The German Managerial Revolution

The cycles of dominance that football goes through is so often the doing of a group of coaches collecting together in one league or country. The early 1990s were the preserve of Dutch football, Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona and Louis van Gaal’s Ajax being the dominant sides at the time. 

Later that decade, Lippi’s Juventus, and Capello’s Milan and Real Madrid, all won European Cups to make Italian sides the presiding force at the time. 

The late 2000s and early 2010s saw Spain dominate internationally under Luis Aragones, and Vicente Del Bosque, while Barcelona were playing at unprecedented levels domestically under Pep Guardiola.

Germany’s recent international success under Joachim Löw, and the present dominance of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool make these years that of the Germans. There are others beyond Löw and Klopp, originating from Germany and already occupying top jobs, or are lined up to do so. 

This article will look at five of these candidates, the tactics and styles that make them unique, and the clubs that would benefit from their hiring. The 2020s are now the decade of the Bundesliga manager.

Thomas Tuchel

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Other than Klopp and Löw, Tuchel’s name is perhaps the most established on this list. Having succeeded Klopp at Borussia Dortmund in 2015, after five years at Mainz 05 (the side also managed by Klopp), much was expected of Tuchel to adhere to the Dortmund brand of exciting, full-throttle entertainment. He didn’t disappoint, and after just two years at the club, he joined French giants, Paris Saint Germain.

In Paris he remains, so why is he included on this list? As most who take on the PSG manager’s job will testify, it is a peculiar assignment more akin to babysitting than tactical innovation. The presence of big names with even bigger egos, and the club’s status as Europe’s most fashionable club brand, make the managerial influence lesser than at other teams. 

In having to satisfy the needs and individualisms of the likes of Neymar and Mbappe, it often detracts from what Tuchel has shown in his other roles; the mind and intensity of a world-class manager. Soon he may grow tired of this circus, and unless they win the Champions League, it is even more likely that they remove the German before he has the chance to flee.

Unlike Unai Emery, his predecessor at PSG, Tuchel doesn’t appear to be out of his depth, rather that he doesn’t enjoy the quirks of managing a club with such player power. Many recall his days at Mainz as being intense and driven by detail, from running training sessions himself to intervening in practice matches when passes go astray. Tuchel is renowned for his adaptability, and of how his tactics have evolved with each side he has coached.

At Mainz, he demanded an aggressive Gegenpressing system of long ground passes form back to front, with the striker either receiving the ball and holding it up, or losing possession and pressing ferociously in the opposition half. It is a cruder version of Klopp’s Dortmund, and no doubt influenced Dortmund’s decision to hire him as Klopp’s replacement.

At Dortmund, his style evolved to suit the bigger club by focussing on greater possession retention after Klopp’s final season had seen the team’s ability to do so diminish. 

At PSG, he has also addressed key areas to strengthen the side in European competition. Recruiting the industrious Idrissa Gueye and Ander Herrera, has given them a steely core that was previously lacking, and allowed the likes of Angel di Maria, Neymar, and Mbappe to flourish further forward. Gueye has especially been outstanding and proves to be an astute signing that many do not associate with the Parisians.

Such high attention to detail, a willingness to adapt his philosophy to fit situations and players available, and an attractive style that has already taken him to two of the continent’s biggest clubs. This is the resumé of a Pep Guardiola successor if ever there was one. The Parisian side and Manchester City share many similarities. Their links to Middle Eastern oil money, and the pursuit of European success to validate their immense spending since their respective takeovers, to name but two. 

However, they run very differently, with City’s transfer policy being far more catered to the manager, and of the system in place. Yes, the money is still available for spending, but rarely do the club choose to go for superstar over a player who will fit the existing style. 

The likes of Raheem Sterling, David Silva, and Sergio Aguero, have all undergone significant changes under Guardiola to maximise his system. All have added a willingness to press and defend to their games, particularly Silva who has dropped deeper and deeper to become a ball playing deep-lying playmaker, rather than the floating creator that arrived from Valencia. 

