The transfers of Liverpool's Ryan Babel and Edson Braafheid from Bayern Munich will help plug the gaps in Hoffenheim's team but won't lead to a revolution in style or transfer policy.
Ryan Babel has already made his Hoffenheim debut
TSG Hoffenheim might have been hoped to generate a little buzz among its fans by signing Ryan Babel and fellow Dutchman Edson Braafheid this week. Too bad the arrivals were almost immediately followed by a loss in the German Cup quarter-finals to second-division Energie Cottbus. But despite the 1-0 defeat - one in which striker Babel made his debut for the Bundesliga club - Hoffenheim’s hierarchy are touting the two newcomers as a sign of a new era.
The circumstances surrounding Babel’s arrival especially are new, they say. The Bundesliga club paid Premiership side Liverpool seven million euros ($9.5m) for the Holland international's services, and Ernst Tanner, Hoffenheim's manager, said he was "proud to be getting an internationally experienced player from a top club like Liverpool."
Attracting a name player from a name club is something of a coup for Hoffenheim, especially in that it comes at a time when the club’s ambition - not to mention allure - seemed to be on the wane. After its famous metamorphosis from a village team into Bundesliga contenders two years ago, Hoffenheim have looked a little jaded.
Millionaire owner Dietmar Hopp admitted earlier this month that bankrolling Hoffenheim has cost him "around 240 million euros" and that the Bundesliga club has long been deep in the red. Even the sale of midfielder Luiz Gustavo to Bayern Munich for 17 million euros earlier this month is likely to leave the club around seven million in the hole for the rest of the year.
On top of cash worries, the team has been destabilized recently by star striker Demba Ba's protracted moves to get away from the club. After failing to show up for practice following the winter break in an effort to force a transfer, he failed a medical at Stoke City before finally hammering out a loan deal which takes him to West Ham.
Dutch star Babel is expected to improve the goal tally
Ba's agitation for a move has exacerbated Hoffenheim's striker crisis with Vedad Ibisevic out of form, Chinedu Obasi out injured, and Peniel Mlapa and Boris Vukcevic, both natural wingers, unable to carry the goalscoring load while deputizing. Hoffenheim management hopes that Babel will find goalscoring form right away.
Jonas Keinert, who writes on Hoffenheim for 1899aktuell.de, told Deutsche Welle that he’s off to a good start. "He fits perfectly into the club's optimal 4-3-3 system. He was Hoffenheim's best player in the defeat to Cottbus," he said.
"With his experience Babel can also lead Marco Pezzaiuoli's young squad," Keinert added. "Pezzaiuoli absolutely trusts in Babel and Babel will be a first team regular. He can play up front with Vedad Ibisevic, as well as with Vukcevic, Gylfi Sigurdsson or Mlapa."
Jan Roskott, Dutch soccer correspondent for The Offside.com, believes Babel will do much better in the Bundesliga than he did in England but disagrees with Keinert about what system will suit him better at Hoffenheim.
"Babel is known to be strong physically and a real athlete in the Ruud Gullit sense; he's fast, he's got a vicious and rare hip-shot and he is great at counter-attacking soccer," he told Deutsche Welle. "He's a perfect striker in a counter attacking 4-4-2, but failed in 4-3-3. He's not a central striker nor is he a winger. He is also known to be tactically limited."
Edson Braafheid will shore up the Hoffenheim defense
Whether 24-year-old Babel and 27-year-old Braafheid's arrival will herald a new dawn in Hoffenheim's transfer policy is a contentious issue. Hopp, Tanner and Pezzaiuoli are all publicly excited about the pair’s arrival, but there is some concern among Hoffenheim observers as to where this new direction in the transfer market may take the club.
As well as being past the optimum age for youthful development, both come with wage demands which could clash with the club's financial principles.
"They don't fit into the philosophy of Hoffenheim which is to develop young, cheap, unknown top talents while balancing the books," Kleinert said.
He says he doesn’t expect Hoffenheim to continue to approach other top players like Babel from big European clubs.
“In the future, they would prefer to develop a cooperation partnership with Bayern Munich to take on young players, which Dietmar Hopp recently called one of his 'dreams.’"
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann