Despite being just 33, Julian Nagelsmann is the man who can take Barcelona forward as the club embarks on a new era under a new administration soon.
From Johan Cruyff to Pep Guardiola, some of football’s most innovative thinkers have graced the Camp Nou throughout the decades. At the height of their powers, FC Barcelona were pioneers, synonymous with styles of play that propelled the sport forward. But in recent memory, they have been the complete antithesis of everything they once stood for, devoid of awe and tactical distinction.
Facing bankruptcy, presidential elections, and a much-needed squad overhaul, Barça need the right manager at the helm — someone bright and forward-thinking, symbolic of the club’s ambition.
Enter Julian Nagelsmann
While only one month younger than Lionel Messi, Nagelsmann is already staking his claim as one of the best managers in the world. He’s inventive, eager, and could be exactly what Barça need to reestablish themselves as the kings of world football.
Nagelsmann did not enjoy an extensive playing career, but he seems en-route a decorated managerial life. (Photo by Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)
Nagelsmann was only 20 years old when a knee injury forced a premature end to his playing career. Given that he was still under contract with FC Ausburg, the aspiring centre-back was put to work as an unofficial scout for current Paris Saint-Germain coach Thomas Tuchel.
He then moved on to coach 1899 Hoffenheim’s youth teams before being appointed manager of their senior-side in 2016. With that, he became the youngest permanent manager in Bundesliga history at age 28 and led Hoffenheim to their first-ever Champions League berth in 2017 –already historic.
Nagelsmann is now midway through his second season at Red Bull Leipzig, where his aspirations are equally matched by the club’s. Last season, he became the youngest manager to lead a team to the Champions League knockout stages, guiding Die Roten Bullen all the way to the semi-finals, before being knocked out by none other than Tuchel’s PSG.
Nagelsmann’s sides are attacking, high-pressing, and versatile. He employs a myriad of formations, most commonly 3–5–2 and 4–4–2, tasked to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses and counter their strengths. He also consistently rotates his squad and fielded 29 different players across all competitions last season.
His formations and players may be subject to change, but his core principles are ever-present, ones that surround Johann Cruyff’s ideas about Total Football, and the ability of each player to play multiple roles and positions.
We have seen Naglesmann implement that by using Dani Olmo in nearly seven different positions – including defensive midfield. Apart from that, the well-known face of Marcel Sabitzer embodies Nagelsmann’s ideas. He, too, has played across multiple positions including on the wing, striker, defensive midfield, and even as a wing-back.
Marcel Sabitzer embodies the ideologies that Julian Nagelsmann wants to present. (Photo by Boris Streubel/Bongarts/Getty Images)
“[Formations] are just principles and things that players should do in different parts of the game. […] They are just numbers. I try to find a solution for the next opponent, depending on how I can put our way of playing football in the best system.”Julian Nagelsmann | Interview with Tribuna Expresso
Nagelsmann prefers to play out from the back, but never needlessly and lethargically passing the ball around. Leipzig like to drag their opponents to one side of the pitch before quickly switching it to the opposite flank, most often to a marauding wing-back.
He places high emphasis on verticality, using short but high-tempo passes to progress the ball. During last season’s Bundesliga campaign, Leipzig attempted the second-least amount of long balls per game, but the fourth most total passes.
“I like my team to play with two touches most of the time. If we play with two touches, the pass can come out stronger and speed up the pace.”Julian Nagelsmann | Interview with Tribuna Expresso
The centre-back, typically Frenchman Dayot Upamecano, carries the ball forward to create a numerical advantage in the midfield. His movement is crucial in dragging opposing midfielders out of position, which in turn allows the multifaceted Marcel Sabitzer to advance and be a threat in the attacking third. Last season, the Austrian tallied 16 goals and ten assists.
Dayot Upamecano and Marcel Sabitzer are the prime elements of RB Leipzig under Nagelsmann. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Konrad Laimer is another key player, whose versatility and high work rate gives his teammates freedom to roam, as well as lets the team adopt different shapes in offence and defence. The wing-backs are also vital as they add width and ascendancy in the midfield that allows Leipzig to dominate that area of the park. A standout is Angeliño, a Spaniard on-loan from Manchester City who already has five goals in 11 appearances this season.
In the attacking third, Nagelsmann encourages lots of off-ball movement, one-two passes, and quick layoffs. Frequently using two holding midfielders, one moves back into defence whilst the other can propel ahead, interchanging with forwards who like to drop deep.
