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At the beginning of 2016, a young coach took over the office of head coach at a small club in the south German periphery. He had never trained a professional team as head coach before, yet he was dropped into his seat as an emergency measure way ahead of schedule. In TSG 1899 Hoffenheim he took over a team that was at the brink of relegation in the Bundesliga. Less than a year later, CNN put together a feature on the success of Julian Nagelsmann, the youngest ever Bundesliga coach, now proudly in charge of the only unbeaten team in the big five European leagues (until the end of the 16/17 Hinrunde, at least).
Nagelsmann is only 29 years old, and because he was largely an unknown quantity when he took over at Hoffenheim, it was his young age that attracted most of the media attention since then. After a controversial public debate on whether or not coaches without experience at the highest levels of professional football could be successful additions to the league at all, Hoffenheim took an unusual step when it came to replacing their coach in October 2015: After sacking Markus Gisdol they presented Nagelsmann as an assistant to Huub Stevens, pairing the seemingly inexperienced coach with one of the most recognisable and senior faces of German football. After a year of watching Stevens save Hoffenheim from relegation, Nagelsmann would take over the club’s reins in the summer of 2016. Or, at least, that was the plan.
It all came differently, of course, with Stevens delivering only one win in 10 games and falling ill during the season, the Hoffenheim management took drastic steps. They sacked the ageing icon and put their own youngster on the throne. At the time, Hoffenheim was second to last in the Bundesliga, and the club included a note in their press release to guarantee Nagelsmann his post “for all leagues and divisions.” Everyone prepared to see the young coach fail in the big leagues.
For the longest time it didn‘t look like Nagelsmann would make it even this far in his footballing career. Missing a vertebra from birth, he struggled with a series of injuries as a young player. Nagelsmann still managed the jump from TSV 1860 München’s U19 to their second team, but then didn’t make a single appearance for the senior squad due to lingering injuries. To shed the image of the walking wounded he agreed to a change in scenery, joining his former club FC Augsburg for the 2007/2008 season with the second team. But another knee injury, several surgeries, complications with these surgeries, and an eventually unsuccessful rehab lead him to end his professional playing career at 20.
“You can play with [damaged cartilages], even if not pain-free. But it wasn’t worth it. I would’ve needed an artificial knee by 40.”
As he had time still left on his contract, his Augsburg coach at the time, Thomas Tuchel, pragmatically decided to find tasks for Nagelsmann to make himself useful. Shoved into the role of Tuchel’s assistant, Nagelsmann was given scouting tasks and unexpectedly found that he enjoyed his new duties. Tuchel encouraged his former player to continue learning the duties of a manager and referred him to an old colleague, opening the doors for Nagelsmann to join the coaching staff for a TSV 1860 München youth team. Building on his successes in Bavaria, Nagelsmann then took a risk transferring to a brand-new football project that was taking shape further north: The TSG Hoffenheim. In 2010, Hoffenheim signed Nagelsmann as the club’s new U17 coach. In hindsight, this was one of their best decisions to date.
Today, the club is renowned for their successful work with young talents, introducing players like Roberto Firmino, Jannik Vestergaard, and Kevin Volland to Bundesliga football. Defending sensation Niklas Süle and more recently attacking midfielder Nadiem Amiri have made their breakthrough with Hoffenheim.
Evidently, the club’s trust in its youngsters doesn’t just extend to its players, as Nagelsmann soon started working as assistant on the first team under coaches Frank Kramer, Marco Kurz, and later Markus Gisdol. Picking up the essentials of working with professional A-teams there, Nagelsmann then took over his own team with the Hoffenheim U19 in 2013. He promptly went on to create a splash, forming a record-setting team that won the 13/14 U19 championship and only barely missed out on a repeat performance a year later. Meanwhile, his club relieved Gisdol from his first team duties, and decided the time was right to put Nagelsmann into the limelight.