Tuchel would likely relish players of such quality who sacrifice the wants of their ego for the manager’s philosophy. Tuchel’s name certainly carries enough prestige by now to warrant a similar commitment from this set of players. It would make for a perfect replacement when the Catalonian decides to move on.

Julien Nagelsmann

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Very few managers gain the respect and admiration that Julien Nagelsmann receives in a career, let alone by the age of 32. His term at Hoffenheim draw eyes to a talented squad, but one that also played with an expressive freedom unexpected of a mid-table side. His first full season at the club saw an improvement of 25 league goals, as well as boasting the second-best defence in the league.

Summer 2019 saw Nagelsmann succeed Ralf Ragnick at RB Leipzig. Many of Ragnick’s methods and philosophies are relevant to the younger manager’s style. At Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann elevated his new side to a new level. They finished third for the second season running, scoring 81 goals compared to the previous year’s 66, as Timo Werner exploded into one of Europe’s elite finishers and best creative forwards. 

RB Leipzig have also progressed into the last eight of the Champions League, ruthlessly dispatching Tottenham both home and away in the previous round.

What does this show? Nagelsmann can implement ideas and a unique style immediately upon joining a club, with the collective philosophies elevating those within his new squad. He applied a 3-4-1-2 and a 3-4-3 at Leipzig from the outset. As Leipzig institutionalised a 4-2-2-2 since their rebirth in 2009, the immediate change shows the respect and prestige the young coach already possesses.

Beyond the formation, Nagelsmann’s approaches to attack and defence are astute and unique. His use of centre-backs at wing-back and vice versa make his players rounded and versatile across the backline. His use of Nordi Mukiele as an attacking wing-back this year, despite being lauded as a great future centre-back, couple with the reverse positioning of Lukas Klostermann, has showcased the use of versatile defenders in his system.

At times, Nagelsmann has fielded three centre-backs consisting of Dayot Upamecano flanked by two full-backs in Klostermann and Marcel Halstenberg. While injuries to key central-defenders have enforced such progressive selections, the German’s insistence on holding the ball horizontally amongst the defensive players, instead of countering without shape, makes this system work to his liking.

Similarly, the use of Werner as an inside-forward to run onto through balls from the central-midfielders, and of Christopher Nkunku to both sit deep, drive forward and accelerate opposition half-spaces, maximises weakness in the opposition shape and understands the strengths of his players to fill multiple roles.

Liverpool’s love affair with their German manager may not show any signs of ending soon, but when it does, Nagelsmann would be the ideal candidate. The younger German may not possess the same touchline charisma nor chest beating antics of the former Dortmund coach, the presence of a manager as young and vibrant as Nagelsmann may energise a club and city on a low when Klopp does eventually depart.

His ability to unlock unexpected aspects of player’s games, such as the exceptional ball carrying of Nkunku and the deeper box-to-box qualities of Marcel Sabitzer, would add dimensions to an already superb Liverpool squad. His rotation of players such as Mukiele and Nkunku in various positions may also give Liverpool fans their chance to see Trent Alexander-Arnold in centre of midfield, or even centre back. Expect the unexpected with this exceptional young German tactician.

Marco Rose

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Leipzig and Nagelsmann proved a successful match, with the status of both improved by the relationship with the other. It was at Leipzig’s sister club, RB Salzburg, that Marco Rose appeared on people’s radar. In his two years in Austria, Rose won the league title twice, the Austrian Cup in 2018-19, and managed never to lose a home game.

The nature of that Red Bull system, and the movement of talent within it (both managerial and players) make Rose an obvious choice for Leipzig manager. Fast, attractive football, a young manager, and one who was even born in the city. Yet, his season with Borussia Monchengladbach has perhaps elevated the 46-year-old’s standing in the game to levels even greater.

Exciting and tactically imaginative, Monchengladbach have overperformed expectations in cementing a Champions League spot. At times, Gladbach represented the league’s best attacking outfit as Bayern failed to hit their stride till the latter half of the campaign. Their attacking proficiency was headlined by strikers Marcus Thuram and Alassane Plea; the former a young unknown quantity and the second a previously mid-table French forward.

