By age 30, Julian Nagelsmann was already in his second season coaching at the highest level in the German Bundesliga.
When persistent knee injuries put an end to his hopes of playing professionally, Nagelsmann went to university to study business. After two years, he realised that a business career was not for him. He switched to sports sciences, a move that proved to be life-changing.
He returned to one of his former clubs, Augsburg, where he worked briefly with Thomas Tuchel, who was in charge of the second team.
After a short stint at Augsburg, Nagelsmann moved to Hoffenheim, where he started coaching in the youth setup before being made assistant coach in 2013. He was 25.
At the time, he said that he enjoyed coaching. “[It] is more enjoyable than playing. As a player, you just go and train, but as a coach or a trainer, you think of what you can do to improve the team, or specific parts of the game. You will do that on the field and after training – you say that was the right or the wrong way.”
In October 2015, Hoffenheim, who are financed by software billionaire Dietmar Hopp, announced that Nagelsmann would take over coaching the first team in the 2016/17 season.
When ill health forced coach Huub Stevens to resign in February 2016, Hoffenheim took the gamble and appointed the 28-year-old Nagelsmann as head coach. At the time, Hoffenheim were second from last and seven points from safety.
Under Nagelsmann, they won seven of their remaining 14 matches to finish the season in 15th place and avoid relegation.
The next season, Nagelsmann took Hoffenheim to a fourth-place finish and their first entry into the lucrative and prestigious Champions League tournament.
A year later, they qualified with a third-place finish.
By this time, Nagelsmann’s success was drawing attention from a number of clubs and he was linked with a move to Bayern Munich. And when Hoffenheim announced that he would leave the club at the end of the 2018/19 season, speculation was rife that he would join the Bavarian giants.
Instead, RB Leipzig announced in June last year that Nagelsmann would become their head coach for the new season. And like he did with Hoffenheim, he started with a bang, beating new boys Union Berlin 4-0. Nagelsmann is known for his attacking brand of football.
“My philosophy is to attack the opponents near their own goal because your own way to the goal is not as long if you get the ball higher up,” he said.
At the end of the first half of the season, Nagelsmann has taken Leipzig to the top of the Bundesliga, and the team has played some impressive football along the way.
They have scored more goals than any other team (48) and have a two-point lead over Borussia Mönchengladbach. Leipzig are four points ahead of Bayern.
Surprisingly, he has said that he does not believe his team are strong enough to win the title.
“We have to develop. We are currently not good enough to become champions,” Nagelsmann said.
He believes their first place on the league table is “because many others don’t have the performance they could have”.
Leipzig drew with Bayern (1-1 at home) and Dortmund (3-3 away) in the first roun,d and Nagelsmann said they would have to achieve victories against both clubs to be able to win the league.
“Without that, it will be very difficult at the end of the season. We probably need to double our points, possibly even get one or two wins more.”
It is not surprising that the success Nagelsmann has enjoyed draws comparisons with two other coaches who started their Bundesliga coaching careers at a relatively young age at modest clubs, where they were afforded the opportunity to develop their coaching styles before moving on to bigger teams.
Since then, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp and Tuchel, the boss of Paris Saint-Germain, have amassed a cabinet full of trophies – including the Champions League, league titles in Germany and France, and numerous domestic cups.
It seems probable that Nagelsmann will – in the not too distant future – become yet another young German coach reaching for (and coaching) the stars.