Next to the eminently recognisable Huub Stevens, respected for his coaching experience in the Bundesliga since taking Schalke’s Eurofighters to the UEFA Cup win in 1997, Nagelsmann was designated to spend one last year as Hoffenheim’s assistant coach, and then take over the head coaching position after a season. The seasoned Stevens was to be the face of experience, navigating the seas of media attention and allowing Nagelsmann to get used to the job in his shadow without too much pressure. Except that it developed differently, of course, when Stevens left after 10 games.
Nagelsmann’s results with Hoffenheim’s first team have been nothing short of fantastic. He’s been so successful, in fact, that fans have been passing around versions of a “Nagelsmann table,” which shows the standings of all Bundesliga clubs since Nagelsmann took over Hoffenheim in February 2016. It lists Hoffenheim (54 points) with 1.7 points per game as number 3 behind only Bayern (77) and Dortmund (63) at the end of the first leg of the 16/17 season. In 31 Nagelsmann-led matches Hoffenheim only failed to score thrice – putting them at joint #2 with Bayer Leverkusen.
Nagelsmann took his team from the depths of the Bundesliga relegation battle to finish an impressive #3 after the first leg, the Hinrunde, of the 16/17 season. Hoffenheim stands one point clear of his former mentor Thomas Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund. Under their young managerial staff, Hoffenheim have a real rags-to-riches story going on.
There is, of course, more to it than just having a capable manager in order to be successful in one of Europe’s top leagues. It is remarkable, however, how closely this recent success has been tied to Nagelsmann’s tenure, and that his lack of experience as a head coach or player has not negatively affected Hoffenheim’s success. Quite the opposite, he has been quick to remark how his players’ reactions to him as a young coach were more positive than expected. According to Nagelsmann, even more senior members in the squad were “happy to get new input and listen to something different that just the same old from an ex-pro who has been coaching the same way for 30 years.”
Several things have worked in Hoffenheim’s favour in 2016, and in many ways he seems to be the perfect fit for Hoffenheim – ready to take the team into international competition territory for the first time in their young history. So what exactly has gone well for Nagelsmann’s team so far, and how did he contribute?
Other fans often joke about the remote location of Hoffenheim’s stadium and the provincial nature of the club, where only one in 10 games has been sold out this season. However, this can also work as an advantage in today’s frantic headline-driven business. Hoffenheim is certainly no Bayern or Dortmund, where journalists cover even the smallest of developments, sometimes filling in the blanks when real news stories are scarce. TSG are also neither Schalke nor Hamburg, where impassioned but entrenched fan bases scrutinise every move their management makes; public pressure is just not felt the same way in Hoffenheim.
Fans have rallied behind the club in recent years, after the provincial football project was met with almost uniform disdain from other fan groups around the league. The SAP founder Hopp, who holds 96% of Hoffenheim’s professional football division, is largely held in high regard by the Hoffenheim followers, thanks to his continued investments in the club and in the region. In the league itself, the club has been flying a bit under the radar, leaving the coach enough breathing space in his task of turning the relegation zone straggler into a team contending for the international spots. This is even more true for the 16/17 season, where, especially in the international media, the team du jour is Rasenballsport Leipzig, with both fans and media fixated firmly on the Red Bull-powered newcomer.
Hoffenheim’s fans even tongue-in-cheek protested the loss of the title as “Germany’s most hated team” when they faced RB Leipzig in the season’s el plastico opener. The complaints about Red Bull now drawing public ire instead of Hoffenheim are only half-hearted, though. This way Nagelsmann finds a working environment in TSG that has made their support for their young talent clear with their public endorsements, but one that is also – relatively speaking – calm and untouched by the public’s scrutinising attention. Nagelsmann himself has stated that his job consists of only 30% of tactics, but is 70% psychology. What better way to get his team ready for the league than in an environment like this?
Of course, from the outside it’s impossible to pass judgement on what he says in the locker room. His impressive record speaks volumes about his success, though. Whatever he’s saying to his players, he’s finding the right words. Here is a coach who has convinced the players of his philosophy to play football, who is articulate enough to make people understand his system and who has his players follow through with it on the pitch.
