Angelino may look harmless at just 5’6” (1.71m) and with his boy-next-door features, but there is nothing cherubic about the RB Leipzig full-back whenever he steps out on to the pitch, with the Spaniard arguably the key player for Julian Nagelsmann’s side this season.
‘Full-back’ is really only a nominal term to describe Jose Angel Esmoris Tasende, who can and does play anywhere and everywhere on the left wing for Die Roten Bullen, fiendishly catching out opposition defences with his runs, crosses and goals.
The very fact that the Leipzig No.3 is the only outfield player in a 28-man squad to have started each of the team’s 17 competitive games so far this season says it all, making it no surprise that Nagelsmann worked so hard to take him back to the Red Bull Arena over the summer once his initial six-month loan from Manchester City had ended.
“He’s the kind of player I love,” said the 33-year-old Leipzig supremo. “He’s able to play in three or four different positions without needing much time to adapt to them. As a coach, that gives you the chance to change the system without needing to make a substitution.”
But what does that mean exactly? Well, Nagelsmann likes to keep his side unpredictable, often shape-shifting during the course of the game to either outwit their opponents while on the ball, or to adapt if things aren’t working out as planned. They have started with a 3-4-2-1 formation twice in the Bundesliga this term, used a 3-4-3 once and a 4-2-3-1 on four occasions. While some players thrive in a particular position or style, Angelino’s tactical understanding means he can do it all.
“He adapts to things unbelievably quickly,” Nagelsmann said. “He’s the only new signing who has got used to my football philosophy and methods – especially in terms of attack – so incredibly quickly.
“He doesn’t overthink things, he does a lot of things right intuitively and implements the things we want to do. Before each game he evidently takes time to consider what he needs to do and how to do it in order to keep his coach happy.”
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That appreciation is clearly mutual. “Nagelsmann lets me be very creative,” Angelino told Süddeutsche Zeitung. “He doesn’t limit me at all, but puts his trust in me and gives me the freedom to make decisions myself.”
Such innate game intelligence and tactical awareness lends itself to other unquantifiable areas. Angelino’s positioning is invariably excellent, pushing forward during the press to squeeze opposition defences, and staying wide when in attack to open up space.
His sense of timing and anticipation is also superb – after all, how else could the smallest player on the pitch have scored two headers already this season? Those goals, against Schalke and Augsburg, form part of the haul of seven he has registered in all competitions in 2020/21, with a superb free-kick against Freiburg, a strike against Arminia Bielefeld, an eye-catching brace against Istanbul Basaksehir in the Champions League and second-minute drill against Manchester United rounding out his tally so far.
Currently the club’s top scorer, it has not happened by accident. Nagelsmann has encouraged Angelino to be more cold-blooded in the final third, having never previously scored more than four in a single campaign – and that was in the U21 Premier League in 2014/15.
“He’s expecting me to score seven or eight goals this season,” Angelino said. “I told him I thought that was quite a lot, but now I’ve already got half of them.”
“My style is to play forward and create chances. That's something that I help the team with: creating more chances. I think I help more offensively than defensively. Attacking is my strength.”
Put into context, his achievements are even more remarkable. Lucas Hernandez, Raphael Guerreiro and Daley Sinkgraven have been the first choice left-backs at the other clubs currently in the top four this term, respectively at Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen.
Although Guerreiro has a goal and three assists, none of others have found the net in the league in 2020/21. And where Angelino is a cornerstone of a Leipzig side with the stingiest defence (nine goals conceded), Bayern (16) and Dortmund (10) have shipped more than that, while Leverkusen have also let in nine.
But none of the 23-year-old’s achievements or abilities would be of much value without the technique to accompany them. Here, too, he excels. “In training he bangs in a lot of goals, often from the tightest of angles,” Nagelsmann said. His textbook free-kick against Freiburg on Matchday 7 also underlines that this is a player of serious quality.
Add in his never-say-die mentality – Nagelsmann described him as “a guy who always wants to play, and always wants to win” - and it’s a full package, tightly packed into a pocket-sized bundle. Angelino’s inclusion in UEFA’s 23-man Champions League squad of the season for 2019/20, as chosen by technical experts including Roberto Martinez, Gareth Southgate and Phil Neville, was as unsurprising as it was justified.
Happily for Nagelsmann, the Spain U21 international is eager for a long-term stay, having finally settled after years of loan moves and transfers. Leipzig are his seventh team since 2013, but he is currently in the process of buying a house in the city and the club have an option to make his transfer permanent at the end of the season.
Angelino admitted that he could have moved to Barcelona – where his wife lives with their son – but he opted for the Red Bull Arena. His coach was a major factor in that decision. “To be honest, I’m here because of Nagelsmann, I signed on again because of him,” he told Marca.
“I’m very happy playing under him and the way he likes to play. Everything he does, his tactics, they’re perfect for me.”
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