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Julian Nagelsmann

RB Leipzig, 2019–

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 with, inspired Porto to win the Champions League, and was born in 1987, the year after Sir Alex Ferguson was appointed manager by Manchester United.

If he has been heavily influenced by Ralf Rangnick’s approach to pressing – Rangnick was influential in RB Leipzig recruiting Nagelsmann from Hoffenheim in 2019 – he was also once coached by Thomas Tuchel, who was overseeing Augsburg’s second team when Nagelsmann, then 20, suffered a 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 jobs. “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.”

Playing style
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, and 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 he was 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 up possession – Kevin Vogt, in particular, was given responsibility for playing the ball into the areas that encouraged more passing options, and to advance that possession.

From central midfield Florian Grillitsch protected those central defenders, covered Hoffenheim’s wing-backs when they advanced, and even withdrew into defence to offer an additional number there. Two further midfielders were positioned ahead of Grillitsch and, in combination with forwards Mark Uth and Serge Gnabry, they created a square structure encouraged to continue advancing possession and in which they offered supporting runs to that front two.

Those in central positions were similarly influential in applying Nagelsmann’s favoured counter-press (below). When possession was successfully recovered they would then swiftly launch an attack led by their wing-backs linking with Gnabry and Uth that was intended to deny their opponents the opportunity to adopt their favoured defensive structure.

With the superior squad he is overseeing at Leipzig, Nagelsmann’s favoured approach has evolved. If his team’s basic structure is the 5-2-3 from which they seek spaces to play possession, they often reorganise towards a 4-4-2 influenced by their opponents’ positioning.

Possession is circulated in central defence (below), in an attempt to draw opponents and create spaces that invite them to play directly to the advanced Marcel Sabitzer and Emil Forsberg, and therefore to bypass the pressing lines that exist in central midfield and potentially to more quickly reach the even more advanced Yussuf Poulsen and Timo Werner. It’s in the final third that Sabitzer or Forsberg combine with Poulsen and Werner; two of the three attackers will occupy the opposing central defenders while the third, most commonly Werner, pursues the spaces that exist.

Perfecting the press
Nagelsmann has also shown a willingness to organise his team into a different shape if the relevant fixture demands it. Leipzig have therefore often adopted a 4-2-4. When they do so, if possession travels to an opposing full-back, Forsberg and Sabitzer combine with the two forwards to press the relevant full-back; one will also attempt to negate the passing line towards the closest central midfielder, when the other will prioritise that towards the central defender (below).

On the occasions they don’t succeed in regaining possession in advanced areas, the wider priority becomes preventing opponents from carrying it through central channels by reducing the spaces in those channels closest to their goal. Laimer and Kampl will combine inside; Lukas Klostermann and Marcel Halstenberg do so in wider positions.

A consequence of the high press Nagelsmann demands is that opponents are 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. This is particularly common against technically inferior teams, when Leipzig are likelier to attack with a wider 3-4-3, and to defend with a 5-3-2 (below), to invite them to be more adaptable.

They have been seen both directly pursuing second balls, and indirectly when they have a numerical advantage over their opponent. When an individual duel is lost those closest to the ball are in a position to respond and potentially recover it, when the favoured pattern involves a safe pass, followed by the start of a swift attack.

What that also means is that against technically gifted teams capable of playing with a high tempo – particularly during build-up phases of play – they can encounter problems. If their timing is not as it should be, any attempts to apply their press can then be ineffective.

That they have such confidence in that press regardless means that they approach it with an impressive energy and coordination. Nagelsmann also often favours a more cautious 5-3-2 against that calibre of opponent. A further potential weakness against those higher quality teams is the numerical or territorial disadvantage that can occur when players combine to target opponents. If those opponents succeed in quickly moving possession elsewhere, or in switching play, they will often prove capable of attacking into space.

Julian Nagelsmann


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