Julian Nagelsmann: The German managerial prodigy

Julian Nagelsmann | FI

When Julian Nagelsmann took over Hoffenheim in 2016, majority of the football world slated Hoffenheim’s board for being over courageous. Many even went a step ahead by stating that Hoffenheim were very naive to appoint the then 28-year old who had just proved himself by leading the club’s u-19 team. When Nagelsmann took over the team in February 2016, he was given a side that was struggling to keep its feet in the league table.

What happened in the course of the next eighteen months inspired many clubs to opt for young coaches as Nagelsmann saved his team from relegation in the first season and took them to Champions League spots in the next. TSG Hoffenheim finished fourth with just five points behind second placed RB Leipzig and this spoke volumes of Nagelsmann’s ability to compete as a top coach in the higher level at a very young age.

Nagelsmann created many records by being the youngest coach to ever manager a side in Bundesliga. However the icing on the cake was at the end of the season when he was named as the “German Football Manager of the Year 2017” by German journalists after his side’s amazing strides forward in the 2016/17 season. And by winning the highest individual award for a football coach in the country last year, he became the Youngest Coach to do so. That season showed the character of Nagelsmann and his team on many occasions and included special moments.

Julian Nagelsmann background

Progressing into the game at a very young age, Nagelsmann started his career as a defender at Augsburg. In his early career, he spent four years of Youth Football in 1860 Munich before he was plagued by continuous knee injuries. As he was forced to stop his career at U-19 level, he took up football management as the alternative to keep him involved in the game. At University level, he took up Business Administration and later he switched to Sports Science.

After the completion of his courses, he later involved himself in professional coaching as he returned to Augsburg where he started his career as a player. He worked under the management of Thomas Tuchel for a very short period. JN served as the assistant coach of the 1860 Munich U-17 team for two years before becoming the Assistant Coach of Hoffenheim’s U-17 team in 2010. A year later, he was appointed as the Head Coach of the team.

Nagelsmann became the Youngest Assistant Coach in the history of Bundesliga in December 2012 when he was asked to join the coaching staff team of interim coach Frank Kramer.

When Frank Kramer called, I had to laugh. I didn’t think he was being serious,” said Nagelsmann.

Nick-named ‘Mini-Mourinho’, Julian Nagelsmann was very successful with the U-19 team which led him to coach the senior players. In the 2013-14 season, Nagelsmann took the Hoffenheim boys to the Bundesliga Championship. His successful management made 1860 Munich to lure him to the capital. However Hoffenheim made sure that Nagelsmann stayed. When the senior team’s coach Huub Stevens resigned due to ill-health, Nagelsmann was appointed as the Head Coach on a three-year contract.

When he penned his signature as the boss of Hoffenheim, the Sinsheim club were struggling to keep their place and were on the brink of relegation. Julian Nagelsmann did a wonderful job to keep Hoffenheim in the league by winning 23 points in the final 14 games. However it was the next season in which Nagelsmann did manage to impress the most of the football world. His Hoffenheim side finished fourth in the table.

In the course of the season he was able to produce some astounding results after a very mediocre start with just four points from the first four games. Hoffenheim went undefeated against the champions grabbing four points out of Bayern Munich and also produced other key performances such as the win over a big club like Schalke. It was Julian Nagelsmann’s astute tactics and brilliant man management which paved the key for his success at a very young age.

Julian Nagelsmann tactics

Not boasting a star studded group of members or great amount of money unlike other clubs who finished in the top, Hoffenheim were a class apart. They were one of the biggest stories in football last year after Leicester’s success in England in the previous season. Almost all the plaudits rightly went to Nagelsmann for managing his side to understand his way of seeing the game and play according to his plan.

“Thirty percent of coaching is tactics, seventy percent social competence”

This is where Nagelsmann stands when asked about his coaching philosophy however his team is tactically sounder than he talks about them. However he says that the formations are just numbers and the difference between each formations is just a matter of ten or fifteen meters between two players. Though he started as a defender in his short playing career, he prefers to be more attack minded as a manager.

I like to attack the opponents near their own goal because your own way to the goal is not as long if you get the ball higher up

He has mentioned that he draws inspirations from managers like Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger because of their philosophy although he doesn’t necessarily follow their possession style often. He changes and adapts himself to the way in which the opposite defense can be cracked and hence would also deploy the defensive block when needed.

Structures and set-ups

Nagelsmann has hugely been a fan of the back three set up with two defensive wingers on both the flanks. While he hugely favours a single pivot in the centre of the field he has a packed midfield with two central midfielders along with the lone defensive midfielder. The 3-1-4-2 set up has been predominantly used by Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim.

This transforms to a 5-3-2 depending on the position of the ball. The two wide players drop deep to form the defensive line of five while the two central midfielders take positions on either side of the pivot as the two forwards also drop deep to play the 5-3-2 block. The image below shows Nagelsmann’s basic set up and this was very effective when he had Sebastian Rudy in the centre of things, who later joined Bayern Munich in the Summer.

Julian Nagelsmann | 1

This season Dennis Geiger has astutely made the no.6 position as his role at Hoffenheim and Nagelsmann’s trust in youth has capped off again. His alternative plan has been to ploy the 4-3-3.

