The Dark Side of Julian Nagelsmann
In this Friday special, we look at 3 critical aspects Julian Nagelsmann must improve if he is to turn Bayern's historic negative record around.
For the first time in 20 years, F.C. Bayern have failed to win 4 Bundesliga matches in a row.
What just weeks ago seemed like a hitch in the road now looks like a full-grown crisis, and it’s made all the worse by the inexplicable reason for why it has all gone wrong.
The 32-time German champions remain a European benchmark for modern, attacking, football, however, their ruthless edge has all but dissipated, turning only 3 of their last 39 shots into goals.
Having ended matchday 7 outside the Bundesliga’s top 4 for the first time in over a decade, absolutely everything, and everyone, needs to be questioned as Bayern search for a return to form.
The loss of Lewandowski, and a sense of complacency, will have been at the forefront of discussions at the Sabener Straße, but it’s hard to imagine that the future of Julian Nagelsmann wasn’t at least briefly mentioned between the big bosses.
So far neither sporting director Hasan Salihamidžić, nor CEO Oliver Kahn have entertained the possibility that there is pressure on Nagelsmann’s job, but Thomas Tüchel’s free agent status, and the historic negative trend, both give the impression that Nagelsmann is at least sensing the magnitude of the situation as he looks to master the biggest hurdle in his young management career.
In this Friday special, we look at 3 critical aspects Julian Nagelsmann must improve on if he is to fulfill his promise and become only the third FC Bayern manager to win a European treble.
Like any great manager, Julian Nagelsmann is obsessive when it comes to his meticulous preparation and forensic analysis. Whether it be the opposition, a potential signing, or a midweek training session, Nagelsmann leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of excellence.
It’s undeniably a trait required for success, still there seems to be a growing concern that he is overcomplicating his tactical principles to the point where it is having a detrimental effect on Bayern’s performances on the pitch.
Whereas matches against FC Augsburg and VFB Stuttgart probably could have been won with a simplified tactical outlook that put the onus on Bayern’s individual quality, Nagelsmann needlessly opened his side up for failure with an insistence on brave build-up play and extreme positional movement.
When at its best, it’s virtually unstoppable, but too often we’ve seen this Bayern squad struggle to keep up with the demands of their own manager’s evolving outlook, thus defeating itself before an opponent even has the chance.
VFB Stuttgart’s equalizer earlier this season highlighted some of the tactical deficiencies currently rampant within Bayern’s setup. A lack of communication - or a misunderstanding - between Alphonso Davies and Jamal Musiala gifted Stuttgart an opportunity to get back in the match.
Though on the surface it looks like an individual error, a clearer interpretation of each player’s role would have eliminated the confusion that caused Davies to play short, while Musiala looked long.
These tactical concerns have come into public consciousness following Bayern’s shaky league start, but Nagelsmann’s insistence on constant evolution and in-game adaptation have plagued his career since he took over as a 28-year-old in Hoffenheim.
Andrej Kramarić, Hoffenheim‘s record Bundesliga goal scorer who is now in his 8th year at the club, almost came to verbal blows with his former boss after another match where Nagelsmann was insistent on changing the tactical outlook without consulting the players.
Following a 2:2 draw v Borussia M’gladbach, the Croatian forward had this to say,
“We switch systems too often during the game. We are not robots, but people… Sometimes a system change is announced, and then we need three minutes because not every player understands it or because of the 50,000 spectators they can't hear it. At that moment we're losing our advantage and nobody knows what position they are in during so many games at the moment".
If a player with almost 200 Bundesliga games and 100 Bundesliga goals struggled to come to grips with Nagelsmann’s revolving tactical tweaks, there is nothing to say that a relatively new-look Bayern squad wouldn’t be presented with similar issues at the start of the season.
Sadio Mané, for example, has been a clear victim of Naglesmann’s obsessive tinkering.
The Senegalese superstar noted in his first press conference that he would be “willing to play anywhere but goalkeeper,” for his new manager, but to get the best out of the 30-year old there clearly needs to be more consistency regarding where he is implemented and what is asked of him.
The former Premier League star has gone 5 matches in a row without scoring, struggling for consistency as he is drifting between featuring as a central focal point, and falling back into the wide channels where he was most dangerous in Liverpool.
Philipp Lahm - a long-time Bayern captain who Pep Guardiola considered one of the most intelligent player he’s ever coached in his career - even noted how difficult it could be for Mané to adapt when a clear tactical outline isn’t provided by the coach in charge,
"His (Mané’s) qualities are out of question, but it's crucial that roles are clearly assigned. I don't see that at the moment. I currently don't understand how the roles are defined. Everyone has to know what they have to do on the pitch.” (Philipp Lahm for BILD TV)
Though time and practice should help iron out the mistakes we’ve seen over the last few matches, if Nagelsmann wants to enjoy long-term success and get the most out of his star-studded roster, he needs to find an ideal middle-ground between his hypothetical perfect match plan and a system that can actually be practically applied.
The strong words we highlighted earlier from Andrej Kramarić may seem like a heat-of-the-moment reaction after a poor result, but the Croatian international isn’t the only player who has been left frustrated with Nagelsmann’s handling of personalities.
