While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. Saiguhan Elancheran writes about Julian Nagelsmann, the talented manager of Hoffenheim.
Ending his playing career at U19 level due to persistent knee injuries, Julian Nagelsmann took Business Administration in university for four semesters. He then transferred to Sports Science before involving himself into full-time coaching. Initially starting his career under Thomas Tuchel in Augsburg, Nagelsmann became the assistant coach of 1860 München U17 team in the year 2008. Two years later, he became the assistant coach of Hoffenheim’s U17 team. By showing great progress as an assistant coach, a year later he became the Head coach of the same team.
In December 2012 when Markus Babbel left Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann was asked to be part of interim coach Frank Kramer’s staff, becoming the youngest-ever Bundesliga assistant coach at the age of 25. “When Frank Kramer called, I had to laugh. I didn’t think he was being serious,” said Nagelsmann, who stayed on in the role under Marco Kurz and Markus Gisdol as the club successfully fended off relegation during a turbulent 2012/13 campaign. “It was an extremely positive experience… I had never known sporting crises before that.” During his time as assistant coach, Tim Wiese nicknamed him “Mini-Mourinho”.
After taking TSG Hoffenheim’s U19s to the Bundesliga Championship in 2013-14 and another appearance in the final a year later, the powers at 1899 secretly made up their mind that the Landsberg-born former TSV 1860 player would take over the seniors team ahead of the 2016/17 season. However, Hoffenheim’s carefully laid plans for his career progression were scuppered by a horrible drop down the table and experienced coach Huub Stevens resigned with a heart complaint after the winter-break. Nagelsmann’s promotion was fast-tracked to the first-team job in February, to a combination of universal disbelief and doubt. He was 28 years old at the time. But the idea has turned out to be a pretty good one though. After saving Hoffenheim from relegation in May, Nagelsmann has continued to find success at a rate (39 points in 22 games) that is only bettered by the Bundesliga’s big two.
“Thirty per cent of coaching is tactics, 70% social competence,” he told Süddeutsche Zeitung in August.
Nagelsmann is not a big fan of tactics, rather he gives more importance to man-management, psychological attributes and togetherness amongst the teammates.
“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.”
For him, the formations matter only to a certain extent unlike most of the other managers. He says, “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”.
Being a disciple of Thomas Tuchel, there are shades of his philosophy in the way Hoffenheim play. “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 FC Barcelona and Arsenal as well as the work of Arsene Wenger.”
Though he was a defender in his short playing career, spent at 1860 Munich and Augsburg, Nagelsmann is attacking minded and likes to play with pace but he doesn’t focus as much on a possession based game in comparison to some of the managers who have inspired him. This may give you an idea of the attacking style of play he aims for.
Nagelsmann focuses on adaptability and from his first full season in the Bundesliga it is evident that his consistent change in formation proves that fact. In the opening 11 games of the season, 1899 Hoffenheim were deployed in a variety of different systems including: 4-3-3; 4-4-2 and 3-5-2, with the latter achieving the best results possible on the list.
Hoffenheim were setup in a 3-4-1-2 which will transition to back 4 or back 5 during the defensive stages of the game against Bayern Munich.
TSG’s press during Bayern’s build up caused havoc for Bayern. Building from the back proved dangerous because Hoffenheim were astute in occupying spaces between Bayern’s midfield and defence. Here, Boateng is surrounded by the Hoffenheim front two and his passing lanes are intercepted.
Here, Alonso is being pressed and his passing options are man marked. His only way is to play the ball through to the winger in the opposite flank or to the goal keeper. He has to retreat from playing forward balls because of the pressure from the Hoffenheim players.
Defending in numbers
Nagelsmann shapes his team to defend in numbers when they’re under threat. They defend in two banks of 4 and also in banks of 4 & 5 when needed, as he has tinkered his team to be adaptable to polyvalent formations. His team also defends in low-block when the opposition commits a sizable number of players to the attack and against teams which dominate in possession.
We can witness 8 Hoffenhiem players in their first third during Bayern’s attack which is nothing but a low block.
Three career defining games
Dortmund 3-1 Hoffenheim – 28 Feb 2016
Surprisingly, the reason to add a game that was lost in this column is because Nagelsmann got his tactics right against Thomas Tuchel and his team were able to restrict Dortmund’s ability to construct possession. The result was very harsh on Hoffenheim as they played very well for the first 75 minutes of the game. Even after a red card they managed to maintain stability for large periods whilst with 11 they were clearly the better team and highlighted Dortmund’s possession issues. This was Nagelsmann’s third game at Hoffenheim and he had shown some potential and the performance was certainly unlike a team struggling at the foot of the table.
Mainz 4-4 Hoffenheim – 11 Sep 2016
In the second game week of the 2016-17 Bundesliga campaign, Hoffenheim were trailing 4-1 going into the break at Coface Arena. In the 57th minute, Bussmann received a red card and Mainz were reduced to 10 men. Nagelsmann capitalised on the numerical advantage, changed the shape of his team by introducing Szalai and they scored 3 goals in 13 minutes to level the game. This showed Nagelsmann’s ability to capitalise on any lapse from the opposition at any given point of the game.
Bayern 1-1 Hoffenheim – 5 Nov 2016
Looking to extend his 9 game unbeaten streak, Nagelsmann took his team to the Allianz Arena to face the champions. Having scored an early goal Hoffenheim held on to what they had after the equaliser. They showed immense character to come away with a point at the home of champions, raising eye brows of many. The result extended their unbeaten streak to 10 games and within four points off first place in the Bundesliga.
Three Key Players Developed
Since it is a very early stage for Nagelsmann, he hasn’t seen his young players turning into world class stars yet. But he has given debuts and developed players who are key to his Hoffenheim side.
Roberto Firmino – When Nagelsmann was the assistant coach of Hoffenheim, he saw the rise of Roberto Firmino. He spent four-and-a-half seasons at Hoffenheim. His 16 goals in 33 games for the 2013–14 Bundesliga season earned him the award for the league’s Breakthrough Player. He was under the guidance of Julian Nagelsmann for almost 3 years.
Kevin Volland – Volland joined Hoffenheim in the year 2012 from 1860 Munich maybe because of the influence of Nagelsmann. He would’ve seen the potential of Volland from his time at Munich. Volland spent half a season under the direct management of Nagelsmann before selling him to Leverkusen in the summer transfer window. He scored 33 goals in 132 appearances for TSG.
Niklas Süle – Süle may only be 20-years-old but the young centre back has already accumulated 75 Bundesliga appearances in his short career. Süle is a key in the heart of defence, using his excellent reading of the game to put out fires and also making use of his excellent technical ability on the ball. Having nearly played 850 minutes for Hoffenheim this season under Nagelsmann, Sule is surely an integral part of his side.
Rejecting an offer to coach U23 Bayern Munich team two years ago, Nagelsmann favoured the ideas of Hoffenheim’s board. His side, at the moment, is one of the two teams who are on an unbeaten streak this season so far. At the age of 29, the way he does things, the prodigy of Thomas Tuchel is surely an inspiration to all aspiring coaches out there.