Julian Nagelsmann’s tactical philosophy

Manager Analysis
David Selini

David Selini

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Julian Nagelsmann has been a shining star on the European managerial sky ever since taking charge of Hoffenheim back in February 2016 with the club second bottom in the Bundesliga. Hoffenheim were seven points from safety and five points from the relegation play-off spot. After getting a strong start including a six game unbeaten streak at one point, Hoffenheim lost the last two fixtures but Nagelsmann had performed close to a miracle and steered the club to safety with a one point margin.

Straight away in the 2016/17 season, Nagelsmann’s team has been consistent and delivered impressive performances which has led to the club clinching a top four finish to ensure Champions League qualification just a year after fighting for survival. Hoffenheim are third at the time of writing and if they can mirror Borussia Dortmund for the amount of points won in the last three fixtures they will qualify automatically and secure a place in next season’s group stage. It’s a remarkable achievement by the 29-year-old coach who appears something of a tactical mastermind. Impressive wins against Bayern Munich and Dortmund has been achieved and Hoffenheim also drew away at Bayern to remain undefeated against the German champions. Here we take a look at the tactics Nagelsmann deploys for Hoffenheim.

Formation wise, Nagelsmann set his team up in a 5-3-2 when defending which changes into 3-3-4 when attacking. The wing backs push up high in attack and play on the same horizontal line as the two strikers. Sebastian Rudy (moves to Bayern in the summer) is normally the deepest midfielder and constructs the build up play with the other two central midfielders pushing into either halfspace behind the opposition midfield line.

Defensive style

Nagelsmann use a zonal style of defending from his side collectively but the centre backs are often very man-orientated. In the video below we see an overview of Hoffenheim’s defensive shape. It’s evident how they are focused on covering both halfspaces and the central space and push their opponents to the flanks.

Hoffenheim are very aggressive in their defending and can be seen pushing up as soon as the ball is played backwards by the opposition.

As mentioned the press starts with the strikers who work together in forcing the opponent wide to a side where Hoffenheim can quickly shift over and press. The first striker leads the press while the second striker adopts a covering position in a diagonal line from the first striker to steer the next pass into a wide area. In the video below you can clearly see this as Sandro Wagner starts the press with Andrej Kramaric in a diagonal covering position. As soon as the ball is played to Javi Martinez he starts pressing the Basque who passes wide to Rafinha where Hoffenheim can press aggressively and win back possession.

The video below is from the Bayern game and sums up what I’ve tried to describe so far.


This is an area of Hoffenheim’s defensive style that Nagelsmann likely looks to improve on. Their possession structure in the 3-3-4 sees them have almost optimal spacing of their players in attack to be able to quickly counterpress upon losing the ball. There are occasions when they have done this well, such as in the video below.

There are also occasions when it hasn’t worked as well, as can be seen in the two examples below. In the first example, Hoffenheim have too many players in front of the ball and Rudy is isolated in midfield. He shouldn’t try to press, instead retreating to slow down the attack.

In the second example, again Hoffenheim have too many players easily beaten by one pass. Here it’s six of them and they’re all stood in the same line without the necessary depth in the structure.

Given the methodical brain Nagelsmann has, these are issues he’s surely looking to iron out as a well-functioning counterpress could be a great weapon for Hoffenheim.

Vertical build up play

Nagelsmann implements a positional play that is probably best described as a much more vertical version of the Spanish “Juego De Posición” deployed by Pep Guardiola. The three centre backs and the deepest midfielder Rudy are largely responsible for the initial build up play with the other central midfielders pushing on to find space between the oppositions midfield and defensive lines. Nagelsmann uses similar concepts as Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel by emphasising finding players between the lines and using triangles to find the third man but also advocates a more direct approach to quickly move the ball into threatening areas.

The video above is one example of how they move the ball to create a free man between the lines, in this occasion Rudy behind the oppositon forwards.

Rudy is a supremely talented midfielder who excels as the playmaker of Nagelsmann’s side. Rudy constructs the entire build up and his passing and understanding of space is key to everything Hoffenheim do in possession. Below we see him threading a pass through to a teammate behind the opponents midfield line from where they can attack.

Here’s an illustration of how important Rudy’s position is. From his positioning at the base of Hoffenheim’s midfield he can in theory and practise connect with every other player and create passing lanes to each teammate.

The two videos below are examples of how vertical they are in their approach when building attacks. In the first video Kevin Vogt plays a brilliant pass all the way to a striker and from there they combine to find Rudy who pushes a pass through to a teammate between the lines.

In the second video we see Hoffenheim carving Bayern apart. Shame about the offside.

The creation of these free men between the lines is called achieving positional superiority from where the possession team can manipulate the defending team into certain movements. The possession team also find players in positions the opposition hasn’t prepared for and which are unorthodox to defend. For example halfspaces, who defends the attacking player? The full back or the centre back? Either way, the possession team can take advantage of this dilemma and create a chance. Below is a great example of this in its purest form as both Augsburg’s right back and right centre back step out to the ball and Amiri can feed the ball through and create a goal.

Direct attacks

While Nagelsmann does have a very well structured possession style with his vertical positional play, he also instructs his players to be even more direct when the opportunity arises. The three videos below are different examples of hos Hoffenheim exploit a high defensive line from the opposition.

Combination play

In Nagelsmann’s attacking setup, the players combination play is key. Evidently, Hoffenheim have spent huge amounts of time on perfecting the timing of runs and movements between players as they can switch positions seamlessly.

Above we see how they balance each others movement and make it hard for the opponents defenders to organize themselves while quickly exploiting any vacated space.

Below we see how Demirbay becomes the free man between the lines and attacks the back four. He attracts the intention from the left centre back and Wagner makes a run behind him which forces the right centre back to follow him. This opens space for Kramaric between the right back and the right centre back and thus creates the goal. Perfect combination play from the strikers.

The goal below is more technical combination play of the highest quality. Enjoy.

And this one is another example of the quick passing combinations with threatening runs Hoffenheim use to create chances and score goals.

Due to the attacking nature of Hoffenheim’s wing backs, they also create a fair amount of chances from wide areas. Usually they use their quick passing combinations centrally to attract the opponents to the ball and then exploit the vacated space down either side to create chances.


Julian Nagelsmann’s work with Hoffenheim is absolutely sensational and there is a strong case to make for the 29-year-old to have been the most impressive coach of the last year. From relegation candidates to Champions League qualification in the space of a year with a young squad who also sold their best player Kevin Volland after last season. Nagelsmann’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed and he’s been linked with replacing Carlo Ancelotti at Bayern Munich. First, though, Nagelsmann will look to secure third place in the league before leading Hoffenheim into the Champions League next term. Another rebuilding job awaits in the summer with Rudy and Niklas Süle leaving the club for Bayern at the end of the season. You wouldn’t doubt him to get it right. Given his rapid rise so far, there’s every reason to think Julian Nagelsmann will be around for a long time at the top of European football.

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