With Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur both struggling badly, it’s clear why both clubs will be searching for new permanent managers this summer. Undoubtedly, one of the primary candidates for either role is Julian Nagelsmann.
Like many of his contemporaries, Nagelsmann espouses a proactive style based upon high-pressing and dominance of possession. Often, coaches are categorized by what aspect of this style they focus on more: the likes of Jesse Marsch, Ralph Hassenhuttel, and other coaches from the Red Bull system focus more on pressing and counter-pressing, while the likes of Luis Enrique, Louis Van Gaal, and others devote more attention to possession-play.
The truly elite coaches, though, such as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, have emerged as the best of their generation because of their ability to develop teams that strike an optimal balance between the two.
In his short but impressive career thus far, Nageslmann has shown a capacity to find that balance and construct sides that are highly proficient both with and without the ball. Look no further than his time at Bayern Munich to illustrate the remarkable dexterity of his tactical ability.
In their first season of the post-Lewandowski era, they scored 72 goals under his tutelage in the Bundesliga and conceded just 27, while their underlying numbers made them the best side in Germany by a far bigger margin than the true table suggests. How did he achieve this? By altering his tactical approach from last season.
Clarissa Barcala explains this transition well by distinguishing between Nagelsmann’s position-based and role-based attacks. The former emphasizes the system, where players are meant to occupy specific areas of the pitch in particular phases of build-up to ensure the team can maximize their control of space. This featured a 3-1-6 shape in possession, with players situated narrowly to facilitate rapid, direct exchanges of the ball within a narrow shape and press aggressively if the ball was turned over.
As he became more familiar with his squad, though, Nagelsmann became less controlling over his team’s play in possession. While many of their rotations and key patterns remained, such as loading one side of the pitch before switching quickly to the other or having a high number of bounce passes, the 35-year-old encouraged the players to be more positionally fluid. He also tried to tailor the team’s patterns of play around the individual strengths of the attackers. The result was a slower style that relied a bit more on individual prowess, but as the numbers show, it was still incredibly effective.
As he considers moves to Chelsea or Tottenham, it’s hard to say that Nagelsmann will use one particular system or style. His general principles of proactive, possession-based attacking are clear, but what facets of that style he’ll emphasize and how he’ll balance that with the squad at his disposal remains to be seen.
Both clubs present different types of challenges. At Tottenham Hotspur, the problems the club face from a tactical perspective are clear. Under Antonio Conte, the club suffered from a lack of rotation, a low-block defence that was too passive, and a rigid, repetitive approach in possession that gave players little space for imagination or unpredictability.
Nagelsmann would almost certainly transform all these issues. He rotates players heavily, uses various types of formations, and implements a higher press. Even the more rigid, positional iterations of his teams play with much more fluidity than Conte’s teams. He’d also adapt well to the fact that the squad is constructed for a back three, and would likely relish the opportunity to work with talented young players like Dejan Kulusevski, Pedro Porro, Bryan Gil, and Djed Spence. There was a sense at Bayern that Nagelsmann did not necessarily love working with big stars, and his first two jobs at Hoffenheim and Leipzig showed his capacity to extract the most of generally unheralded veterans or young talents.
Spurs, who must take the lead from Arsenal and aim to recruit young players that can eventually develop into elite players, provides a strong environment for Nagelsmann to implement his tactical ideas. However, there’s no guarantee he’ll be supported adequately by the club’s hierarchy.
It would also be a longer-term project, where the prospects for silverware would likely be minimal in his first couple of years in charge. Even when ignoring an ascendant Manchester United and a likely resurgent Liverpool next season, City and Arsenal both possess elite squads and either more resources or more high-ceiling, young talent than Spurs. Nagelsmann may be wary to join a club where his ideas could be implemented smoothly but ultimately result in little tangible success.
At Chelsea, he would undoubtedly be working with a higher calibre of talent, and a coterie of young players who could become sensational talents. The big question for any coach at Stamford Bridge is which players do they decide to build-around, and which ones should they let go. Whether this is something a coach would answer, or if it would one answered by the cluttered Chelsea hierarchy, could have a big bearing on Nagelsmann’s prospects for success there.
If he were to be given a pruned squad with greater balance, he could have a monumental impact on the team. Graham Potter never truly recreated the tactical schemes of his Brighton and Swansea sides, and the team lacks true identity both in and out of possession. Nagelsmann is an ideal coach to instil the principles they’re sorely lacking. He’s a more direct, aggressive, and risk-friendly coach than Tuchel, which could finally lift Chelsea out of their goal-scoring malaise.
From a man-management perspective, he could also be exactly what the Blues need to get more out of their faltering, big-name signings. The likes of Angelino, Timo Werner, Joelinton, and Leroy Sane all appeared new players under Nagelsmann despite struggling under other coaches, and one could list a number of players who would benefit not just from better and clearer tactical input, but a new source and style of motivation in the dugout.
Without European football next season and full pre-season, Nagelsmann could create a truly elite side in a relatively short space of time. However, that all rests on the huge question of whether the squad can be trimmed and managed in a sensible way by those above him.
While each team presents unique risks and potential rewards for Nagelsmann, it’s clear that both would be markedly better if he were to join them. Regardless of where he goes, Julian Nagelsmann will surely be in work soon and once again show why he is truly one of the best coaches in Europe.