August 23, 2017

How Julian Nagelsmann turned Hoffenheim around

How did a 30-year-old turn relegation battlers into a Champions League side?


Julian Nagelsmann should be a name you would of heard recently or sometime in the last year. The 30-year-old German coach lead Hoffenheim to unprecedented spot in Europe last year,  and this is all the more remarkable considering when Nagelsmann took over in February 2016 the team were languishing in 17th in the league, 7 points from safety. However a record of 7 wins from the remaining 14 games saw Hoffenheim avoid the relegation play-off position by 1 point.

Hoffenheim should be praised for placing trust of the club’s future in an inexperienced manger and as a result it paid off because now they are currently, at the time of writing, facing Liverpool for a second leg Champions League playoff against Liverpool; by January of 2017, Nagelsmann’s team were the only unbeaten team left in Europe’s top five leagues and were on a 17 game unbeaten streak. But how exactly did Nagelsmann turn the Hoffenheim around?

Nagelsmann has been quoted as saying that coaching is “70% social competence and 30% tactics” which has lead to praise as he has created a good bond with the players at Hoffenheim. While this is an important concept of Nagelsmann’s coaching he is also a very astute tactician.

Hoffenheim generally line up as a 5-1-2-2 or alternatively 3-1-4-2 with 3 center-backs with two wing backs usually in a 5 at the back system with one holding midfielder and 4 attacking players, lined up mainly as 2 central midfielders and 2 strikers. This is a very flexible system though as the defensive cover provided by the back six mean that the central midfielders can drift wide from their central positions. This wouldn’t have been able to achievable this last season without the energy and intelligence of the holding midfielder Sebastian Rudy – now at Bayern Munich – or the versatility of Kevin Vogt.

Kevin Vogt is very important to the system. Initially signed as a central midfielder from FC Köln, he was converted into a centre back under Nagelsmann. Vogt is capable of pushing up in a holding midfielder role as well as being a reliable defender; he would normally switch roles if Hoffenheim switched to a four at the back last season, playing behind Rudy in order to prevent an overload in central areas from the opposition. Vogt was a revelation last season under Nagelsmann: his pass completion rate was 92%, which is incredible considering he attempts around 50 forward passes a game, and his average pass length is around 22.22m meters.

In defence Hoffenheim press hard, which is typical of German football teams recently, as we have seen in the Premier League with Klopp’s use of ‘Gegenpressing’, though Liverpool are happier to keep hold of possession and build slowly from defense to attack. This contrasts with other pressing teams who try and counter when they turn the ball over high up the field.

In attack Hoffenheim play a simply system of vertical passing from centre back to striker. This was usually conducted by Süle – who also left Hoffenheim for Bayern – or Vogt, both of whom are comfortable passers of the ball. The idea behind this is to break lines between the oppositions midfield and start a quick transition to attack, the strikers then lay the ball back off to the central midfielders. The central midfielders tend be to adequate dribblers such as Demirbay and can drive into space created and orchestrate attacks from there. If these vertical passing channels are blocked then the wing backs offer lateral passing channels by pushing further forward. If Hoffenheim come up against teams that sit back then they try and overload the space in between the lines by moving to a formation that resembles a 3-1-6.

The future of Hoffenheim looks bright for the time being. Both Süle and Rudy have been snapped up by Bayern Munich and are hard players to replace, especially Rudy who is so vital to the system because his energy and position awareness means that the attacking front four are provided with a solid back six so they can work their magic up the field, knowing they have adequate protection behind them. But Nagelsmann is an astute tactician and will come up with a way to fix this dilemma, whether that may be pushing Vogt up into Rudy’s position, or finding another way.

Nagelsmann is defying the age-old stereotype that experience is key factor in results and we should appreciate everything he has done at Hoffenheim in his relativity short career so far. It won’t be long before he takes over a bigger club. Who knows? He may be coming to English shores one day.

About this author