Julian Nagelsmann’s short managerial career has already proven he is one of the brightest minds in football. His work at Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig earned him the most prestigious job in Germany as head coach of Bayern Munich. Many expected Nagelsmann to bring his innovative style of coaching to the best team in the land, but Nagelsmann has already proven how good he is by... changing very little.
Beyond just a great football brain, Nagelsmann has the ability to connect with his dressing room and embrace what makes each player great, and then design a system to maximize their potential. He does like to see football played a certain way — intense, possession-based, always looking to attack — but it is a quiet, modest, patient transformation rather than a complete stylistic metamorphosis right out of the gates.
Nagelsmann realizes that this Bayern team won six titles in 2020 and has several of the best players on planet Earth. They don’t need crazy amounts of information or a deep rewriting of their footballing codes; they need an exciting, smart voice that challenges them to add maybe a wrinkle or two to their games to reach a new level.
Just a couple of months into his new job, Nagelsmann has done just that. His Bayern side doesn’t play his favorite 5-3-2 formation (or does it?), it doesn’t overload one side of the pitch like crazy to create mismatches (one of Nagelsmann’s favorite moves at Hoffenheim) and the players pretty much stay in their favorite positions.
Nagelsmann’s Bayern are a simple team, with just enough added spices to make them potentially even scarier than they were under Hansi Flick when the coach’s philosophy is fully implemented. And if Flick’s team beat Barça 8-2 in Lisbon just over a year ago, the prospects are quite frightening ahead of their visit to Camp Nou in the Champions League opener on Tuesday.
So what exactly does Nagelsmann’s Bayern do? In attack, they build from the back with patience, with a 3-1-4-2 setup (Nagelsmann’s pet formation, which he hasn’t abandoned completely) that gives players several passing options to break out of the press. Dayot Upamecano at the base of the back three and Joshua Kimmich as the pivot are the crucial pieces of the process, and both are truly exceptional passers who can go short and long depending on the level of pressure they’re facing.
The two defenders either side of Upamecano, who are usually two of the Benjamin Pavard, Niklas Süle and Lucas Hernández trio are tasked with playing penetrating passes through the lines if Kimmich is marked, and the four players ahead of Kimmich are asked to come back to the ball if necessary.
Alphonso Davies is given the freedom to play quite high in this shape, almost as a left winger, using the threat of his pace and individual skill to occupy at least one defender, leaving space in the middle for the likes of Thomas Müller, Leon Goretzka and usually Leroy Sané to receive the ball in space and feed Robert Lewandowski. The right winger, usually Serge Gnabry (doubtful for Tuesday with an injury), has the same responsibility as Davies.
Müller and Goretzka are perhaps the most important pieces of Nagelsmann’s offensive system, with the freedom and duty to roam all around the attacking half to provide passing options and connect the team in possession. Once the ball reaches the final third, players are free to break out of their slots and converge on the box for crosses and rebounds, and Nagelsmann encourages as many crosses and shots from distance as possible.
The 3-1-4-2 shape is the only true difference between Nagelsmann and Hansi Flick when it comes to the buildup phase. Flick had most of the same principles in possession, but his team played in more of a 4-2-3-1 with both full-backs pushing up and the wingers moving centrally.
Another similarity between Flick and Nagelsmann is when it comes to pressing: both coaches want suffocating pressure very high up the pitch, and Nagelsmann — like Ronald Koeman at Barça — is a fan of man-to-man marking in the opponent’s buildup. But it’s not just about being man-to-man: Nagelsmann wants his players to give the opposition zero space to breathe, pressuring not just the man on the ball but denying space to the closest options.
My favorite Nagelsmann wrinkle is the position of Leroy Sané, pictured below:
Even though Leroy Sané is not exactly known for his defending, his position there is not a result of him being lazy or caught out of position. In a normal 4-4-2 defensive system, Leroy would be on the same line as the rest of the midfield on the left side, but he’s way up front alongside Müller and Lewandowski. Sané is there on purpose to stop Leipzig’s Willi Orban from playing an easy pass to the full-back on the right.
Nagelsmann’s Bayern wants the opponent to play long as much as possible, trusting that the back four, full of tall and quick players, will deal with any balls played over the top into space. Even when their high pressing doesn’t work and they have to retreat into their own half, Bayern remain active and press the hell out of the ball, with as narrow a defensive formation as you are likely to see:
But none of those defensive instructions mean anything if the players aren’t intense, and that is the crucial piece of Nagelsmann’s defense: crazy intensity. Bayern players don’t stop running, pressuring the man on the ball and the nearby opponents at all times, forcing the opposition to either go long or back to the goalkeeper.
What Bayern really want, though, is to steal the ball in midfield. Once they do, it’s time to send the cavalry. Bayern’s counter-attacks under Nageslmann are absolutely insane, with at least six players running as fast as they possibly can towards the box looking for a goal.
Seriously, look at this:
Like any team that plays such a high-intensity, high-risk defensive style, Bayern can be caught out of position and Barça have enough good passers in midfield and attack to catch the Bavarians out with one-touch passes, one-two combinations and through balls into space, but the chances to do that do not come very often because Bayern are very well-drilled in their high pressing scheme going back to the Flick days.
Yeah, they’re scary. Really scary. Bayern’s players have bought into Nagelsmann’s principles from day one, and the 4-1 win away to last season’s runners-up RB Leipzig was as impressive and terrifying a performance as they could hope for ahead of the visit to Camp Nou.
Nagelsmann has great ideas, and he now has a team with great players. The problem he had at Hoffenheim and Leipzig was that his teams created a lot but didn’t score enough, mostly because they didn’t have world-class talent up front. Now he has Lewandowski, the answer to the question “what if Thanos played sports?”, and a ridiculously skilled group of midfielders to create for him.
With all that talent, Nagelsmann doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel and come up with a system that squeezes every last drop of talent from a not-so-great group of players. He just needs to keep it simple and fun so his players continue to buy in and play together. If they do, Bayern might destroy everyone this season — including Barça.