Julian Nagelsmann: What makes the RB Leipzig coach so different?
Arrogance, horseplay, no team talks and late line-ups? What might appear to be the recipe for disaster at an amateur team staring a fifth successive relegation in the face is in fact Julian Nagelsmann’s title-contending formula at RB Leipzig.
bundesliga.com explains why the league's youngest ever coach is also, perhaps, its most unique...
Nagelsmann isn't known for charming the pants off journalists, and you certainly won't see him taking a ball boy to Suplex City - but he does know how to bring his players on side and get results. The 32-year-old won the U19s Bundesliga with Hoffenheim, before dragging the seniors back from the brink of relegation to Germany's second tier and propelling them into the UEFA Champions League group stage in one critically acclaimed, three-or-so-year introduction to first-team coaching. His stock continues to soar, little more than six months into the Leipzig job.
"Winning the title would carry a lot more weight than doing it at my age, but we're not good enough to go all the way as things stand," Nagelsmann told Bild during the Bundesliga's customary winter break. "You read about Bayern and Dortmund all the time - too many teams are underperforming. We need to double our points tally, and probably pick up a few more wins on top of that. We need to keep developing."
Happily, player progress is a Nagelsmann hallmark. Kerem Demirbay, Andrej Kramaric and Sandro Wagner all took a sizeable leap on his watch at Hoffenheim, while the Nagelsmann effect has given wings to the likes of Christopher Nkunku and Marcel Sabitzer at the Red Bull Arena. That's not to say he is the only coach with a gift for man-management, but he might be the only of his kind to place as much importance on personnel as personal development.
"It was about four or five years ago," Nagelsmann recalled of a very conscious decision to step into the world of horse training. "It was about developing as a person. How do I control the effect I have on other people? When I walk into the room and people don't know me, their first impressions are: 'He's arrogant'. I think I’m assertive. People's perceptions change when they get to know me.
Watch: How Julian Nagelsmann has improved RB Leipzig
"People judge you on your profession before anything else. I'm not perceived in the same way as a friend of mine who might be an engineer. This is something you can train with horses very well. They do not judge, but only look: is he brash, is he threatening me? With the horses, they react very differently. I worked with six or seven of them, doing exercises using gestures and facial expressions to scare them away or encourage them. It's not easy, and it’s not something everyone can do."
Neither is taking two relative greenhorns of the Bundesliga circuit into the Champions League and the competition's knockout rounds for the first time in their respective histories. Hoffenheim have been playing top-flight football since 2007/08, but it was Nagelsmann who reconfigured the Sinsheim club as regular top-six contenders. In the hunt for as many as three trophies in 2019/20, aspiring Bundesliga powerhouse Leipzig are aiming even higher.
"Bayern and Dortmund are still the favourites for the title, but we're in a good position," said Leipzig's 20-goal top scorer, Timo Werner. "We've worked so hard - we're right up there and through to the Champions League last 16, but we're hungry for more. What the coach is doing is working wonders. He gets us very well-prepared for games, and always has ideas on how to deal with the opposition. He sets us up, but it’s down to us to execute his game plan."
Watch: Timo Werner has been binging on goals under Nagelsmann
Micromanagement is a broad spectrum. At one end, there is the anal-retentive control freak without a modicum of faith in his or her workforce. At the other, there is the born leader that lives and dies by the 'no 'I' in team' adage. They can adapt, delegate and lend an empathetic ear; they are driven to succeed but not at the expense of morale. Figures of trust, not frustration.
Nagelsmann is firmly entrenched in the latter camp. He is liked and respected by his players, but not taken for granted. He is meticulous without being overbearing or pig-headed. Match preparation is reserved for the training ground, not at 1AM when the kids are grappling with the Bogeyman or in what for many is the pre-game pressure-cooker environment of the dressing room. That kind of relationship won’t cut it for the Leipzig strategist.
"I discuss the game plan two days before," Nagelsmann explained. "There are a lot of coaches who do it on the day of the game. That's not how I work, but I do say a few words from the heart after the warm-up, before we go out. Sometimes I tell a few anecdotes, but that's because I'm expected to do that kind of thing as a coach. There's actually not a lot more to say. The players know the game plan, they have stuff on the walls in the dressing room and animations on their mobile phones."
Managing egos and expectations is another part of the modern football coach's remit, not least in an age where players of a certain type put themselves before the club. Nagelsmann may have a preferred starting line-up and stars which, statistically speaking, are undroppable, but he won't make a song and dance about it. The canny Bavarian recognises that divulging too much information is bad for business - and not just in the sense of giving the opposition an edge.
"I don’t tell the players who's starting until we're in the dressing room at the stadium," Nagelsmann revealed. "It maintains morale. There's a danger, particularly with young players, that they'll spend too long in front of the TV the night before because they'll be thinking: 'I'm not playing tomorrow'. Even though I'm not the kind of person to criticise players for their actions, I don't want anything getting out before a game."
The element of mystique is paying off for Leipzig. Die Roten Bullen became the first team this term to shut out Bayern Munich, and trail the defending champions by just a point in second after 22 matches. They are also the first ever to score at least three goals eight successive games, and have suffered a league-low three defeats all season.
Watch: How Nagelsmann shut out Bayern on their own patch
Nagelsmann readily admits to being a student of the Pep Guardiola school, but stopped short of calling the Manchester City coach an "idol" prior to the pair's first professional meeting in the 2018/19 Champions League groups.
"He's a role model, but 'idol' is a term for people you know very well," he said.
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