The extra effort Nagelsmann’s side demonstrated on the pitch was already visible on Matchday 2, when Hoffenheim achieved one of their toughest comebacks when they faced Mainz 05. Neutral fans saw arguably one of the most entertaining games of the season as Hoffenheim held their opposition to an exciting 4-4 draw. What makes the game stand out even more is that Hoffenheim were trailing 4-1 at half-time, and although helped by Mainz being a man down in the second half, this impressive Hoffenheim comeback set the tone for the rest of the season. It spurred on a tenacious Hoffenheim squad, convincingly showing they were capable of pulling ahead even when faced with tough tasks. The mental resilience on display and the positive experience of seeing their efforts rewarded were important in reinforcing the players’ belief in themselves and in their coach’s approach.
On top of his 70% psychology work, Nagelsmann has innovated in the tactics department as well. Experiments with iterations of the 4-3-3 at the beginning of the new season did not yield the perfect fit Nagelsmann was looking for. However, the introduction of Hoffenheim’s now staple 3-5-2 formation, situationally changed into a 5-3-2, saw results markedly pick up, with wins over Schalke and an even more impressive 3-0 victory against Leverkusen becoming only the first two of a series of wins. In this system, Kevin Vogt occupies the role as the central organiser of the back three, taking the reigns as the security net in front of the Hoffenheim goal. Süle, one of the most gifted CBs of the league, is part of this crew at the back, offering Rudy the perfect position for him to sit centrally in front of the back three. The three defenders behind him secure his position, giving him all the time he needs to distribute possession. When Rudy is put under pressure by the opposition, Nagelsmann fairly liberally could choose to pair him with Demirbay, Rupp, or hopeful youngster Amiri in an 8-like role. The back three behind them offer Hoffenheim the optimal space to capitalise on their creative abilities, allowing for an unexpectedly flexible build-up game.
Hoffenheim here have demonstrated their capability in using asymmetric combinations to move the ball forward, increasingly overloading one side to bring the ball forward. Most important in planning out these attacks is new signing Sandro Wagner, a physical and hard-to-defend striker whose ten league goals this season attest to his effectiveness in the box. Most importantly, though, is how Wagner’s moves complement the attacks of his teammates when he isn’t the direct target of through balls. Oftentimes, Wagner will cleverly draw several defenders towards him and into open space. While he is not the most technically gifted player, he presses well, is known as an aerial threat and, above all, has good instincts for where to make his runs. Coincidentally, the match that saw Hoffenheim’s 17-game unbeaten run finally come to an end took a turn for the worse after Wagner was sent off after 60 minutes for an open-studs challenge.
There is without a doubt room for improvement for Hoffenheim. To an extent, they can be criticised for a bit of overreliance on Wagner, predictable attacking patterns focused predominantly on the centre of the pitch, and defensive organisation that is often to firmly anchored on man-marking. In general, though, it is remarkable how much more flexible TSG have been operating under Nagelsmann: Both fast-paced staccatos of attacks and pragmatic, defensive “holding patterns” that slow the game with robust defending are now a firm part of Hoffenheim’s repertoire. Nagelsmann has proven himself to be innovative and flexible, and he has shown himself capable to adapt to the different challenges that the Bundesliga has had in store for him so far.
We know that this increase in flexibility is not just by chance alone, as smart purchasing choices under Nagelsmann have markedly extended what the Hoffenheim squad is capable of in 16/17. Next to Wagner, new transfers like Vogt, Rupp, Demirbay, and Kramaric have more than satisfied expectations in Sinsheim. Where Hoffenheim’s squads in the past were always known for being technically gifted, Nagelsmann has used these transfers to add a physical robustness to his team that most opponents didn’t expect out of TSG. It speaks to Hoffenheim’s excellent scouting and business sense that the sale of Volland alone in the summer at about €20m paid for nearly the entirety of the club’s inbound transfers. Nagelsmann will miss some key personnel in defense next season, as his work has led to FC Bayern signing both Süle and Rudy for the 17/18 season. But with that comes another handy €20m payout for Hoffenheim. And Nagelsmann has shown what he is capable of with the support and infrastructure of his club. After facing almost certain relegation a year ago, Hoffenheim fans can look to their young coaching talent while dreaming of a bright future ahead.