Julian Nagelsmann and the RB Leipzig revolution

On Monday evening, a clash between Germany’s first and second most hated clubs finished as an exciting 1:1 draw. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim played like the home team despite being almost 300 miles from Sinsheim. Leipzig, despite being incredibly flat for 85 minutes, nabbed a late equaliser through captain Willi Orban, assisted by Marcel Halstenberg. The game was more than just a European-chasing rival clash, though, as Hoffenheim manager Julian Nagelsmann, who was so close to earning a full three-point reward for his tactical masterclass, his side were better than Leipzig in almost every area – flooding men forward on the counter but always remaining defensively sound in transitions. The game was in interesting analytical piece but to me it has more to give than just what happened on the green at the Red Bull Arena.

Clashing discourses

In Matchdays: The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga, Ronald Reng comments upon the post-1982 discursive move towards interest in youth within German football. Though West Germany were finalists in the competition, fans were not happy with a perceived half-heartedness from the national team. They’d lost to ‘minnows’ Algeria, the first European side to lose to a team from Africa at any edition of the World Cup. Furthermore, they’d been the antagonists of the infamous Disgrace of Gijon; where a 1:0 victory over Austria ensured both sides went through to the knock-out stages. West Germany scored early on, before both teams played for 80 minutes with no harm to either goal, safe in the knowledge that only that result would send both teams through.

This discourse of youth promotion pervades even today. Think-pieces about the likes of Jadon Sancho, Reiss Nelson and Ademola Lookman blossoming in the Bundesliga are everywhere you look, and for good reason: it is clear that the Bundesliga is doing a better job than some of its counterpart leagues in this regard. It only takes a quick cursory glance at the top teams in England right now to see the effects of this. Liverpool, and to a lesser extent Manchester City, are managed by men who honed their craft in Germany. Moreover, some of the league’s best players, including Kevin De Bruyne; Leroy Sané, Mesut Özil, Roberto Firmino and Son Heung-Min spent their early years in the Bundesliga.

However, the admiration for the promotion of young players stands small next to the intensely proud feeling of authenticity German fans have for their clubs, as opposed to the perceived vendor/customer relationship between clubs in England and their fans.

It is this discourse which is hegemonic; most clearly seen in the criticism of RasenBallsport Leipzig. Peter Neururer, ex-manager of Schalke, Bochum and Duisburg, amongst others, said that the project in Saxony ‘made him sick’.

Manufactured, not born

Leipzig’s history has been widely regaled. Formally 5th-tier SSV Markenstädt, Red Bull bought the naming rights and, in essence, the soul of the club, and transformed it beyond recognition with the aim of… furthering the name of the most famous energy drink in the world, I guess? Widely accepted as a marketing strategy, although the club was banned from officially naming as Red Bull Leipzig thanks to the laws of Germany’s football association, the club plays at the Red Bull Arena, has literal red bulls on its emblem and everywhere you look within the branding of the club, and is eerily owned by the same bovine-branded energy drinks company who have fingers in Red Bull Salzburg and New York Red Bulls for anyone who was left in any doubt. Though the attendances have risen from just over two and a half-thousand to around forty thousand per game, the club has significantly fewer members than most Bundesliga clubs, and these members have fewer voting rights compared to fans of other Bundesliga clubs.

They are criticised for their perceived inauthenticity and plasticity, detractors argue their fans are not fans but customers, their club is not an enclave of Leipzig but instead a soulless organisation which is further cheapened by the parasitic relationship with Red Bull Salzburg, a relationship that sees at least one player a year swap the hills of western Austria for the cultural hub of eastern Germany.

This has been translated from words into action multiple times. In 2016, during a game against Dynamo Dresden, a severed bulls head was launched in the general direction of the pitch in an act of symbolism that I don’t need to explain. (Though I still have questions. how did they get it past security? who came up with the scheme? was the bull already dead, or was it murdered for this grotesque purpose?)

Germany’s most hated club are defended by their hierarchy by stressing its dedication to its own youth project.

This commitment is hard to deny. The club’s transfer structure is clear: sign young players who have not reached their optimum potential or market value, and incubate them. It is not dissimilar to the transfer strategy of AS Monaco, the only difference being RB Leipzig have not found themselves ravaged by outgoing transfers. The only big outgoing transfer of note since Joshua Kimmich left the then 2. Liga Leipzig for Bayern Munich in 2015 has been Naby Keïta’s departure to Liverpool for his £48 million release clause.

It has demonstrated its dedication not only through its signings but its approach to hiring innovative personnel.