As Christian Falk - chief F.C Bayern reporter for Bild Germany - disclosed in the latest episode of his podcast Bayern Insider, Nagelsmann has routinely been internally criticized for his lack of attention to the human elements within a squad.
While he has a very open and honest relationship with the press, Nagelsmann is quite reserved within the confines of the squad, sporadically speaking to individual players, and rarely, if ever, to those outside his current 11.
Some have considered it a power-play on the manager’s part - attempting to instill a sense of hierarchy to make up for his lack of experience - however more often than not it’s left players disillusioned after failing to come to grips with Nagelsmann’s tactical demands and unique personality.
At Hoffenheim, it was Kevin Kuranyi, a 50-time German international and international star, who praised Nagelsmann’s extraordinary tactical intelligence, but noted how he all but stopped talking to him after the first week, and never gave an explanation for why he was left out of the club’s plans.
In Leipzig, Angeliño suffered a similar fate. The Spaniard was dropped for the DFB-Pokal final despite featuring in 36 matches and contributing 8 goals and 11 assists throughout the season. Nagelsmann, and Leipzig, went on to lose that final 4:1 to Borussia Dortmund, with the German manager widely criticized for his lineup decisions.
In the case of both Kuranyi and Angeliño, one could consider each an isolated instance where Nagelsmann failed to connect with individual stars, but it’s hard to not at least acknowledge the events given his high-profile engagement at FC Bayern.
Whereas previous employers Hoffenheim and Leipzig both had young squads without vast experience, the squad Nagelsmann inherited in Bayern is filled with established pros who have won titles across the globe.
A strong tactical identity will always be vital, but as Zinedine Zidane proved in his historically successful stint in Madrid, being able to handle personalities and the unique demands of world-class stars is equally, if not more important, in building a side capable of dominating European football.
Zinedine Zidane was routinely criticized for his elementary tactical set up in Madrid, but it didn’t stop the Frenchman from becoming one of the most successful managers in the modern era. In 5 seasons Zidane won 11 titles, including 3 Champions Leagues in a row.
Zidane was so successful because of his ability to handle big personalities and the weight of Real Madrid’s European history. While Nagelsmann may not have the same playing career that will enable him to immediately demand respect, finding a better way to engage the various figures within Bayern’s dressing room will go a long way to making him as successful as his French counterpart.
Alongside Nagelsmann’s polarising nature, the German coaching talent also severely struggles in his ability to respond to criticism.
As with his tactical tinkering, it isn’t a unique trait amongst elite managers in world football.
Just look up any José Mourinho press conference, and you’ll be inundated with slights against the referees, opposition management, and even, on occasion, his own team!
Even Jürgen Klopp, so revered for his casual and honest persona, isn’t blameless for overstepping the line when it comes to addressing media questioning, famously arguing that “the strong wind” and “dry pitch” were the reasons for a defeat against West Bromwich Albion.
While Nagelsmann has yet to look towards meteorological weather patterns to justify Bayern’s struggles, his response to public criticism has been equally embarrassing.
Like a child being scolded on the playground, Nagelsmann becomes extremely defensive and irritated when his side loses, or he is faced with an opinion that doesn't conform to his own.
I couldn’t recommend enough to take a few minutes to watch his post-match press conference against FC Augsburg that includes English dubs. In less than 5 minutes, Nagelsmann routinely muffles his speech into his jacket, refuses eye contact, and gives one-word answers.
One passage stood out to me in particular…
Journalist: What does this trend mean when you look back on the last 4 Bundesliga games?
JN: Nothing good.
Journalist: Care to elaborate?
JN: Yeah nothing good. What should I say!
Journalist: What needs to change?
JN: A lot. [long pause] We need to use 1v1 opportunities against the goalkeeper if we want to win games. When we don’t do it, we don’t win. It’s that simple.
I’m not going to pretend like I have any experience in conversational psychoanalysis, but even with the most limited expertise, one can quickly discern how defensive Nagelsmann reacts to even the simplest questions.
More egregious, however, is the fact that when he finally elaborates on his answer, his only solution entails laying the blame on “the individual actions of the players” - i.e. missing 1v1 chances - and not addressing a single weakness in his own game plan.
Whilst this may ultimately be true, to completely throw his playing squad under the bus is a dangerous game that, at a club of Bayern’s stature, can easily go wrong for Nagelsmann.
Arriving at an elite European outfit at such a young age has forced Nagelsmann into a position where he constantly needs to prove his mettle, and never show individual weakness, but in doing so he could be on the road toward creating an us vs them dynamic between his coaching staff and the playing squad - a path which can quickly turn fatal.
Despite the negative undertones throughout most of this article, I still firmly believe that Nagelsmann is the right man to take this Bayern side forward.
His tactical intelligence is on a level that the Bundesliga hasn’t seen since Pep Guardiola, whilst the primarily human elements we’ve examined are neither exclusively an issue he deals with, nor factors that can’t be easily fixed.
With Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund, and SC Freiburg all featuring over the next three Bundesliga matchdays, things won’t be getting any easier for Nagelsmann’s side, but Oliver Kahn and Hasan Salihamidžić are right to give the young manager time, in what is arguably his first major stumbling block in his entire coaching career.