He is in many ways extraordinary, perhaps even a one-off, but one way in which Julian Nagelsmann conforms to tyro stereotypes is by his touchline reactions.
He is a gripping watch, fist-brandishing, teeth-clenching, bobbing his way out of the technical area. These are the rare moments when we remember that yes, Hoffenheim’s head coach is still only 29.
As Saturday’s game at Werder Bremen reached its close, we saw another side to one of the Bundesliga’s most fascinating characters. Hoffenheim, perhaps an even bigger surprise package than RB Leipzig this season given their relative resources, had been handing out a pounding to their hosts Werder Bremen.
At 5-0 up after 51 minutes, and with Borussia Dortmund—the team that had snatched third place from them by beating them the week before—drawing, Hoffe even looked capable of improbably wresting back the final automatic Champions League spot from Thomas Tuchel’s more celebrated side.
In the end it wasn’t to be, and the two goals scored by Werder’s Philipp Bargfrede and Robert Bauer in the game’s final four minutes, meaning Hoffenheim left Weserstadion with a 5-3 win, could prove in combination to be two of the most crucial moments of the race for third.
Going into the final day of the season, third-placed Dortmund and fourth-placed Hoffenheim are locked on 61 points apiece, but Die Schwarzgelben have a better goal difference by four.
Yet as Hoffe shipped those two late goals, Nagelsmann was far less animated than usual. Rather than being up on the cusp of the touchline, he remained in his seat on the bench, studiously exchanging verbal notes with his coaching team.
There was no overt anger, no recriminations—quite rightly, considering what his team has given him this season (and had already given him in that afternoon, in racing into such a big lead), as well as what they still could.
It also underlined a few of Nagelsmann’s key characteristics beneath the headlines. His youth—when he was appointed at 28 last February, he was the youngest-ever permanent Bundesliga head coach—is understandably his defining feature in the public arena, and when he replaced veteran Huub Stevens, many thought it was an acceptance that the club had accepted relegation (they were five points from safety at the time) and were just aiming to start a rebuild early.
There was already a plan for Nagelsmann in place at the Sinsheim club. In October 2015, Hoffenheim announced that he would take over on a three-year deal at the start of 2016-17, only for Stevens’ health to accelerate the issue.
“It says a lot about their belief in him that they were already willing to announce him as their future coach a full six months before he was meant to arrive,” Archie Rhind-Tutt, BT Sport’s Germany-based reporter for the European Football Show, told Bleacher Report. “But no one expected him to have this sort of impact.”
Last season’s run-in was astonishing, with Hoffenheim reaching safety and even swerving the obligation of a relegation playoff, gleaning more points from their final 14 matches of the season under the new coach than anyone did in the same period, apart from Bayern Munich and Dortmund.
To continue that into this campaign has been something else entirely. For a start, the team’s most feted player, Kevin Volland, finally upped sticks to Bayer Leverkusen at the start of the season, and the squad is not exactly a galaxy of stars.
“Being top half would have been a great first (full) season for him with Hoffenheim,” Rhind-Tutt added. “This, given the squad he has at his disposal, has been extraordinary.”
Getting the best out of those seen as average Bundesliga players, like Sandro Wagner, Kerem Demirbay and Kevin Vogt, has been key; not forgetting Andrej Kramaric, a player who Claudio Ranieri thought wasn’t good enough for Leicester but who has scored 15 and assisted eight in this league campaign.
So when we look at Nagelsmann’s most important attributes beyond the headlines, an ability to relate has to be one of the foremost.
He told Suddeutsche Zeitung in an interview earlier this season (h/t The Guardian‘s Raphael Honigstein) that he believed coaching was “30 per cent tactics, and 70 per cent social competence,” and his success in creating such a well-drilled unit, well beyond the sum of its parts, is evidence of his mastery of the latter clause of this summation.
Nagelsmann’s skill is not just restricted to getting inside the heads of younger players. Wagner, a sometimes-divisive figure who, at 29, has been around the block a few times since graduating from Bayern’s academy, has responded brilliantly to a man just four months his senior. Primarily known as an irritant in previous years, the centre-forward became considered as a genuine contender for a Germany call-up even ahead of his eventual selection for the Confederations Cup squad.
That, and his tactical ability—adapting to the players’ strengths, rather than being too dogmatic—reinforce the truth that this is no overnight success. If Nagelsmann is indeed the “Baby Mourinho” referred to by former Hoffenheim goalkeeper Tim Wiese, as per Bundesliga.com, then Dortmund’s Thomas Tuchel is his Sir Bobby Robson.
When Nagelsmann was forced to retire from playing at 20 due to injury, the then-Augsburg II coach Tuchel kept Nagelsmann in the fold as an opposition scout. Since then, he has spent the best part of a decade working his way up.
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There is no lack of irony, then, in that the pupil could still deny the master on the final day of a strange and confusing Bundesliga season. Much of Nagelsmann’s tactical pragmatism mirrors that of Tuchel; pressing when out of possession, but conversely not shy to force the issue when controlling the ball either.
It’s one of the many reasons why the Champions League is set to be the first step in the young coach’s rise, rather than the pinnacle.
“I can’t see him being at Hoffenheim past next summer,” Rhind-Tutt told us, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up at Bayern Munich thereafter, such has been the lack of progress made under Carlo Ancelotti.”
There is a stage still to go before that, of course, and Nagelsmann knows that, being patient rather than impetuous, despite his age.
“Such is his level-headed analysis of everything, I’m sure he would admit himself that he has things to learn next season, particularly dealing with the different challenges that come with playing European football with a club like Hoffenheim,” Rhind Tutt-continued.
Few would back against him learning those lessons very quickly.