Bayern Munich, 2021–
Julian Nagelsmann was only 28 years old when Hoffenheim made him the Bundesliga’s youngest ever head coach. To provide further perspective, he was only 16 when in 2004 José Mourinho, who he has often been compared to, inspired Porto to win the Champions League, and was born in 1987, the year after Sir Alex Ferguson was appointed manager of Manchester United.
Nagelsmann has been heavily influenced by the pressing philosophy of Ralf Rangnick, who was influential in RB Leipzig recruiting him from Hoffenheim in 2019. He was also once coached by Thomas Tuchel, who was overseeing Augsburg’s second team when the then 20-year-old Nagelsmann suffered the knee injury that ended his playing career. Tuchel first asked him to start scouting opponents, and later appointed him the coach of 1860 Munich’s under-17s.
“Thirty per cent of coaching is tactics, 70 per cent social competence,” Nagelsmann once said of his approach to the most demanding of professions, which most recently took him to Bayern Munich as the successor to Hansi Flick. “Every player is motivated by different things and needs to be addressed accordingly. At this level, the quality of the players at your disposal will ensure that you play well within a good tactical set-up – if the psychological condition is right.”
Germany’s Nagelsmann is an innovative coach recognised for his willingness to experiment with new technologies and data in his pursuit of improvement, both as a manager and for his team. While at Hoffenheim a giant screen was erected at the training ground, and used to contribute to attempts to correct player and unit positioning as training was unfolding without requiring lengthy pauses to the relevant training sessions. Those training sessions are known to remain dynamic, and to take place at a high tempo.
While still at Hoffenheim, he regularly tweaked a mostly attacking system that largely represented a 3-5-2 formation while they had possession, and a 3-4-3 or 5-3-2 during the periods they were having to defend. His three central defenders were responsible for building possession – Kevin Vogt, in particular, was given responsibility for playing the ball into the areas that encouraged more passing options, and to progress that possession. From central midfield Florian Grillitsch protected their central defenders, covered Hoffenheim’s wing-backs when they advanced, and even withdrew into defence to offer an additional figure there. Two further midfielders were positioned ahead of Grillitsch and, in combination with their forwards Mark Uth and Serge Gnabry, they created a square structure encouraged to continue progressing possession and in which they offered supporting attacking runs.
With the superior squad he was overseeing at Leipzig, Nagelsmann’s favoured approach evolved. If his team’s basic structure was the 5-2-3 from which they sought spaces to play the ball, they demonstrated similar principles to those witnessed within Hoffenheim’s 3-5-2 (above) and 3-4-3.
Increased rotations through the central lanes contributed to them offering a greater variety of penetrative movements behind opposing defences; until Timo Werner’s departure, he provided, often from a front two, the majority of those movements and was supported by secondary runs; his strike partner would also often drop into midfield to hold play, feed teammates, and stretch opponents. After Werner’s move to Chelsea, the identity of their most advanced attacker became increasingly fluid, and from what was also sometimes a 4-2-3-1.
There also existed an increased variety both when they were building possession (above) and when they were attacking. Their wing-backs – most consistently Angeliño from the left, and Nordi Mukiele from the right – initially moved to provide their attacking width, but Leipzig’s increased focus on central rotations (below) meant that they later moved infield to attack alongside their most advanced attacker. When they did so cover was provided by a central midfielder, and the most advanced central midfielder withdrew into a deeper position to create the potential for rotations through both the inside channels and wide areas; further rotations occurred between their central striker and those offering supporting runs.
Opponents regularly responded to the numbers attacking in those areas by defending them with similar numbers, in turn leaving them vulnerable to Leipzig attacking around them with increased width before working possession back infield. If the rotations made by their attacking midfielders were similar to those seen at Hoffenheim, further rotations were offered from those positioned deeper in midfield and, strengthened by the versatility of Marcel Sabitzer, Dani Olmo, Emil Forsberg and more, Leipzig’s attempts to build possession and create in the final third weren’t compromised.
Defending and pressing
Where Leipzig previously pressed with a front two, they were succeeding in pressing with a lone striker who was supported by two attacking central midfielders taking opponents behind him at the base of midfield. The first line of their press became less effective at blocking access forward, but an improved press existed behind that first line, and the aggressive positioning of their wing-backs meant that opponents were encouraged to build short, where they were then often sent into a wider pressing trap.
If possession remained central, one of Leipzig’s deeper-positioned midfielders advanced to support behind the two already further forwards, creating a diamond structure (below) that was not only difficult to play through, but that could contribute to overloading opposing midfield threes and to secondary pressure being applied to central defenders and goalkeepers. After allowing passes out from goal-kicks to be played under reduced pressure, those in defence then advanced as high as possible so that that diamond had less ground to cover.
If possession was instead being built in wider areas, that diamond drifted in the relevant direction, and the far-side wing-back moved infield to form a double pivot with the spare defensive midfielder behind that diamond – which also moved to support individual presses being applied by either wing-back. Attacks that continued along the touchline were, in turn, defended against by the relevant wing-back, the closest attacking midfielder, and potentially the nearest central defender, when a further midfielder would also move across to cover and the far-side wing-back either moved into midfield or to operate at full-back.
Should that mean them becoming vulnerable to switches of play, the distance the ball was required to travel gave their pressing unit time to move across. Nagelsmann encouraged a higher press, led by those numbers in central areas, throughout 2020/21, and he was rewarded with an increased number of regains in the attacking half and attacking third. A further consequence was that opponents were often forced to attempt long balls over that press, leading to battles for second balls, and therefore Leipzig having to be organised in preparation for those battles – something that was particularly common against technically inferior teams.
They were seen both directly and indirectly, when they had a numerical advantage over their opponent, pursuing second balls. When an individual duel was lost those closest to the ball were in a position to respond and potentially recover it, when the favoured pattern involved a safe pass, followed by the start of a swift attack. What that also meant was that against technically gifted teams capable of playing with a high tempo – particularly during building phases of play – they could encounter problems. If their timing was not as it should be, any attempts to apply their press could then be ineffective.
Nagelsmann regardless continued to show a willingness to organise his team into a different shape if the relevant fixture demanded it, and, on the occasions they didn’t succeed in regaining possession in advanced areas, their priority became preventing opponents from carrying it through central channels by reducing the spaces in those channels. That they had such confidence in their press meant that they consistently approached applying it with an impressive level of energy and coordination.