There have been few launches to managerial careers that can claim to eclipse that of Julian Nagelsmann’s at Hoffenheim.
The young German, now 30 years old, took charge of his first game in February last year, away at Werder Bremen, with the club one point off the bottom and relegation looking like a forgone conclusion.
His first ten games saw them pick up 20 points in a stunning turnaround which led to avoiding the drop, and the hot streak has continued into this season with Hoffenheim currently sitting in fourth place, having only lost two games all season.
Nagelsmann is clearly deserving of the plaudits he is receiving across the footballing world and looks destined to have a very bright managerial future. Here we will look at his methods and what tactics he has employed to so drastically improve Hoffenheim, and whether this stunning form can continue.
The first thing to note is Nagelsmann’s tactical flexibility. He generally set Hoffenheim up with a back three of Benjamin Hubner, Kevin Vogt and the 21 year-old starlet Niklas Sule, who has joined Bayern Munich. Yet Vogt’s ability to play as a holding midfielder has given Nagelsmann the option of pushing the last summer’s recruit from Koln forward and shuffling his pack into a back four when needing to tighten up.
This shift to a back three was something that Nagelsmann implemented in his first game in the dugout back in February 2016 and has been absolutely central to their run of form. Much has been written this season on how effective variations of a back three formation can be. Yet a rookie manager was trailblazing a system months before the likes of Chelsea and Man City began to employ it.
Nagelsmann was dubbed the “Baby Mourinho” by ex-Germany international Tim Wiese during his managerial infancy due to his lack of playing experience, yet such tactical flexibility and foresight is far more comparable to Conte than the Manchester United boss.
This comparison to the Chelsea manager picks up more credence when looking at how he players set up in front of this narrow defensive unit. Pavel Kaderback has started all but one league game this season on the right side, whilst duties on the left are shared between Jeremy Toljan and Steven Zuber. Both Kaderback and Toljan are fullbacks by trade, whilst Zuber is a winger who won’t shirk his defensive duties.
Having defensive minded wingers is essential to Hoffenheim’s style of play due to the nature of their attacking players. Sebastian Rudy became the shielding player providing the platform for the ball-playing and extremely talented Nadiem Amiri, Lukas Rupp and, crucially, Kerem Demirbay.
These midfielders, who were deployed centrally as a two ahead of the sitting Rudy, all fit a similar bill. They are energetic, good dribblers and creative passers with an eye for goal. A key component of Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim is to encourage these central playmakers to take up wide positions, which can be exploited due to the opposition fullbacks already being engaged by the defensive wingers.
Kerem Demirbay, when fit, has thrived in this role. The 24-year-old was given a chance by Nagelsmann having not made the grade at either Dortmund or HSV, spending 2015/16 on loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf in the Bundesliga II. In his 28 appearances this season he notched six goals and laid eight on for others. He also made 52 key passes – 5th in that metric in the top flight.
After missing the beginning of the season, Demirbay’s introduction saw Hoffenheim kick on from a team that were hard to beat to one that lost only two games when he was playing.
There are similarities in styles between Demirbay and the Premier League’s PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez; both posses the ability to beat players with pace and trickery, whilst also able to provide the final ball or finish to punish the opposition.
The parallels between Hoffenheim and Leicester do not end with their star performers. Like the Foxes, Hoffenheim are committed to playing with two up front, normally Sandro Wagner and former Leicester forward Andrej Kramaric.
Both players contribute to the goalscoring tally on four and three respectively, whilst Kramaric has also turned provider for his strike partner three times, all with crosses from wide positions.
While Leicester played consistently with a back four in 2015/16, the philosophy was still the same. Defensive full-backs in Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs merely provided a platform for the likes of Mahrez to create. The team fit succinctly into a defensive unit and an attacking one, and Nagelsmann has implemented a similar mentality at Hoffenheim.
The crucial difference is the amount of tactical freedom Nagelsmann is willing to grant his attacking players. Whilst we have heard a great deal about Guardiola’s use of inverted full-backs, Nagelsmann is deploying wide central midfielders in a similarly ground-breaking move, and extremely effectively.
A look at Rupp’s goal in the win against Schalke in September provides a glimpse of Hoffenheim in a nutshell: Demirbay coming inside from a central position and taking it wide down the right with the attacking players flooding the box; a completed take-on was followed by an exquisite pass, which found Rupp to tap-in at the far post.
Only four players, the two front men as well as the scorer and provider, had gone forward for the attack with the other six outfield players happy to sit back in their defensive unit.
Such a tactic obviously places a great deal of creative responsibility on certain players in the team, yet Nagelsmann has plucked such players from obscurity, who are now performing at the top end of the Bundesliga scale.
The Hoffenheim recruitment team has a rich history of finding top talent from untapped sources, namely Roberto Firmino and Kevin Volland in recent years, and this carousel of talent looks back in top order under Nagelsmann’s stewardship.
Amiri was an academy product who had appeared infrequently with limited impact, Vogt has excelled in defence having been signed as a midfielder from Koln, Rupp joined from relegated Stuttgart, whilst nobody seemed to believe the already lauded Demirbay had what it takes to perform in the top tier. The improvement of Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy, both of whom Nagelsmann inherited, was extreme and duly led to their transfer to Bayern in January.
This, again, is where the comparisons to Mourinho do not do justice to Nagelsmann; his transfer policy is more comparable with Wenger’s early business at Arsenal in taking players with the raw materials to excel and making it happen.
He spoke about his footballing philosophy in an interview with Deutsche Welle: “I like to attack the opponents near their own goal because your own way to the goal is not as long if you get the ball higher up.
“I like the way Villarreal play and they have a great way of coaching young players. I also like FC Barcelona and Arsenal as well as the work of Arsene Wenger.”
So, while it is Hoffenheim’s rise in the league table that brought their manager to the attentions of many, his style of play and recruitment policy live up to that hype.
The system that he is implementing is incredibly ambitious, yet he has been able to make it work immediately at a club who were almost resigned to dropping out of the top-flight just months ago.
There is no doubt that Hoffenheim will continue to have difficulty holding onto some of their key players, yet Nagelsmann is the asset that Hoffenheim really must protect. To have such young manager implementing a style so successfully is rare.
In terms of imprinting a philosophy on a group of players, it is reminiscent of Guardiola’s start at Barcelona albeit less spectacular.
Above all, however, there are similarities in both narrative and style between Hoffenheim and Leicester’s title-winners, and there would be few who would begrudge a fairy-tale ending to the Naglesmann’s journey with Hoffenheim.