When Julian Nagelsmann took over as Hoffenheim manager three years ago there were several players within the Bundesliga club’s dressing room older than the 28-year-old. This in itself made Nagelsmann a remarkable figure, but it soon became clear that he had more to boast about than just youthful exuberance.
Indeed, Nagelsmann marked himself out as a prodigious coaching talent over four years at Hoffenheim, earning him a move to RB Leipzig last summer. The controversial club, renowned for its shrewd scouting and youth development, have given the 32-year-old a platform to prove himself at the elite level with this week’s Champions League last 16 tie against Tottenham Hotspur a landmark moment in the young manager’s still fledgling career.
It’s a fixture laden with narrative. Jose Mourinho is from a different footballing generation and arrives in Germany with a point to prove. The Portuguese coach has faced much scrutiny in recent years, with many doubting that he can still cut it at the very top. The European game, as some see it, has left Mourinho behind.
Nagelsmann, on the other hand, is at the vanguard of the sport’s next generation. He is German football’s next great manager. A RB Leipzig victory over last season’s Champions League finalists would underline the quality of the Bundesliga title chasers (RB Leipzig are 2/1 to win on Wednesday). There’s no reason to believe they can’t make a deep run in the competition this season (RB Leipzig are 35/1 to win the whole thing).
In many ways, Nagelsmann is Mourinho’s antithesis. The German is more likely to put an arm around a player than lambast them publicly in the media, as has become the calling card of the Tottenham manager in recent times. At 32, Nagelsmann is a relatable figure for football’s new generation, while Mourinho increasingly appears baffled and confused by the behaviour of the modern player – see his treatment of Paul Pogba at Manchester United.
RB Leipzig are an expansive, dynamic outfit known for playing attractive, entertaining football. Mourinho is attempting to change his ways at Spurs, but the former Chelsea and Man Utd boss still views pragmatism as his default ideology. Mourinho might be able to tailor his approach, but he’ll never truly change who he is.
Of course, Nagelsmann has been given plenty to work with at RB Leipzig. He inherited a squad that was already one of the best in the Bundesliga. Timo Werner was already seen as one of the most promising young strikers in the game with the likes of Marcel Sabitzer also well-established. Nagelsmann has taken this group of players to a new level, though. That is the sign of a good coach.
Adding another layer of narrative ahead of this week’s Champions League clash, the 32-year-old was reported to be on Spurs’ shortlist of potential Mauricio Pochettino replacements earlier in the season. This wasn’t the first time Nagelsmann had been linked with a move to the Premier League and it’s extremely unlikely to be the last time.
There’s little reason for Nagelsmann to hasten his next career move, though. RB Leipzig have an infrastructure that should allow them to complete at the top level of both the German and European game. Werner might well leave in the summer, with the striker believed to be on Chelsea and Liverpool’s radar, but RB Leipzig’s scouting network almost certainly already has a contingency plan. They always unearth something – see their January move for Dani Olmo.
Bayern Munich’s upturn in form under interim manager Hansi Flick has dropped RB Leipzig to second place in the Bundesliga table. Nagelsmann’s side are, however, expected to stick with the Bavarians. They are seen as the only ones who can upset German football’s established order. Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Mönchengladbach have real quality, but lack RB Leipzig’s consistency and mentality. They could demonstrate this by dumping Mourinho and Spurs out of the Champions League, further underlining Nagelsmann’s status as management’s next big thing.