How tragedy helped mould
a managerial phenom
The anguish is still acute, pushing up from Julian Nagelsmann’s throat to punctuate his words as he recounts a half-year period, aged 20, that tornadoed his life.
Having suffered cruciate ligament damage, he sacrificed weeks of sleep while wrestling with the decision to prematurely end his playing career. Then, far more cruelly, his father Erwin unexpectedly passed away after a short illness.
“The big dream to become a professional player broke down and this certainly hurt,” the Hoffenheim manager, who first pulled on boots as a three-year-old to join his village side FC Issing, recalls to JOE. “I felt and thought back then that I wasted all my youth, that it was all for nothing. It just felt terrible. First, there was that decision I had to take to stop playing and then, more painfully, was the death of my dad. That changed a lot of things in my family.
“We were a very close and happy household. Along with my elder brother, I have an older sister and we all went on holidays together a lot. We got along very well, and then suddenly, we lost our father. That was a huge cut in my life.”
Nagelsmann, who had moved to Bavaria’s capital at 15 to turn out for 1860 Munich’s youth team as a defender before signing for Augsburg, immediately returned to the family home in the southwest town of Landsberg am Lech. With his senior siblings remote, he assumed administrative duties after his dad’s passing.
“I saw it as my responsibility to take care of things and deal with whatever comes with the death of a person, like in our case: selling the house, dealing with insurances, and the car,” the 30-year-old explains.
“I had to organise all things I never thought about before, but that needed to be dealt with. You realise then what it all means. My siblings were away from home and working elsewhere so I took care of most of it. Having to go through all of this helped me to come to terms with it.
“My father was always a very happy man, and certainly would've wanted us to continue to be positive and try to be successful. I managed to find my peace with it: the situation was like it was and nothing could be changed about it.
“I realised later that it all made me more mature and grown in my life. I did maybe things that were not normal for somebody my age.”
Nagelsmann circles back to these dark days as the illumination behind him becoming the youngest permanent head coach in Bundesliga history and one of the most coveted managerial minds in the game. The mountain of grief that would have marmalised most offered perspective to the former centre-back, providing him with a maturity that has been indispensable.
“It was absolutely the saddest moment in my life,” he shares on saying goodbye to his ‘geliebter papa’, who was only 56. “I obviously would have preferred it differently, but in the end, all the responsibility helped me in my growth and development as a man and later as a coach.
“You get to know that there is something so much more important in life than football, which is the family. It opens your eyes. It helps you make decisions that others might not be able to take, and as a coach you are faced with decisions constantly.
“You experience and feel a lot of pressure being in this job, but then your private life shows you that there are many more significant things around. I am very passionate about football, and about coaching, but it’s not everything to me. I love it, but it is not life or death.”
Here at Dietmar-Hopp-Sportpark, Hoffenheim’s training ground crammed with innovation, Nagelsmann’s influence and distinction is evident. He has ensured the club are at cutting edge of advancements in the game - from use of the Footbonaut to calibrate touch and control, to the giant videowall installed on the halfway line of the main pitch, which can pull footage off four cameras for real-time analysis.
Mix in his devotion to detail as well as bottomless tactical knowledge and Nagelsmann is often erroneously typecast as a ‘laptop coach’ - all about numbers and formations. He is, actually, quite the opposite. “I strongly believe that if you want to be a successful coach, empathy and taking care of the person behind the player is of greater importance than any tactical aspects,” Nagelsmann notes.
“If you have limited tactical knowledge, you can still be a successful coach. On the other hand, if you have great tactical qualities, but you are not good with man management, you will never be successful. I place great emphasis in giving my players a clear tactical plan to give them help and support in match situations. But the relationship I have with them is very, very important to me.
“I enjoy coming here every day. The atmosphere we created over the last two years with all the people working here, and especially with the players, is the foundation for us in trying to be successful. If you enjoy doing your job and feel comfortable at work, then you learn more, and you are more efficient compared to if you don’t really like to go to work.
“I am a coach who always likes to have a laugh, but also talks about personal matters, and who can also take in jokes and make fun of myself. I am not that serious kind of guy. I don’t like when players have a problem or aren’t happy with something, and I think a lot more about that than if a player isn’t able to transmit a tactical plan on the pitch.”
There is evidence of the genial environment at Hoffenheim in the way he interacts with Head of Media Holger Kliem, an intern, and sporting director Alexander Rosen following a morning training session.
