groupstage for just the second time in the club’s history are very much alive
Title Image: Gabriel Foligno