Before Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal between RB Leipzig and PSG, a surprising narrative finally crossed over into mainstream discourse. It wasn’t scrutiny of both clubs’ extremely questionable ownership structures, though RTÉ’s Richie Sadlier led by example in highlighting this pregame. It was one that was sartorial in nature.
When Julian Nagelsmann emerged from the tunnel sporting a curious gray patterned tweed suit, social media erupted. I logged in to find many kind folk had tagged me in posts on the subject. On the one hand, it may seem trivial that the hot topic of the evening would be a coach’s choice of attire, due to the aforementioned reasons and that PSG would make it to their first ever Champions League final. On the other hand, it was pleasing to see people coming round to the idea that what a coach dons on the touchline is actually a tactical statement, one as well thought out as anything they will draw up on the board pregame.
Coaches’ sartorial decisions have long fascinated me. It may be because I live in Germany, in such close proximity to the Bundesliga, a league full of gloriously diverse fashion decisions. Maybe it’s related to the 2010s being a golden era that saw coaches break free of the two sartorial molds—suit and tie or tracksuit—that had dominated the football touchline for an eternity. A new generation of coaches emerged, prepared to challenge traditional footballing philosophies as well as fashion norms.
For Champions League games he goes weird formal, this was him in the group game against Benfica pic.twitter.com/gHk1D8tLTG— Criss-Cross (@criss_crossey) August 18, 2020
Nagelsmann is the avatar for this shift. He has a history of walking his own path when it comes to coaching attire, opting for a bizarre waistcoat for Benfica earlier in the season that screamed snooker more than soccer, and an equally eyebrow-raising choice during his days at Hoffenheim. The latter is understandable, considering that both he and Hoffenheim were rookies on the European scene, but this latest instance is less so. Nagelsmann is a system-heavy coach, often maximizing the potential of a team to make it greater than the sum of its parts. Since the debut outing for the waistcoat, during an away match at Shakhtar Donetsk in 2018, he turned down Real Madrid, so self-assured that he knew it was not the right point in his career for such a move, knowing there would be other opportunities. Such maturity and self-confidence would have been handy on Tuesday night.
The already infamous suit came at the end of a debut season as RB Leipzig head coach that saw Nagelsmann embrace the club’s Nike sponsorship wholeheartedly, most notably the Acronym x Nike ACG Gore-Tex jacket—which retailed at $650—for Leipzig’s visit to Wolfsburg.
He moved through seasonal collections as fluidly as he did complex attacking systems: capitalizing on the Nike connect to don an array of outerwear, creps, and tees. But he was never afraid to adjust his tactics and go more formal when the situation called for it. A roll-neck on display for a December trip to the Westfalenstadion was utterly justifiable. Paired with a jacket, it would have been too “night at the opera,” but would have still been fitting for the tale of joy, drama, and tragedy on display that night, as his Leipzig side came from 2-0 down to draw 3-3 in one of the best Bundesliga games of the season.
However, his choice on Tuesday was so out there that you have to wonder whether his own Leipzig players knew this would be where their European journey would end. For those Leipzig players, Nagelsmann’s look was as much of a curveball as Pep Guardiola’s tactical revamp was for their Manchester City peers. Basically: “We’ve not dressed this way all season, so why now?”
Speaking of Pep, there’s a PhD thesis to be written about his clothing decisions as a coach. At Barcelona, Pep burst onto the scene, creating a side that played better football than anyone he faced, and looked better doing so. He was part of a new wave of young, sharp managers, wearing shirts and trousers that were always too tight, yet inexplicably had room to spare. Pep was in complete control during those Barcelona days: shirt, tie, slim leg, long jacket, sometimes a V-neck, sometimes not. It was a look that was as unfuckwithable as his sides were, and one he took with him to Bayern Munich.