Back in 1999, Ralf Ragnick appeared upon Das aktuelle sportstudio and left a mark which Ronald Reng described as akin to declaring a cultural war in German football. In diverging from the traditional man-marking game which had been so predominant in the Bundesliga, Ragnick ‘copied football’ by suggesting that a game based on space-division, or zones, was a better way of understanding football. Ragnick has been a bigger part of German football’s second culture war for his various roles within the RB Leipzig set up, and it is fitting that one of his most successful disciples will take the over manager after he leaves at the end of the season.

On the pitch, this has helped the club go from strength to strength. RasenBallsport speedily rose through the ranks of the German divisions, and were promoted to the Bundesliga under the guidance of Ragnick, ready for the 2016/17 edition of the Bundesliga. Ragnick stepped back into the club’s structure, and was replaced by current Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhüttl, who led the team to a stunning 2nd place finish in their inaugural Bundesliga season. The club had spent the summer securing the likes of Timo Werner, who would hit twenty-one league goals that season, and the fantastic Keïta. Their second season, burdened with the club’s first foray into the Champions League, was less successful. The club finished in the sixth place, with the club failing to reach the heights of what had gone before. Hasenhüttl, unwilling to continue unless the club renewed his contract beyond the year on which remained on his existing deal, left the club at the end of the 2017/18 season. He had done a splendid job, but the Leipzig board had already cast their eyes to the future. Ralph Ragnick would return to the club for another stand-in season, but the powerful discourse of youth, which motivated the signings and maintenance of young stars, was about to hit hegemony over the whole club.

On the 21st of June, 2018, the club announced Julian Nagelsmann as their head coach beginning in the 2019/20 season.

It seems to me that Nagelsmann is of such reputation that he hardly needs an introduction at this point. At 31 years-old, the German has been the immensely popular and successful manager of arguably Germany’s second most hated club, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. After taking over with only fourteen games to go and the Sinsheim club languishing in 17th place, Nagelsmann led achtzehn99 to seven victories in the last months of the season, ending just a point above the relegation play-offs. In his full debut season, Nagelsmann, who was described as a ‘mini-Mourinho’ by former Bundesliga ‘keeper and WWE wrestler Tim Wiese, achieved a sensational 4th place finish in 2016/17, qualifying for the Champions League in the process – though they would fail to reach the group stages because of a two-leg qualifying defeat to eventual finalists Liverpool.

Last season, despite arguably having a squad of lesser quality than their rivals, Hoffenheim once again stunned the Bundesliga by improving on their position and finishing 3rd. Though the club had spent much of the season languishing between 7th and 9th, the team hit form at the very climax of the season, securing seven wins in their last ten to jump from seventh place to third in just five matchdays, gazumping Leipzig and Leverkusen in the process. The club would, for the first time, play in the Champions League group stages. Nagelsmann, widely admitted as the third great managerial prodigy to come out of Germany behind Klopp and Tuchel, and ahead of Domenico Tedesco, would be able to face off against one of the managers who is perhaps only second to Ralf Ragnick in terms of his own influences, Pep Guardiola.

Copying Football

Once described as a ‘tactics freak’ by former-player Niklas Süle, Nagelsmann, like Ragnick before him, is obsessed with football. He relies deeply on video analyses of both training and matches, and surely belongs to the Guardiola-Bielsa club of loving football a little too much: though in fairness, unlike his spiritual mentors, he retains a great hairline. As another point of similarity to these men, he is often quoted as to have said that football is 30% tactics, 70% social competence, and current and ex-players alike speak of the positive attitude he brings, preferring to be friendly rather than distant with his players.

Nagelsmann has not just earnt plaudits for playing successful football, but successful and attractive football. Hoffenheim have won many foreign, if not domestic, fans for their current set-up.

His system relies on something like a fluid 3-1-4-2. It hinges upon several key areas, but is most predicated upon the idea of the transition. Oliver Baumann, Hoffenheim’s goalkeeper, has excellent distribution. The back-three press high, but also include a centre-back who is just as comfortable in defensive midfield, meaning that he would have to take the ball forward to enable transitions. In Hoffenheim’s case, this key man is Kevin Vogt. Brought in as a central midfielder from 1. FC Köln, Vogt’s ability on the ball and tactical intelligence allows the other two centre backs to spread, and pushes the wing-backs upfield. It encourages to two attacking midfielders to roam around the pitch and create space in between the lines, as the success of the system is predicated on the creation of space, whether that be by moving opposition players out of position or finding the extra man where the opposition have moved to cover up what would traditionally be the dangerous positions.

