It has been exactly three years since a fresh-faced Julian Nagelsmann, at the grand old age of 28, was appointed as Hoffenheim's new head coach – and few could have predicted just how seamlessly the youngest boss in Bundesliga history would blend into the fabric of German football.
Now 31, Nagelsmann's stock has never been higher. Last term he proved that his brilliant breakout campaign of 2016/17 was no fluke by going one better, guiding his club into the UEFA Champions League group stage for the very first time with a 3-1 win over current Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund.
The one-time defender – whose playing days were ended by a serious knee injury at the age of 20 – will see out the rest of the 2018/19 campaign with Hoffenheim before taking over from Ralf Rangnick at the helm of the ambitious RB Leipzig next season.
Having put Hoffenheim and its 3,000-strong population on the European footballing map, taken his side to tackle the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City, and masterminded Bundesliga victories over Dortmund, Bayern Munich and all the other big guns, Nagelsmann has demonstrated that he has all the tools to succeed in elite football management. When he moves to Leipzig this summer, his relative youth will be little more than a footnote.
A "PR stunt" that paid off
But when he replaced Huub Stevens in February 2016, the world's football media fell over themselves trying to get a closer look at this 28-year-old – 28! – who had just been put in charge of a top-flight European football club. He was younger than several first-team players. Local newspapers branded the move "a crazy idea" and a "PR stunt".
After he closed a seven-point deficit to keep TSG in the Bundesliga in 2015/16, people started to take 'Baby Mourinho' a little more seriously. And when he then lifted the Sinsheim club to fourth place in his first full season in charge, qualifying them for a first-ever European campaign, there could be no further doubt: here was a man who knew exactly what he was doing.
German football journalists certainly felt that way, giving Nagelsmann a memorable 30th birthday present by naming him 2017 Coach of the Year. It was considered only a matter of time before he was lured away from the PreZero Arena – and sure enough Leipzig came calling in summer 2018, with Nagelsmann announcing his intention to trigger an exit clause in his contract a full year before switching to Saxony.
"I owe it to everyone who has worked for TSG, as well as the fans and players after our historic qualification for the Champions League, not to burden them with speculation and uncertainty about my future," he told the club's website. "Now everyone knows and we can move on professionally to concentrate on the tasks that matter. Everyone knows I will go above and beyond for TSG, to achieve our ambitious goals until my last minute at the club."
Eyes on Europe
It is easy to see why Leipzig have plumped for Nagelsmann; both club and coach are united in their desire to take the next step in their development and really start challenging Bayern and Dortmund for Bundesliga supremacy. Of the current crop of top-flight coaches, it is the TSG tactician who boasts the highest points-per-game ratio (1.65), while the German media's famous 'Nagelsmann table' shows that Hoffenheim have picked up the third-most points (170) in the league over the past three years, behind Bayern (246) and BVB (202).
Hoffenheim are currently ninth in the table, but they're actually two points better off than they were at this stage a year ago, before Nagelsmann oversaw a sensational run-in to sneak ahead of Dortmund on goal difference. In their final 10 games of the campaign, TSG won seven, drew two and lost just one as they vaulted from ninth to third in just over two months, scoring 2.8 goals a game to finish with the Bundesliga's second-best attack (66).
"We're creating a similar number of chances," Nagelsmann said in April 2018, after putting five past his future employers Leipzig. "The difference is that we're now scoring three, four or five times a game, rather than once or twice. We've become ice-cold in front of goal."
Whether Hoffenheim can repeat those heroics in 2018/19 remains to be seen, but at least Nagelsmann can be confident that his players will give it their all. When his side were 2-0 down and floundering at Dortmund on Matchday 21, the TSG coach made a bold move by replacing two of his star frontmen, Andrej Kramaric and Kerem Demirbay, with Ishak Belfodil and Dennis Geiger, paving the way for a magnificent comeback.
Intuition and innovation
That double substitution changed the complexion of the game, even if BVB ended up getting a third goal against the run of play. Unperturbed, Hoffenheim continued to chip away at the leaders' defence until a Belfodil brace either side of a Pavel Kaderabek header brought them level three minutes from time, in a remarkable display of sheer grit and determination.
"It was an extraordinary second half," said goalkeeper Oliver Baumann. "I'm delighted and very proud that we managed to show such character again. We tackled better and had more aggression on the pitch, we showed that we could actually hold our own. We need to back that up in the coming weeks. We need to focus on ourselves and not on anything else."
That never-say-die attitude is something Nagelsmann has fostered on the TSG training ground, where he is renowned for his innovative methods. Along with Dortmund, Hoffenheim are one of two Bundesliga clubs to make use of the Footbonaut, while they had a giant interactive videowall installed at their training ground last season.
"I've always tried to bring a sense of fun and the seriousness of training together in my sessions," Nagelsmann once explained. "I look forward to the challenge that the next game brings every week, and I’m convinced that that goes for all my players too. We want to keep playing with plenty of ambition, passion and meticulousness."
If you're good enough...
Ambition, passion and meticulousness – how better to sum up Nagelsmann, who obtained an 'A' grade when completing his DFB coaching course alongside Schalke's Domenico Tedesco in 2015/16. Inquisitive, hardworking and tactically astute, the Hoffenheim boss has also made waves off the pitch, becoming the first coach to sign up to Juan Mata's 'Common Goal' initiative.
But it is his on-field success over the past three years that has helped to forge his reputation as one of Europe's most exciting tacticians, and earned him the right to simply get on with what he does best: coaching a football team. Age is just a number, after all.