Editor’s Note: Hoffenheim, who finished fourth in the Bundesliga last season, play Liverpool in a two-legged Champions League playoff Tuesday August 15 and Wednesday August 23. CNN visited Hoffenheim in December 2016 to look at the club’s pioneering use of an innovative training device – the “Footbonaut.”
Hoffenheim installed "Footbonaut" in 2014
Second club to use it after Dortmund
Hoffenheim unbeaten in the league this season
Two German football clubs are boldly exploring sport’s final frontier – man vs. machine.
Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund and Hoffenheim might be competing for the German league title, but both clubs also share an interest in innovation, notably in their pioneering use of a novel training device – the “Footbonaut.”
The brainchild of Berlin-based designer Christian Guttler, the Footbonaut fires balls to players from eight different machines. Simple settings on a tablet allow the user to easily alter the number of balls, speed and spin at the swipe of a finger.
Standing inside a tight circle in the middle of the 14-meter cage, players must control the ball and pass it through one of 72 gates – indicated by a green light.
“Hoffenheim installed the Footbonaut in 2014 and we play here from the Under-12s all the way to the first team – so you get a lot of balls inside!” the club’s sport coordinator for innovation Rafael Hoffner tells CNN’s Alex Thomas.
“We use it all day, so it’s completely integrated in our system. I don’t know how often Dortmund uses the Footbonaut, but here we use it all day. All teams, all players – it’s a part of our training every day. “
However, football innovation doesn’t come cheap – a Footbonaut will reportedly set you back up to $3.5 million.
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After installing the Footbonaut, Hoffenheim recorded its highest finish in the Bundesliga for five years – ninth – though last season the club flirted with relegation before eventually finishing 15th.
In a sport where so many factors – such as injuries – can affect a team over the course of a season, Hoffner is convinced the contraption has a positive impact on the players.
“It’s clear they get faster the more they use it,” Hoffner says. “If you repeat the training all the time, you’ll get a better score and will be faster. That’s the concept of the Footbonaut.
“Often the players that are fast in here are fast on the pitch. It’s not often a player is perfect in training with the Footbonaut and is bad on the field. I don’t know one player that’s like that.”
So the Footbonaut definitely helps improve the players on-field performances?
“Yes, yes, yes,” Hoffner replies emphatically.
His claim is supported by the stats he has collected. The first team is on average 0.3 seconds faster than it was in 2014, while the youth team has improved by half a second.
Hoffenheim is one of only two Bundesliga teams unbeaten this season, along with leader RB Leipzig, having recorded an impressive draw away to champion Bayern Munich and a 3-0 win at Bayer Leverkusen.
Fourth after 13 rounds, Hoffenheim is on course to record its highest league finish, eclipsing the seventh place achieved in its first Bundesliga season in 2008-09.
While the art of repetition can only be a good thing for a footballer’s cognitive skills, how can playing against a machine in a small cage truly prepare you for a match?
“You can make sounds, stadium sounds in your sessions,” Hoffner says. “But we actually play with two sounds; the first sound is the ball machine and then double sound for the goal.
“But on the field in a game you don’t get a double sound like a bird (the machine beep); it’s a loud stadium, you hear nothing.
“Then it’s important we can say ‘silence’ in here, you must only see which direction the ball is coming out and where the goal is.
“It’s more pressure for the player – no sounds, only stadium noise. When you play 10 balls with sound that’s okay, but playing 10 balls with complete silence, that’s really hard.”
To increase the sensation of a real match day, Hoffner says they also put defenders into the circle to hassle and harry the player as he tries to control the ball, while also increasing the frequency at which the balls are fired out.
“You can play under pressure with two or four persons inside (the circle),” he explains.
“We can also play with 100 balls, it’s really extreme for the body. In less than three minutes you have more than 200 ball contacts, it’s more like in a game – in a game you have 100 or 120. So that’s a lot of work here inside.”
That Hoffenheim is one of the leaders of a football revolution is all the more astonishing when you consider it was playing in Germany’s fifth tier at the turn of the millennium.
The club is backed financially by billionaire software entrepreneur Dietmar Hopp, and its way of doing things differently is perhaps best exemplified by the decision to appoint Julian Nagelsmann, who last season became the youngest coach in Bundesliga history at the age of 28.
Hopp, a former Hoffenheim youth team player, has helped the club rapidly ascend the leagues since 2000.
Despite coming from a town of just over 3,000 people, Hoffenheim is now a regular fixture in Germany’s top tier and boasts several international stars – and it shows in the club’s Footbonaut results.
The difference in reaction time between professionals and amateurs is evident when CNN anchor Thomas has a go.
“One of the most important things is that we have the data,” Hoffner says after Thomas’ round. “So with the data we can see how good the player is. How good the score is – so the correct gate – and how fast he is.
“That speed means speed for one ball. From ball being released to the moment it goes through the goal is the speed for one ball.
“The first team is under two seconds. You were over three seconds, it’s a bit too slow for us.”
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One small step for Nagelsmann, one giant leap for Hoffenheim.