At 34, Julian Nagelsmann is the coach to make even millennials feel old.
Already installed as manager at Bayern Munich, where he turned up to work last month on a skateboard, he is a man beloved of football hipsters since making his mark as head coach at Hoffenheim when he was 28.
‘A crackpot idea’ and ‘publicity stunt’ wrote a German paper at the time of his appointment as the youngest-ever Bundesliga coach, a snap judgment which did not age well.
Bayern Munich manager Julian Nagelsmann turned up to training last month on a skateboard
It turned out that Nagelsmann was the next big thing. Arsenal opted for Unai Emery over him in 2018 when he was 31 and might have missed out on the Arsene Wenger of the 2020s.
Real Madrid approached him at the same time but he told them a move at that point would make no sense given his lack of proficiency in Spanish.
Tottenham were well behind the curve when he was suggested as a Jose Mourinho replacement last March, as Bayern had already identified the RB Leipzig coach as the successor to Hansi Flick.
A coach to make even millennials feel old, Nagelsmann is the next big thing in management
So what exotic players might have helped to forge such an active football mind as Nagelsmann’s? If Pep Guardiola had Johan Cruyff, then who was the equivalent for the brightest young coach in European football back when he was trying to cut it as a young pro at 1860 Munich?
‘John Terry,’ replies Nagelsmann. ‘It was crazy because when I was a youth player I played with [team-mate] Christian Trasch and always in the training sessions I called him Patrick, after Patrick Vieira, because he played No 6. And he called me John Terry – ‘Johnny’ – because I was central defender.
‘In these days John Terry was one of the best central defenders. There was one season when he did not lose a single duel. He was brave with his head, which was the main topic with me.
‘I was good with my feet but better with my head and there could be some similarities with John Terry. That’s why Christian called me Johnny on the training pitch. And all the other team-mates sometimes looked very weird when I called him Patrick and he called my Johnny…’
Arsenal opted for Unai Emery over Nagelsmann in 2018, and Real Madrid also approached him
Nagelsmann has revealed that Chelsea legend John Terry is his hero after being likened to him
The only meeting in real life between the two took place in 2019, by which time Nagelsmann was coach at RB Leipzig, whom he took to the Champions League semi-final that season.
Terry was assistant coach at Aston Villa and the teams met in a pre-season friendly, the eager man awkwardly explaining to the Chelsea legend that he had admired him so much that he had assumed his identity as a younger player.
‘I just talked to him for about three minutes and I explained to him that I was John Terry in the early days as well. I had to explain the situation, as he looked at me weirdly.’
Nagelsmann did not go for the full fan-boy selfie though.
‘I was the manager of RB Leipzig. It’s not the right thing to do! But he was kind of a role model because he was a great central defender and he loved to defend. And it’s a very important topic for me and for my players, when I talk to a defender, I say, “Your name is defender, first of all you have to defend”.
‘And then you can create the next chance for us, the build-up game, but first you have to defend. John Terry loved to defend, not only to play a good pass into the half space or into the red [danger] zones.’
Last month the clip of Nagelsmann arriving at Bayern’s training on a skateboard went viral. He laughs at the stir it caused.
Staying true to himself is a mantra that has served Nagelsmann well during his superb career
‘Yeah, I love to go [to work] by skateboard. Because it’s cool and it’s good for the environment as well. And I go with the snowboard into the Alps in the winter. But in summer you can’t go snowboarding. You need a skateboard!
‘I knew there could be some headlines but I didn’t think about it. The most important thing is not to change your personality, not to be different just because you’re the manager of Bayern Munich now and not Hoffenheim.
‘I want to be the same Julian in the free time as the Julian on the pitch, so, if I want to go out of bed in the morning and want to go with my skateboard, I don’t think about the headlines in Bild [Germany’s best-selling newspaper].
‘I just think that today the sun is shining and I would like to go on my skateboard. If I’m happy to go by bike, I’ll go by bike. It doesn’t matter that the newspapers write headlines. I do not think about it.’
Staying true to himself is a mantra that has served him well since the extraordinary set of circumstances when he was offered the job at Hoffenheim at the age of 28.
Only a few years before he had been a teenager partying at the iconic Munich Kunstpark and had a penchant for belting out Westlife songs in the back of the car as he shared trips to training at 1860 Munich, where dreams of becoming a pro were undone by a persistent back injury and a knee injury.
He was offered the job at Hoffenheim aged just 28, and was dropped firmly into the deep end
He had a brief spell at Augsburg at the age of 20, where he ran into Thomas Tuchel and got his first job in coaching, scouting for the junior teams, when his knee gave way.
Nagelsmann then followed the Tuchel route into junior football coaching, starting with the Hoffenheim youth in 2010 and working his way up to the Under-19s, where players nicknamed him ‘Baby Mourinho’.
Eventually, the club – an upstart modern creation owned by SAP software mogul Dietmar Hopp – decided he would be head coach, but only from the start of the 2016-17 season. Still, he would only have been 29.
But when the man keeping the seat warm for him, Huub Stevens, had to step down mid-season, Nagelsmann was thrown in at the deep end in February 2016. The metaphor is apt, as Hoffenheim were second bottom and seven points from safety with seemingly no chance of avoiding the drop.
