Kaustubh Pandey has a look at Benjamin Hubner’s rise at Hoffenheim and why he’s one of this season’s best signings.
The German Bundesliga has never been known to be a league for the the smaller sides of the country, before the ongoing season well and truly kicked in. Perceptions about it being a rather ‘one-horse race’ have been eroded by how the league is panning out to be this season, with clubs like RB Leipzig, Eintracht Frankfurt and Hoffenheim performing well above their standards, much to the surprise of many. While, clubs like Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Monchengladbach and Schalke continue to under perform, the smaller clubs of the division are taking maximum advantage of their inability to maintain even a bit of consistency in their league showings.
Although, the trio of Leipzig, Frankfurt and Hoffenheim have forced many into sitting up and taking notice, Bayern Munich continue to top the Bundesliga charts and at the time of writing, the Bavarians hold a substantial seven point lead over Ralph Hasenhuttl’s newly promoted outfit from Eastern Germany. Niko Kovac’s impressive Eintracht Frankfurt are third, seven points behind Die Roten Bullen and are just a single point away from fourth-placed Borussia Dortmund. At fifth lie Hoffenheim- a side who were never expected to do as well as they are. And it isn’t just in terms of teams as a whole that surprises are chiming in, but a whole host of players are also proving their mettle on the biggest stage in German football; one of them is Benjamin Hubner.
The 27-year-old, whose father holds the position of Director of Sports at Eintracht Frankfurt, was never meant to be where he is, in the first place. Secondly, his performances were never meant to be as good as they are. But, the German has become a vital cog in the wheel for a manager who has transformed many other such players – Julian Nagelsmann.
WhoScored mentions Hubner in its Team of the Season list and has been given an average ranking of 7.4, which is equivalent to that of Mats Hummels’. The difference may not exist in their rating, but there’s a massive gulf, when it comes to the transfer fee that Hoffenheim and Bayern Munich shelled out for each of them. While Hummels was acquired for a massive €35 million fee from Dortmund, the little-known Hubner was snapped up from Ingolstadt for a meagre €800,000 fee. The difference in terms of worth may be big, but the difference in terms of style and output has been incredibly low.
In the largely-effective 3-1-4-2 system, Nagelsmann has ignited the careers of many in a side that was unbeaten in the Bundesliga till the 28th of January, when Hasenhuttl’s Leipzig managed to overcome the Die Kraichgauer by a 2-1 scoreline. The likes of Sandro Wagner, Kevin Vogt, Kerem Demirbay, Nadiem Amiri and Pavel Kaderabek have reaped benefits from a stable system, that makes the most out of the abilities that they possess. Apart from Vogt, it’s Hubner who plays a vital role in forming the backbone of the side.
The formation relies a lot on playing out from the back and allowing the wingers and the midfielders to exchange positions continuously. Vogt, who happens to be a central midfield player by trade, is adept at switching positions from centre-back to his preferred role in the heart of the park. This allows Hoffenheim to make swift transitions from three-at-the-back to four-at-the-back. The two attacking midfield players in the shape pick up the ball in central areas and carry it to wide areas, dragging the opposition midfielders out of position. This may be a ploy that has worked very well for Nagelsmann’s side throughout the ongoing campaign, Hubner’s defensive traits have made it all the more unbeatable.
Comparisons with Mats Hummels aren’t something to be played down. Hubner may be a left-footed defender, but his style of play is quite reminiscent to Hummels’ composed and cultured one.
Bayern’s stature, as a club, allows them to dominate the play more often than Hoffenheim, due to which Hummels sees a lot more of the ball than Hubner. Despite that, Hubner allows his side to dictate possession and make proper use of it, when in hold of the ball. The 27-year-old has played an average of 57 passes per game this season, acting as a vital cog in the wheel when building out from the back. Hubner’s positioning at left centre-back has often forced him to play as a full-back when the left wing-back bombs forward into space in the attacking areas, but it’s a job that the defender has done very well indeed.
Hubner’s passing percentage has been very good too- 85.9 percent, which is only slightly less than Hummels’ tally of 88.9 percent. This again roots from the fact that Bayern are allowed more time on the ball at the back than Hoffenheim just because teams are more intent on playing on the break.
Tackling is an important part of Hubner’s repertoire and it is this quality that has made him such a successful part of Nagelsmann’s style. Hubner has won 3.1 tackles per game this season, more than Hummels, who has won 2.3 of them. In terms of interceptions too, Hubner beats Hummels by a good margin. When compared to Hummels’ tally of 2.1 interceptions per game, the former Ingolstadt man has managed to win 3.4 interceptions, which is very good for someone who was acquired for a fee as lowly as his own.
Much like the German international, Hubner is a real threat in the box, be it in his own goal or in the opposition’s goal. His 193 centimetres tall presence isn’t something to be taken granted.
Although Hubner’s positioning off the ball isn’t as impeccable as that of Hummels, he makes up for it by his reading of the game and how he wins the ball back to recycle it forward to the likes of Kerem Demirbay and Nadiem Amiri, such that they can make good use of it going forward.
His ability to play left-back has often come in handy, but that allows him to have a decent balance on the ball and not panic when pressed by the opposition forwards. His presence oozes composure for a side that simply would not be as good in his absence.
Perhaps, it is his usage in a role that seems to favor him completely that has made him look like a quality player. The Bayern-bound Niklas Sule has lived up to his hype of being one of the best young Germans, when deployed at right centre-back, but Nagelsmann’s eye for talent and knowledge about the players that he has at his disposal has made this side a resilient one.
Hubner has clearly kicked on from the success that he achieved during his two-year long stint at Ingolstadt, where his performances alongside Marvin Matip at centre-half had helped Hasenhuttl’s men to an above-average 11th placed finish. He had emerged as one of Die Schanzer’s best performers that season, often playing the role of a battler at the back, winning more than 5 aerial duels in a game. Hubner though, was shipped out as part of a transition period that saw an exodus transpire at Audi Sportpark. Apart from Hasenhuttl, players like Robert Bauer, Danny da Costa and Ramazan Oczan departed for greener pastures elsewhere. It was arguably the exit of Hubner though, that has affected Ingolstadt the most.
As things stand, Die Schanzer have the sixth-worst defensive record in the league and are languishing at the 17th spot and are being dubbed as one of the favorites to go down, along with Darmstadt.
Hubner on the other hand, is enjoying the best season of his career, and is part of the fifth-best defense in the league for a side that was unbeaten for the longest amount of time in all of the top five leagues of Europe.
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