“30% of coaching is tactics, 70% social competence”
On 27 October, 2015, history was made when a 28-year-old manager took over at crisis-hit Hoffenheim who were lingering around the relegation zone in the Bundesliga. Eyebrows were raised at the appointment of the youngest manager in Bundesliga history and his ability to steer them away from relegation was questioned by many. However the former Hoffenheim Under-19 coach answered his critics by guiding his club to a win in 7 of their remaining 14 games, ultimately cementing his position at the club for the foreseeable future after staving off relegation.
Even after such a promising show in his first few games in charge, his next season at the helm still surprised many. More of an expert at team bonding and player psychology than tactical football, the baby-faced manager led Die Kraichgauer to a stunning fourth-placed finish in the 2016-17 season. Often regarded as a mid-table club, Hoffenheim went on to win 16 and lose only 4 of their games in the Bundesliga en route to qualifying for Europe. It was then that Tim Wiese labeled him “Mini Mourinho” – high praise for a 29 year-old.
“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. 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 a disciple of Thomas Tuchel and an outspoken admirer of Arsene Wenger, Nagelsmann draws comparisons to a plethora of other managers around the globe. But where he differs from most other managers is that for him, the tactical nuances of football matter little.
“You only see teams adhering to formations after kick off and perhaps eight times after that. 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.”
Nevertheless, his inclination towards team harmony and man management did show tremendous results in his first full season at the club. Finishing above the likes of Schalke and Leverkusen, and just two points behind third-placed Borussia Dortmund, he broke the stereotype of balding or gray haired Bundesliga managers. In the process, he moulded the likes of Kevin Volland and Niklas Sule into world-class players. Even Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino owes his rise to Nagelsmann. His exploits at the very top of German football captured hearts the world over. With no clear fan-favorite among the players, people turned to praise the young coach for his outstanding season. However what followed was an anti-climax of sorts.
Two of his most cherished players, Niklas Sule and Sébastien Rudy were prised away by Bayern. However the acquisition of social media sensation Felix Passlack (those skills with the bubblegum were neat) from Dortmund and the brilliant Serge Gnabry from Arsenal on loan amidst a host of other promising signings showcased his ambitions for the next season. The stage was set for another managerial masterclass. But their Champions League hopes were dashed by a clinical Liverpool side who demolished them 6-3 on aggregate.
Back home things were going their way. A 2-2 draw against Leverkusen and a well-deserved 2-0 victory against mighty Bayern made other clubs take notice. In the Europa League, things started to go downhill yet again. The draw was unkind to them but their fine performances back home meant they were favorites to top the group. However, those expectations were dashed in spectacular fashion as they collapsed against much lesser-known clubs to be rooted to the bottom of the group, collecting only five points in the six games they played.
It was when Hoffenheim were dumped out of the DFB Pokal by Werder Bremen in the second round itself that question marks were raised over Nagelsmann’s future at the club. Inconsistent performances in the Bundesliga made them slip out of the top four and people wondered whether Nagelsmann was after all only a one season wonder. But that did not stop him from being linked with a move away to one of the big clubs. With Bundesliga heavyweights Bayern and Dortmund having managers with short-term contracts, it did not come as a surprise when Nagelsmann was linked to a job at either club.
Fans at both ends are relishing the prospect of having a young, attack-minded manager to lead their team. Nagelsmann himself has flirted with the rumors of him leaving Hoffenheim before his contract expires.
However, only time will tell how he fares if clubs like Bayern and Dortmund do come knocking. Clearly not under much pressure to challenge for even a top-half finish at Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann delivered, albeit inconsistently. But with Bayern and Dortmund expected to win every single match in the Bundesliga and to get results their way in Europe, it is hard to see him being the right man at the helm for either club, especially when we consider his disastrous maiden season in Europe. Furthermore, it is hard to see a 30 year old manager successfully managing a dressing room at a big club with even bigger player ego’s.
Nagelsmann shows promise and has time on his side; but he is not a Mourinho or a Guardiola just yet. The top clubs are bound to expect results from him from the very first game itself and inexperienced as he is, he seems unlikely to be able to deliver under pressure. To add to the facts, Hoffenheim will not be willing to let their star manager go, and clubs looking to prise him away would have a lot of coaxing to do to persuade the club to cut short his contract which runs all the way upto 2021.
For the time being, Julian Nagelsmann should aim to continue his fairytale start to life at a mid-table club. The big clubs would do better to look elsewhere, at least until results are consistent at Hoffenheim.