As football fans we always seem to discuss who will be the next top player and which young stars are likely to reach their potential. One thing fans don’t always talk about is coaches and that will be the focus for this article. Football is having what we could call a “transition” period – all the top clubs are having issues of their own. Real Madrid and Barcelona are not the same forces they used to be and are trying to get back to their own glory days, particularly in Europe. The same applies for Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Juventus and even Arsenal. Liverpool remain the only complete article in terms of an elite team, what this means is new clubs have been given the opportunity to push for success and new coaches are all vying to leave their imprint on a changing football landscape.
We’ve seen a trend in younger managers being appointed with the hope of long-term success: Mikel Arteta, Frank Lampard, Marco Rose and Erik Ten Hag are just some examples of younger coaches aiming to create their own philosophy and ethos. However, none of them are as young as 32-year-old Julian Nagelsmann who is currently the manager of RB Leipzig.
Nagelsmann made headlines in 2015 when he was appointed head coach of Hoffenheim at the staggeringly young age of 28 – the youngest ever Bundesliga head coach. Hoffenheim were embroiled in a relegation battle and the local media ridiculed the decision. The man nicknamed ‘Baby Mourinho’ by former Hoffenheim keeper Tim Wiese defied the odds and steered the club away from relegation. They won seven of their 14 remaining games to finish one point above the relegation play-off spot. They subsequently made key signings the next summer: Andrej Kramaric from Leicester, midfielders Lukas Rupp from Stuttgart and Kevin Vogt from Cologne, plus former Bayern Munich forward Sandro Wagner from Darmstadt. With the momentum carrying on, Nagelsmann guided them to 4th place and their first ever taste of Champions League football. He then guided them to 3rd in his next season, before struggling the season after as they finished down in 9th.
It was at the end of this campaign that he signed a four-year deal with RB Leipzig on the 21st June 2019. Nagelsmann’s success with RB Leipzig has been well documented. He has been able to implement his attacking style of play on to a team with better players, Timo Werner has been the biggest beneficiary of his system.
At Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann primarily used a 5-3-2 formation with his players being able to rotate through positions to cover each flank. RB Leipzig focused on a pressing style of football, which allowed them to slow down and reduce attacking impetus. This enabled them to provide themselves with options for counter-attacking. They attacked through the middle using Niklas Sule or Sebastian Rudy, with their strikers laying the ball off. At Leipzig he’s been able to rotate between a back four and back five depending on the opponent. Like with Hoffenheim, his Leipzig team are able to play fluidly with players that can rotate positionally and that can press opponents off the ball to concentrate play on specific flanks in order to increase turnovers. Allowing his opposition to play using the touchline means they can set pressing traps by using their narrow shape to overload the targeted side and keep shape within transition.
In attack they rely on diagonal passes being made available through the use of ‘U’ shapes within midfield. This allows Leipzig to utilise either two advanced midfielders including a deeper pivot, or have one of their strikers move into a deeper position with a midfielder pushing on.
Another crucial cog in Nagelsmann’s style of play is a target man. This allows him to have a player, which his team can use as an advanced pivot to start attacks or relieve pressure of the defense by holding up long balls. It also means they can break the lines in attack with the target man being able to play passes to advanced runners.
RB Leipzig aim to have five forwards in attack: utilising two wingers, two inside forwards and a central striker. This shape allows them to play short passes in and around the box and create spaces for through balls. Dynamic midfielders such as Christopher Nkunku and Marcel Sabitzer have really helped show how Nagelsmann’s system work well with technically gifted and expressive players.
Having a five at the back allows the wing-backs to join in attacks but when changing to a four man defence they can use the extra midfielders to use an even more narrow shape. The front two become more involved in the press but also serve as the catalysts for counter-attacks. The wide midfielders can subsequently tuck in to form a 4-2-2-2 shape. Emil Forsberg and Timo Werner can also rotate within a 4-2-3-1 in order to use Forsberg’s creative passing in central areas, with runners playing off him. The addition of Dani Olmo in January means that 4-2-2-2 is certainly more dynamic and again more fluency with the plethora of attacking players. Their defence has also been a key anchor point in their success. Dayot Upamecano, Nordi Mukiele and Lukas Klostermann are some of the best examples of the talent they possess defensively not to mention Tyler Adams who has shown vast improvement under Nagelsmann too. The RB Leipzig coach has shown his ability not only to fit players into his way of playing but also improve them within that system.
Nagelsmann has proved himself to be the best young manager in the world. His tactical versatility and ability to create fluid shapes has led him to great success already. This was typified with their Champions League victory over Spurs. The ‘baby Mourinho’ showed up his older counterpart as they played them off the park in both legs. While their title challenge has faltered this season with one too many draws, his side are showing plenty of promise and could very easily improve their push for the Bundesliga title next season. If they can keep hold of some of their key players or find suitable replacements, you could see RB Leipzig evolve into a strong side over the coming years. Whether Julian Nagelsmann stays with the German side or not, it will certainly be interesting to see how his career develops.