Julian Nagelsmann, The Wonder kid Manager

Julian Nagelsmann

He may only be gazing to his thirties, but boss Julian Nagelsmann has already made a big name for himself in German football and established himself as one of the game’s brightest coaching talents. Nicknamed the mini Mourinho by ex Germany keeper Tim vice, he was thrust into the limelight in February 2016 when he became the Bundesliga’s youngest ever manager at just 28. The spotlight was initially a harsh place to be as the German media responded with disbelief and local newspaper Rhein Neckar Zeitung even labelled the appointment a publicity stunt.

With Hoffenheim deep in relegation trouble, Julian Nagelsmann turned their fortunes around winning half the remaining games making up a five-point deficit and guiding the Die Kraichgauer to safety. It was a remarkable achievement in his first managerial job and made people sit up and take notice.  But no one predicted just how strongly he’d kick on his first full season.

Julian Nagelsmann and Hoffenheim outdid themselves defying all expectations. They secured fourth spot and the club’s first ever Champions League place playing an attractive attacking brand of football and recording their first ever win over Bayern Munich in the process. Dismissive of the idea that there’s a magic formula which has led to his success, he instead argues that the human side of the game is crucial. Downplaying the importance of specific tactics, Julian Nagelsmann instead focuses on motivation, man management, and creating a cohesive set of individuals who are comfortable in multiple formations.

Julian Nagelsmann Tactics Explained

This usually equates to a mixture of 3-5-3 and 5-1-2-2. But Nagelsmann argues that the differences between them aren’t as important as you might think. Because formations are fluid and in his own words “it’s just a question of five or ten meters 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”

The overriding philosophy and group dynamics are more important. He calls football as “Thirty per cent of coaching is tactics, 70% social competence.” That’s the ability to get along with other people and the rest of us. This goes for all members of his squad including backup players reminding them that they have an important role to play as a part of the group. For long known as a flop, Hungarian striker Adam Sally is showing the benefits of this philosophy netting 8 Bundesliga goals from 22 appearances, mostly as a substitute last year. He also developed higher profile players too. Roberto Firmino, Kevin Volland, Nicolas Sule, and Sebastian Rudy improved dramatically under his tutelage.

Generally, Hoffenheim plays with three central defenders, two defensive wingers or wing-backs, a holding midfielder, and four attacking players. Their keeper, Oliver Baumann, is a solid base and has excellent distribution when sweeping up behind the back three. The attacking players set up as two central midfielders and two strikers, but what is noticeable is how flexible this arrangement is. Karim Demirbay and Nadiem Amiri or Lukas Rupp, the nominal centre mids, drift very wide from their central positions, protected by the stability of Hoffenheim’s back six, the energy of Sebastian Rudy, and the versatility of Kevin Vogt. Vogt was signed from FC Koln as a central midfielder and converted by Nagelsmann into a centre back who can push up into the old centre half role alongside Rudy if required, either when Hoffenheim switch to a back four, or to prevent central overloads in the 3-1-4-2.

Julian Nagelsmann

Julian Nagelsmann : Defensive Philosophy

Defensively, Hoffenheim press hard, but unlike the teams of Ralf Rangnick, the coach who has probably done more to spread the gospel of pressing in German football than any other, Nagelsmann’s side do not actively court counter-attacking opportunities by turning the ball over, and are happy to hold possession and build a bit more slowly with less emphasis on out-and-out verticality. The team’s shape also allows for a pendulum effect defensively, so that if the opponent attacks down Hoffenheim’s right, the players can swing across to build up more resistance in the press, while withdrawing on the opposite side for stability.

Julian Nagelsmann

Julian Nagelsmann : Attacking Philosophy

In attack, Hoffenheim like to play directly through the centre using Rudy or Niklas Sule, the centre back, to drive the ball forwards to the strikers, who then lay it off. Demirbay especially has a licence to drift around and make things happen and is an adept dribbler who can collect the ball short from Rudy, or from a layoff, and drive into space with pace. If these vertical passing channels blocked, then the wing-backs offer lateral options and against teams who sit deep, Hoffenheim will sometimes almost resemble a 3-3-4 or even 3-1-6. Nagelsmann collects data on when his players’ passing lines get blocked off and likes his players to drop between the lines to open passing channels up, much like Guardiola’s  ‘positional play’ style.

The keys are movement and the ability to find space in relation to other players’ passing options, founded on a dynamic fluidity in positioning around Rudy that affords the midfielder as many options as possible. With a solid back six and a creative front four, Nagelsmann has built a team that plays attractive, successful football. There are echoes of Brazil’s 2002 vintage, whose solid, defensive foundation using wing-backs allowed a creative trident to win games almost on their own, and in Guardiola’s insistence on creating overloads between the lines. Add to that a Ragnick-lite pressing style, tactically intelligent players like Rudy, and a superb, cohesive mentality, and you can see why everyone prizes Nagelsmann is so highly . He blends an awareness of what has gone before with a brilliant understanding of what his squad can do.

Nagelsmann turned down the chance to become Bayern Munich U-23 manager. He became the Bundesliga manager of the Year last season. All of Europe’s top clubs we’ll have an eye on him especially if he carries on like this.

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