One of the best anecdotes you can find about Julian Nagelsmann is how he was introduced to the role of head coach.
After a career started at two Bavarian rivals of Bayern Munich — Augsburg and 1860 Munich — he injured his knee and was forced to quit the game at the age of 21 in 2008. He bounced from a scouting role under Thomas Tuchel — Augsburg’s second team coach in 2008 — to managing multiple youth teams at 1860 Munich. From there, he moved out of Bavaria for the first time in his footballing career to take a job in Baden-Württemberg at the academy teams for Hoffenheim.
After years of working in their youth ranks, in 2015, Nagelsmann was tapped to be the coach of Hoffenheim’s first team starting in the following season of 2016/2017. However, their manager for the 2015/2016 season, Huub Stevens, resigned in February due to poor health. At the time Nagelsmann was basically forced into the position, his team were second bottom in the league with 14 games to go and seven points from full safety.
Nagelsmann’s team then went on a tear, winning half of their remaining games and finishing one point from safety. The following year, he guided Hoffenheim to a 4th place finish and their first bid in the UEFA Champions League in team history.
Those who have followed the Bundesliga know of the mind and the tactics which have led to multiple accolades from across the footballing world for Julian Nagelsmann. His signature has been linked with teams such as Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United over the recent years. Former Hoffenheim and Germany international goalkeeper Tim Wiese nicknamed him “mini-Mourinho” during his time at the academy in Sinsheim.
But with Bayern set to sign the current RB Leipzig manager, it’s important for us to understand how Nagelsmann operates his teams, what his philosophies are, and what to expect of him going forward at Die Rekordmeister.
Young Man’s Game
The academy at TSG Hoffenheim is better than most. Over recent years, they’ve developed players such as Niklas Süle, Jonas Hoffman, Davie Selke, Nadiem Amiri, and Sead Kolasinac.
Having been the academy coach at Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann gained a key perspective in the importance of a youth academy to the first team. His willingness for promoting, purchasing, and using youth players became a key contributor to his teams’ successes.
Let’s look at the list of players Nagelsmann promoted during his time at Hoffenheim who got significant playing time during his three seasons at the club:
- Stefan Posch, one of the team’s consistent starters at center-back
- Denis Geiger, injured this season, but a smart number 8
- Kevin Akpoguma, a key wing-back
- Christoph Baumgartner, widely considered to be this team’s best player
If you think that’s special, take a look at the players he brought in through the transfer market:
While a number of those players are no longer at Hoffenheim, their playing time under Nagelsmann helped show the world their talents and got them to places where they could succeed.
Now consider how much better as of late the RB Leipzig academy has been.
While Nagelsmann isn’t responsible for the promotion of players such as Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konate, or Marcel Sabitzer, he is responsible for putting them in positions to succeed, which he has done well. Leipzig currently have an average squad age of just 24.6 years old, with only Peter Gulasci, Philipp Tschauner, and Kevin Kampl breaking 30 years old.
His acquisitions on the team have all looked toward younger, affordable players. Even when he leaves, Leipzig should still be set for the future:
Relative to Bayern, this means players we have long been waiting to see shine in the spotlight could have a chance. For now, we’ll look at midfielders as we talk about defense in the next section. Given the importance of Sebastian Rudy to his successes at Hoffenheim, my eyes look toward progressive pivot midfielder Marc Roca. While the positions are relatively locked up by Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, I won’t put it past Nagelsmann to give the younger players in the roster like Roca some good starting time.
More importantly, Nagelsmann’s arrival could point toward a greater reliance on youth development. With most of Bayern’s core aging, the time will soon come for replacements to come through. As transfer fees for star young players increase, it will become harder and harder to pry them from the hands of their home clubs. A deeper investment into the future at the Säbener Strasse bodes well for the future.
When a manager gets compared to Jose Mourinho, one often draws the conclusion that they rely on defenders with a high work rate, and Nagelsmann is no exception. However, there is a major difference in how the two managers operate their backlines and defensive maneuvers.
Whereas the traditional Mourinho relied on deep defensive blocks, Nagelsmann is more apt to Rangnick-esque pressing, with his own twist. He tends to vary his tactics based on opponents and has experimented with the shapes of his teams. This allows for his side to stay flexible and specialize their defense to each opponent’s style of attack.
In his pressing game, Nagelsmann tends to use players at all three levels of play to jump in. At Leipzig, it’s not uncommon to see wing players join in with a central midfielder and a outside-back in trying to win the ball. While this sounds reckless, Nagelsmann’s teams are relentless in cutting off passing lanes and applying pressure acutely and surgically. At Hoffenheim, it was common for outside backs to press up the field to stop attacks down a certain flank. With the center midfielder closest to the vulnerable wing joining in the press, the rest of the team would rotate to keep shape while also putting more pressure on the areas of need.
Beyond that, Leipzig are incredible in their ability in revenge pressing after losing the ball. Players like Sabitzer become relentless in rushing back to maintain shape and shut down counter attacks before they even start.
