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The Millennial Manager

Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann on the club’s undefeated start, the limits of science, and the necessity of playing attractive soccer

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Julian Nagelsmann makes Sean McVay look weathered, and compared to the 29-year-old German, Luke Walton might as well be Red Auerbach. Last February, Nagelsmann, who had never coached a professional team, became the youngest head coach in the history of the Bundesliga when Hoffenheim handed him the keys a year and a half before his 30th birthday. Almost a year later, with the German league set to kick off the second half of its season this weekend, Nagelsmann’s team is the only undefeated side across all of Europe’s top five leagues. When he took over, Hoffenheim were in the relegation zone; now, they’re in fifth, just one point outside of the Champions League positions. Like Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel before him, Nagelsmann is the latest young, openly intellectual coaching disruptor to make his first mark in Germany. How does he do it? And who has he learned from? Nagelsmann recently spoke with The Ringer about those topics and more. (Answers translated from German and lightly edited.)

On attacking versus defending:

I’ve always approached games with the idea that to win games you have to score goals. That’s relatively simple. It’s also important that you’re defensively stable, but there are two variations: either defend very deeply and near your own goal or keep the opposition at bay and be active with the ball. I prefer to be active yourself, to have the ball and to create chances. It means a lot to me that we create a lot of chances and score the necessary goals. I also try to get us to apply gegenpressing — or pressure on the opposition after they lose possession — but I prefer for us to attack with an organized structure. And for such an organized structure, you need shots. So we try to always shoot at goal. Perhaps they’re not always the best shots, but it’s better to play an attack out to the end and not always lose the ball because you didn’t take the shot and then had to do even more defensive work.

On the importance of shot locations:

We know that 80 percent of all goals are scored inside the box. Of course, you can score from distance or 30 meters, but the likelihood drops hugely if you shoot from outside. Your chances increase dramatically if you shoot from inside the 18-yard box, which is why we have a lot of players in those areas and we try to play the ball in there as often as possible.

On sports science:

I studied sports science and have a bachelor of arts. The variety of football data is becoming more and more specific. You shouldn’t make the mistake of looking at football as a science, but there are more diagnostic tools, and the examination of the human body is improving in football: What effect does AstroTurf have on the body? What does lots of shooting do? What does lots of passing do to muscles? There are always new methods and you have to go with the science, but football will never be a science.

There will be more influence from science to analyze games, and you have to keep educating yourself. But you mustn’t make the mistake of seeing football as something technocratic or based on something that is fed by science. You can develop the person by using scientific aspects in your judgement, but the human is still the focus.

On his comment that in managing, “30 percent is coaching, 70 percent is social competence”:

If you’re the best technical manager, but personality-wise you’re not as good, then you won’t have the necessary success. You will be successful, but you won’t be at the top of the game. If you’re great with personalities, but have nothing to offer technically, then it will also be difficult. But if you have a basic level of technical understanding and your social competence is very good, then you will be very successful. A good technical understanding and just enough personality-wise also works over a certain period of time, but the longer you work with a team, the more important the relationship with your players becomes.

If you want short-term success, technical knowledge is fine, but for long-term success, you have to have an idea of how to handle people, how to get them working together, how to handle players’ private issues — to clear their minds, to be empathetic is very important. I used the 30–70 percentage, but it can also be 40–60, and it depends on the situation. The worse it is at a club, the more empathetic you have to be. The more successful the whole club is and the better the atmosphere is, then you can focus more on the material. It’s always a ratio in favor of social competence, though.

On the balance between individuality and teamwork:

At the top level, and you see it in the Champions League, there are players who are better than others, and they decide the game. In 90 minutes, for example, it’s one piece of play by Cristiano Ronaldo that always decides the game. You can’t make the mistake as a manager just to think collectively and not to allow the players to show their individuality.

Nevertheless, for a [smaller] club like ours, it’s important that not just the team but also the entire club works toward one goal. This collective thinking, particularly defensively, is something we have. And respect for one another is an important part of that. We don’t always have to love each other and hug one another. We can be critical, but we have to be working toward the same goal. Even in the collective thought process, I ask the players to try things that we don’t train or aren’t in the plan in the hope that players can decide games through their own quality.

On outside inspirations:

I do try to exchange ideas with managers from other sports. I’ve spoken to handball coaches. I’ve spoken to the manager of the national hockey team a lot. To broaden your horizons and to adopt methods that other successful managers have used is always useful.

As a manager, you can learn something from business. If you can talk to the chairman of Adidas or Audi or BMW or Siemens about how they run their businesses — they have thousands of different employees, everyone with a different character. How do you speak to one who flares up, one who is calm? You can always use and collect ideas, particularly when it comes to leadership. Volkswagen has a very interesting system: There’s a panel on each door that shows how each person in that office works — what their character is like so the boss knows how to speak to them. You should always be open-minded to such ideas.

On inside inspirations:

Villarreal, because they promote — more in the past than now — extremely large numbers of youth players to the first team. They have an interesting philosophy with their own possession that they teach from the youth team right up. Barcelona still play great football under [FC Barcelona head coach] Luis Enrique — a little different to how they did under [Pep] Guardiola, but not massively. It’s still very attractive to look at. [Arsenal head coach] Arsène Wenger has always followed the plan to play with young players, to have the ball a lot, to try a lot of things. He’s still an inspiration for how his team plays or for the ideas that he has. He hasn’t always been successful, but he always take calculated risks because he wants to get on the ball. And sometimes that means you don’t always win the title, but you still play attractive football.

On the necessity of attractive football:

There are few clubs, even in the Bundesliga, that try to solve things with the ball — the way Guardiola did [with Bayern Munich]. There are perhaps three teams in the Bundesliga who do that. At Euros or World Cups, it’s clear that all teams can defend well now — often very deep, not pressing.

You have to develop your own ideas when you’re in possession. It’s far more complex than coaching defensive work. Guardiola brought a lot of development into the Bundesliga, but we all have to keep working to make sure that it continues, to make sure that we don’t just have a defensive approach. Otherwise, the league will become uninteresting, and no more goals will be scored because no one will want the ball. You have to be brave and try to do something with the ball.

On the future of football:

Positional change will be a trend. What you often see now is a winger moving into the middle and a wingback moving up the wing. With Guardiola, he moved wingbacks into the middle. There’s huge potential in the future to move central defenders to holding midfield [sechser], or a sechser as a striker and the striker drops deeper — players have to be more flexible. You’re more dangerous the more positional variation you have.

Another trend will be that managers will have their philosophy but still be open to adapting to the opposition and the situation. You have to make such decisions based on your squad. If you have a lot of slow players then it’s hard to play a pressing game. Everyone has to find the style they want based on their squad. There’s no wrong or right or good or bad. Every way can be successful