This feature is part of The Masterminds: 10 Under 45
Football management is a ruthless profession. The prerequisites for managing a professional team in Germany, a country known for producing excellent football, players, coaches and systems, require individuals to undergo and complete a formal education in the game that usually harks back to a respectable career as a professional player. And so, the story of Julian Nagelsmann – a baby-faced young German coaching prodigy unfairly dubbed ‘Baby Mourinho’ is both awe-inspiring and unabashedly perplexing. For many, it’s a fantasy of Football Manager proportions – except this isn’t a video game. The consequences and rewards are real. This story is more than one pitting youthful zeal and guile against the conventions of a world few understand and even fewer succeed in while keeping their jobs let alone their sanity.
You wouldn’t be wrong to scoff at such a story in one of the world’s top leagues. You would be wrong, however, to not investigate and educate yourself on how and why this story serves as both a use case and a blueprint for 21st-century football management. More than ever before, football management is a business governed by science, culture, politics and experience – or vice versa.
Julian Nagelsmann’s legend is still being written; so much so that the ink is barely dry on the three-year contract TSG 1899 Hoffenheim awarded its young, studious manager back in February 2016. Moreover, Nagelsmann’s story is one rife with perseverance, application, luck, circumstance and loyalty.
Here’s the thing about Julian Nagelsmann – it goes against the orthodoxy of professional football not just in Germany, but everywhere. Thankfully, Nagelsmann is an unorthodox football manager. There are no illustrious playing statistics to validate his impact in a club’s boardroom or at post-match press conferences let alone on the touchline in the Bundesliga. His mere appointment as a senior manager at such a young age has inquiring and aspiring minds churning with ‘why not me’ as Nagelsmann, like 99 percent of the people who play football, never had a crack at the big time – but rest assured, he is not like the rest of us.
A playing career in football is both a gift and a curse, and ultimately, injury is the thief that robs players of what they most covet – more time, more chances, more football. For many, a career cut short is devastating. For the forward-thinking, it’s merely framing circumstances differently. The story of Julian Nagelsmann dovetails appropriately with the growth of Germany coaching pedigree and progression.
It can and should be argued that for any marked and measurable progress to take place, considerable evaluation and reevaluation must occur. German football experienced a lengthy period of European and global dominance but the national side had become obsequious to a reality that the entire system – from the ground-up and the top-down – needed an overhaul. For Germany, this was about applying what it could from a rich history in the world’s game as much as it was about cutting out the cancerous aspects that halted their progress.
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German football began its overhaul not with the senior teams but with the malleable youth of a nation. The country bought into a cohesive blueprint that tapped the talent springs of German players, resources and coaching education and connected them to form estuaries of footballing excellence throughout the country – not just in Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg or Berlin. Such a realisation, highlighted and well-documented in Raphael Honigstein’s excellent book Das Reboot, dissects how German football methodologies and ideologies could no longer kowtow to a glorious past that had all but evaporated with a former generation.
It was this slogging ascension that teams like Hoffenheim began its own climb up German football’s pyramid. In 2000-01, the club was in the Oberliga Baden-Württemberg before it was promoted to the Regionalliga Süd. For the following six years, the club battled its way to promotion in the Regionalliga Süd to Germany’s second tier – Zweite Bundesliga. After a year Hoffenheim reached the Bundesliga – a league rife with a new brand of football and revitalised by innovative coaches.
As a youth player, Nagelsmann played for 1860 Munich and Augsburg before the prospect of a promising career turned into an agonisingly hellish enterprise due to persistent knee injuries. Just like that, the dream was over and Nagelsmann’s playing days were dashed at the under-19 level. Injury turned to fortune and his path turned to the academic route. Four semesters at university pursuing a business degree and eventually directing his studies to Sports Science was enough to pull the young German back to the world of football – this time on the coaching path.
Nagelsmann’s story represents the promise of a new era of football management. For many, his career path illuminates a trajectory that more disciples of the game will exploit and test their mettle on. Gone are the days where top managers had to be top players. Such a belief system expired decades ago and the careers of many a legendary player turned awful manager are splayed on the pages of football’s history.
Nagelsmann’s footballing education was aided by Thomas Tuchel whom he worked under briefly at Augsburg. As the benefactor of Tuchel’s recommendation en route to his earning coaching badges, and much like Hoffenheim’s league progress, Nagelsmann climbed the ranks starting with the club’s youth sides – often as an assistant – the entire time learning and absorbing knowledge while applying avant-garde coaching principles gained in his coaching courses and his admiration for Spanish footballing powerhouse Barcelona.
The young German’s current position’s rise to prominence is astounding. Back in January 2013, Hoffenheim were firmly locked in the Bundesliga’s relegation zone. Much like life, football has a way of forcing change through desperation or inspiration – how one sees the challenges ahead is purely subjective. However, there’s little dispute that the then-25-year-old Nagelsmann occupying the assistant role to Frank Kramer who filled the role on an interim basis for the recently sacked Markus Babbel helped orchestrate a livewire victory against Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund to narrowly escape relegation.
