Through groundbreaking ideologies and top tactical prowess, Julian Nagelsmann has become one of Europe’s hottest managerial prospects. Being put into the conversation of the elite and established managers in his short experience. In this tactical analysis, we will explore how there is no better project Julian Nagelsmann could have taken up than the one with Red Bull Leipzig.
Julian Nagelsmann became the Bundesliga’s youngest ever manager in 2016 at the age of 28. The move to a appoint him was heavily criticised at the time by the German media but he would have the most successful reign in Hoffenheim’s history. When he took over Hoffenheim were in 17th place, seven points from safety. He won half of their remaining games saving them from relegation.
The next seasons would be career-defining taking Hoffenheim from relegation candidates to UEFA Champions League football consecutive seasons. The club had never qualified for Europe’s biggest competition before. Punching above their weight, claiming scalps along the way such as German giants Bayern Munich.
Nagelsmann to Leipzig
Red Bull football group have established clubs across the globe implementing their football philosophies, coined Ralfball. From New York city to Salzburg intense pressing, fluid football with a large belief in youth development has blitzed them to success. Red Bull Leipzig in Germany among some of Europe’s best has put it all under the largest spotlight.
Red Bull’s fantastic recruitment records come down to their focus on finding players who go in line with their philosophies and is at an age where they can be developed by the clubs ideas’. Ralfball and Julian Nagelsmann’s play share a multitude of various similarities so it is no surprise Nagelsmann was identified as the club’s next manager almost following the same guidelines as they would when signing a player.
Ralf Rangnick, who has been manager of Leipzig across multiple seasons and sporting director has had his tactical principles labelled as “Ralfball”. Aggressive pressing, direct football and counter-pressing designated to winning the ball back in dangerous areas.
Red Bull Leipzig’s 4-2-2-2 formation or variations of the shape has been a signature of Ralfball. It has been uniquely used at the club and variations with the other Red Bull clubs and has been an intriguing point. This shape’s implementation produced devastating results which changed the way counter pressing was viewed around Europe and excelled the rest of the facets of the Ralfball philosophy.
There are striking similarities in this shape and the formation Nagelsmann deployed in his time at Hoffenheim, the player’s roles in the system, and Nagelsmann’s tactics. Nagelsmann can be most recognised for using the 5-1-2-2 formation. Also featuring the attacking four that you’d see in the 4-2-2-2.
Compactness in the midfield creates advantages on and off the ball in both of these teams that played into their tactics. Julian Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim focused the attack through the centre. Looking to create overlords between the opposition lines. Ultimately, attempting to create as many passing options as possible. A compact midfield with support from the back three and dropping forwards allowed for a fluid passing structure that made progressive football.
Hoffenheim’s progressive play can be highlighted by the fact that they had the 2nd most shots per game in the 2018/19 Bundesliga season. Hoffenheim, however, will be patient at times in buildup as they don’t want to easily turn the ball over to the opposition creating a counter attack. To go along with this Nagelsmann’s men also had the 4th most possession in the Bundesliga and averaged 2.1 goals per game.
When opposition look to mark out passing lanes into the midfield the centre backs ball playing ability shine. Often playing diagonal balls to wingbacks or driving into space creating new passing options. Defender Kevin Vogt boasted an impressive 89% passing accuracy.
Similarly to Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim, the large number of passing options in the shape allows for fluid and rapid attacking. Red Bull Leipzig’s counter-attacking has been efficient and lethal. Leipzig in the 2016/17 season scored 2 goals that were architected in under eight seconds.
Once winning the ball they quickly launch toward the opposition goal. The difference between the Hoffenheim and Leipzig’s fluid attacking is the directness of Leipzig. Playing balls over the top, through balls and quick combinations. Hoffenheim instead slow things down at times, in fear of turning the ball over themselves.
Intense pressing has been the trademark of Leipzig’s play as they rose up the German football pyramid. So most importantly for Ralfball and Leipzig, the compact midfield and shape creates an effective counter press because of the overload of Leipzig players. With the intent of winning the ball in dangerous areas and quickly attacking the opposition once winning the ball back. No team in the 2016/17 Bundesliga season scored more goals off of opposition turnovers than Leipzig.
Leipzig don’t build up from the back. Instead, they skip the buildup phases and play direct long balls. Leipzig this season only averaged the 8th most possession in the Bundesliga. However, they won the 2nd most aerial duels. If Leipzig don’t win the ball, the disorganisation that is caused from when this direct play breaks down leaves opposition vulnerable to the counter press. Die Roten Bullen aggressively and quickly close down the ball in numbers.
Through analysis, you can see that during the opposition buildup however, they are more conservative. There are specific triggers that initiate their press. Midfielders and strikers are used to cut off passing lanes into central areas. Leipzig’s goal is to force the opposition out wide during the buildup. By doing this they can force turnovers and press while using the touchline as an extra man.
Nagelsmann has also implemented an intense press in his time at Hoffenheim. Pressing high in the opposition half and similarly looking to create turnovers by the opposition. Although in his own half, being more conservative.
When appointing a manager to a project, it is important to consider the squad they will inherit and if how they would work with the manager. At Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann worked with a squad and club on a limited budget. He had to get the best out of every player, improving players and identifying their most effective roles in the system.
At Hoffenheim, he enjoyed having a large selection of dynamic forwards who could operate in the front four. Being asked to contribute in all areas of the game you can think of, buildup, defence, pressing and playmaking. Below are the comparison of the Leipzig and Hoffenheim forward options, showing the wide variety Nagelsmann would have at his disposal.
Attacking midfielders were tasked with attacking the half spaces and floating out wide at times. Being given the freedom to roam and contribute to the fluid passing sequences. Kerem Demirbay has been a key player during Nagelsmann’s tenure in this role. He proved to be a quality dynamic attacking midfielder. Being adept with both feet, a great passer, dribbler and direct goal threat. Everything you’d ask for in an attacking midfielder. Completing 3.1 key passes per game and 2.2 dribbles per game.
Emil Forsberg has played in a similar role in Leipzig’s setup. The 2017 Swedish Player of the Year has become one of the Bundesliga’s finest since his arrival. Devastating and efficient in attack, able to break defences with one pass he is an outstanding danger in the final third. In the 2016/17 season, he scored eight and assisted 19 in the Bundesliga. Similarly to Demirbay, he’s very dynamic, operating all over the attacking third.
How Nagelsmann could change Leipzig
As before mentioned, Leipzig’s directness has lead to efficient forward play since their arrival to the Bundesliga. However, the appointment of Julian Nagelsmann could be leading to move toward a more possession-based game. As clubs like Manchester City and now Juventus have preferred with their recent managerial movements with Pep Guardiola and Maruzio Sarri.
A possession-based ‘DNA’ at the football club could be the catalyst of long-term success for the club and manager. Nagelsmann has already proved on a tighter budget and less talented personnel he can achieve the quality of football that Leipzig could hope to catapult them into Europe’s elite.
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