Julian Nagelsmann has proven himself to be one of the world’s top coaches, after impressing with TSG Hoffenheim and guiding RB Leipzig to the UEFA Champions League semi-final last season.
With his team through to the Champions League knockout stage once again, the 33-year old shares some of his philosophies on football, his thoughts on German coaches and Leipzig’s season so far.
When you were a youth coach at Hoffenheim back in 2011 did you ever dream that your opinion on the Champions League draw would matter to people?
“You can never really foresee something like that. Of course, you always strive to achieve your goals and you have hopes for what you will do. I have said before that early in my youth coaching career when I was having some success, it was clear that if I were to become a Bundesliga coach at some stage I would do so quite young.
We didn’t know for certain that it would happen, but it did. After that, my career progression in the professional game was very quick because I had some real success. I took charge of a difficult situation in Hoffenheim and was able to turn that around.
We even managed to qualify for European football in the first two years. The third year wasn’t quite as successful, for a number of reasons. The first year in Leipzig went well, I think, and so far the second year has been successful for the team as well. I don’t think you could write a much nicer story for yourself than this, but to expect it as a young coach is bit careless and optimistic, even if it is what you dream of.”
How important was it as a youth coach to understand not only the player but also the person behind that player?
“In the age groups when you are on your way to becoming a professional footballer that is probably even more important because the professional game is cutthroat and you have to prove yourself. As players are growing into professionals the person they are is critical, because many of them will not have the career they have hoped for.
They have to broaden their horizons and realise what else is important in their life and what they should focus on. The connection to their parents is, of course, stronger than in the professional game too, so you have to have conversations with the parents as well and act as a teacher.
The players spend so much time with you on and off the pitch that this side of the job becomes hugely important. Dealing with various factors, such as schooling, private life, a player’s personality has helped me in my career. It has allowed me to have the conversations I need to have with a broad range of people.
Some of those conversations are positive, some are negative, but in the end, it has all helped me grow as a coach. Focussing on the human side of things is certainly important in the youth football sphere.”
Why are we seeing so many younger coaches in the game now?
“The DFB shifted its focus after poor performances in a couple of tournaments and coaching is something they put a lot of work into. There as an effort to raise the level of coaching in Germany and I benefited from hat education. I also think there is an element of the free market in it too.
At some stage, you hit a period when younger people who have maybe finished their education or founded a start-up have been successful and are ready to be involved. In football, there was a problem with that for a long time, but in my eyes, it’s a perfectly normal thing. At some point younger people will always come through.
When I became a Bundesliga coach at 28 and was successful that was a real eye-opener for a lot of people, because it proved that it can work. It’s no guarantee, but it works. In the free market, it is always like that; when people start to hit 65 or so they gradually go into retirement and younger people take their place.
The same is now happening in football. This generation of footballers has changed too. Society, in general, has changed for many reasons, chief among them social media. Even I don’t understand a lot of the things that get said in the dressing room because of how the language has changed, but if a player comes to me and says, “real talk now”, I can understand what they are trying to say.
Perhaps it is more difficult for a Jupp Heynckes to understand that, because although he speaks perfect English a lot of terms get used now that he won’t have a grasp of. The mentality of players has changed a bit too, and how they react to certain ways of doing things.
Perhaps it is a bit easier to relate to them in some ways if you are a bit closer to their age group. Even so, the experience will always be a useful thing and we will always have coaches who are older and more experienced and still have success. Being good and being successful has nothing to do with age whether you are old or young.”
How difficult was it to qualify as a football coach?
“Fundamentally it wasn’t too difficult, but you have to invest a lot of time in it. There was a lot of driving to-and-fro, although the journey between Hoffenheim and Hennef isn’t too bad and some had it much worse than I did.
You have to leave your family on Sunday afternoon, and you get back on Wednesday evening so it can be tough, and you have to drive a lot. I was quite close to my time in school, but there were some others who hadn’t been in education for 20 years and had to sit quietly in a room and learn for six hours a day.
That took some adapting for them. The content isn’t so difficult, that isn’t the point of it. The intention is to create a structure and to help you remember all the things you need to. Not just the big-picture tactical stuff, but also the minutiae that are important in football. It wasn’t difficult with regards to content, but it was a demanding period of my life.”
In your system, lots of players are active in the centre of the pitch. Is the old saying about “you have to stretch the pitch” outdated now?
“I’m not a big fan of that because I demand an active style of play and if you want to do that you have to maintain a certain closeness to the football. That is just part of it. On the other hand, there are sometimes phases in a match when I instruct my wide players to play even wider.