The attacking midfielders often drift narrowly, forming a midfield box, dragging opposing full-backs out of position and establishing precedence out wide. These creative players in the middle allow for meticulous combination plays and precise passing. This constant movement and flexibility wreaks havoc for their opponents and leads to many goal-scoring opportunities.
Currently sitting in second place in the Bundesliga, the Saxony-based side are averaging the most shots per game with 17.43. By comparison, Barcelona are averaging 13.0 in La Liga. Last season, Leipzig had the second most touches in the attacking penalty area in the league and the second most progressive passes per game.
Former Barcelona player Dani Olmo often runs riot in the final third for Julian Nagelsmann. (Photo by Ina Fassbender/Pool)
They were also second in expected goals per match and shot-creating actions per 90 minutes. They were third in goal creating chances in the Bundesliga with 3.94 a game, only behind giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
Nagelsmann’s teams defend with cohesion and energy. Last season, Die Roten Bullen had the second-best defensive record in the league, conceding 37 goals in 34 matches, which by Bundesliga metrics is not very high.
His tactical flexibility allows for fluid formations, such as a two-man backline in attack morphing into five men on defence. This is coupled by the likes of Lukas Klostermann and Marcel Halstenberg, who fullbacks by trait, are used as overlapping centre-backs. His teams also use a high-line, rely on offside traps, and are very active in pressing.
“Our goal is to always take advantage of an interception to have an advantage of pace and speed over the opponent, who plays wide and wide.”Naglesmann interview from Football Hackers: The Science and Art of a Data Revolution by Christoph Biermann
For further numerical context, in the 2019-2020 Bundesliga, Leipzig had the third-highest successful pressures rate (winning the ball back within five seconds of applying pressure) with 32.7%. In the Champions League, they were second in pressures in the attacking third, indicating where they do most of their damage.
Off the Pitch
Nagelsmann demands lots of energy, high work rate and versatility from his players, and the results speak for themselves. Although he’s yet to win a major trophy, he has proven he can succeed even without the biggest of names, and his squads are often greater than the sum of their parts.
Barcelona could benefit a lot with a few high-intensity training sessions with Julian Nagelsmann. (Photo by DAVID RAMOS/AFP)
The 33-year-old has also helped developed many star players, such as Bayern Munich’s Serge Gnabry and Chelsea FC’s Timo Werner, who he worked with at Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig respectively.
In training, Nagelsmann “never wants to do the same drill twice,” according to his interview for the book Football Hackers. He has 31 principles of football that he integrates and specific goals he wants to accomplish every session. He also utilizes technology like drones and has even placed a giant video screen next to the training ground so players can see their movements and shapes from a different angle.
There are a plethora of great managers Barcelona will be looking at should Ronald Koeman not be a long-term choice, including club legend Xavi Hernández, and Julian Nagelsmann should certainly be on the list. He’s proving to be an innovative tactician and a commanding locker room presence and could help propel the Blaugrana into a new era. In fact, he’s already proclaimed his interest for the job.
Nagelsmann can help develop countless youth stars for Barcelona, bringing the best out of an underperforming squad, and his attacking brand of football would translate well to Spain. Regardless of a lack of major silverware, he’s already off to a promising start.
Julian Nagelsmann has the mind, the character, the energy, and the drip to become the next manager of Barcelona. (Photo by Andrew Yates/Sportimage)
Nevertheless, Nagelsmann is by no means a finished product, and he still needs more experience that naturally comes with more years under his belt and working for a club with bigger expectations.
A defining few months is on the horizon for Barcelona, and Julian Nagelsmann could be exactly who they need to once again dazzle the world with style and ambition.
Statistics courtesy of FBref.
Using data to construct alternative Barcelona lineups
If you had to build a team that matched the style of Barça’s first eleven, what would it look like? Who are the Lionel Messi’s and Sergio Busquets’s of other clubs around the world? Let us dive into these questions using statistics.
The ability to identify similar players can be very beneficial in football. That knowledge can be applied to pinpoint transfer targets as potential replacements for an outgoing star, to gain a deeper understanding of how an unfamiliar opposition plays and who their main threats are, and more.
In the modern age, data plays a massive role in this. Here, the concept will not be as serious as crunching numbers to analyze an opponent or maximize efficiency in the transfer market, rather it will be more of a fun look at the Barça squad.