The roaming attacking midfielders like Kerem Demirbay have the ability inflict surreal damage, since they are everywhere and nowhere at once. Though I might’ve been fanciful in suggesting that Demirbay would be good enough to play as a squad player for City after Pep’s first season, in many ways, the roles that Nagelsmann’s attacking midfielders play are similar to the roles that Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva played in Pep’s 2017/18 Centurions. They are marauding attacking midfielders who not only offer defensive contributions, but can and do quite literally turn up on any part of the pitch, with a key pass or a goal.

His system relies on players who are not only technically astute but tactically aware, and in Hoffenheim Nagelsmann has been able to create a squad of versatile players who each fulfil their functions. Not many would have predicted that after the losses of Niklas Süle and Sandro Wagner, two key players in the early stint of Nagelsmann’s time at the club, Hoffenheim would continue to progress. But they did. Despite not heavily investing through his time at the club, with the most expensive transfer being that of Andrej Kramaric for less than £10m in the summer of 2016, Nagelsmann has changed the face of the squad to great success. The 31-year-old has evolved players under his watch, and their current squad is full of what I’d call perfect Nagelsmann players. Young, tactically versatile and players who combine to a level greater than the sum of their parts.

Moving East

The question is, then, how will this play out in the former home of Leibniz, Bach and Wagner. It seems to me to be a match made in football heaven. Nagelsmann, a manager who puts faith in youth and employs space-driven tactics, seems to have taken the natural next step in his career. In him, Leipzig have continued their branding of a club which is driven by the ideology of youth, in both Nagelsmann’s own youth and his ability to work with and nurture young players.

It is arguable that in Leipzig, Nagelsmann will find an upgrade in every position from his squad at Hoffenheim. In preparing this article, I was going to try and mention just a few Leipzig players, but their squad is so voluminous with quality that I had a hard time picking out just a couple. Willi Orban (26), the club’s captain signed for just 2m in 2015 from Kaiserslautern, is an incredible rock at the heart of Ragnick’s defence and has come up with a couple of clutch goals this season. Emile Forsberg, who has been linked with just about every top club in Europe, is at 27 entering the prime of his career and was one of the three, alongside Werner and Keïta, who really bemused the football world in their 2nd place finish. The club obviously retains the services of gunman 22-year old Timo Werner, a player who is likely in the top 15 strikers in the world, renowned for his laser-like finishing and sheer pace. Werner has already made 179 Bundesliga appearances, scoring an average higher than a goal every two games in his time at Leipzig.

They also have a genuinely wild pool of young stars. I fear I may go into too much detail by naming every single one, so here are just a few of Leipzig’s stars under 22: Lukas Klostermann, Konrad Laimer, Nordi Mukiele, Tyler Adams, Ibrahima Konate, Marcelo Sarrachi, Matheus Cuhna and Jean-Kévin Augustin. They’re also signing nineteen-year-old attacking midfielder Hannes Wolf, predictably of RB Salzburg, for just over £10m. RB Leipzig are quite literally a Football Manager dream.

Bull-et Prints for Success

I did, however, manage to draw three players who I want to discuss in relation to their role in Nagelsmann’s Leipzig side.

Marcel Halstenberg has arguably been RB Leipzig’s best performer this year. One of the older members of Leipzig’s squad, an antiquarian 27-years-old, the left-back has been an ever present for the side both offensively and defensively. He has hit six assists for die Roten Bullen in 16 appearances, and seems ready-made for Nagelsmann’s ideal full-back. Nico Schulz is Hoffenheim’s example of a left-back, and he suits it excellently. Schulz is required to switch within games between both left-back and left-midfield, denoting both excellent athleticism and awareness. He is devastatingly rapid. Nagelsmann’s system, so reliant on the transition, can spring from defence to attack in seconds. The wing-backs in his system are used to not only occupy inverted spaces in attacks as decoys, but often appear in the spaces where the opposition defence has moved away from to cover the traditional ‘danger zones’ in relation to the ball. Halstenberg’s ability to not only perform this dynamic function, but his awareness to do so, demonstrates the reason he is so treasured at Leipzig. I suspect Nagelsmann will, like Ragnick, utilise Halstenberg as one of the first names on the team-sheet, and the German international will likely remain a key player for Leipzig in the years to come.

