Youngest head coach in Bundesliga history
Took over at Hoffenheim aged 28
Turned around struggling team's fortunes
Imagine taking charge of a major company in a high-pressure, big-money industry, before you’ve even turned 30.
Scores of employees’ eyes are on you – not to mention the glare of the media – scrutinizing your every move.
This is the reality facing Julian Nagelsmann, who in February – at the age of 28 – became the youngest permanent head coach in the history of Germany’s top soccer division when he took charge at TSG 1899 Hoffenheim.
“The reaction in my country was big,” Nagelsmann tells CNN, reflecting on his meteoric rise from failed footballer to team boss in the Bundesliga.
“Everyone talked about my age and wondered how such a young person could be the head coach.
“It was a special situation.”
Special is one word for it.
Carlo Ancelotti, the 57-year-old head coach of German champion Bayern Munich, had already made over 200 Serie A appearances as a player in his native Italy before Hoffenheim’s new main man was even born.
Nagelsmann and his club’s director of football Alexander Rosen, meanwhile, have a combined age younger than Arsene Wenger, the 67-year-old manager of English club Arsenal.
Nagelsmann’s time in football was almost over before it had begun, with a budding playing career curtailed by a knee injury shortly after he had joined FC Augsburg aged 20.
“After my injury I didn’t want to have anything to do with the sport,” he admits. “I wanted to get away for a while because I had invested so much time in it.
“From one day to another my career was over, faster than I ever imagined.”
A football romantic who counts Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola among his heroes, he couldn’t stay away forever. As quickly as his time on the pitch ended, Nagelsmann made a name for himself on the sidelines – first as the assistant coach of 1860 Munich’s under-17 team, then eventually taking charge of Hoffenheim U19s in 2013.
The junior Bundesliga title followed in his first season, earning him comparisons to Jose Mourinho – another man who became a top coach after an unsuccessful playing career – and the attentions of the club’s directors.
“It all went very quickly but they trusted me,” the 29-year-old says. “At every level I was promoted faster than I ever thought … and now I’m sitting here today doing an interview with CNN.”
Without a senior coaching badge to his name, a man younger than several first-team players was suddenly tasked with managing them.
Baptism of fire
It was never going to be easy, and with Hoffenheim struggling throughout 2015 – boasting just two wins in 20 Bundesliga games – Nagelsmann’s stint in the hot seat began with his team in the relegation zone.
His appointment had been announced in October 2015, but his start date was brought forward from July 2016 when predecessor Huub Stevens ended his interim role several months early due to health problems.
“People were happy but at the same time questioned if I really wanted to do this to myself,” Nagelsmann recalls.
“Not only was it my first big job as a head coach … but it was also with a team that hadn’t played very successfully.
“We stood there with our backs against the wall.”
Fortunately for Hoffenheim supporters, Nagelsmann came out fighting.
“There was pressure. We had to start winning games immediately,” he says.
“I had to play result-orientated football, but at the same time always wanted to implement my philosophy of football. That was a very complex task which we mastered pretty well.”
‘You can win anything with kids’
Hoffenheim avoided the relegation playoffs by one point, but the team has scored in all but two of their 27 league games since Nagelsmann took charge.
With an average age of 24.96, the squad is one of youngest in the game.
“I always involve my players in the decision-making; that’s very important to me,” Nagelsmann says.
“Although I’m the one who decides at the end of the day, I don’t just want the players to walk behind me like soldiers. They should have their own opinions and come forward with ideas.”
A number of players have moved up from his title-winning U19 side, but Nagelsmann is keen to stress age has never been a problem – “even with the older players.”
“There’s two key factors,” he explains. “One is your social intelligence, and the other one your football knowledge.
“If those factors are in balance and the players know that they can learn something from you on the technical side, the age is forgotten pretty quickly.”
Ahead of Friday’s home clash with Borussia Dortmund, Hoffenheim – based in a town of just 3,300 people – was one of just two unbeaten teams in Europe’s big leagues, along with Spain’s Real Madrid.
Languishing in Germany’s fifth division at the turn of the millennium, the club is now realistically dreaming of qualifying for the continent’s top club competition, the Champions League.
And that was where Mourinho, as coach of Porto, earned his reputation of being “the Special One.”
Nagelsmann, meanwhile, is taking baby steps to creating his own legacy.