Coaching is both an art and a discipline and to succeed at both, one must be a student of the game, be open to new ideas, and brave enough to take risks. Nagelsmann’s youth is unsurprisingly part of the allure and intrigue that comes with his story. However, his age is less important than his ability to apply himself to a discipline having been forced to hang up his boots so young.
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In an interview from 2013, Nagelsmann shed light on his transition from player to coach: “Coaching is more enjoyable than playing. As a player, you just go and train – but as a coach or a trainer you think what you can do to improve the team, or specific parts of the game. You will do that on the field and after the training: you say that was the right or the wrong way.”
As football evolves so must the business models that enable clubs like Hoffenheim to develop competitive talent, which means inward promotion is favored to shopping around for primarily German prospects in a ruthless player market. On the management side, internal upward promotion and back-filling positions makes more fiscal and professional sense as individuals assume roles they’ve earned while being familiar with the club’s goals and values.
Nagelsmann’s appointment as manager of Hoffenheim’s senior side in February 2016 after Dutchman, Huub Stevens, resigned due to health issues proved that the club’s business model was more than mere lip service. “This is a courageous step but we see in Nagelsmann such a huge coaching talent that we want to give him a chance,” said Hoffenheim’s Director of Football, Alexander Rosen. Hoffenheim and its board deserve a nod for having the courage to take a calculated risk to hire Nagelsmann, who at the time was still studying for his senior coaching licences.
A key factor in Nagelsmann’s philosophy is lodged in his ability to understand how to use his youth and lack of top-tier professional playing experience to his benefit rather than allow it be a hindrance. Managing professional players after cutting his teeth in the trenches with youth teams is an exercise in mental and physical endurance.
Explaining the role of coaching youth and senior players, Nagelsmann stressed the importance of education, implementing programs, and differentiating between coaching the collective and man-management: “You have to think about solutions to different programmes along with football and games against different opponents. The other part is that it is interesting to have 22 or 23 guys who are all different, all individuals, and you have to, as a coach, try to get them all in the one direction and that’s why I love doing it.
“You need to learn to deal with each guy, and to get them motivated, and so on. There isn’t such a great difference between coaching young and experienced players. But when you play at under-16 and under-17 level, the breeding and education is more important, when you train professional players, they are adults and they know what they want and their aims. You need to educate the young players because of their personalities. For older players, it is a bit less education and more specific sport-parts you have to coach.”
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At 29 years of age, Nagelsmann is arguably one of the best managers in the Bundesliga. Hoffenheim’s results reinforce this notion. Beyond his youthful grin and side-swept blonde hair is a true student of the game, defying doubters and proving himself week-in and week-out. For a manager who cites Arsène Wenger, Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho, and the great Johan Cruyff as his influential manager models, Nagelsmann’s tactics suggest he is a lithe blend of them all in the making.
For one, he approaches top-level management with high emphasis on simplicity. His side play a compact system, sometimes in a 3-5-2 or a variant of the former in a 3-1-4-2. However, much like the men he considers influential to his management, formations aren’t as important as application. “It’s a question of five or 10 metres whether it’s a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-2-1; you only see teams adhering to that at kick-off and perhaps eight times during the game.”
On the training pitch, shadow marking, shape and unified, rehearsed pressing and counter-pressing movements have helped Hoffenheim become a team that eliminates passing lanes and forces teams back in their own half regularly – a non-negotiable for success in the modern game. His team works as a unit to press high up the pitch to win the ball back but also defends in packs in zones to stifle counter-attacks. “I like to attack the opponents near their own goal because your own way to the goal is not as long if you get the ball higher up,” he said. “I like the way Villarreal play and they have a great way of coaching young players. I also like Barcelona and Arsenal as well as the work of Arsène Wenger.”
Nagelsmann makes no pretence that he wants to over-complicate discussions centred around tactics as noted in Süddeutsche Zeitung: “Thirty percent of coaching is tactics, seventy percent social competence. Every player is motivated by different things and needs to be addressed accordingly. At this level, the quality of the players at your disposal will ensure that you play well within a good tactical set-up – if the psychological condition is right.”
His players understand the importance of execution instead of labels, too. Hoffenheim defender Niklas Süle said: “We have a plan for every match situation. It’s an incredibly flexible system. We can switch easily between three, four and five at the back during a game. We’re more unpredictable to play against this season, which is one of our big strengths.”
Under Nagelsmann, Hoffenheim have become a team that plays the type of football that’s entertaining and effective. To accomplish this, maturity and trust must be the pillars of a coach’s philosophy. Time will tell if Nagelsmann goes on to become one of the world’s elite managers, but at the present, he’s earning his stripes in the cauldron of the Bundesliga by doing things his way.
He seems to have entered management at the perfect time, where innovation and evolution are rewarded instead of feared. Age is truly just a number, but Nagelsmann has paved the way for a generation of young managers to hopefully get a chance at managing top-tier teams. No matter how his adventure at Hoffenheim unfolds over the coming years, the name Julian Nagelsmann is sure to be top of mind and tip of tongue when it comes to progressive, top-level football management
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3