Naglesmann admits he was ‘nervous’ addressing a team with battle-hardened, cynical players
However, it was the start of his unconventional fairy-tale. Just how does a 28-year-old even begin to address a team with thirty-something battle-hardened, cynical football pros and retain authority?
‘Scared is the wrong word, you’re nervous,’ he says. ‘I only had one day to make notes about the speech and I just wanted to talk about what we could change, to explain in a short way how we would play. My first training session was on Tuesday and we played on Saturday in Bremen.
‘In the end, this speech was tactical information. Something like that. The first game in Bremen started good, we got the lead and in the end they got the equaliser, got one point and it was a very good start. So all the players get more self-confident and in me as well, which is always important when you meet a new team.
‘But the main topic was I could not change my personality and I did not want to change my personality. I would be the same manager I was in the youth.
At Bayern Munich, Nagelsmann oversees several superstars like Robert Lewandowski (right)
‘I would talk to them and say, “If you do this as a team, as a personal player, you will develop in the right direction. You will have a better performance, we can win, you can stay in the league, you will earn more money, you can be in the first league [Bundesliga] again next season as well”.
‘I just tried to convince them I was [the same person] as with the youth, also to make jokes, to play with the ball before the training sessions at the end. I stayed the same person.’
Jurgen Klopp looms large in the conversation, as Klopp it was, along with Ralf Rangnick, who changed German football with high-energy, high-pressing, high-risk football we now see at Liverpool. It has spawned a revolution in German coaching. Rangnick was sporting director at RB Leipzig when Nagelsmann was appointed.
What has become known as the Stuttgarter Schule of coaching, due to Rangnick and Klopp’s roots in Baden-Wurttemberg, now dominates the Premier League and the world, with the last three Champions League winners having been coached by Germans in Klopp, Flick and Tuchel.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp looms large in the conversation due to his influence on coaching
‘I don’t know why the German managers are so successful around the world,’ says Nagelsmann. ‘You always need some guys at the club who say you are the next manager, they need to believe in you.
‘The education for managers is very, very good [in Germany], also with your colleagues, so you have a lot of discussions when you are 10 months in Hennef [near Bonn, where the residential German coaching academy is based].’
From Klopp, he has absorbed the mantra of taking risks and worrying about consequences later and added his own twists.
‘Most managers around the world want big distances [between the players when] in ball possession.
‘For me, I want short distances between the players, because you can change the game very quickly in ball possession, the ball moves very quickly and that shows the way [sets the tone] for counter-pressing, which is the most important topic. In earlier days, I only think about winning the games, not to try to avoid mistakes. And it stays the same.
Nagelsmann has taken on an approach of taking risks, like Klopp’s, and added his own twists
‘That was the special key at Hoffenheim. Before I started there we only won two games and we didn’t particularly [look like we] want to be in the first liga the next season. So we had to win the games, not only to avoid mistakes.
‘Today it is the same. I always calculate that we could make a mistake but I want to have brave players on the pitch, try to solve the situation by having the ball, by trying to dribble. They should do some mistakes.
‘That’s normal. But you have to have good structure behind the ball, then you can do some mistakes but they [opponents] didn’t counter much.
‘If we see the space we try to speed up the game, have some kind of counter-attacks after your ball possession as well. And if you lose the ball, to be very, very aggressive in the counter-pressing. But if you have ball possession, it’s always about finding the good position behind the ball, very close distances between team-mates.
Using space effectively as well as remaining ‘very aggressive’ are key traits for his Bayern side
‘It’s special. If you have a philosophy for having the ball, then you have to be very good at counter-pressing.
‘If you have the ball and you’re worse in counter-pressing, then you will get one counter-attack after another and you concede a lot of chances and the games will be very exhausting.’
He can come across as an earnest young man in a hurry but those Westlife singalongs and Kunstpark clubbing nights as an even younger man suggest something more. He laughs.
‘I’ve been to the Kunstpark but 10 years ago,’ he says. ‘The Kunstpark [now] is not like the Kunstpark 10 years ago.’ His retreats are now the mountains, where he grew up, specifically in Landsberg am Lech in southwest Bavaria.
He says: ‘I was born in the Alps so in the end I love them very much. I like being in a big room, going to a restaurant, doing some games at home with the family or most of the time to be happy.
‘The biggest aim in my life is to be happy. And when I want to be happy I go to the Alps or I do sports, meet with friends and go to a restaurant, do some jokes and try to do some good things but also crazy things: try to laugh, try to be happy. That describes me well.’
He is at the start of a five-year contract with Bayern, so it will be some time before we see him in the Premier League.
These are his consolidation years, where he turns youthful promise into actual silverware, this year’s German Super Cup – the Community Shield equivalent – being his only trophy thus far other than the U19 league title with Hoffenheim.
Now, Nagelsmann must turn his youthful promise into delivering more silverware at the club
But it is hard to imagine a coaching talent burning quite so bright will not illuminate the Premier League at some point.
‘I do not have to leave Germany because I’m happy with the Bundesliga and happy to be the manager of the biggest club in Germany.
‘But after that, if there could be a chance, maybe in 10 years’ time, to go to a big club in Spain or Italy, France, whatever, it could be interesting for me and the family, to learn another language and learn about a different culture and new league.’
First though he has the Bundesliga to conquer, the Champions League to win at Bayern. Then the world. Or, at least, perhaps, the Premier League.
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