There are few sights that warm the hearts of football fans quite like a young academy graduate pulling on their team’s jersey, making the leap from youth team or reserve football into first-team action.
Homegrown youngsters often become the apple of supporters’ eyes, and tend to be cut a little more slack than would be afforded to a big-money import; a misplaced pass from the latest transfer window signing will draw a collective groan, whereas a young up-and-comer might receive an encouraging round of applause in recognition of his effort.
But what about when a manager, younger than all of his peers – and, indeed, some of his players – works his way up from within to take the top job?
Well, that’s the case with 29-year-old TSG 1899 Hoffenheim boss Julian Nagelsmann. The fresh-faced coach successfully guided the club’s under-19 side to the national championship in 2014, and almost repeated the feat the following season, reaching the final – only to lose to Schalke 04.
Nagelsmann had been earmarked to take the reins of the first team at the beginning of the 2016/17 campaign, but when Huub Stevens – who had been given a short-term contract to steady the ship before Nagelsmann was due to step in – had to resign due to heart problems in February of this year, the young tactician was fast-tracked into the hot seat, becoming the youngest ever Bundesliga manager in the process.
Nagelsmann did not find the team in a healthy situation, either, with Hoffenheim sat in 17th place in the Bundesliga, just one place off the bottom and destined for relegation.
But the Landsberg am Lech native approached the situation with supreme confidence and calmness that belied his lack of top level experience. Nagelsmann reinvigorated the flagging side and, with a few astute tactical switches – such as, utilising a fluid back three and instituting a high-pressing approach – raised Hoffenheim out of danger and into the relative comfort of 15th place.
A run of 23 points from 14 matches saw achtzehn99 end 2015/16 four points clear of the automatic drop zone – and one point ahead of Eintracht Frankfurt in the 16th-place ‘relegation play-off' position.
As a player, Nagelsmann was a defender of some promise at 1860 Munich and then Augsburg, only for his career to be cut short by injury at the age of 20, having never made his professional debut.
But as one door closes, another opens. Nagelsmann used the disappointment of having his footballing dreams crushed to spur him on to become a top coach.
While a player at Augsburg, Nagelsmann crossed paths with Thomas Tuchel – the current Borussia Dortmund boss – who was in charge of the Fuggerstädter’s reserves. Upon Nagelsmann’s retirement, Tuchel gave him the task of scouting upcoming opponents. “That was my way into coaching,” Nagelsmann has since said. “I learned a lot from him.”
Tuchel remains one of the biggest influences on Nagelsmann’s managerial approach. Hoffenheim’s high-press and desire to win the ball in the opposition’s territory is a hallmark shared with Tuchel’s BVB. “I like to attack the opponents near their own goal because your own way to the goal is not as long if you get the ball higher up,” Nagelsmann explained.
From Dortmund, Tuchel has been keeping an eye on his former scout’s progress: “He's a very inquisitive and very hard working young coach,” he said. “He has enjoyed exceptional successes in youth football. I'm very happy for him and I believe in him.”
But Nagelsmann’s influences stretch beyond his time working under Tuchel at Augsburg. The studious coach has taken inspiration from some of Europe’s finest: “I like the way Villarreal play and they have a great way of coaching young players. I also like FC Barcelona and Arsenal as well as the work of Arsène Wenger.”
And like Wenger, Nagelsmann belongs to a fraternity of modern coaches who played little top-level football, if any at all. Manchester United manager
Nagelsmann has been likened to the former Real Madrid and Chelsea manager for his pragmatic approach. Although Nagelsmann enjoys playing on the front foot and attacking, like Mourinho, he adapts his approach to the opponent he faces; analysis and understanding of the opposition – perfected during the scouting missions for Tuchel – are key to formulating a specific game plan.
Nagelsmann served as assistant coach to caretaker manager Frank Kramer during the 2012/13 season after the sacking of Markus Babbel, so he is no stranger to a Bundesliga bench. “When Frank Kramer called, I had to laugh. I didn't think he was being serious,” admitted Nagelsmann.
When Kramer was moved back to his regular role of coaching the reserves, Nagelsmann remained on the bench to assist Marco Kurz, and then Markus Gisdol once Kurz was sacked after just four months in charge. Despite the managerial upheaval, Hoffenheim managed to stave off relegation.
One consequence of being thrust into the Hoffenheim top job ahead of schedule is that Nagelsmann has had to combine his day-to-day training ground duties with studying for his senior coaching license. The Bundesliga authorities gave Nagelsmann special dispensation to manage Hoffenheim without all of the relevant qualifications, but for a man with a sports science degree, juggling his day job with his studies has not proven to be a problem in the slightest.
It is thought that Nagelsmann is already on the radar of Bayern Munich, with the Bundesliga giants monitoring the young coach’s progress to see if he has got what it takes to eventually take over at the Allianz Arena.
But for now, Nagelsmann is fully focussed on the task at hand with Hoffenheim, and this season he will be hoping to keep Die Kraichgauer clear of any relegation drama as he sets his sights on climbing towards the top half of the table.
However, if the 29-year-old former youth team coach finds himself in the midst of the kind of barren spell which inevitable befalls all managers at some stage of their career, he can count on the supporters inside the Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena sticking by him, in defiant support of one of their own.