On October 3rd 2020, RB Leipzig were winning 4-0 against Schalke, when head coach Julian Nagelsmann handed talented youth academy midfielder Joscha Wosz his debut in the 83rd minute. The 18-year old was different, he had something which Nagelsmann loved. And the young trainer spoke about it ahead of Leipzig’s game later that month against Augsburg. He told Bild:
“If a youth player comes into the professional team, they must want to tear the world down. However, that’s not always given here. As a young player, you have to go to the dressing room with the professionals, change your clothes and give everything you’ve got on the pitch. Not everything has to be right. It doesn’t have to be technically or tactically perfect – but you need to show that you have the right mentality. Not everyone does that. I’ll give a player a run in the team much, much faster if he has a top mentality than if he has super quality. If he doesn’t have this mentality, the pros will eat him up. But if he runs like a maniac and tears himself apart, he will be forgiven for a bad pass. If you show the will to win, you will get more playing time.”
The mentality to win. Nagelsmann called for a change of attitude in the youth set-up that day, he wanted to see determination and a passion. It’s no secret that the young coach has something special about him, and now he’s linked to Real Madrid as the potential successor to Zinedine Zidane this summer. Listen, it may be too early, it may well be, but boy could Madrid do with a new flavour.
It hasn’t even been two weeks since Real’s embarrassing Copa Del Rey elimination at the hands of Alcoyano. Three days ago, they were outclassed, not beaten, but outclassed by Levante. There was a trend in those two defeats, Madrid’s players on the pitch were definitely good enough to beat both Alcoyano and Levante, without coaching. You can’t possibly tell me that a group of experienced and high quality players ‘need coaching’ to defeat the likes of Alcoyano and Levante, with the greatest respect to both clubs. But it was the manner of both defeats which was unacceptable. There was no urgency, there was no passion, no drive, Madrid looked empty of ideas, and looked like a side needing something different. Sid Lowe highlighted it perfectly in his brilliant analysis of the Levante loss at the weekend: ‘if there was one thing that was really striking about this game, it was that as it headed towards the final whistle there was – well, nothing really. Not from Madrid. No comeback, no epic, no rebellion.’
And that there is the problem. It was the same problem back when Julen Lopetegui inherited a team that had just lost Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018, but still had a squad full of champions, full of players who you could describe as lions when they needed to roar. Real’s old-guard and serial winners may still be lions, but they’re the lions you see caged in zoos, tired, stomachs full of success, the odd roar every now and again to remind passerbyers that we exist, but not the wild, angry and hungry lions you would encounter in their natural habitat. Madrid’s old-guard have conquered so much, and they can be proud of what they’ve achieved. Heck, you could certainly argue the leaders of the UEFA Champions League three-peat are among the best of all-time in their respective positions. But all good things come to an end, and it appears that way, but why has it taken Zidane and the hierarchy so long to realise it’s time for a change?
Real have invested a lot of money in young players. And it’s about time we see a managerial appointment that’s aligned to this project, a project which doesn’t appear to be coming close to being scrapped. It makes more sense to give someone like Nagelsmann the opportunity to come in and work his magic with not only the heavily invested youth, but with the golden generation coming through in La Fabrica.
ESPN’s Tom Hamilton puts Nagelsmann’s coaching philosophy and approach ‘down to two fundamental pillars: efficiency on the field, and a personable approach off it. He sees his role as 30% tactics and 70% social competence.’ A disciple of the grandfather of gegenpressing, Ralf Rangnick, Nagelsmann is undoubtedly special, and more than capable of stepping in to lead this transition at Los Merengues. His coaching and handling of youth at Leipzig and formerly at Hoffenheim prove this. Leipzig’s run to the UEFA Champions League semi-finals last season was nothing short of remarkable, but it was an example that Nagelsmann should be taken seriously, among the best coaches in the world.
Speaking to Hamilton, he said something which I really liked, and a technical aspect which I would love to see a Real Madrid team have in the near future. “I got used to Ralf’s philosophy at Hoffenheim. Counter-pressing is a very important topic. Putting pressure onto opponents almost every single minute so we can win the ball… but that is only one thing; we need to find a good balance between ball possession and attacking moments.”
Currently, Madrid lack that panache, it’s a one-dimensional team which looks average and without ideas in possession, and even worse off the ball. The game against Levante a perfect example. Sitting back with no urgency to collectively win the ball back and hurt the opposition on the counter. Madrid don’t even counter properly anymore, long gone are the days of Jose Mourinho’s historic counter-attacking monster, which would accelerate faster than any supercar, from 0-120mph in a flash from their own box to the opponent’s, before scoring goal, after goal, after goal. But that’s just it, we don’t counter, we don’t look good in possession, we don’t have urgency winning the ball back, we can’t even break down teams despite having technically brilliant players, it’s just so boring and repetitive, it’s dull and exhausting.
Madrid badly needs something new. And to those opposing Nagelsmann, why not him? He’s got fresh ideas, he learns, idolises and is a blend of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, if that doesn’t excite you, then watch how Leipzig knocked Diego Simeone’s side out of the Champions League last year, the same Atletico that had eliminated the defending champions Liverpool in the round before. They were positionally perfect, in transition and off the ball. Nagelsmann’s sides have such beautiful build-up play, and each player knows where to be, and importantly, they’re so attack-minded and vertical. He’s improved so many youngsters, with a special mention to the likes of Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konaté, Angeliño and Marcel Sabitzer. It’s the collective which is what impresses me about him. Madrid have been so painfully dull for such a long time, that it makes perfect sense to give someone like Nagelsmann the chance to put his unique fingerprints on a new project, on a new way of playing and thinking, on a new philosophy.
The club is crying out for something new, and for that reason, Madrid would be crazy not to make a seriously genuine approach to appoint the 33-year old head coach this summer. Zidane’s legacy will always remain, but for now, something needs to change, and why shouldn’t that change be in the shape of one of the most exciting tacticians on the planet?
Muddassir Hussain | Follow me on Twitter @muddassirjourno