"If you have limited tactical
knowledge, you can still be a
successful coach. On the other
hand, if you have great tactical
qualities, but you are not good
with man management, you
will never be successful"
Nagelsmann’s talent of combining tactical theories with a personal touch was so nearly lost to football.
After having to surrender his ambitions of playing, he went through a “four to six week period where I didn’t want anything at all to do with the game.” That prompted a desire to throw himself into something totally different, with business studies ticking the box and BMW offering him a new route. It was former Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel, who is expected to take charge at Paris Saint-Germain ahead of next season, that diverted his trajectory.
The tactician, 14 years his senior and then at Augsburg II, had also endured a serious knee injury curtailing his days as a footballer.
“I was interested in economy so I studied business science,” Nagelsmann takes up the story. “I passed my mid-term exams and had already been offered a job at BMW in sales. To earn money for my studies, I worked as a scout for Tuchel at Augsburg II, where I still had a contract, but I still didn’t really realise that I wanted to become a coach. When Tuchel later said to me that I should try the coaching route and an offer came from 1860 Munich to work as their Under-17 assistant coach in 2008, I decided to give it a try.
“After a few weeks, there was so much passion and I felt the fire burning in me. I had so much fun being back on the pitch. But this time it was from a different perspective. I sort of had that view already as I watched a lot of matches from the bench due to several injuries, but I never analysed it on purpose with the objective to later become a coach.
“When I got the chance to experience it at 1860 Munich, I knew immediately that coaching was made for me. That is why I also decided to study sports science just to get a certain basic background of what is going on in, for example, the medical department.
“It is helpful to be able to talk about injuries and understand the recovery process. The other reason was that a career in coaching wasn’t guaranteed and I needed to have an option to earn money in another way. In the end, everything worked out a lot more successful than initially planned.”
Quickly, those who worked with Nagelsmann or watched from a distance realised he was today’s tomorrow. He progressed to become the assistant coach of Hoffenheim’s U17s, before taking full charge of the team. He was then promoted to the club’s backroom staff under Frank Kramer in 2012-13.
The season after, he led their U19s to the Bundesliga championship and during this period, Hoffenheim had mapped out their masterplan: Nagelsmann, who had completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Sports Science, would be appointed first-team manager ahead of the 2016-17 campaign.
“The first agreement we made was in November 2015 that I would take over the following summer,” he remembers, with Bayern Munich unsuccessful in their attempts to recruit him as their U23 boss despite a full charm offensive that included a brief meeting with Pep Guardiola. “Things changed when Huub Stevens unfortunately suffered heart problems and I had to immediately step in earlier than expected.”
It was 11 February 2016 when a 28-year-old Nagelsmann was catapulted into the hotseat, with Hoffenheim second from bottom in the Bundesliga. While there was enthusiasm within the club and among the players, the German press were not impressed with Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung labelling it a “PR stunt,” while Frankfurter Rundschau went with ‘Schnapsidee’ - a “crackpot idea” that could only have materialised under the influence of alcohol.
Those assertions were of no bother to Nagelsmann. “My first thought was what a hard and long way we had in avoiding relegation. And my second was that we only had a chance to survive if we played with courage through attacking football,” Germany's 2016-17 Manager of the Season says.
“It was all about winning matches, and not just to defend because we needed points. We then had two nice runs, also heavy setbacks, but we managed to deservedly stay in the Bundesliga. It was only by one point, so it was pretty close, but we shouldn’t forget that there was already a 10-point gap to 15th in the table and were ranked 17th when I started. We also lost to Darmstadt, who were ranked behind us, before Stevens resigned so nothing was in our favour.
“I always liked to take risks in my life, and it was certainly a risk for me to accept the task and for the club to trust me with it and follow my way as well.”
Taking over with Hoffenheim in such a precarious position was taxing enough, but Nagelsmann had to combine the battle for survival with the completion of his coaching qualifications.
“I had to still finish my formation course to get my licence,” he laughs, shaking his head in part-disbelief as he rewinds to a frantic period that saw him secure an A grade nevertheless.
“Right in the middle of our fight against relegation, I also had to take my final exams and I was under immense pressure, especially mentally. I would go from preparing for a match against Borussia Dortmund on Sunday, to then take a test on Monday and another one on a Wednesday morning, before we played against Augsburg in the evening.
“Then on the Saturday we had an important match against Stuttgart, who were also trying to avoid relegation. It was the craziest weeks of my life. It was a time that you don’t really need if you want to live longer than 30 years!”
