Germany’s 'Mini-Mourinho' taking the Bundesliga by storm

Julian Nagelsmann’s attitude towards management is remarkably simple: “30 per cent of coaching is tactics, 70 per cent is social competence.”

Julian Nagelsmann

1899 Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann Source: Bongarts

If you haven’t heard the name yet, you soon will. Maybe you’ve even heard that statement previously. It’s already Nagelsmann’s trademark saying.

And if he keeps up his current progress, the 29-year old – you read right – might just be the next manager to leave a serious imprint on the world of football.

Amid all the commotion of Red Bull Leipzig’s title charge, the re-emergence of 1899 Hoffenheim has been largely overshadowed this season.

But it shouldn’t be – the club from the Sinsheim region is only one point behind third-placed Dortmund and on track to qualify for the UEFA Champions League.

Nagelsmann is one of the youngest managers in world football, and by far the youngest to have ever coached in the Bundesliga. Former German international and ex-Hoffenheim goalkeeper Tim Wiese has already dubbed him as “Mini-Mourinho”.

The most incredible fact? He has never even kicked a ball as a professional. Yet his players love him.

“Julian is one of a kind. He understands how a player thinks but always exudes authority. He is an absolute expert and cannot be worked out by opponents,” said midfielder Niklas Süle.

“Analysis of opponents is one of his strengths. He has always set us up very well. We can play for clean sheets, as we have already done a few times, but we are also able to create chances.”

Nagelsmann nearly made it, playing at the youth level for 1860 Munich and Augsburg (playing briefly under now-Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel) as a strapping, 190 centimetre centre-back before successive knee injuries prevented his progress, forcing a premature retirement.

He briefly studied Business Administration and then Sports Science, both of which complemented his coaching aspirations – which he nurtured with assistant roles at the junior teams of 1860 Munich and then Hoffenheim.

Eventually, he was given the lead role at Hoffenheim’s under-17 team in 2011, before stepping up to become the fully-fledged assistant of the senior team in 2013, confirming his potential. The club then assigned him full responsibility of their highest junior team, the under-19 side, between 2013 and 2016.

So impressed was the club hierarchy that in October 2015, it was announced he would be made head coach for the following season. However, when interim coach Huub Stevens quit for health reasons in February, Nagelsmann prematurely found himself in the hot seat.

At the time, Hoffenheim were second last, seven points from safety and almost certain to return to the 2. Bundesliga – which would have been the first time the club had been outside the top flight side the 2007-08 season.

Despite his relative inexperience, Nagelsmann gave a sign of what was to come, spearheading a remarkable turnaround as Hoffenheim won seven of their final 14 matches to finish 15th, one point clear of the relegation play-off.

Some critics were moved to write off Hoffenheim’s improvement as little more than a knee-jerk reaction to a change in management and that surviving in 2016-17 would prove much harder to sustain.

Instead, Nagelsmann has fashioned results from a squad that contains barely no known names. It’s here that his genius can be seen. He gets to players where it matters most: between the ears.

“Every player is motivated by different things and needs to be addressed accordingly,” he told Süddeutsche Zeitung.

“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 philosophy is borne out across the field, but especially in attack. Sandro Wagner (10 league goals), Andrej Kramarić (eight goals), and Mark Uth (six goals) were all relatively hyped products many years ago before their careers went south.

Kramarić was a record £9 million ($14.5 million) flop at Leicester City, Uth had to go to the Netherlands after being cut by Köln in 2012 and Wagner had been at clubs like Bayern, Werder and Hertha without making an impact. The latter is now the second-highest German scorer in the Bundesliga (behind only Red Bull’s Timo Werner).

So successful has the front third been that one highly-touted player, Chilean World Cup star Eduardo Vargas, was offloaded to Mexican club Tigres in January.

At the back, the once-unheralded Benjamin Hubner has been so good that a national team call-up isn’t out of the question. Likewise, goalkeeper Oliver Baumann has been outstanding. Almost every player in the first team is performing better under Nagelsmann.

Curiously, or perhaps just humbly, Nagelsmann doesn’t consider himself a tactical genius, despite admitting his admiration for Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola.

“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.

“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.”

An interesting observation, to say the least. One suspects we’ll hear plenty more of them in the decades to come.

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5 min read
Published 14 March 2017 at 12:29pm
By Sebastian Hassett