Nagelsmann to Bayern, Marsch to Leipzig shows Bundesliga’s top teams in transition

April 30, 2021 10:57 AM

Back when Julian Nagelsmann was making his way as a young assistant at TSG Hoffenheim, reserve goalkeeper Tim Wiese came up with the nickname “Baby Mourinho” for him. Nagelsmann still smiles at the reference while perhaps feeling it a little incongruous. In personality and philosophy, he is a footballing progressive with no hint of belligerence in his makeup. In truth, “Baby Guardiola” would have been a lot closer to the mark — and probably more to his liking, too.

The fact is, there has been a feeling of inevitability about Nagelsmann who, like most football-mad youngsters in the Bavarian town of Landsberg am Lech, grew up a Bayern Munich fan. That he would one day coach the Rekordmeister was always a question of when rather than if.

I’ve been asked this week if the appointment of a 33-year-old, who has at the time of writing never won a major trophy at any club, carries an element of risk. I don’t see the risk, to be honest. What I see is Bayern for once completely united at all decision-making levels, going out and getting the outstanding candidate for the vacancy left by Hansi Flick.

Now, I’m not going to pretend there aren’t unique factors. When a club pays its closest challengers a transfer fee of up to €25 million for a manager and then hands them a five-year contract, that is highly unusual. Pep Guardiola himself only got three years in one go. But it speaks to the overall belief in Nagelsmann. In addition to being one of the most flexible tactical thinkers in the modern game — his teams shape shift within a match at the drop of a hat — he has what Germans call “Sozialkompetenz” (social skills). You get the feeling he could have successfully gone into many other lines of work had he chosen to do so. He manages to walk the line of being pleasant, factual and interesting while remaining authentic.

So what is he walking into at Bayern? Well, he’ll hope for better luck than his predecessor when working with sporting director, Hasan Salihamidzic. Flick was frustrated at not having a bigger say on signings, and was more than occasionally in disagreement with some of the sporting decisions. Nagelsmann, given the contract and the transfer fee, carries instant clout, although there would be a certain irony in him being told a particular player is out of reach due to financial strictures caused by his own arrival. Bayern do need a deeper bench, and Nagelsmann can rightly argue that his soon-to-be-former club RB Leipzig are currently better off in that regard.

In some ways it’s an advantage for him to be able to start afresh with a new defensive hierarchy considering David Alaba and Jerome Boateng are both leaving at the end of the season. Nagelsmann knows and trusts Dayot Upamecano from their time together at Leipzig, and this “changing of the guard” might make for the perfect platform for Lucas Hernandez to finally get an extended run in his preferred position of central defender.

What will be fascinating is to see whether he does what Guardiola did at Bayern and upend the tactical structure. Under Flick, Bayern were a team with a constant four-man defence. Nagelsmann tends to switch from match to match according to the opponents and the dynamics.

The other challenge will be of the man-management variety, something Flick has shown himself to be a master of. Whereas at Leipzig the core of the squad is on the young side, potential diamonds to be polished, at Bayern we’re talking mostly players at the very peak of their powers. How will the likes of Manuel NeuerThomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski respond to someone in a similar age category but without the same playing distinction? So far, the noises from all have been extremely positive.

But the Nagelsmann years will coincide with a transitional phase, when senior figures make way for younger players. That will be a hard balance to strike.

As Nagelsmann prepares for Munich, American fans are thrilled with Jesse Marsch’s installation at RB Leipzig in his place. As they should be, too; it means another U.S.-born head coach in the Bundesliga, along with the excellent Pellegrino Matarazzo at VfB Stuttgart. All the better from a visibility angle that Leipzig are a fully fledged Champions League club these days.

But make no mistake, Marsch could face a heavy lift on a number of fronts. First, his contract is only for two years, which indicates he still has one or two things to prove to the Red Bull chiefs. Second, CEO Oliver Mintzlaff himself this week said he expects a full attack on Bayern and that “Julian should feel our presence.” In other words, standards are not allowed to dip and second place will be expected at a minimum. That’s a high bar when you consider Borussia DortmundBorussia MonchengladbachVfL WolfsburgBayer Leverkusen and perhaps others will all be taking a big swipe at Leipzig, too.

The positives for Marsch are that he knows the club, most of the players, the structure and the city (it’s one of my favourites). He has a strong personality and a well-earned reputation as a motivator. Tactically, he differs from Nagelsmann and in some respects, he more represents where Leipzig were two or three years ago, with stronger emphasis on the counter-press. Marsch is also a huge proponent of set plays as a source of goals.

Defensively, there are question marks for a change in Leipzig. With Upamecano leaving and Ibrahima Konate likely to follow, time will tell if Josko Gvardiol (19) and Mohamed Simakan (20) are ready to make that jump to become regular, commanding starters. Will Leipzig be able to hold on to goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, who has a fairly low release clause and is being pursued by Dortmund among others?

Leipzig’s lack of an out-and-out scorer has hampered them this season and so Marsch must hope Mintzlaff and his chief scout Christopher Vivell close in on Patson Daka, the 22-year-old Zambia international who could follow in the coach’s footsteps from FC Salzburg to the Heldenstadt (“city of heroes”).

Nagelsmann said this week he doesn’t know Marsch well enough to say whether he represents the ideal solution for Leipzig, but that he respects him “as a very emotional coach who has a good bond with players.” He also said he expects the two will have a chat before long.

Whether in German or English, they’ll have plenty to talk about.

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