Julian Nagelsmann and Hansi Flick face a battle of wits and tactical wisdom as reigning champions Bayern Munich host wannabe title-winners RB Leipzig on Sunday.
Their destinies have already brought them together on a number of occasions — bundesliga.com plots the long and winding roads the pair have taken to going toe-to-toe on the Allianz Arena touchline.
The path to the dug-out
The duo’s careers have taken an eerily similar course, both of which have passed through the Baden-Württemberg town of Sinsheim, where Hoffenheim play their home games. They are united in the fact injury halted their careers, but on the pitch, Flick at least got the chance to shine. He won four Bundesliga titles as a player with Bayern and also featured for Cologne before knee problems curtailed his career at 28.
Nagelsmann was not so lucky: he was barely 20, turning out for Augsburg’s reserves, when he took the decision that his pain-ravaged body would not enable him to fulfill his dream. “I loved playing football, and I never thought of being a coach,” he admitted to bundesliga.com. “I wanted to turn pro, but it never happened. But I’m very happy in my current job.”
Watch: Nagelsmann cooking up a Bundesliga storm
That the 32-year-old now has a smile on his face is no surprise as he can justifiably claim to have already achieved more in his relatively short coaching career than Flick has in nearly 20 years in the dug-out.
While the new Bayern boss does boast a FIFA World Cup win to his name, it came during an eight-year spell as assistant coach to Joachim Löw, and it was as part of Niko Kovac’s backroom team that he ended a five-year break from the dug-out last summer.
During that time, he had briefly returned as sporting director to Hoffenheim, the only club where he had been the main man before succeeding Kovac in November. Between 2000 and 2005, he enjoyed initial success in getting the team into the third tier of German football, but was unable to take them further.
Like Flick, Nagelsmann gained his coaching badges at the DFB’s renowned Hennes-Weisweiler-Akademie in Cologne, but the Leipzig coach finished as one of the top in his class, and proved he could translate the lessons learned into Bundesliga football when he became the German top-flight’s youngest-ever permanent coach in February 2016, aged just 28.
After saving Hoffenheim from relegation — as he had already helped do as assistant coach in 2012/13 when goalkeeper Tim Wiese christened him ‘Mini Mourinho’ — Nagelsmann guided the Sinsheim outfit to a fourth-placed finish in 2017/18. Die Kraichgauer lost to Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League play-off round, but went one better 12 months later, finishing third to secure an historic maiden qualification for the group stage. The fact a number of the players were older than him did not unnerve him one bit.
“Age is no guarantee of quality,” Nagelsmann pointed out, himself a case in point having worked his way up from his humble beginnings as analyst to then-Augsburg boss Thomas Tuchel in the immediate aftermath of his retirement as a player.
Nagelsmann’s nine-year stint at Hoffenheim, where he had first been appointed U17 coach in 2010, ended last summer when he moved to Leipzig, the fresh-faced leader of a project that is founded on youth.
It means the pair pit their wits against each other from opposing dug-outs on Sunday, but had the Fates dealt a different hand, they may have been employing their collective nous purely to Bayern’s benefit just as they had done briefly at Hoffenheim when Flick returned to the club.
Having become Germany’s youngest-ever U19 national title-winning coach with Hoffenheim at 26, Nagelsmann, who captained 1860 Munich’s U17 side in his youth, was approached by Bayern legend Uli Hoeneß to take charge of the club’s academy, a move that did not work out.
The tactics & man-management
“The first moment of analysis is always how the opponent opens the game. I give them the opening to the match. But after that, we’re into them.” That is how Nagelsmann has described his strategy, but his sides play far from a waiting game.
The pressing he employed at Hoffenheim has been ratcheted up a notch at Leipzig where the increased quality of his squad has enabled him to take his philosophy of lightning transitions from defence to attack to the nth degree.
It certainly helps to have industrious forwards like Yussuf Poulsen to win the ball back high up the pitch and then exploit the fearsome pace of someone such as Timo Werner to turn that hard-won possession into goals and points.
Watch: How Nagelsmann has improved Leipzig
Flick’s Bayern play in a similar way, but not entirely. Naturally, pressing is prominent. “We wanted to allow them no air to breathe, as we did against Dortmund,” said Thomas Müller of how the German champions had sucked the life out of Schalke in their 5-0 Matchday 19 win.
But while the pace of the likes of Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman makes Bayern a formidable sight on the counter-attack, they have more of the ball than Leipzig: 67 per cent to 55. Their formation — set up in 4-2-3-1 as opposed to Leipzig’s 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 — and the desire of opponents to 'park the bus' against the Bavarians means patience and the delivery of the final ball and the clinical taking of chances is key. Step forward Philippe Coutinho and Robert Lewandowski.
Having the players to fit your philosophy is only half the battle, though. And perhaps not even as much as that. Most importantly, you have to convince them you’re right as a coach, and Nagelsmann and Flick both have the gift of doing that.
Nagelsmann managed to convert the Hoffenheim squad from a four-man defence to a back three, and this self-confessed perfectionist has found the right words and actions to squeeze even more out of a Leipzig squad that had already impressed since arriving in the top flight in 2016/17.
Flick’s powers of persuasion are all too clear in how he transformed a squad wading stodgily through a sticky patch of form that cost Kovac his job into a side that has pushed its way brusquely back to the top of the table.
Watch: How Flick masterminded Bayern's Klassiker victory
“The bosses made the decision [on Kovac]. It just did not work. Hansi Flick did a great job in just a few days to set us up tactically very well. The players believed directly in him and his words, he has breathed a new life into us,” said Lewandowski just after Flick’s appointment, which sparked a run of four competitive wins and the best-ever start by a new Bayern boss.
“We have a good relationship with him, his tactical and footballing knowledge is at a high level and in a short time, he has shown us what we can do to improve our playing and winning.”
Given Flick had the same personnel as Kovac, perhaps the difference was mostly made in the head. “A coach once told me he likes to make his players feel a head taller,” said Flick, who learned from the legendary Udo Lattek while at Bayern. “That’s always good for a player, and it’s a principle I try to apply, too.”
No coach has won more than Lattek’s eight Bundesliga titles with Bayern and Borussia Mönchengladbach. Nagelsmann knows that a first win for him and Leipzig away at the record champions, against his former sporting director, will put him in pole position to join the ranks of Lattek as the 36th coach to lift the Bundesliga's Meisterschale. At the same time, Flick and his charges can put four points between them and their closest rivals.
They’ve trodden different paths to reach the Allianz Arena on Sunday, but their goal from here is the same: to get ahead of the other and win the Bundesliga.