Hoffenheim was the place where Pellegrino Matarazzo was first allowed to test himself as coach in senior football. The New Jersey-native served as the assistant to Julian Nagelsmann and Alfred Schreuder in 2018 and 2019 and returned to the club in February of this year, as TSG Hoffenheim were in a dire situation, sitting at 14th after 19 matchdays. Matarazzo did not only save the club from relegation, but he also went on to create a surprisingly competitive team during the summer.
After nine matchdays, Hoffenheim are currently sixth in the Bundesliga. How surprising have the results been for the head coach?
"I usually go into each season with a white sheet, with a vision, but no expectations," he said in an interview earlier this week. "So, for me, it's always about progress and continually developing the team. And at the end of the day, you don't know how fast the guys will pick up on that, what you want to communicate and develop. So, I'm not surprised, but I also was not expecting it."
Four wins in a row, including victories over VfL Wolfsburg and Union Berlin, lifted Hoffenheim into the upper third of the Bundesliga table. Even their 3-1 loss to Borussia Dortmund at home was much closer than the scoreline would suggest.
"I am happy about how we started the season. I think if we won against Frankfurt, it would have been a fantastic start," Matarazzo added. Hoffenheim suffered a 3-1 defeat against Frankfurt on Oct. 21, but were back on track after a 3-2 win over Stuttgart, Matarazzo's former team, last weekend.
Doing it his way
What is fascinating about the 45-year-old is how he can move between different worlds. First, there is his personal background. Born and raised in New Jersey as the son of Italian immigrants, he decided to move to Germany in 2000 at age of 22 to play semi-professionally. While he never played higher than third-tier football, Matarazzo was able to carve out an ambitious career for himself after his active time on the pitch.
"I'll pat myself on the back for getting to where I am on my own way, on my own terms," he recently stated in an interview with ESPN's Futbol Americas show. After over two decades living and working in Germany, Matarazzo has fully bought into the culture both inside football and just in general. Yet, he would never deny his American roots.
Moreover, since he was hired by VfB Stuttgart to be their head coach in late 2019, Matarazzo has coached teams that would often find themselves or feel comfortable in an underdog role. A pressing- and counterattack-heavy approach comes natural to him. Yet, his time as the assistant to Julian Nagelsmann, who is more of a possession-focused coach, has also influenced Matarazzo's way of thinking about football and analysing the game.
Asked about his takeaways from Hoffenheim's loss to Frankfurt he said, "I think we learned a lot from this game about our high press, how we cover depth, how we control the game in general. Of course, the mistakes that led to goals are conceded goals, more individual mistakes than anything else. But I take away a lot of things regarding our high press and also how we create chances in the second half where we've had a lot of control, how we found spaces, but our final pass was not precise enough. The runs into depth were not available, not well timed."
These are the words of a coach who does not believe that willpower and mentality alone could drive a team to success. The minor and major tactical details are just as, if not more important at the highest level of football.
Turning overlooked players into difference makers
If we look for any other signs that Matarazzo often lives and operates between different worlds, then we can point to the economic situation of both Stuttgart and Hoffenheim. The two clubs are less than 60 miles apart and located in the wealthiest region of Germany, but they are limited in their financial resources and ability to make marquee signings on the transfer market.
During his 100 games as Stuttgart's manager, Matarazzo became great at fostering talent. For instance, Waldemar Anton, Gonzalo Castro and Wataru Endo all got thrown a lifeline by Matarazzo putting trust into their abilities after they had gone through a difficult time in their respective careers. However, regardless of how well Matarazzo managed the squad, he eventually could not overcome the limitations Stuttgart had and was let go after a string of nine winless games.
His departure from Stuttgart enabled him to return to Hoffenheim, this time as the head coach. While Hoffenheim have famously been supported by Dietmar Hopp, the billionaire co-founder of software giant SAP, they are in a position in which they have to balance the books and cannot count on vast financial injections by Hopp anymore. Also, the small-town club has a reputation of being a stepping stone for talented players.
Matarazzo knew what he was getting himself into, as he drew up a plan to revamp the squad after Hoffenheim's disappointing 2022-23 campaign. He and the management addressed issues, particularly the lack of top-class no. 9, by signing Mergim Berisha as well as proven goalscorer Wout Weghorst for the position up front. Unluckily for Matarazzo, Hoffenheim allowed Christoph Baumgartner, the talented and versatile attacking midfielder, to go to RB Leipzig. Plus, Stuttgart signed Angelo Stiller during the final phase of the transfer window to replace Wataru Endo who had moved to Liverpool.
It looked like Matarazzo would end up missing an important piece in his midfield lineup, but Hoffenheim were able to acquire former Germán international Anton Stach from Mainz on deadline day. Still, last-minute changes in his squad did surely not help Matarazzo and the team's start into the season.
With that in mind, the importance of Florian Grillitsch's return to Hoffenheim cannot be overstated. Matarazzo himself appears to be a fan of "Flo", saying, "It's a big gain to our team. Happy he's on the pitch and surely also a factor why we are able to dominate some opponents."
Grillitsch was riding on a bumpy road for a while after he left Hoffenheim in 2022. Several clubs were interested in signing him but eventually would leave the negotiation table. The Austrian midfielder ended up at Ajax and was less than 12 months later willing to come back to the club where he had many great performances in the past.
"He sees the pitch in a way that few players do," Matarazzo added. "I call him the 360-degree player, where he knows exactly how to turn out of pressing situations, tight situations, has a great build-up play and when he wants to, he can also defend and cover spaces, also defensively."
Grillitsch is the type of anchor midfielder only a few Bundesliga teams possess these days. He can create attacking plays in a way that might not be overly exciting but very effective. Possibly, there is a metaphorical similarity to Matarazzo who is everything but a loudmouth, but he can deliver results in a measured way.
The only U.S. coach in Europe's top leagues
Since Matarazzo is currently the only American coach in Europe's top five leagues, fans and officials may wonder whether Matarazzo would consider becoming the head coach of the USMNT at some point in the future. While Matarazzo has been living in Germany for so long, he does not seem to outright disapprove of the idea.
"I think this is the right place to be at Hoffenheim," he told Futbol Americas. "I think club football is for me at the moment, to be on the pitch every day, work with players every day, where the learning curve is also the highest. But at the same time, parallel to anything, I'm always open to exchanging ideas with anybody who's looking for anything from me. I'm always looking to give back to U.S. soccer especially at some point. There's something connecting me back to the States, not only my family, just my whole upbringing."
For now, though, Matarazzo is focused on the task at hand, meaning establishing Hoffenheim in the upper third or at least the upper half of the Bundesliga table. He does things his own way and the results speak in his favour more often than not.