Essentially, we will be using player statistics to answer the question: What if you had to replace each member of the Barcelona lineup with another player from world football? Not in a fantasy way of building a dream eleven, but identifying players who best match the tendencies of the current team.
Background and methodology
To find the next best thing to Lionel Messi, Frenkie de Jong, and company, data from Wyscout for the 2019/20 league season will be used. Each position group – centre backs, full backs, centre midfielders, and attackers – starts off with a sizeable group of metrics relating to their style of play, before a factor analysis is performed.
The factor analysis looks at how all the players in the position group performed across the variety of individual metrics, before attempting to reduce the number of data points by creating factors that reflect relationships between those metrics.
For example, it picks up on the fact that attackers like Messi, Neymar, and Bernardo Silva tend to drop deep and be very active in buildup. This is reflected by their high tallies of actions like passes and passes into the attacking third.
So, it can use those trends to create one factor representative of that style, allowing the 25-30 metrics for each position group to be reduced to five or six numbers, which is much easier to interpret. After that, cosine similarity can be used to find a player’s closest match.
In terms of the players involved, this is the Barça eleven that will be used based on a mix of who has played the most over the course of the season and Ronald Koeman’s recent choices.
Because of his injury issues, Ousmane Dembélé did not play enough in the 2019/20 season to generate even a decent sample size, so his 2018/19 statistics were used instead.
Finally, for Marc-André ter Stegen in goal, factor analysis will not be used. There are not enough useful metrics available for the goalkeeper position, so a more simple search will be performed. His matches will be found by looking for players who are similarly active in possession, accurate passers, and possibly have a similar physical build. With that in mind, time to get into the results.
To present the outcomes of this analysis, we will have multiple alternative lineups based on certain criteria. First up are players with a Transfermarkt market value of €25 million or higher. Here is each Barça player’s closest match:
- Marc-André ter Stegen: Ederson (Manchester City)
- Jordi Alba: Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)
- Clément Lenglet: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
- Gerard Piqué: Edmond Tapsoba (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Sergiño Dest: Héctor Bellerín (Arsenal)
- Sergio Busquets: Jorginho (Chelsea)
- Pedri: Florian Neuhaus (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Frenkie de Jong: Arthur (Barcelona, now at Juventus)
- Antoine Griezmann: Mason Mount (Chelsea)
- Lionel Messi: Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain)
- Ousmane Dembélé: Eden Hazard (Real Madrid)
Two young Bundesliga centre backs anchor the backline. At left-back, Robertson’s delivery style may differ from Alba’s, but the Scotsman offers a similar end to end stamina. On the right, Bellerín slots in as a La Masia product himself.
This midfield sees Jorginho take the reigns from Busquets as the metronome, while Pedri is replaced by a fellow wonderkid in the emerging Neuhaus. Seeing Frenkie de Jong matched with Arthur may be a bit surprising. The Dutchman has certainly improved this season and contributed in a wider variety of areas, but this goes to show that he needed time to gain confidence, just like Arthur was.
The wings are occupied by big names who have commanded massive transfer fees. Dembélé matching with 2019/20 Hazard can also be seen as a bit eerie given both of their injury struggles. Neymar, the former protégé, slots in for Messi, giving the side another former Barcelona connection.
Probably the biggest surprise comes with Mason Mount taking over for Griezmann. The Chelsea midfielder’s place here is certainly reflective of the unique, often unsuitable role the Frenchman played in 2019/20, where he had to perform quite a bit of “midfielder” work and was not as involved in the goals as he would have liked.
Now, let us move to the next market value range – between €15 and €25 million.
- ter Stegen: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich)
- Alba: Oleksandr Zinchenko (Manchester City)
- Lenglet: Jonathan Tah (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Piqué: Nikola Maksimović (Napoli)
- Dest: Dodô (Shakhtar Donetsk)
- Busquets: Leandro Paredes (Paris Saint-Germain)
- Pedri: Todd Cantwell (Norwich City)
- de Jong: Boubakary Soumaré (Lille)
- Griezmann: Federico Bernardeschi (Juventus)
- Messi: Mohammed Ihattaren (PSV)
- Dembélé: Manor Solomon (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Jonathan Tah joins Edmond Tapsoba from that first lineup as Bayer Leverkusen centre-backs highlighted here. At right-back, Dest is replaced by another one of the position’s brightest young talents in the Brazilian Dodô.