It was in Bavaria, though, where Guardiola would first be subjected to allegations of overthinking things tactically. It was also where he would start to experiment—maybe overthink—with his threads. Jeans began to make an appearance, as did T-shirts, round neck sweaters, and non-club outerwear. It was as though constantly trying to discover whatever the fashion equivalent of an inverted full-back was, but with nothing in the wardrobe as tactically intelligent as Philipp Lahm.
Manchester City is where it really began to unravel for the Catalan. With over a decade’s worth of evidence, I would suggest that Pep’s attire tends to become less predictable during the times when he struggles to control his own genius. Guardiola’s arrival in the Premier League was greeted with such awe that he may as well have been carried in on a throne. It was as though he knew it, and dressed accordingly, becoming the first manager (not fact-checked but I’m willing to make the call) to wear sport coats with more zips on them than the amount of players in his matchday squads. To be honest, it got weird, and it has got even weirder since his assistant Mikel Arteta departed in December 2019 to take over at Arsenal. The sharp Guardiola that watched over arguably the greatest club side in history is now a distant memory, replaced with an erratic run of confusing club hoodies that look borderline bootleg, and torn jeans housing French-tucked tees, all suggesting that Pep never wanted Mikel to leave and there isn’t a day goes by that he doesn’t miss him.
Maybe this is how it is in this new era. Gone are the stalwarts: managers who would stay at a club for a decade or more. Two of the last to do so, Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, were ultimate examples of consistency. Ferguson was actually more flexible on the pitch than he was sartorially, tactically evolving throughout his dynastic career to maintain Manchester United’s utter dominance at the very top. Ferguson was loyal to the club suit throughout his tenure.
Wenger stuck as rigorously to his fashion principles as he did his footballing ones. He arrived at Arsenal in 1996 with a suit, tie, and a commitment to letting his players express themselves. He left 22 years later as happily married to those beliefs as the day he first walked through those marble halls. Such was Wenger’s stubbornness that he was as loyal to coats with troublesome zips as was to the players who so frequently let him down.
There’s a worry that those days may never return, as managers enter an era when they are no longer defined by a single look. Much like how a number 10 can no longer occupy space offensively without contributing to a high press defensively, it is almost expected that managers display a fashion game more rounded than just a tracksuit or tie.
One exception to this is Jürgen Klopp, but it’s a lesson he had to learn the hard way. Much like Guardiola was in his Barça and early Bayern days, what Klopp wears is a perfect extension of his personality. Klopp is energetic and relentless and coaches like a 12th man, and his now-trademark choice of 100 percent official clubwear is a deliberate demonstration of this. For the man from Germany’s Black Forest, it’s been that way since he oversaw Mainz 05 and has continued during stints at Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool. But there was a time when Klopp strayed from the path. During Dortmund’s Champions League run of 2012-13, Klopp appeared more formal in Europe’s main competition than he did in his domestic matches. There were no yellow caps or light down vests, but a kind of “cool substitute teacher” energy that saw Klopp wear suits with or without ties, top shirt button undone to act as a formal balm to his stubbled, growling nature.
One could argue that it worked. Dortmund made it to their first Champions League final since winning the competition back in 1997. However, they rode their luck along the way, eliminating Malaga in the final minute of stoppage time thanks to a goal that probably shouldn’t have stood. They would fall short in the final. Maybe Klopp showed too much respect to the competition by dressing up for it, and by doing so cost Dortmund that final extra something needed to win the whole thing. It’s hard to do rock ’n’ roll when you’re dressed for an orchestral ensemble. Klopp has been rigorous in his choices since, because when you’re that good, why dress up for the guests?
Managers decide very early on what kind they want to be, but much like tactical evolutions on the pitch, sartorial ones off it are becoming so blurred that it’s hard to know where it may end. Ultimately, if every team presses and focuses on what to do in transition, and coaches become a fluid mixture of never fully smart or casual, we may find it harder to identify with our coaches much like we do with our clubs. Because, as trivial as it may seem among sportswashing and energy drinks buying their way into soccer, to some us at least, we care.