There are only a few football enthusiasts in the world, who haven’t had a sniff of Football Manager - the world renowned simulation game. It acts as a way out for those who have always dreamt of managing a football club and its approach to football management has probably given many a hands-on experience of being a gaffer at the top.
Seeing a mate of yours taking pride in guiding Middlesbrough to the Champions League final isn’t a rarity, thanks to the game. That mate of yours would probably have achieved that a very young age in their manager career. But the reality comes crashing down on you, once you quit the game and come out of it.
It is then that you end up realizing that it’s only just a game and it’s very unlikely that whatever you achieve in the game comes true, unless you hadn’t won the Premier League with Leicester before the Foxes actually did that.
But, there’s another man in this world, who making his own dreams not in the game, but in real life. He’s just as young as a player, who could be at the peak of his career right now. Or rather, he’s as old as the manager you could be doing miracles with on Football Manager. The man we’re talking about is Hoffenheim manager Julian Nagelsmann.
At the age of 29, the German is fondly counted among the best managers in the Bundesliga right now and his Hoffenheim outfit seem to give an impression of being managed by a manager who knows more about the game than Nagelsmann. But behind the baby-face of the man from Landsberg, exists a footballing individual who has often drawn comparisons to Jose Mourinho himself.
Nagelsmann is not your orthodox football manager, who gained experience of staying in the game by first playing it and then by resorted to managing. His meagre playing background may just end up surprising you, when you bat an eye at his achievements as a manager.
How did he end up managing?
His playing spells at 1860 Munich II and Augsburg II couldn’t help Nagelsmann materialize a respectable playing career after a series of serious knee injuries at the age of 20 ended his career prematurely. But, the German was intent on making in-roads in the game, despite failing to make the most out of his playing career.
Nagelsmann opted to take up Business Administration in university for four semesters, but later switched to studying Sports Science. After having completed his studies at 22, Nagelsmann returned to Augsburg and had a brief spell under current Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel too.
His stint as the coach of the Under 17s Hoffenheim side from 2011 to 2012, helped him earn a reputation for being a decent coach and co-accidently, the rise to prominence of Davie Selke took place during this season. The next season, Nagelsmann was made the assistant coach of the first team and coached the under-19s side until February, 2016.
During that time, Hoffenheim had nose-dived into the dreaded relegation zone under Hubb Stevens, whose predecessor - Markus Gisdol’s decision to sell Roberto Firmino to Liverpool had hurt the Die Kraichgauer substantially.
Nagelsmann was supposed to take over from Stevens after the Dutchman had cited heart problems as the reason for his resignation from the post. This was dubbed as many as being mere ‘publicity stunt’ by the club, apart from being a bad idea. But Nagelsmann became the youngest manager ever to manage a Bundesliga club at the age of 28.
That’s when Nagelsmann revolution at the Sinsheim based club began taking shape. Hoffenheim were seven points adrift of a relegation play-off spot, let alone a safe spot and had won only two games in 20 outings. On his appointment, Hoffenheim director of football Alexander Rosen told: "You look at Julian's age. He had already been here six years so we knew what he was able to do. He has a natural feeling for the group, he brings energy, passion and is blessed with talent."
Out of the remaining 14 games, Nagelsmann won seven and guided Hoffenheim to a miraculous survival. And ‘Baby Mourinho’, who identifies the likes of Pep Guardiola and Johan Cruyff as his role-models, had achieved success as a manager despite having failed to accomplish success as a manager, much like the current Manchester United boss. But, it’s during the current season that Nagelsmann’s style and nous is well visible, with Hoffenheim as high as fifth in the table and the men in blue being the only unbeaten side in the Bundesliga right now.
Nagelsmann’s impressive tactical adeptness and man-management skills have earned rave reviews from those who criticised him prior to his appointment as the boss. It’s the certainty about the system that has made his style more compact and successful. The 3-1-4-2 formation, which he is being used to excellent effect, has seen Hoffenheim undergo a radical change from depending on a star player in Firmino to making use of a host of hard-working players in Sebastian Rudy, Pavel Kaderabek, Nadiem Amiri, Niklas Süle, Kevin Vogt and the likes.
Shrewd summer signings
The signings that were made this past summer were those that have delved into the philosophy to perfection, making the side a well-drilled and well-oiled machine. The capture of Kevin Vogt from 1. FC Köln could probably be dubbed as the signing of the season. Having signed for a €3million fee, Vogt’s versatility and ability to help his side build from the deep has been crucial to Hoffenheim’s style. He has been deployed in the middle of the three at the back to compliment quality in the build up and his tendency to play some yards forward has often allowed Nagelsmann’s side the efficiency to shift to a back four rather effortlessly.
The usages of Lukas Rupp, who was roped in from the relegated VfB Stuttgart and that of Andrej Kramaric from Leicester City, have worked out very well too. The duo has formed a crucial part of a side that thrives on dragging the opposition midfielders out of position by deploying wingers who can move centrally. But the man who has to be lauded as the signing of the season is Benjamin Hübner. Acquired from FC Ingolstadt 04 for a €800,000 fee, Hübner has been one of Hoffenheim’s standout players this season at centre-back.
Another signing, who has been grabbing a lot of headlines in Germany, has been Sandro Wagner. The former Bayern Munich man has scored ten times in all competitions since joining from SV Darmstadt 98 for a €2.8 million fee. The German is 29 and just as old as his manager and this goes to show the exceptional man management skill that Nagelsmann possesses, apart from his ability to bring in a spirit of togetherness about the unit. He knows how to instill more hunger and determination into a side that was flailing last season and this happens to be a key part of Nagelsmann’s armory. And focusing more on motivating players and moulding their psychology to a winning mentality is something that Nagelsmann is the best at.
Less reliance on tactics
He once told Suddeutsche Zeitung: “Thirty per cent of coaching is tactics, 70% social competence.”
But being a disciple of Tuchel, Nagelsmann has taken a leaf out of the former 1. FSV Mainz 05 manager’s book. Apart from emphasizing on dragging the opposition midfielders out of position, Hoffenheim are also adept in high-pressing and constantly switching formations due to the presence of numerous flexible players in the side. The cohesiveness that the side possesses makes them a force to be reckoned with, as things stand.
The fact that Football Manager doesn’t allow you to seek as much control of affairs as a real football manager is a bit of a let down, you certainly can come close to doing so. But Nagelsmann revolutionary style and swagger in modus operandi is irreplaceable, it can be said. He’s doing something most of us - football fanatics - can only dream of sitting on a couch at home. He deserves the plaudits that he is receiving, much like a Football Manager master, who achieves ridiculous things on the game.
In the end though, there does exist a line between doing something virtually and imitating that in reality. Julian Nagelsmann is blurring those lines perfectly.