It’s no reason why Nagelsmann’s teams have been some of the best defensive regimes in the league over the past five seasons.
Over Nagelsmann’s five seasons in charge of Bundesliga sides, he’s finished in the top half of the table in Goals Allowed in all but the 2017/2018 season. RB Leipzig are currently on pace to win the title of Defensive Team of the Year for this season. There is only a seven goal gap between them and VfL Wolfsburg, but considering Leipzig average only 0.8 goals allowed per game and have never given up seven goals over a three-game stretch this season, things look relatively secure for now.
Even still, there are good enough excuses for previous lapses in defensive form. The 2016/2017 season was a breakout one for the Hoffenheim defense and that showed come the summer transfer window of 2017. Despite bringing in defenders like Nico Schulz from Borussia Mönchengladbach, there wasn’t enough quality in the side to make up for four massive losses: Jeremy Toljan to Dortmund, Fabian Schär to Deportivo La Coruña, and both Sebastian Rudy and Niklas Süle to Bayern Munich.
The loss of a key pivot in Rudy along with three starting quality center-backs was not easily replaceable and it showed. The following season, they were only able to acquire Kasim Adams while loaning out three other defenders.
Their center-back corps that season consisted of Kevin Vogt, Benjamin Hübner, Stefan Posch, and Ermin Bicakcic.
That team finished 3rd in the league.
Upon arriving in Leipzig, Naglesmann was blessed with a backline staffed with promising youngsters like Upamecano, Konate, Lukas Klostermann, and Nordi Mukiele. Their energy meshed well with Nagelsmann’s system and produced fantastic results.
So what does this mean for Bayern? A change to Bayern’s press might be a good sign for a team who has struggled defensively this year. An over-reliance on a high line exposed Bayern often, leading to some unsavory goals. With a backline in a place of change at the moment, Nagelsmann could mould defenders into his system. Süle has worked in this system before. Alphonso Davies and Benjamin Pavard are still young enough to learn, with the former seemingly in need of a defensive reset. As for Chris Richards, the promise he has shown at Hoffenheim is likely to have turned Nagelsmann’s attention and there is a high likelihood that given time and direction, he could become the next great Bayern center-back.
Meet the New Offense, (relatively) Same as the Old Offense
Now when it comes to the attack, Nagelsmann’s systems work similar to those employed at the Allianz Arena.
In both systems, play will usually start with the center backs passing back and forth to find open passing lanes. Often times, both systems deploy incisive passes to more forward players with the purpose of establishing pressure.
Where the systems differ is how they go from there. Whereas Bayern tend to poke around the edge of the box looking for dents in the defensive armor, Leipzig’s youth grants them the ability to make clinical one-touch passes to quickly break past defenses. One touch passes to players Sabitzer and Nkunku give them the incentive to dump things forward to oncoming attackers in any direction. It allows wingers to scamper up the field with outside backs often following in the build up.
Thinking back to the days of Timo Werner, the counter attacking game has been incredibly important to Leipzig. Even now without their former talisman, quick wing-play has been essential to the success of the side in recent years. While the addition of a slower, more traditional no. 9 in Alexander Sörloth hasn’t produced similar results, the dynamism of Leipzig’s midfielders — in particular Forsberg, Nkunku, and Sabitzer — has seemed to make up for things so far, at least well enough that Leipzig are challenging for the title.
At Bayern, this seems like heaven for two players in particular: Kingsley Coman and Alphonso Davies.
Starting with Davies, a glance at Leipzig’s stats show a perfect mold for what the young Canadian can become. The left wing is usually home to one of two players for Leipzig: Angeliño or Marcel Halstenberg. This season, the former has four goals and four assists in 24 games. The latter has two goals and two assists in 22 games. In what has been a down year for Phonzie statistically (1G/2a/20 games), this new system could breathe life into his play.
As for Coman, his tendency to be more direct than his counterparts on the wings will lend themselves to good results. If Nagelsmann is given creative leeway in this department, Coman should be able to fit in well.
It’s not to say that players like Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane, who tend to be key parts in the buildup, won’t succeed. If anything, we might see their numbers go up in terms of goal scoring.
Nagelsmann’s teams create chances often. In his five years in charge of top flight German teams, his teams have finished T-3rd, 2nd, 4th, 2nd and 2nd in goal difference. In all but this current season, Nagelsmann has finished in the top four in goals scored for.
The overall question going into this is whether or not Bayern players will buy into his system — or if his system can be used at all. Bayern’s traditional structure has strangled some managers (long hard look toward Niko Kovac) and is not as flexible as what Nagelsmann is used to.
What Bayern Munich needs to realize is what they are truly getting in Nagelsmann: one of the brightest tactical minds in world football. Just like one should not try and tame a wild horse, Bayern should give him the chance to be creative and innovative on the pitch.
Because if they try and tame him, they may end up hurt, defeated, and sorely disappointed.