The second player I wanted to discuss was Dayotchanculle Upamecano; Dayot for short. Spoken of as a ‘touching kid’ by his former youth coach at local club Évreux, Upamecano, to me, is the best under-21 defender in world football. Upamecano is a master of the standing tackle, but is also comfortable on the ball in terms of both passing and dribbling. I find him reminiscent of an early Vincent Kompany, who was signed to Manchester City as a defensive-midfielder and converted into one of the great central defenders, and club captains, in Premier League history. Upamecano will be the key cog in Nagelsmann’s system. As I have mentioned, as a player, Kevin Vogt is perhaps the best concretion of the abstract minutiae of Nagelsmann’s system. Sat at the heart of the defence, Vogt will obviously play a role in typical defensive duties. But when in possession, Vogt will push forward with or without the ball. The two other central defenders will spread horizontally across the high line, forcing movement from both the full-backs and the midfielders. Upamecano can become that player, that central cog, the essential kernel. Of course, Leipzig have a plentiful supply of talented young central defenders, but I suspect that it will be Dayot, who is doubtless to transition into the French national team shortly, taking up the mantel.

The final player I wanted to talk about is one of Leipzig’s ever-present players since he signed from Rapid Vienna and loaned to Austrian rivals Red Bull Salzburg and then returned to the RasenBallsport first-team for the 2015/16 season and he has been part of the core squad ever since. Though I may have been fanciful in believing Kerem Demirbay could’ve played for City, Marcel Sabitzer definitely could reach that level. At his best, he is a classy marauder with the ability to provide both goals and assists, alongside a combative defensive contribution found only in the very best and most dedicated attacking midfielders. He was relatively poor in the match against Hoffenheim, until he provided a delicious pass the kids these days are calling a ’pre-assist’ to unlock the entire Hoffenheim defence and earn his team a point.

In Leipzig’s debut season, Sabitzer scored eight goals and hit four assists. Although he has not beaten this overall number last season, plagued by injury, and is on three goals and two assists for this season, he has an ability which cannot be quantified. At just 24, like much of Leipzig’s squad he has his best years ahead of him, yet he is rarely mentioned when people discuss RasenBallsport, electing to discuss Werner, Keïta or Forsberg instead. Sabitzer can play in basically every midfield position, and has even begun a transition to play a deeper, more central role, spending roughly half of this season in the centre, rather than his previously preferred right-wing position which he occupied for Leipzig’s first two Bundesliga seasons. This versatility, and the fact he is capable with both feet, speaks for itself in regards to the ways in which Sabitzer could be used by Nagelsmann.

Final Comments

These discussions are obviously established under certain assumptions. The first is that Nagelsmann will utilise the same system and formations that he uses at Hoffenheim. Ralf Ragnick, though he plays a similar game to Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim, prefers to play with a back-four which can convert to a back-three when needed. It is a big assumption, of course, that the likes of Upamecano, Halstenberg and Sabitzer will look to emulate Vogt, Schulz and Demirbay. Though the aims of Hoffenheim and Leipzig are, in the short-term, the same, I suspect Nagelsmann will believe that he can go one step further with his new club, especially given the fact that Bayern look weaker than ever. Though Hoffenheim have been decent this season – they lie in eighth place, only four points off fifth placed Wolfsburg, while finishing bottom of their Champions League group despite giving a good account of themselves – Nagelsmann is not the finished article as a coach. Defensively, they have been weak: they have both scored and conceded in all but two of their Bundesliga games. A bizarre stat. Moreover, the club have had nine score draws in their last twelve games in the Bundesliga.

He will find a team with different long-term aims. It is unlikely that Hoffenheim could have ever seriously challenged for the Bundesliga title. At Leipzig, Nagelsmann has the opportunity to work himself into the Red Bull brand amongst all the genuinely frightening cartoon bulls that lace the stadium’s inner-wall, and create some history that critics say the club desperately lacks. After all, the actual Red Bull co-founder remarked that in 500 years-time, Bayern Munich will be 600 years-old while Leipzig will be 500 years-old – outlining his aims and beliefs. Like it or not, it seems Leipzig are here to stay, and despite fierce criticism that I will leave up to you to decide the validity of, they are making moves.

The signing of Julian Nagelsmann presents the logical next step for both sides. In many ways, Monday’s game was the perfect metaphor. Nagelsmann’s men bested a team superior in personnel for the best part of ninety minutes before it coming undone thanks to some individual quality from the other side. The German has endeavoured upon of the most promising futures in football, and he now awaits his place at a side which mirrors his meteoric rise, despite the difference in circumstances of said rise. For RasenBallsport Leipzig, the journey is only just beginning. After all, they have 490 years of history to make.

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