“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough” – Sir Matt Busby
Those words of the late, great Manchester United manager not only reigned true while at the helm of the highly successful Busby Babes, they have permeated throughout football history in various ways. Many of the sport’s greatest players had significant impacts on the game at a young age, proving age should factor little once you have the required quality necessary to contribute to your team.
For managers, such an adage does not apply as such. Teams mainly choose to look at experience, whether those who played at the highest level for a number of years and made the transition to the sideline quickly like a Pep Guardiola, or a Jose Mourinho who started coaching at a young age but paid his dues through several assistant stints before getting his first main gig at Benfica aged 37.
At age 29, many aspiring managers are either still learning the trade as an assistant or leading youth teams. At this age, Hoffenheim manager, Julian Nagelsmann is defying this logic not only by becoming the youngest ever boss in the German Bundesliga, but finding instant success doing it. The protégé of Borussia Dortmund manager, Thomas Tuchel, Nagelsmann has transformed Hoffenheim from a left-for-dead team certain for relegation to Germany’s second division into one of the most exciting sides to watch in the Bundesliga within nine months.
As a central defender in his younger days, his journey to the big leagues was abruptly ended by a slew of knee injuries despite promising spells for FC Augsburg and 1860 Munich’s youth teams. In 2008, the then 19-year-old Nagelsmann transitioned to management, becoming the assistant coach for Augsburg’s reserve team managed by Tuchel where he would scout upcoming opponents. He also attained a bachelor’s degree in sports science that year.
Nagelsmann returned to 1860 Munich soon thereafter where he became assistant manager of their U17 team for two seasons before heading to Hoffenheim for the same role in 2010. A year later, he was named manager of Hoffenheim’s U17s and impressed so much there, he was given a short assistant role with the senior team in 2013 before landing the manager’s position with their U19s.
Following his U19 stint, where he led them to a title, Hoffenheim had great hopes for Nagelsmann in the Bundesliga, looking to introduce him as their new manager this past offseason. However, with Die Kraichgauer seven points adrift of safety in February 2016, the higher ups decided to fast-track him to the role in a gamble to try and preserve top-tier status they had enjoyed since debuting in 2008.
The move turned out to be a masterstroke. The Bundesliga’s youngest ever manager guided Hoffenheim to seven wins in their last 14 games, keeping them safe by a point over Eintracht Frankfurt. That commendable form has carried over into this campaign as Hoffenheim has won five and drawn six of their first 11 league games, hailing as one of the many surprises in a topsy-turvy season thus far. Currently fifth on goal difference behind Borussia Dortmund and FC Koln, Hoffenheim are one of two undefeated teams left in the Bundesliga, alongside the league’s biggest story to date this season, RB Leipzig.
Nagelsmann was branded as ‘mini-Mourinho’ by former goalkeeper, Tim Wiese during his U19 stint but is a complete contrast to the controversial Portuguese manager in terms of his tactics. His up-tempo, high pressing style of football has won him many plaudits among his peers and fans as well as his flexibility with formations as he has employed 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 formations during his stint.
Though Tuchel is his adored mentor. Nagelsmann has admitted that he draws his inspiration from teams with similar playing styles as well as one of the game’s greatest managers.
“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 said in an interview last season via Bundesliga.com. “I like the way Villarreal play and they have a great way of coaching young players. I also like FC Barcelona and Arsenal as well as the work of Arsène Wenger.”
He also has an interesting concept on how to win back possession, telling German newspaper, F.A.Z., “Each tackle adds randomness. Therefore I prefer intercepts by blocking passing options.”
These facets of Nagelsmann’s philosophy are evident in his team’s play so far this season as Hoffenheim rank top five in the Bundesliga in successful passes, possession, goals and successful take ons while boasting the third fewest yellow cards in the league. All this is a testament to the fluency of his team’s attack as well as the discipline he instills in his players.
It is even more impressive when you consider he is achieving this with a group of castoffs. These include leading scorer, Sandro Wagner as well as Leicester City reject, Andrej Kramarić, promising midfielder, Kerem Demirbay and a defense led by ex-Basel man, Fabian Schär and new German senior international Niklas Süle. Also keep in mind that this is a team who sold quality players such as Roberto Firmino and Kevin Volland each of the last two off-seasons.
How long Hoffenheim will maintain this remains to be seen, but with the Bundesliga as unpredictable as ever given the struggles of many top clubs this season, their chances of a first European berth should not be written off. The club’s best ever finish in the top flight remains their inaugural season, when they finished seventh under the management of now RB Leipzig sporting director, Ralf Rangnick.
Now the Bundesliga’s baby-faced assassin, Nagelsmann looks to kill off the notion that age and success in management at the highest level are mutually exclusive. The man who once rejected Bayern Munich’s advances to become their U23 team’s manager has such a bright future, he might end up managing their senior team one day if he keeps up this trajectory. A living example of Sir Busby’s iconic words, Nagelsmann is well on his way to achieving great things in Germany and beyond.