"I've always liked to take risks in my life, and it was certainly a risk for me to accept the task and for
the club to trust me with it and follow my way"
There was no time to pore over his first address as the club’s manager either. “I got the phone call on Sunday night, and the first meeting was at 10am the next day. I didn’t have long to prepare, but I wasn’t about thinking about a lot of words,” Nagelsmann reveals.
“I just wanted to transmit my message, which was to be courageous and play attacking football. To think about winning matches and not live in fear, looking at goal difference and playing within ourselves to defend and try not to lose.
“The other important message was about how I was picturing the relationship between me as coach and the players. I told them that they can be themselves despite all the pressure due to our fight against relegation and that we are all at the same level, with one difference, which is that I am the one who takes the decisions at the end.
“Age doesn’t matter, it is all about having a good atmosphere and relationship with each other filled with respect. And we all needed to have the same objective.”
Nagelsmann, who salutes Tuchel and former Hoffenheim youth coach Xaver Zembrod for igniting his interest in fresh ideas, navigated the difficulty as he wanted to - courageously - with Hoffenheim registering seven victories in their last 14 games to remain in Germany’s top flight.
Then, the real magic happened. The motocross aficionado, who also won the Bavarian championships in the 50m sprint as a youngster, modified a limited squad into European football contenders. Liverpool, swashbuckling their way to and through the Champions League semi-final, denied Die Kraichgauer a seat at club football’s top table during the qualification play-off.
And despite ceding their core - Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy in the summer, with Sandro Wagner following them in January - to Bayern Munich and dealing with the increased workload of the Europa League, Hoffenheim are again pushing toward’s joining the continent’s elite.
Following a scorching 5-2 showing at RB Leipzig last weekend, they are just two points off Bayer Leverkusen in fourth, a position which would guarantee group stage participation under the competition’s revamp from 2018.
Only Borussia Dortmund - by one - and Bayern have outscored Hoffenheim in the league this season, and in fact, during the first two years of Nagelsmann’s reign, they are the only teams to have posted up more points in the division. “This is an extraordinary achievement for the club,” he proudly says. “We are not a giant in Germany, and for that, it has to be ranked even higher.
“It is all thanks to the bravery of my players and the coaching staff because, at the end of the day, we want to be able to celebrate three points having played enjoyable football.”
Nagelsmann does not only obsess over Hoffenheim’s progress, he is a big advocate in doing as much as possible to ensure football’s future generation have as many opportunities as possible. He was the first head coach to join Common Goal, created by Juan Mata and streetfootballworld, which uses the game to generate social change.
“I know that I live on the sunny side of life,” Nagelsmann, who also donates to Freezone in Mannheim and Stuttgart-based KICKFAIR, says.
“I have a job at which I earn good money and I know that everywhere in the world, but also in Germany, there is a lot of poverty with people needing help. The reason for me to sign up for Common Goal was that football gives you the great possibility of a big change. If you as a coach or as a player engage with such charity, it raises a lot of awareness and you can convince other people to join.
“I also support two local organisations that focus on trying to give kids a better future through football and through teaching them values. To offer support is very important because they are our future. The culture of kids going to sport clubs from an early age that we had in Germany has been vanishing. We have the power to help change that and we have to use it.”
On his own future, Nagelsmann is more measured. It is unsurprising that the likes of Bayern, Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal have charted his rise and circled his name, but the father of one who is under contract until 2021 with a release clause that becomes active next summer, is in no hurry to move on.
"Every player and every coach plans his
career and I guess there will be a next
step coming for me in the future, but
it will happen when the time is right"
“The next step in my career needs to be something special, because I want to underline that I feel very well here. And I have been saying that a lot also in my private life, that I always enjoy coming to work,” Nagelsmann says.
“We have a great atmosphere here with the whole coaching staff - we are all pretty young, but very focused on our work and can make jokes with each other. The team has great character and there is a close relationship - a friendship - between the players and the backroom staff.
“I owe the club a lot, and the club owes me something as well, so I think it works out very well together. We managed to put Hoffenheim on the map in Germany, but also across Europe, which is a nice aspect.
“Every player and every coach plans his career and I guess there will be a next step coming for me in the future, but it will happen when the time is right. And if it doesn’t happen, I will still be happy and glad to come to work here and be on the pitch here. Whenever there is a club that I feel tempted to coach, and that raises my interest, then I might take a next step. But have been working for Hoffenheim now since 2010 and I am happy.”
It would be Schnapsidee for a top club not to indulge Nagelsmann’s cocktail of trailblazing and togetherness in the near future.