The baby-faced tactician is turning heads in European football…

A thinking player on the sidelines can be as dangerous as any player on the pitch, ask fans of Barcelona from the Pep Guardiola phase. The danger amplifies even more when the coach has unfulfilled dreams on the pitch, and ensures his team carries out them to create something new, something special. The ever-growing Julian Nagelsmann, 1899 Hoffenhiem’s manager, is one such story.

The 29-year-old manager, who recently won the German Coach of the Year was born in a Bavarian town called Landsberg am Lech. A natural defensive instinct inside him, Nagelsmann started playing football at a very early age and played for several Bundesliga outfits such as FC Augsburg and TSV 1860 Munich.

Baby-faced Julian Nagelsmann has done a lot of giant-killings this season and has revolutionized German football’s pressing football with subtle tactical re-arrangements

However, the sun on Nagelsmann’s playing career soon came to dusk as the defender had to retire at a very early age of 20 due to sequential knee injuries. The young German sought out for a business degree after his unfortunate retirement, before redirecting his studies to Sports Science which would change his life forever in less than a decade.

Nagelsmann was tutored the strategies of the game by former FC Augsburg manager Thomas Tuchel, for whom he worked as a scout for the same club. He later went on to start his managerial career in 2012 when he was asked to be part of Hoffenheim’s interim coach Frank Kramer’s staff. With the appointment, Nagelsmann became the youngest ever Bundesliga assistant coach at the age of 25.

Soon, his managerial excellence was recognised by the club and he was handed his first professional contract as a full-time coach as he took charge of Hoffenheim’s U-19 side in the 2014-15 season. The Bavaria-born coach complemented the club in his very first season at the helm as he took his squad to win the U-19 Bundesliga Championship in 2013-14.

Nagelsmann has been brilliant in his preparations and has been compared to both Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola with his eye for detail

This feat helped to establish his name in such a manner that Bundesliga giants and the monopoly holder FC Bayern Munich tried appointing him the coach of their U-23 team. The attempt failed and the responsibilities of head coach of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim were taken over by Naglesmann on 27th October 2015.

The young coach, who replaced Huub Stevens at the helm of 1899 Hoffenheim in 2015, took charge of a club which was in ruins. Hoffenheim was positioned at the 18th place at the league table and faced relegation woes at the end of the season. After taking charge of the club, the ‘Mini-Mourinho’ started re-evaluating the club’s approach towards the game which saw him collecting 20 points from his first ten games and ended the season at the 15th position, comfortably away from the drop.

Despite being nicknamed as ‘Mini-Mourinho’, the Bavarian’s gameplay depicts more similarly with that of Italian maestro Antonio Conte. “Thirty percent of coaching is tactics, 70% social competence,” he told Süddeutsche Zeitung last year.

The German coach, whose gameplay is somehow a reflection of a traditional German school pressing, more specifically similar to that of Roger Schmidt and Jurgen Klopp. Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel had revealed his hesitancy of depending upon a particular formation, which shows his willingness to adapt to situations according to the opposition.

Naglesmann continues to play an ever-changing formation depending upon that of the opponent’s, much alike to Lennart Nyman’s Sweden National Football Team in the 1960s.

Tactical approach

Naglesmann, who had revealed he is not a big fan of formations countering opponent strategies has emerged as an intelligent coach who likes to change structures in the middle of a game depending on his opponents. High press, a signature mark for any German coach in the modern times, Naglesmann has also established a traditional German pressing in his approach to the game which has a touch of a European style of play of the last century.

The Hoffenheim gaffer has set up three men, four men and five men defences considering the depth of attacking play his opponents have chosen. At the beginning of the season, Hoffenheim played with a derived formation of 4-3-3 but changed to variations of 3-5-2 as the season progressed.

This image depicts how smoothly Hoffenhiem changes their system from 4-3-3 to a 4-1-2-3 against Wolfsberg

For example, Naglesmann opted to start his team with a classic 4-3-3 which changed to 4-1-2-3 as the game progressed against Wolfsburg. Uth and Kramaric, the wingers, tend to cut into the centre of the park from the wings while striker Wagner blocked any passing communication between the Wolfs’ centre defending pair.

This resulted in Wolfsburg playing a deep-wide game where Hoffenheim full backs Jeremy Toljan and Pavel Kaderabek nullified the attacks further up on the pitch before it could create havoc for the hosts’ defence. As the full backs went on to overlapping runs, Rupp dropped back and shielded the rear-guard from unexpected counter-attacks.

Standard tactics

Being a defender himself in his playing career, Nagelsmann focused upon the defence of his team as he took charge of Hoffenheim in 2015. The Blues used a 3-5-2 formation in the earlier days but soon changed to 3-1-4-2 and are still using it considering the situations they face. This formation made its debut against Schalke 04 this season in the fourth match day as several key players were repositioned to make the structure work.

Sebastian Rudy was positioned as a defensive midfielder and created a triple pivot with Rupp and Demirbay who played further up in the pitch as no.8s. Toljan and Kaderabek acted as the wing-backs, Bicakcic, Vogt and Sule formed the defensive line-up. Uth and Kramaric were made the striking duo in the new formation.

Naglesmann, who is a huge fan of diagonal ground balls made his team start the attack deep down as the full-backs (in most cases Kaderabek) providing cutting edge passes across the field to the withdrawing forwards, mostly to Mark Uth. The forwards tend to take the ball in a curved run to supply the ball to the overlapping wing-backs, which would create an aerial threat in response. Rudy covered the open space left by the protruding wing-backs, who would make his way to the wings while Demirbay tracks back and occupies the defensive role for the time count.

The passing and positional play pattern is highlighted in this depiction; Rudy plays the static role while the attacking midfield is fluid and is free to roam in between lines

Schalke 04, as the trap was laid out for them, found their way to the left while Hoffenheim kept pressing on the right side using Mark Uth. Lukas Rupp, on the other hand, widened his grasp to the left leaving his central position, which created a pressing trap with an outside-in pass, leading towards the winning goal in the 2-1 victory of Hoffenheim against the giants.

The same tactical approach was also used against Freiburg who themselves use a 3-5-2 formation themselves. However, with the little presence in the centre of the field of Freiburg, Nagelsmann opted to press in the middle using long balls instead of ground passes and got the result nonetheless.

However, Freiburg caused some problems to Hoffenheim’s player oriented approach when they ran right towards the supply lines and gave the ball to the forwards which caused confusion among the players, leading them to several mistakes which later Bayern Munich chose to exploit in their 1-1 draw against the rejuvenated Hoffenheim side.

As the international break came in, Naglesmann and Hoffenheim rose to the fourth position in the league standings and are set to fight for a Champions League spot till the end of the season. However, with a little cache to provide firepower to Hoffenheim, a tough road lies ahead of the Blues.  

However, if the young manager indeed manages to grab a Champions League spot, maybe another interview at the Saebener Strasse is not much far away for the Bavarian in the coming future who’s always made a lot of heads turn winning the manager of the year.