Under Rose’s guidance, the two strikers have lined up together, occasionally as part of a three with a winger. Very rarely do sides with Champions League ambition frequent a formation with two strikers. Instead, one centre-forward with inverted or goalscoring wingers either side is more commonplace. 

Yet, the movement and hold-up play extracted from these two players have allowed the Foals to play to Rose’s preferred intensity. In using a four-man diamond midfield, with the excellent ball-winner Denis Zakaria at the base, Gladbach look to congest the central areas and capitalise on loose balls won through intercepting central passes. The ball is then moved at pace to the forwards, who are on the move past the halfway line. Quick interchanges between Thuram and Plea, with the full-backs overlapping, and one forward passing across goal for the other to finish, is how the Gladbach juggernaut attacks. 

They averaged only 51.7% possession in the league this season, demonstrating the speed and directness of their attacks.

Ultimately, the narrowness of Rose’s midfield makes them susceptible to wide attacks, with no wide midfielders to cover the runs of opposition wingers. However, the dynamism of this attacking system makes them highly threatening, and saw them score eleven more goals, and achieve ten more points than they did the previous year.

For clubs who have shown a desire to recruit young, and want a manager to bring through youthful talent, the finger points towards Arsenal and Tottenham who both have the teams and fanbases to welcome Rose. The time that will likely be afforded to Arsenal coach, Mikel Arteta, given his young age and potential, means that Tottenham appears a more realistic future destination.

The relationship between Plea and Thuram, harboured by Rose’s system, would benefit Harry Kane and Son Heung Min. The two Tottenham strikers show a fundamental understanding and dovetail beautifully, even when Son plays off the wing. Steven Bergwijn and Dele Alli also like to bomb forward and take shots at goal, and would suit either of the attacking slots, or as the point of the diamond behind the strikers.

Under Mourinho, Spurs play with little attacking identity, defend in mid to low blocks before countering, and possess a raft of talented midfielders. This would make Rose’s appointment an astute one and doing so would see the aggressive forward-led press return after dying with Mourinho’s appointment in late 2019. 

It might not be the return of their beloved Mauricio Pochettino, but Rose represents a youthful and proactive manager that could rival the Argentine in years to come.

Peter Bosz

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Bosz isn’t German, in fact he is Dutch. But his aggressive press-oriented system fits the modern German template perfectly, and has helped establish German sides as among the most exciting in Europe.

The Dutchman took Ajax to the Europa League final in 2017, where they were defeated by Mourinho’s Manchester United. That side was characterised by the patience and trust placed in youth. Centre-backs Mathias de Ligt and Davinson Sanchez were since sold for a combined £100m, and the bench in that final featured Frenkie de Jong, Donnie van de Beek, David Neres, and Justin Kluivert. These names are among Europe’s most promising talents, and it is the faith Bosz placed in youth that allowed them to gain quality experience at a tender age.

While his spell at Dortmund a year later was a disappointing one, the side he has assembled at Bayer Leverkusen again relies on the exuberance and energy of its young players. The pinnacle of his team is Kai Havertz, a creative goalscoring midfielder who can play as a striker, second striker, creative midfielder, or a box-to-box midfielder. He too is being touted for great things after his two years under Bosz.

Leverkusen primarily play a 4-3-3, with electric, pacey wingers who like to cut the ball back for one of the onrushing midfielders to score. Havertz is one of these ‘8s’ and was paired with Julian Brandt before his move to Dortmund last summer. Under Bosz, Brandt was given this central, dynamic position rather than as a wide midfielder or as a strict ‘10’. In 2018/19 his assists rose from 3 to 11, his shots per game (PG) increased by 0.7, and his key passes doubled to 2.6. Getting on the ball deep, and with Havertz bursting to get into the box as the ball was carried, Brandt could execute aggressive passes to any of the attacking quartet. A tall and rangy carrier similar to Havertz, Bosz identified physical traits in Brandt that would benefit him and the team if he was positioned deeper, and the results speak for themselves.

