The Making of Julian Nagelsmann
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The Making of Julian Nagelsmann


Nagelsmann’s incredibly rapid career progression
and his success as the youngest permanent coach in German top-division history has been
well-documented. What’s far less well-known, however, is just how good a player he had
been before a botched knee operation finished his hopes of a playing career at the age of
20 – and that many of his coaching principles were informed by his personal experiences. The key to understanding the RB Leipzig coach’s
extraordinary ability to hit a chord with players lies in the maturity and empathy he
had already shown as an adolescent. Nagelsmann was born in Bavaria and scouted
by 1860 Munich at the age of 15 in 2002. Munich’s second-biggest club were known as one of the
best developers a talent at the time, a real hotbed of up-and-coming pros. Nagelsmann,
a tall, elegant centre-back, shared a dressing room with top players like the future United
States and Borussia Monchengladbach winger Fabian Johnson, the Bender twins Lars and
Sven and Julian Baumgartlinger, who are now all at Bayer Leverkusen. Former teammate Christian Traesch recalls
Nagelsmann helping him to settle when he joined as a 16-year-old from his hometown club MTV
Ingolstadt. “He was this incredibly funny, outgoing guy, with a wicked sense of humour,”
he remembers. “He welcomed me to the team with real warmth. We immediately clicked.” The pressure to succeed can make for a pressurised,
egocentric environment in academies but 1860’s ethos was different, recalls Benjamin Kauffmann,
another of the club’s former youth players who would become a close friend of Nagelsmann.
“There was a huge emphasis on signing youngsters who had the right attitude and character.
There were no divas and no troublemakers. We were a really tight-knit unit, a super-cool
band of brothers.” Traesch (nicknamed “Trashy”), “Nagel”
and Kaufmann, now a midfielder at fourth-division SV Pipinsried, all went to the same class
in the Rainer-Werner-Fassbinder-Fachoberschule, a comprehensive secondary school in nearby
Giesing. Nagelsmann excelled, but not by virtue of hard work. “He had the knack of achieving maximum success
with minimal effort because he could listen in class and take it all in,” Traesch says
“He was a super bright guy.” Nagelsmann’s keen perception allowed him
to take things easy and entertain the classroom with an endless array of jokes. “The whole
class couldn’t help but laugh about his quips, and even the teachers didn’t mind
when he was making fun of them — he did it in such a charming way that they never
got angry with him,” Kauffmann remembers. “He could really win people over.” As they got older, the three of them often
shared a ride in Nagelsmann’s black Opel Astra, singing along to Westlife at the top
of their voice. On nights off, they frequented Kunstpark Ost,
a now defunct collection of clubs in an industrial area of Munich that catered to wide variety
of musical tastes. “It was a different time then,” Traesch says, “you could do these
things — within reason.” In the dressing room, too, Nagelsmann understood
things more quickly than most. “He hung on the words of the coach and took everything
in. Because he was so switched on and focused, he solved problems before they truly arose.
I hardly ever saw him make a tackle. He was always in the right position, with plenty
of time to win the ball.” At a time when German football was weaning
itself off its age-old dependency on the sweeper system, Nagelsmann was looking like the perfect
modern centre-back. “His build-up play was outstanding,” Traesch says. “He played
these fine vertical balls to the midfielders and oozed class.” While Traesch tried to emulate Arsenal’s
Patrick Viera, Nagelsmann modelled himself on John Terry. Traesch, who now plays for
Al-Wasl in Dubai, and Kauffmann were convinced their friend was destined for a career in
the Bundesliga but a persistent back problem kept him out of the side for extended spells. Having been promoted to the under-23s at the
age of 19, Nagelsmann never managed to play a competitive match again. Shortly after his
career was officially over, fate delivered an even worse blow. His father Erwin passed
away, aged 56, following a short illness. Nagelsmann’s two friends believe the tragic
loss of his father forced him to grow up quicker than his peers. “He was always more mature
than most but the extra responsibility he had to adopt on behalf of his family had a
huge impact on his development,” says Kauffmann. The combination of his keen intellect, a larger-than-life
persona and his strong emotional connection with players was unique, TSG Hoffenheim’s
sporting director Alexander Rosen told The Athletic. After a spell as an opposition scout for FC
Augsburg’s second team under the guidance of Thomas Tuchel, Nagelsmann became a member
of Hoffenheim’s academy coaching staff in 2010. He was quickly made the under-16s coach
and then kept steadily progressing, winning the club’s first under-19 championship in
2014. “The under-19s championship reinforced our
belief in him but it wasn’t that important,” Rosen says. “We had seen from the outset
that he was very special. He’s loud, extrovert and very funny. Infectious. He gets the team
and the whole staff to buy into his ideas. The moment he enters the room, you know he’s
around. Whether it’s on the training pitch, during dinner with the team, or in the changing
room — he has a huge effect on people, thanks to his tall frame (6ft 3in) and his aura.” Rosen describes Nagelsmann as a fastidious
worker who is “obsessed with details” and sports an “incredible knowledge of the
game”. While some felt that his appointment as head coach in 2016 in the midst of a relegation
battle smacked of desperation or a PR campaign, the club claim they were assured of his suitability. Hoffenheim survived and shot up to fourth
spot in his first full season the year after. Nagelsmann, Rosen added, is “brutally”
ambitious. “He always wants to do better and to win. That sets the tone for his team.
I remember when he said that he wanted to be a contender for the championship with Hoffenheim.
Some thought he was being unrealistic but he wanted to push his players.” Making players play well, the very essence
of coaching, is a theme that comes up frequently when you talk to those who know him best.
Nagelsmann is a tactics buff and an enthusiastic early adopter of new technology, such as giant
video screens and drones in training. But when it comes down to it, his work is rather
old-fashioned, closer to teaching. “Julian is able to explain to players what
they do right and what they do wrong — and he always gives them concrete solutions. They
respond to that,” said RB Leipzig sporting director Markus Kroesche. “The key thing
is: every player knows exactly what they’re supposed to do on the pitch. Julian issues
very clear, effective instructions in a very concise manner that’s easily understood.” Serge Gnabry, the Bayern Munich and Germany
forward, credits Nagelsmann with fine-tuning both his mentality and the technical aspects
of his game when they worked together at Hoffenheim in 2017-18. “I had heard that he improves players and
that’s what happened to me,” Gnabry says. “He kept pushing me. All the time. There
was an enormous amount of feedback and the training was great. He showed me many situations
on video, telling me that I should make runs between and behind the lines rather than come
deep that often, for example. He really changed the way I saw the game and he taught me to
analyse myself much more.” Kroesche adds: “Football teams have a good
feel as to whether a coach can help them perform and overcome their problems. With Julian,
nothing is put on. He’s very straight and honest with his players. Authentic. And it
comes down to four things: he has a tremendous amount of social capital, he can recognise
and maximise a player’s potential, he can make players better and he can effectively
intervene during games. His changes at half-time against Bayern Munich (in the 1-1 draw at
Leipzig last September) were a good example of that.” Having been outplayed in the first half, Nagelsmann
took off wing-back Lukas Klostermann for defensive midfielder Diego Demme and changed to a back
four. Leipzig were able to defend higher and put more pressure on the ball. By the end
of the game, they were unlucky not to have won it. Rosen homes in on the same point. “One of
his greatest qualities is the ability to read a game. It doesn’t take him long to recognise
patterns of play and the spaces that appear — and more importantly, he’s able to change
things, implementing ideas that his team will have prepared for during the week. He’s the complete package.”

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