Football, Brian Clough used to complain, is not a world that ever lets you enjoy your success. There’s always another match, another season, another threat. The past three seasons at Liverpool have been a story of remarkable achievement: a Champions League final, then Champions League success, then the end of the 30-year league title drought. But the fireworks had barely dimmed in the sky over Anfield before Jürgen Klopp found new opponents rising against him.
There were injuries and the schedule and the familiar struggle all successful sides face to evolve and stave off entropy. There was a resurgent Manchester City, the Spanish juego de posición that had seemingly been overcome rising again but this time, perhaps, with greater defensive solidity.
There is also a challenge from within the German school of pressing, a new generation of Ralf Rangnick-inspired coaches led by Julian Nagelsmann, whose RB Leipzig Liverpool face in the Champions League on Tuesday.
Whatever counter-revolution may be brewing at City after Pep Guardiola was reunited with his mentor, Juanma Lillo, it is the German high-pressing model that is pre-eminent at the moment. Last season, when no Spanish side reached the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time since 2007, three of the four sides who did get there were coached by Germans – Hansi Flick at Bayern, Thomas Tuchel then at Paris Saint-Germain and Nagelsmann at Leipzig. Add in the fact that the defending Premier League champions were Klopp’s Liverpool and the German supremacy is clear.
Those four managers are all different in approach, but share certain key principles and are part of a movement that can be traced back to the moment on a bleak training pitch outside Stuttgart in 1983 that Rangnick, then the manager of the sixth-tier side Viktoria Backnang, first encountered pressing in a friendly against Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv. Fascinated, he began to study and to apply the lessons to the teams he was coaching. And so pressing entered German football.
The school grew, with Volker Finke at Freiburg and Wolfgang Frank at Mainz, but when Rangnick tried to explain the principles of zonal marking and pressing on television, he was laughed off as a nerdish boffin. Only when Klopp, who had played for Frank at Mainz, worked as a pundit during the 2006 World Cup did the ideas of this new movement enter the German mainstream.
Since when German football has taken to pressing with a convert’s zeal. Rangnick, who has never relished the pressure of being a frontline coach, retreated to be director of football and then head of sport and development at Red Bull, Leipzig’s owners. It was he who appointed Nagelsmann in 2019. Klopp, with his successes at Dortmund and then Liverpool, became the face of the German pressing school.
At 53, Klopp is far from old as a manager, but Nagelsmann is 20 years his junior. The stage is set for a classic battle of master against young pretender. The pair have faced each other once before, when Liverpool beat Hoffenheim in the play-off round for the Champions League group stage in 2017-18.
The build-up to those ties was characterised by overt mutual respect. Klopp described Nagelsmann as “a big, big, big coaching talent” and noted that “his team is playing interesting and good football. He’s not the only one but he’s a good example of a lot of really good young managers in Germany. It’s an interesting time on the manager market in Germany at this moment.”
Nagelsmann was just as complimentary. “I like that he’s stayed true to his principles,” he said of Klopp. “His team plays similar football to his Dortmund team and he doesn’t lose sight of his way of doing things. He stands for something.”
As it turned out, the tie was a bracing reminder of how far Hoffenheim were from the highest level: they were repeatedly exposed and could have lost by far more than the 6-3 aggregate Liverpool did achieve.
In terms of resources and ability, Leipzig are a significant step up from Hoffenheim. If it weren’t for the doubts about the way they have breached the spirit of German regulations on club ownership, and perhaps broader concerns about Red Bull’s practice of establishing a network of clubs across the world, they would be regarded as an admirable example of what can be achieved by enlightened coaching and smart investment. They were promoted to the Bundesliga in 2016, but have established themselves as a regular Champions League presence despite a net transfer spend of nil. They have the second-youngest squad in the Bundesliga.
Timo Werner is a fine example of how they operate, signed for £12.5m from Stuttgart and sold for four times that to Chelsea four years later. Given he scored 28 goals last season and nobody has more than four so far this, that has created certain problems, yet Leipzig remain second in the table. That they have been able to sustain their challenge regardless is evidence of the effectiveness of the underlying philosophy.
Nagelsmann is at the heart of that. He has spoken about following the same route as Klopp has at Liverpool, of moving on from relying on pressing and counters to be more balanced and flexible – and it is testament to the intelligence of Leipzig’s approach that although they have made the seventh-most presses in the Bundesliga this season, they have made the second‑most in the opponent’s defensive third. This is not constant hell-for-leather pressing, but is carefully targeted, conserving energy as far as possible.
The big doubt is about Leipzig in the biggest games. They seemed to freeze against Paris Saint-Germain in last season’s Champions League semi-final and there were alarming collapses in both group matches against Manchester United (albeit one came when they were already 3-0 up).
But with Liverpool stuttering, Leipzig must see this as an opportunity to claim another major scalp and to reach the quarter-finals for the second successive season. For Nagelsmann it is a chance to enhance his reputation and to position himself at the forefront of the dominant German style. It is Klopp still who has the trophies, but football is constantly evolving; it never stands still.