TSG Hoffenheim head coach Julian Nagelsmann has not only changed the face of a football club, but he has transformed the way coaches appreciate match tactics in the Bundesliga. For a coach that never made a senior league appearance in his playing career, Nagelsmann has proved that the demands of the Bundesliga can be met with a combination of tactical intelligence and confident risk-taking. Despite the successes of other managers in Europe last season such as Antonio Conte (Chelsea), Leonardo Jardim (Monaco), and Massimiliano Allegri (Juventus), Nagelsmann has guided Hoffenheim to a finish in the Bundesliga that was never supposed to happen.
Hoffenheim’s fourth placed finish in the 16/17 Bundesliga table and the guarantee of qualification to the early stages of the UEFA Champions League may have been a target too far for even Nagelsmann to dream of before the start of last season. This is a coach that has shown he is willing to be precocious and experimental; but also a coach that is sensible and devoted at times. Nagelsmann invested time in his mid-twenties studying Business Administration for later life, before settling with a Sports Science degree. His attitude to football coaching is similar to the mentality he transfers to his other interests: a belief in hard work and dedication, but with the knowledge that taking risks is integral to your chances for success.
There is a definitive balance that Nagelsmann seamlessly achieves in his team, and whilst they have had a better season than some of Germany’s most established clubs, TSG Hoffenheim is a club that still possesses modesty even after their most successful season ever. Nagelsmann has shown he was fully prepared to guide Hoffenheim away from relegation fears in February 2016 and has transformed them into a team that can be functional and thoroughly entertaining. He waited for his opportunity and has shown he was more than equipped to survive the demands of the Bundesliga.
Nagelsmann has been with the Hoffenheim setup since 2010, where he was the assistant to the Under-17 team, later coaching them and making his way up the coaching ladder at the club. It was the help of Thomas Tuchel (former Borussia Dortmund head coach) that contributed to the formation of Nagelsmann’s philosophy and management style. The idea of allowing all members of the coaching staff to offer their advice in making key tactical and personal decisions is a blend of Nagelsmann’s knowledge from his academic endeavours and his work under Tuchel at FC Augsburg.
Nagelsmann’s reluctance to use too much numerical data in influencing his tactical decisions is also a unique characteristic of his coaching style and makes the Hoffenheim story even more remarkable. Nagelsmann even believes in locking himself in a room alone with a pad and pen, combining his belief in team integration with his own fresh ideas, which is what makes Hoffenheim’s brand of football consistently entertaining throughout the season.
What has set Nagelsmann apart from all other managers around Europe this season is his ability to trust his instincts, constantly adapting to different situations. With the resources at his disposal, this fact makes Hoffenheim’s achievements this season more startling. No star names stand out in the usual starting XI from the 16/17 season, only former captain Sebastian Rudy and Niklas Sule are players that have become better known due to their transfers to FC Bayern Munich this summer.
Nagelsmann is not a firm believer in the adoption of certain formations and sticking to them religiously. Nagelsmann is known for his shuffling of tactical shape even during matches, and experimenting between a back three, four, or five depending on the team’s stamina, control of the game, and defensive vulnerability. Nagelsmann’s surprising tactics have brought about a habit for Hoffenheim to score early goals. Examples of this were at home to Borussia Dortmund and significantly to 1. FC Köln, with unparalleled aerial threat across the team helping Sandro Wagner arrow a header in from a corner after eight minutes.
In tight games such as away to FC Augsburg, Nagelsmann proved his tactical nous again with his team striking in the 47th minute through the prolific Wagner. This was facilitated by Nagelsmann’s shuffling of the 3-1-4-2 formation with wing-back Patrick Ochs being replaced by striker Andrej Kramaric at half-time, demonstrating Nagelsmann’s willingness to go all-out-attack and not wait for the game to settle. It is, therefore, a surprise that Hoffenheim was the last team in the major top five European leagues to lose a league game. They were unbeaten in the league until after the January winter break. With such expansive tactics and such unfamiliar formations, the fact that Hoffenheim remained resilient and refused to be beaten is a testament to Nagelsmann’s management, with such inexperience aged only 29.
A stalwart of Nagelsmann’s defence is Kevin Vogt, who was converted by his coach from a deep lying midfielder to an astute centre-half. His ability on the ball and his creativity from through balls over the top and from deep stand out as the key skills he has developed under Nagelsmann. Aged 25, Vogt is at the perfect age to continue his development in this vital role and is a demonstration of Nagelsmann’s willingness to take risks, with a youthful confidence to make the Hoffenheim project his own.
Nagelsmann’s tactics embody inclusivity, with an objective to entertain. With the hold-up play of 6ft 4in Wagner and substitute option, Adam Szalai with similar height and weight, Hoffenheim’s formation has allowed midfielders such as Kerem Demirbay and Rudy to contribute to attacking play. Demirbay made 28 Bundesliga appearances last season, providing six goals and eight assists in a season that has moulded him into one of Hoffenheim’s most integral players. Rudy will be missed, with his brilliant blend of holding midfield play and energy going forward. However, with youngster Nadiem Amiri, who made an impressive 33 league appearances (with two goals and four assists), Hoffenheim’s midfield has a bright future.
Hoffenheim may have finally lost in the Bundesliga in late January in an away 2-1 loss to Red Bull Leipzig, yet their form did not significantly decline in the months after. Home 1-0 and 5-3 victories against FC Bayern and Borussia Mönchengladbach respectively showed that Nagelsmann was able to galvanise his team back to their sensational pre-winter break form, competing against the Bundesliga’s most historic outfits. What sets Nagelsmann apart from other top European managers is his age. He turns 30 this coming Sunday (23rd July) and has shown that he has the ability to become a part of the team, despite occupying one of the vital roles of the club.
Furthermore, held in relative comparison with other clubs that achieved high standings domestically in their own leagues, Hoffenheim’s financial situation and the prevailing culture around the club sets them up as an underdog even in the context of the Bundesliga. With an enormous transfer budget similar to what Conte and Jardim have enjoyed at their respective clubs, it would be interesting to see how Nagelsmann would operate and if he would change his style of coaching and management.
Nagelsmann includes all the members of his squad in all of his preparations for match-day. Substitutions including attackers such Kramaric (34 appearances overall, fifteen goals and eight assists) and Szalai (fifteen appearances off the bench) has played such a big part in Hoffenheim’s organised chaos, designed to outwit the positional shape of the opponents, with the strikers pouncing at the perfect time.
Nagelsmann also stands out from the other elite managers on the grounds of his inner self-confidence in his system and methods. He is not hell-bent on referring to formations themselves, seeing them as sometimes irrelevant. There is also an honesty to the Nagelsmann and Hoffenheim story. With financial backing from software company SAP, the small village has been transformed by the Rhein-Neckar-Arena, and it has become a new cathedral for people in surrounding areas.
However, it is the Nagelsmann paradox of having a footballing philosophy without a fixed brand of football that has made Hoffenheim unique not only in the Bundesliga but in a broader European context. Their fourth-placed finish last season demonstrates the rewards of having a manager with the perfect blend of academia, resilience, and measured arrogance. When Nagelsmann’s age is considered, it is truly remarkable how a coach with supposed inexperience has managed to guide a team from such humble beginnings to the qualification stages of the Champions league, when they were on the verge of relegation from the Bundesliga upon his arrival 18 months ago.