Julian Nagelsmann | 2

While the previously mentioned set up has been predominant at Hoffenheim, the latter has been used in regular intervals when Nagelsmann needed to chop and change a bit. He has also gone with other variants of the basic set up such as 4-1-4-1 and the 3-5-2.

Hoffenheim Pressing

The pressing pattern for Hoffenheim has been one of the key features for Hoffenheim under Nagelsmann. Instead of pressing very high, they allow their opponents in their second line of attack and press with their 3-4-3 shape. The two wide players would drop back in line leaving them in a 5-2-3 pressing structure.

Julian Nagelsmann | 3

On the other hand, depending on the opposition numbers in midfield, Nagelsmann would field his side in a 5-3-2 mid block when they revert back from a 3-1-4-2. The main principle behind Nagelsmann team’s pressing is to press from the midfield with man to man orientation. The image above shows how Hoffenheim have settled deep to press from behind to retrieve the ball.


As the video shows how Hoffenheim press from the back, we can understand their man to man set up in midfield once the first phase of pressing takes place. The pressing usually concentrates with the wingers pressing the centre backs while also cutting the passing lane of the opposite full backs. The striker would mark the ball carrier in the first phase of build up while the ball near full back and ball near number 8 would show advanced movements by pushing higher to block/mark the passing options.

By making use of this set up, Hoffenheim were able to conduct the midfield press with packed midfield in the 4-1-4-1 set up which became a 4-5-1 or 5-4-1 depending on the position of the ball near winger.

Offensive ideas

Julian Nagelsmann is known for his compact system at Hoffenheim and offensively he uses positional play as the key. While building out from the back has been one of the key features of many German teams including Julian Nagelsmann, he has also made use of the direct play when it matters. The video below shows exactly how Hoffenheim made use of their direct play once they took advantage of the high line used by the opponent.

Hoffenheim also use overloads as a key in their build ups. In the image below we can see the right sided overload where Hoffenheim have a 6 men overload. This helps them as they can retrieve the ball much quicker and proceed to the next line of attack.


Julian Nagelsmann | 4

The positional discipline is maintained throughout the attacks after the first phase of build up from the back.

Defending as a team

Nagelsmann’s team have been creating a reputation for being defensively very tight as they had conceded very less goals in certain games against big teams such as Bayern Munich. The Sinsheim club had kept their clean sheets twice against the Champions in 2017. Under Nagelsmann, the team have shown different shapes in the defensive half with respect to the ball. In most of the cases, a possible line of five men at the back is seen as Hoffenheim have often used the 3-5-2 system.

This easily reverts to a back five when the wide players drop deep. In other instances, Nagelsmann uses a four man defense in front of the keeper. They use the two banks of four with one player dropping between the lines to mark the creative player of the oppostion who would tend to fall in between the lines. The most successful factor of his defensive plan is that his team defends as a team while defending from the top to defending in numbers in a low block.


Julian Nagelsmann | 5

Here we can see Hoffenheim structured in a 5-2-2-1/5-2-3 shape in order to retrieve the ball back from the opponent. Here the ball carrier is the opposite centre back and we can see that he is being pressed by the striker. One important thing to note here is the positioning of the striker as he also blocks the passing option in the vertical line to the central midfielder. This stifles the defender’s idea of playing it to the near end and is forced to find alternative options.

The ball near full back is being marked in the next line where creative players would take shifts also the other player in the line has rightly blocked the passing lane rather than being very close. He has positioned himself in such a way that any mistake in the opposite area would put him in a positional advantage in the break. Now the ball carrier has to either play the ball back to the keeper or play it to the ball far full back forcing them to find different ideas.


Julian Nagelsmann | 6

In the image above, we can find that the team have positioned themselves a 5-3-2 defensive shape with both the wide players on the line of the opponent wing backs. The central midfield is the key in this situation where they have an overload of 3v2 giving them an advantage in winning the ball due to more numbers. The front two would occupy the three defenders there by leaving the midfielders to work on their own.

Modern methodologies

One of the key things of Nagelsmann’s managerial prowess so far has been his in-game tactical switches to the system and personnel. Often he has been praised between the games whenever he makes a change due to his amazing readability of the game. Nagelsmann is one of those modern “Laptop coaches” who work day in day out watching videos of his teams and analyzing opponents. In training sessions, Nagelsmann usually pans it in a way that the team first understands his idea and later works on them.

He has erected a huge video wall in the training ground to make sure that his team understands what he wants to convey to them. And his usage of modern methods has been paying rightful dividends as he can make his team understand the tactical ideas revolving in the game real time.


While Hoffenheim have been one of the revelations in the recent years, it is Julian Nagelsmann who has been the main man behind their success. JN’s trust in youth has been the most amazing factor as Hoffenheim produced certain amazing talents in Niklas Sule, Dennis Geiger and so on.

His trust in youth have paid dividends as they are able to use their own academy players rather than buying big and they also have seen a huge amount of profit by selling players for a good amount of money as returns. Indeed the prodigy of Thomas Tuchel has become one of the most sought out coaches just around the age of 30. With the big German clubs like Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are rumoured to have been hiring Julian Nagelsmann as their boss in the near future, he is definitely one of the best young coaches of 2017 and going into 2018.

All animations and images of the formations and graphics were made using TacticalPad