Julian Nagelsmann has come into the new campaign with a quickly growing reputation as the wonder boy of football management with fans, pundits and club owners from around the world sitting up and taking note of the remarkable achievements of his Hoffenheim side during his first season as a manager at the game’s top level.
Despite the well-deserved plaudits that his efforts were granted, the start of the new campaign has shown signs that the smooth-running of last season is no guaranteed for the forthcoming campaign and the young manager must now prove his mettle as he looks to traverse the difficulties that come with driving forward a much changed team in the hope of bettering his already phenomenal exploits.
The story of Nagelsmann’s rise to prominence is one of smooth transition from prospective player, to youth coach to top-flight manager. A youth player in the ranks of 1860 Munich and FC Augsburg, chronic injury made pay to his dreams of playing at the elite level as he was forced to hang up his boots at the Under-19s level of the game.
Still hungry to make his name in the game, Nagelsmann began the task of plying his trade at coaching level, initially under the wings of the 1860 academy that had raised him before quickly rising through the ranks of the Hoffenheim system.
Despite his transition from player to manager taking eight years of diligent development, it was ultimately a firm jolt that the youngster was prematurely pushed into the limelight of domestic German football.
Whilst Nagelsmann had been primed to make his managerial bow at the start of the 2016/17 season, the unexpected resignation of Dutchman Huub Stevens saw him take over the reins of a stuttering Hoffenheim side in the February of 2016 – becoming the youngest manager in Bundesliga history at the tender age of 28-years-old.
Whilst it would have been fair for many observers of the game to question the sensibility of such a left-field appointment in what was a tumultuous period for the club.
However, the boldness of their decision has ultimately paid dividends with Hoffenheim now blazing a trail through the heart of the Bundesliga’s norms – the side’s meticulous training ground work producing an exciting style of play that has married sound defensive structure, aggressive counter-pressing and penetrative attacking play.
From the ashes of an abysmal start to the 2015/16 campaign, Hoffenheim rose to secure a place in the top four the following season. A feat that will have exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic of their devout supporters.
Indeed, such was the quality of the football produced by Nagelsmann and his men that they would be forgiven for thinking that they were deserving of a higher position than the fourth-placed finish that their endeavours were ultimately rewarded with.
However, the arduous climb up from relegation candidates to a side preparing for a seat at the top table of European football emphasises the remarkable turnaround that Nagelsmann and his coaching staff had overseen.
Alas, the dreams that were of euphoric games under the floodlights of the Rhein-Neckar-Arena were not to be as a maiden Champions League campaign was brought to an abrupt end as Nagelsmann’s side crashed out at the hands of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool side in the decisive qualification stage – facing defeat both home and away as they succumbed to a 6-3 aggregate loss.
The 4-2 dismantling at Anfield, in which his side conceded three goals in the opening 20 minutes as they were blown away by the men in red, left many cynics of this burgeoning managerial talent’s credentials sneering at the naivety of what was ultimately a torrid display from his Hoffenheim side.
The heavy nature of the loss highlighted that whilst he may be the most exciting prospects of football coaching, Nagelsmann is still only at the beginning stages of the long path that is management.
More defeats, possibly even more humiliating than the one at Anfield, will come along the way on this journey. What will ultimately define the success of his managerial career is to have the humility to learn from these mistakes as he looks to mount a campaign to the very top of European football.
In truth, the fixture against one of Europe’s elite sides probably came at the worst possible time for Hoffenheim, with the group dynamics in need of a period of re-harmonisation following the loss of certain key members of the dressing room.
The loss of stalwarts of the last campaign Niklas Süle and Sebastian Rudy, who both made respective moves to league giants Bayern Munich over the summer, were arguably the most notable departures in a summer of great upheaval for the Sinsheim club.
For a man who bases his philosophy heavily on the importance of human relationships, famously stating that “Thirty percent of coaching is tactics, seventy percent social competence,” the loss of two such significant members of the dressing room will have been as much of a loss for the sense of team cohesion that he had carefully cultivated as it was for the qualities that they brought to the pitch.
However, the masterclass against the 2016/17 champions on match day three highlighted that the shoots of recovery may well be in place for Nagelsmann and his team, as they look to build upon the exploits of last season and establish themselves as a Champions League mainstay within the Bundesliga.
A defensively resilient display, in which the hosts held a mere 28 per cent of possession and played 400 passes fewer – at a completion rate of just 67 per cent, highlighting their direct approach to try and counteract a technically superior Bayern side – emphasised both the tactical nous possessed by Nagelsmann, as well as the immense sense of team unity being cultivated at die Kraichgauer.
Two goals from Mark Uth ultimately separated the two sides at the final whistle, both goals the result of composed finishing that finished off smart counter attacking moves that exemplified Hoffenheim’s ability to exploit lapses in Bayern’s concentration as they subjected their visitors to a first league defeat in five months – the previous one also coming to the hands of Nagelsmann’s men.
Only into his second full campaign as a professional manager, the international fanfare surround the potential for Nagelsmann’s career is the dividends of nearly a decade’s worth of hard graft at the junior levels of the game.
A perfect marriage of emotional intelligence, man-management capabilities and elite tactical knowhow, one wouldn’t bet against the formula that has seen the 30-year-old’s Hoffenheim team emergence from relegation candidates to Bundesliga high fliers becoming one that can take him to the upper echelons of the managerial stratosphere.
By Joe Thomas.