On Bundesliga Benches, Young Coaches Rewrite the Old Rules
In most leagues, in most countries, Heiko Herrlich might have been considered too much of a risk for a club like Bayer Leverkusen.
He might have been deemed too young to run a big team, for a start — 45 when Rudi Völler, the Bundesliga side’s general manager, visited him this year to chew over the prospect of Herrlich’s becoming the club’s next coach. Coaching is a profession, after all, traditionally dominated by men in their 50s and 60s, particularly at teams of Leverkusen’s stature.
By most standards, Herrlich might have looked inexperienced, too. Though he had enjoyed an illustrious playing career — most notably winning the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund in 1997 — he had never moved too close to the limelight as a coach.
He had worked with Germany’s under-17 and under-19 teams, did some youth coaching at Bayern Munich and spent the rest of his time at unheralded clubs in Germany’s regionalized third tier.
When he met with Völler, he was still in his first season at Jahn Regensburg. It was the sort of place, Herrlich said, “where all the coaches sat in one room, with cracks in the walls and showers that did not often work right.” The Bundesliga seemed a world away.
Völler, though, looked past that. Herrlich had taken Regensburg to promotion, playing in that attractive, intensive way that has become de rigueur in Germany. He had instilled in his players a collectivist vision of the game, one based on understanding that “the team logo on the chest was more important than the last name on your back.” What matters is what you do, not who you are. Völler would take the same approach to appointing his new coach. Herrlich got the job.
It was telling, however, that few — if any — saw Leverkusen’s decision as a gamble. If anything, it seemed the opposite: Herrlich had played for Leverkusen, he was a recognizable name and he had followed a relatively orthodox — if slightly circuitous — route to coaching. In the current climate, in fact, he was almost a safe bet.
When the Bundesliga returns to action this weekend — Leverkusen gets the season underway with a visit to the defending champion Bayern Munich on Friday — six of its 18 coaches will have yet to turn 40. Two more, Hertha Berlin’s Pal Dardai and André Breitenreiter of Hannover 96, have passed that landmark, but are still younger than Herrlich.
Though the trend toward younger coaches is not restricted to Germany — in both Portugal and Denmark, for example, youth is no longer a drawback — the Bundesliga remains the cradle of the revolution, the place where the transformation is starkest.
Of this season’s crop, Sandro Schwarz at Mainz is 38, Augsburg’s Manuel Baum and Werder Bremen’s Alexander Nouri are 37, and Hannes Wolf, who led Stuttgart to promotion last year, is 36. The two most extreme examples, however, are Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann and Domenico Tedesco, newly installed at Schalke.
Together with Nouri, they passed their coaching qualifications at the Hannes Weisweiler Academy, just south of Cologne, only last year. Though Nagelsmann was the first of that group to be given a job — taking charge at Hoffenheim in 2015 at age 28 and leading the club into the Champions League in his first full season — it was Tedesco, 31, who finished at the top of the class.
Youth is not the only thing that unites the group. Though Nouri and Schwarz both had respectable, if unspectacular, playing careers, many of their counterparts did not. Baum and Wolf toiled in Germany’s lower leagues; Tedesco and Nagelsmann cannot even boast that.
Christian Heidel, the sporting director who appointed Tedesco at Schalke, told the website SPOX that it was “no longer so important whether a coach has played 300 Bundesliga games.”
Instead, he said, Bundesliga teams are increasingly using their academies not simply as a resource to find players but to discover coaches, too. It is a tendency that has its roots in the same program, introduced at the turn of the century in response to the German national team’s slump in form, that helped produce the squad that won the 2014 World Cup.
More than a decade before that triumph, the country’s soccer authorities — hoping to produce more players — had decided every club would be compelled to have its own youth academy, supported by a network of regional training centers.
“Now we are enjoying the fruits of those labors,” Herrlich said. “There is a wealth of very well-trained young players who have been streaming into the Bundesliga year after year, but good players can only be produced en masse when you have good development coaches. We have excellent youth coaches at the training centers, and they have the advantage that they have got to know this generation of players.”
Heidel argued that his former club Mainz was “something like pioneers” in this approach: his, and its, most notable success was appointing Thomas Tuchel, then working at Augsburg’s academy, in 2009. Tuchel would go on to coach Borussia Dortmund.
That approach, Heidel said, first alerted him to Nagelsmann’s potential, while he was still working with Hoffenheim’s youth teams, and later brought Tedesco to his attention, too. “I saw in Mainz a game between our under-19 team and Hoffenheim’s, which Tedesco was coaching,” he said. “It was impressive how he let his team play, and since then I have followed his career a little.”
What he saw evidently was enough to convince him to give Tedesco — whose only previous experience in senior management was a few months at Erzebirge Aue, in Germany’s second tier — the reins at Schalke, traditionally the country’s third largest club, behind Bayern and Dortmund.
There has been some degree of skepticism over the appointment. Mehmet Scholl, the former Bayern player, has cautioned against the rise of the “laptop manager,” while Peter Neururer, a veteran coach, has suggested the sample size from Tedesco’s career is too small to offer conclusive proof that he is up to the job.
Heidel’s taste, though, is impeccable: At Mainz, he appointed not only Tuchel but Jürgen Klopp. He said he was impressed by the depth of Tedesco’s thought, by his ability to “look outside the box” — the coach has a master’s degree in innovation management — and by his tactical knowledge. Some of the schemes pinned on Tedesco’s office wall, Heidel said, look like “paintings.”
“I have been working on the requirements of a coach for a long time,” he said. “Domenico already has 10 years of coaching experience. He has learned the profession from scratch. The coaches from the academies have the advantage of many years’ experience dealing with teams and players, compared with former players who have to start their career as a coach.”
Nagelsmann’s success — he has led Hoffenheim into the Champions League for the first time — has served to evangelize that logic, though in truth he is merely the latest in a long line. Tuchel blazed the way for him, just as Klopp opened the door for Tuchel, and Ralf Rangnick, Germany’s original laptop manager, broke the seal on outsiders’ entering the coaching ranks more than 20 years ago.
All these new ideas, these external influences, have breathed new life into German soccer. “I was speaking to my old teammate Stefan Reuter the other day and we came to the conclusion that, compared to our time, it is now a totally different sport,” Herrlich said. He sees in the frenzy of press and counterpress, so rife in the Bundesliga, elements of handball.
As a former player, Herrlich might be expected to reject the prevailing mood, to gaze at the newcomers with suspicion, to advocate for a return to the good old days. He does not. “As a former player, you know how players can feel in certain circumstances,” he said. “That awareness and experience have helped me a lot, but it is not a guarantee for a successful coaching career.”
He sees it, instead, as just one element. He cites a quote from Arrigo Sacchi, the vastly influential former coach of A.C. Milan, to explain. Sacchi was never a player, either.