Manor Solomon, another Shakhtar Donetsk youngster, comes up on the right-wing. Given the Ukrainian club’s history of smart recruitment and the number of talented players they have who seem to fit Barça moulds (attacking full-backs, possession-based midfielders, inverted wingers), it definitely looks like a good place to scout.
The Camp Nou was recently home to a great performance from Leandro Paredes, albeit for the opposition. Fellow Ligue 1 midfielder Soumaré has been attracting lots of interest from the big Premier League sides for his recent play.
Filling Messi’s spot here is PSV’s Mohammed Ihattaren. He may be unknown to some, but the teenager’s top-flight experience at a big club and callups to the Dutch national team back his ability.
Onto the next squad, which brings up some under the radar players, with the market value ranging between €5 to €15 million.
- ter Stegen: Yann Sommer (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Alba: Marcelo (Real Madrid)
- Lenglet: Aleksandar Dragović (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Piqué: Rick van Drongelen (Hamburger)
- Dest: Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux)
- Busquets: Nikola Moro (Dinamo Zagreb, now at Dynamo Moscow)
- Pedri: Maximiliano Meza (Monterrey)
- de Jong: Wendel (Zenit)
- Griezmann: Lars Stindl (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Messi: Josip Iličić (Atalanta)
- Dembélé: Ryan Kent (Rangers)
In goal, Yann Sommer played a big role in getting Borussia Mönchengladbach, ter Stegen’s former club, to Champions League football. On the attacking side, he is joined by his teammate, the well-rounded Lars Stindl.
Dragović becomes the third Bayer Leverkusen centre back to feature here. To his left, another big club alternative comes in for Alba and this time from Barça’s arch-rivals.
Moro (22), Wendel (23), and Kent (24) bring some younger legs to the side. Kent, in particular, has looked very impressive under the management of Steven Gerrard and is now looking to secure a league title while advancing in the Europa League.
Covering for Messi this time is another one of football’s ageing stars. While he may not have reached his peak until later in his career, Josip Iličić is making the most of it. He has put up excellent numbers across the board over the last few seasons, propelling Atalanta into Italy’s top three and the knockout stages of the Champions League.
To finish off, how about we look at a lineup of only young players? Here is the U-23 alternative eleven:
- ter Stegen: Florian Müller (Freiburg)
- Alba: Emir Karic (Rheindorf Altach)
- Lenglet: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
- Piqué: Flavius Daniliuc (Bayern Munich II, now at OGC Nice)
- Dest: Henry Uzochokwu (FC Midtjylland)
- Busquets: Nikola Moro (Dinamo Zagreb, now at Dynamo Moscow)
- Pedri: Delio Ramírez (Deportivo Pereira)
- de Jong: Claudio Gomes (Jong PSV, now at Manchester City U-23)
- Griezmann: Michel Vlap (Anderlecht, now at Bielefeld)
- Messi: Mohammed Ihattaren (PSV)
- Dembélé: Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)
Some familiar names present, but with no market value range, there are a few relatively unknown footballers here. Sancho, the new star on the wings at Dembélé’s former club, would undoubtedly have to shoulder a lot of responsibility if this were a serious side. However, there is some real talent here.
Flavius Daniliuc is certainly one to watch for the future. A former member of both Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s academies, the Austrian teenager, is now getting his first taste of top-flight football with Nice.
Frenchman in midfield Claudio Gomes is another solid prospect. He came through the Paris Saint-Germain academy and has represented France at each youth age group from U-16 to U-20. Gomes has made a short appearance for the Manchester City first team in the FA Cup this season, but at 20 years old, he could be on the move soon in search of first-team football.
The potential for forward Michel Vlap to become world-class may have run out, but he is definitely a serviceable player. After reaching double figures for goals in the Eredivisie in 2018/19, then the Belgian first division in 2019/20, the Dutchman earned his move to the big five leagues.
Of course, not much deeper insight can be drawn from this. The analysis here is done almost purely on a hypothetical level, as opposed to trying to prove anything. It does reveal some interesting trends, though.
We were able to highlight how Neymar has evolved to become more Messi-like, how Bayer Leverkusen use ball-playing centre backs similar to Barça, how Shakhtar Donetsk has some intriguing talents that Barça could monitor (several others were not mentioned), and more.
It does also make fans think about having to actually replace the likes of Messi and Busquets when they move on. Who will slot in for them for real when it is time?