Having steered Hoffenheim away from relegation, he then qualified them for the Champions League for the first time. Next up, he joined RB Leipzig in 2019 and lifted that team to another level too, reaching the Champions League semi-finals in 2019/20 and the German Cup final last season. When Hansi Flick took charge of the German national team, Bayern did not have to look far for a worthy successor to their treble-winning coach.
But as in so many runaway success stories, failure and crushing disappointment – as well as coincidence and chance – are woven into the narrative. Above all, his dream of becoming a footballer was obliterated by a knee injury while at Augsburg at the age of 20. “In the beginning, the disappointment was just too much,” he explains. “To not be able to pursue a professional playing career when you’d had to sacrifice so much in your youth, invest so much of your time, and give up so many other things.
“After a short time, two things happened. The first one being that I got the chance to become an assistant coach, to get to know this profession that I never had thought about before. I never even had the plan to become a coach after my playing career, so that was entirely coincidental. The second thing was that my love for the sport came back. After doing without football for three or four months, I realised I missed it and wanted to work in the field again. And since it wasn’t possible as a player, at least not on the level that I wanted, I decided to take that chance and become an assistant coach.
“It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it a lot, to be welcomed into a large group like that,” he adds, having needed an outlet after another painful turning point at the age of 20: the death of his father. “After suffering a personal stroke of fate that is common knowledge, I’d already realised how important it is to have a safety net around you. Even though I was a coach, the players were ready to catch me, welcomed me to training every day, helped me to think of something else. We also all worked towards a common goal. That had already inspired me back when I was still playing football actively. And that’s how I ended up actually becoming a coach, which I hadn’t planned initially.”
Steps? Strides, more like it. The sight of an animated Nagelsmann stalking the technical area is now a staple of Champions League matchdays.
Thomas Tuchel had a lot to do with that happy twist of fate. The Champions League-winning Chelsea boss was Augsburg’s reserve-team coach and looking for an edge over his side’s opponents, just when Nagelsmann’s knee betrayed him. “It wasn’t customary practice in the league we were playing in at the time,” says Nagelsmann. “I said OK so that I could get my money until the end of the year. I did some scouting and then in some of the discussions about our opponents, Thomas said it seemed like the job suited me. He said I had a good analytical eye, a gift for recognising things.
“I think without his encouragement, I’d never have tried it. I already knew Thomas was a very talented manager with a very good reputation, even if he wasn’t at the level he is now. So I thought, ‘If I can do it, he’ll surely have some plans for me, so I’ll try it.’ Of course, my career afterwards had nothing to do with Thomas Tuchel, but he pushed me over the threshold, even if I took the first steps myself.”
Steps? Strides, more like it. The sight of an animated Nagelsmann stalking the technical area is now a staple of Champions League matchdays. Allied to his sporting savoir-faire, his unbridled passion for the game has risen to new levels by being at Bayern. “I’m delighted to have the post. I think you can tell how much I enjoy it by looking at me – or, when I’m standing on the touchline, by how much life and energy I put into the job.”
Nagelsmann is also conscious of what his younger self, fresh from waving at Alain Sutter on the Autobahn, would have thought of this opportunity. And what he’d have to say: “‘Hurry up and win a few titles!’ Then my 34-year-old self would say, ‘It’s not all about winning titles!’ But the ten-year-old would say, ‘Get a move on!’”