Fundamentally it is about taking up a position in attack so that you can be passed to if the ball is moved around, but also such that you are close enough to the opponent to initiate the Gegenpress if we lose the ball.
If you follow the extreme Dutch school of thought, with very wide attackers you often face the problem of not being open for a pass or the ball taking an age to reach you and giving the opposition a chance to reorganise.
You also risk being a long way from the ball if you lose possession and then you can’t initiate the press. As a result, I like to see us shrink the pitch and create overloads near the goals. The rules of football dictate that that’s in the centre of the pitch, so I like to see us have a strong presence in those areas.”
To what extent did Jürgen Klopp and Ralf Rangnick revolutionise football in Germany?
“They certainly introduced a distinct style into Germany, which had perhaps been practised previously in Italy, by Sarri and others. Overall there tend to be trends in football that come and go and come and go. Ralf started using his extreme pressing and quick transitions all the way down in the fifth tier, the Oberliga.
Jürgen Klopp did the same in the Bundesliga with Mainz and with Dortmund. He has always described his Gegenpress as his teams’ playmaker. They are a pair of minds who brought a certain style of football to prominence and who continue to do so.
After them, Pep Guardiola also coached in Germany and played football in a different way to them despite employing many of the same principles. He added a lot of possession phases and unusual ways of playing with the ball, which raised football to another level.
Football matches are always defined by an interplay of various phases of play because I don’t think I have ever seen a game in which a team could play exclusively transitions, exclusively press, or exclusively have possession. The most successful teams have to solve problems in each of the four phases of play and at set-pieces.
Dependent on coaching tastes there will always be preferences and emphasis on specific phases, and Ralf Rangnick and Klopp definitely put more weight on opposition possession and transition than Pep Guardiola does. In the end, the one who can teach his players every phase is the best coach.”
Does the perfect game of football exist, in your opinion?
“No, that doesn’t exist. The perfect game in my opinion could exist, or at least something close to it, but then there wouldn’t be any goals. Football is a game in which goals come from errors most of the time and rarely from one person doing everything right and the opponent doing marginally less perfectly. Most of the time goals come from mistakes.
That is why goals are scored and why supporters will go to stadiums when they are allowed to again. That is why football captures our imagination, so I don’t really think we need to see the perfect game.”
Why are there so many German coaches in the upper echelons of the European game?
“I think we enjoy a good footballing education in Germany. You also have to look at which teams the coaches are in charge of. One of them is coaching Bayern, one is coaching Liverpool, so the chances of them being successful in the Champions League are high and that is normal.
I am coaching Leipzig, who aren’t always a fixture in the Champions League’s top four, but we have made quite a name for ourselves by playing well. I think that if we four were coaching smaller teams then the chances of us going so far in the Champions League would be much smaller.
On one hand, randomness and coincidence have contributed to a lot of German coaches being in the late stages of that competition recently, and on the other hand, you have to look at which clubs those coaches are at.”
What do you do to switch off from football?
“That is genuinely difficult, and I think it is the real art of coaching, because in the summer and winter when you have time off it is the transfer window and important decisions need to be made.
Those decisions have far-reaching impacts and a lot of money changes hands, so you never really have time off. You dream of games a lot too, or at least I do, and winning can be a slight relief that allows you to switch off for half a day. When you are successful you gain the leeway to take a break and not think about it 24/7.
It is important to enjoy other things in life as well, outside football. Not everyone can do that, but I think it’s important. In the rest of the world that is important too.
You have to be passionate about what you do to be truly successful, otherwise, you can’t do that, but you need other things in your life that invigorate you as well so that you can be at 100% when you have to focus on the football. If you focus only on football and nothing else in life invigorates you then your performances as a coach or player will suffer.”
How close do you think you are to your first title?
“At the moment it is looking good. We are still in every competition, which is the starting point for getting any trophy. The focus has to be consistency. That is the most important thing.
It is difficult to predict things, but we are very consistent in all competitions at the moment. We have to maintain that consistency in the league and then we will keep pace with the top. Whether that will be enough for a title is something we don’t know and it genuinely does depend on Bayern Munich to an extent, and how consistent they are this year.
This year is an extraordinary challenge and not having a proper winter break is something new for most of these players. It is something we aren’t used to in the Bundesliga and we don’t know how the players will handle that physically. It changes the entire biological rhythm of some players and nobody really knows how that will affect us.
We have to maintain the consistency and get luck at important moments to win games that we maybe shouldn’t have or draw ones we could have lost. If that happens, we will be in the title race for a long time yet. I think every individual player here wants to win a title and we have the hunger to do it, so that will not be a sticking point.”