Julian Nagelsmann declaring that RB Leipzig could win nine straight matches once the season resumed from suspension and overtake Bayern Munich on the Bundesliga table was clearly naive in hindsight. Seven points from the top, they promptly drew their opening match to Freiburg 1-1 after two months away, effectively ending any title hopes. Leipzig closed out the season with four wins, four draws, and a loss to finish third on the table, a full 16 points behind Bayern. Despite the finish, the 32-year-old’s first season with Leipzig was what we envisioned from a precocious, innovative manager when backed by a precocious, innovative footballing empire.
Nagelsmann’s wayward optimism was a byproduct of a league won by the same side for eight straight seasons. And what did he have to lose after achieving what he has by his early 30s? Besides, Nagelsmann already said his dream was to manage Bayern one day. A move feels inevitable considering his reputation, plus Leipzig were the only team to hold Bayern scoreless this season in what was described as a “tactical masterclass.” If we were to analyze Nagelsmann’s career from the framework of a musician, his three years at Hoffenheim represent raw sketches of scattered pressing and possession ideas. This current Leipzig moment is for fully exploring and experimenting in a professional studio environment. Then, Bayern would represent mastering the craft within the backdrop of stadium tours.
And if we go by his own timeline of winning a trophy with Leipzig within four years, he could potentially achieve his professional dream of managing Bayern by his mid-30s.
His ambitions wouldn’t stop there, according to his own plans. Once he wins a Bundesliga title, it’s the off to a top Premier League side. The changing nature of Nagelmann’s relationship with other managers symbolizes his rise. Back when he broke through at Hoffenheim in 2016 at 28 years old, the youngest manager in Bundesliga history, he frequently reached out to Pep Guardiola for advice. Now, conscious of the possibility of one day becoming opponents in England, he admits that the two don’t talk as often. Though Nagelsmann will always be linked to Guardiola due to his ideas in possession.
“Julian is even better than Pep Guardiola when it comes to reading the opponents’ style of play and adjusting the tactics accordingly during the game,” warned Hoffenheim’s former head scout, siding with his former boss.
Nagelsmann maintains his reputation as an innovator four years after taking over at Hoffenheim. Of course, any 28-year-old manager in a top European league will be perceived as a fresh, innovative voice by definition. But he displayed tangible changes. During matches, his requisite Bundesliga pressing style was backed by a flexible, Guardiola-influenced possession-based approach that moved between three and four defender backlines in the same match. In training, there was his emphasis on the use of video to analyze his team’s shape in real time.
We’re still catching up after the years. Nagelsmann continues to uncover structural advantages in his build-up play, emphasizing vertical passing lanes from his centerbacks to attackers. Leipzig is traditionally built upon a 4-2-2-2 formation for its pressing shape, though Nagelsmann often reverts back to three centerbacks in possession to outnumber an opponent’s press. Versatility is essential, with players changing roles depending on match situation, handling transitions in both attack and defense, all while dragging defenders to the middle of the field or the sidelines. His sides rely upon rehearsed, automated movements in possession more reminiscent of basketball plays. It is the NBA’s positionless revolution emphasizing pace, athleticism, and spacing brought to the Bundesliga. Though Nagelsmann has added other small wrinkles to the Leipzig way, including the ability for his teams to rest with the ball and slow down a match in lieu of 90 minutes of frantic play.
“It’s not about replacing anything or developing something completely new...it’s about implementing a couple of ideas in order to...take another couple of steps forward,” said Nagelsmann on the diminishing returns of refining, rather than overhauling, the current Leipzig side.
Pressing with a high defensive line while emphasizing directness and transitions with versatile, athletic players are the table stakes of top European sides today. This philosophy has become even more essential with Jurgen Klopp overseeing Liverpool’s first Premier League title in 30 years and Hansi Flick reenergizing Bayern as a marker dividing teams between outdated and modern.
And now, Nagelsmann has the resources of a Rangnick-led, Red Bull-sponsored soccer system consisting of feeder clubs across the world. Leipzig is the graduate school for transitional play, with Rangnick remarking how “there’s so much happening in the eight to 10 seconds after the ball is won or lost” (in echoing Mike D’Antoni’s philosophy of Seven Seconds or Less, he concluded that most goals are scored within 12 seconds of winning back the ball). Mirroring the City Football Group, the Red Bull system features an interchange of ideas and resources centered around a singular philosophy. Jesse Marsch seamlessly implemented the same vision in moving from head coach of the New York Red Bulls to assistant at Leipzig and of head coach of FC Salzburg in three consecutive seasons, and he could one day succeed Nagelsmann as Leipzig manager. Current Leipzig midfielders Marcel Sabitzer and Konrad Laimer developed at Salzburg before transferring to Germany. The pipeline continues, with Leipzig reportedly signing Hwang Hee-chan from Marsch’s side.
Development implies a movement in players, managers, and front office staff as they outgrow their roles. Rangnick himself has been rumored to be leaving for AC Milan this summer. But that is the resiliency of building around a philosophy - individuals come in, add their own wrinkles to the base foundation of pressing and transitions, then move on. Nagelsmann will inevitably be replaced by the future Nagelsmann. This process of filtering and regeneration is how Leipzig remain at the forefront of European modernity.
“We only need three victories to win the most valuable trophy in club football,” said Nagelsmann, once again evoking the tournament mindset in discussing Leipzig’s upcoming matches in the Champions League.
They will presumably head to Lisbon in August without Timo Werner, who holds the club record with 95 goals. The Chelsea-bound striker added nuances to his athletic, speed-oriented game under Nagelsmann. He dropped further back into midfield to focus on his buildup play, with the added space allowing him to pick up full speed when attacking backlines. In echoing the positionless approach, Werner described his role as not quite a striker or a playmaker, but almost like an offensive midfielder.
Leipzig also finished third last season, with the same exact 66-point total from this season. But considering their impact on the contemporary game, does RB Leipzig have to win to matter? There is an unspoken Bundesliga order: Bayern on top, Dortmund second, and Leipzig third. In a way, Leipzig are freed by that structure, able to exist and experiment without the pressure of title-winning expectations. Success then is measured in pushing the boundaries of transitions, pressing, and direct play. Players, managers, and even board members come and go. But the overarching idea, of how to score a goal as efficiently and quickly as possible, is eternal.