Julian Nagelsmann is 33 years old. This summer he will fulfill his destiny and become manager of Bayern Munich, the club he supported as a boy in Landsberg am Lech, the Bavarian city where a young Johnny Cash was stationed with the US Air Force.It is a story with an almost mythical quality: the young professional who suffers severe knee injuries and is committed to coaching is developing into the brightest talent in the dominant German school. But here it becomes real; Here he has to win.
Nagelsmann will be confronted with the problem that all Bayern managers (or Juventus or Paris Saint-Germain) have in common: the domestic league is not a challenge. Bayern will win a ninth title in a row this season. The latest Deloitte report shows that annual sales are 73 percent higher than that of the second-richest team, Borussia Dortmund. Of course they dominate: RB Leipzig posed a slight threat to Bayern this season and can finish within 10 points but this summer they will lose their most promising player, center-back Dayot Upamecano, and their manager to the perennial champions.
Amid the ramifications of the European Super League proposals, Germany has received high praise for its 50-1 ownership model, which guarantees fans a voice in running clubs – at least in theory. RB Leipzig has shown how broadly the regulations can be interpreted. However, the financial stratification of the game in the Bundesliga is as strong as anywhere and before the pandemic there were banners – including from Bayern Ultras – protesting against the distribution of resources. The German model has advantages, but nobody should think that it is a panacea if it is not reformed.
If Nagelsmann sees his five-year contract (and only Pep Guardiola has played three consecutive seasons with Bayern since Ottmar Hitzfeld left in 2004), he is expected to win five Bundesliga titles. That’s par. Where he’s going to be judged is in Europe, with a handful of knockout ties – and if it doesn’t seem very successful for a super club to get through the group stage, just wait for the Swiss system to roll out in 2024.
The more dominant a club is, the more it expects a win, the more the assessment of the value depends on individual moments in one or two major European games per season. Last year Bayern beat Paris Saint-Germain 1-0 in the Champions League final and Hansi Flick was celebrated as a genius. That year they lost in the quarter-finals to PSG on away goals, so no one seemed overly concerned when he decided to leave – even if the public sympathy was largely his, rather than the sporting director he’d fought with, Hasan Salihamidzic.
That is of course absurd. What if Robert Lewandowski hadn’t been injured? What if Manuel Neuer hadn’t been in a tangle at the first PSG goal? What if that Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting header had fallen under and not on the crossbar? But it adds an extra layer of intrigue to any appointment.
Winning big games, staying calm under pressure, getting the players in the right mood, and riding the emotions of the occasion is a skill in itself. And if there is any doubt about Nagelsmann, it must be that his teams tend not to appear in the biggest Champions League games.
The sample size is very small and it should also be recognized that Nagelsmann’s teams have always gone into these big games as underdogs. It’s a touch of concern, not an indelible question mark. In August 2017, his Hoffenheim met Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in a qualifying game for the Champions League. It was billed as a clash between two major representatives of the German press school, but although Liverpool only won 2-1 and 4-2, it felt disappointing: they were clearly far superior.
But then it was Hoffenheim; Of course, Liverpool was superior. But the thought was repeated in the semi-finals of the Champions League last season. RB Leipzig had conveniently disposed of Tottenham and Atlético so the observation may be unfair but they seemed overwhelmed in the semi-final against PSG. There seemed to be little try to get my way, and their usual pressure game didn’t work. Was it fear on the big occasion? Was it just that PSG were good? Or had Nagelsmann tried unsuccessfully to change his approach to countering the threat at the counter of Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Ángel Di María?
It was easy to blame him for his caution back then, but two months later RB Leipzig pushed with devotion at Old Trafford and was beaten 5-0 by Manchester United. This is always the dilemma for sides that push hard. A high line is by definition a game of chance. Against a high-profile opponent, an urgent team must weigh the risk of playing their normal game against a less familiar but theoretically more conservative approach.
It’s a problem Guardiola faced repeatedly in the final stages of the Champions League, and one that preoccupied Germany from the moment Jogi Löw decided to counter-attack something more progressive after the 2014 World Cup (and probably even at the Euro 2012). .
In the home game against United, despite a late wobble and both games against PSG, there were promising signs for RB Leipzig but then they were strangely slack in the last 16 against Liverpool. This doubt remains. Of course, it is perfectly reasonable to point out that three knockout games and one group game are very little clues for an assessment, but that’s the absurdity of modern football: For Bayern, only a few games and the guy who does it count are only the devices in which Nagelsmann still has to deliver.
But then how can a trainer be judged properly? Nagelsmann was able to get the process just right. His workouts could be exceptionally challenging and effective. Bayern were able to win every Bundesliga game 5-0 and won the title until February. But one more away goal loss in the Champions League quarter-finals and everything seems a little empty.
But this is modern football: the more games are played, the less it actually seems to play a role.
A weekly update from our football correspondent Daniel McDonnell along with the best writing from our team of experts. Issued every Friday.
Enter your email address
This field is required
An INM website