Taking young, promising talents and turning them into bona fide consistent performers is Bosz’s forte, but his tactical approaches also deserve respect. His teams press aggressively, yet they occupy half-spaces even when out of possession. This is so that when the man-to-man press is triggered, players have less distance to run to close down their man, and tire less quickly.

Intelligent pressing, high shot volume, and turning midfielders into rounded creators and goalscorers from deep can be found on Bosz’s CV. Two sides who spring to mind who could benefit from Bosz’s output are Wolves and Everton, when they eventually look to change managers. Wolves are achieving heights they never knew possible under Nuno Espirito Santo and are far from contemplating replacing him. However, when the time does come, it’s is likely one of the Premier League’s big boys will swoop in for the Portuguese. Bosz would represent smart recruitment and one that could even elevate their style to a new level.

Similarly, Everton are at the start of their Carlo Ancelotti project, an elite manager who they are lucky to have. Yet, recent stints at Bayern and Napoli show the Italian’s duration at clubs is getting shorter and shorter, so lining up Bosz as a long-term successor would be a smart move. His reinvention of Leverkusen’s midfield would be highly appealing to Toffees fans who have endured years of mediocrity from their midfielders.

Adi Hütter

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Like Bosz, Hütter isn’t a German national. Again though, the style and aggression in the press personify the modern German approach within the Bundesliga. In 2018-19, his Eintracht Frankfurt side reached the Europa League semi-finals and pushed eventual winners, Chelsea, to penalties in doing so. 

With fast pressing and instructions for his strikers to shoot on sight, Frankfurt prove relentless in their pressing, to the point of it looking chaotic and frenetic at times. Luka Jovic and Sebastien Haller spearheaded this brilliant side that took the club to the last four of the Europa League, two physical strikers with a chemistry to feed and run off each other. 

Frankfurt would most commonly resemble a 3-4-1-2 with Ante Rebic sitting in behind the two strikers, and as shown following his move to Milan, he shot on sight and made things happen. All three departed last summer, but rather than crumble at such losses, replacements were found in Bas Dost and Andre Silva. Dost took Haller’s role as the big target man to hold up play, and Silva filled Jovic’s void as the shorter runner.

In Hütter’s system, the physical forwards are expected to close down their opposite centre-back out of possession and cut down their passing options. Likewise, the quick, agile wing-backs and the central midfielders shadow their opposite numbers into the opposing half. This can sometimes leave the three central defenders as the only Frankfurt players in their half of the field, with the remaining seven all pressing in the opposition’s half, occasionally leaving them exposed. 

The idea is to get the centre-backs to panic and hit long balls for the Frankfurt defenders to retrieve and distribute to the wing-backs and central midfielders, who are already positioned aggressively. This cuts out the need for intricate build-up play, and seizes on the opposition losing their shape in such a fast transition.

While Bosz may represent an astute appointment at Wolves or Everton, Hütter most certainly looks to be a match for the black country. A propensity for three central defenders and high aggressive wing-backs, physical forwards who close down man-to-man; one could map his system onto Nuno’s existing Wolves line-up perfectly. 

The dynamism of this transition-based formula would shock many Premier League sides, as shown in Frankfurt’s Europa League fixture away at Arsenal. The English team dominated the ball and controlled large swathes of the match, yet the explosive reversal from defence to attack of Frankfurt stunned them.

All five of these German-based coaches are fifty years of age or younger, and represent some of the most exciting and innovative tactical brains in European football. 

Whether it is the attention to detail of Tuchel that has already landed him big jobs in his early career, or the change in player profile that Bosz specialises in; all helped make the German league as exciting as any other in the last five years. 

Should they grow tired of the Bayern monopoly and decide to venture to the Premier League to spread their developing ideas, the English top-flight would be invigorated for it.

Written by Tom Underhill – @TomD_Underhill

Graphics: Sam Ingram – @SamIngram_