The Nagelsmann effect: Can football be improved by learning from the NFL?

A memoji avatar of Kane Brooker.
22 September 2021
minute read
Original image:
Steffen Prößdorf

Bayern Munich manager Julian Nagelsmann has been ridiculed for his suggestion that football can learn from the NFL. But as one of the most revolutionary managers at the top of the European game, does he have a valid point that supporters should consider?

The 34-year-old has soared onto the scene after success with 1899 Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, which also attracted links to Manchester United. However, the former understudy to Thomas Tuchel opted to remain in Germany with the current champions breaking the world record managerial transfer fee this summer. 

German football continues to provide subversive ideas to the game – and Nagelsmann's impact is widely credited for the country's focus on younger coaches. It's no surprise that he's looking to continue making his mark and remodel elements of football.

In January, he revealed his appreciation for the level of detail and intricacies of the NFL, a league largely forgotten in England aside from their brief international series. And in September, Nagelsmann reiterated his desire for detail-driven changes to be introduced in football, suggesting an earpiece to communicate with captains similarly to NFL quarterbacks.

"I think we can learn a lot from American football, especially in terms of their discipline in studying and executing the team's playbook," he previously said. "I definitely think that's an area that soccer can improve on."

The reception to these ideas has been overwhelmingly negative, but it's easy to jump to conclusions when American football is not widely followed. Once the ideas proposed by Nagelsmann are considered in terms of football, he may be the key man to take the sport to the next level. Goal-line technology was once despised, and although VAR has started negatively, it can develop into a fundamental inclusion. Football fans don't like change, but sometimes it's needed.

The effects have already begun

Despite the hesitancy towards Nagelsmann's ideas, aspects of American football have already started to make their way into the game. The recent rise in specialist coaches can be widely considered to be taken from American football.

Fellow German manager Jurgen Klopp has called upon Thomas Gronnemark as a throw-in specialist for Liverpool, while Brentford turned to sleep specialists and ball-striking coaches in their successful bid for Premier League promotion. England also experimented with possession coaches, and despite the initial doubt towards the change, the eventual sackings of Richard Kyle and Mikey Harris due to budget cuts resulted in outcry. The duo was widely praised for their involvement in England's significant success at youth level.

This evolution remains way below the level of the NFL, but suggests that managers understand the importance of a level of detail way beyond their solo capabilities. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had 23 coaches assisting head coach Bruce Arians en route to their recent Super Bowl success. As well as offensive and defensive coordinators, most positions have their own coaches, and a specialist teams unit helps with kicking and returning. The role of Gronnemark at Melwood could be considered very similar to a special teams coach, with a focus on minor improvements likely to provide value over the course of the season.

And it may be no coincidence that the teams employing these specialist coaches have demonstrated forward-thinking plans. Liverpool sporting director Michael Edwards has been commended for his innovative ideas that were instrumental in their European success, while Brentford marked a return to the top flight after 74 years. With Nagelsmann at the helm, RB Leipzig also reached a Champions League semi-final for the first time while routinely finishing in the Bundesliga top three.

Finding the right balance

Changes must be implemented with the correct balance to not impact the tactical disparities of the sports. Even as attention to detail continues to become of greater importance across Europe, there remain vast differences to the NFL's highly strategic games that include constant stoppages.

The nature of the rules means that individuality remains vital in football, and ingenuity is often the difference between success and defeat. This impact is less common in the NFL, particularly with timeouts allowing coaches to stop the game and change an approach. Odell Beckham Jr's physics-defying catch in 2014 remains a career-defining moment for the wide receiver, and for many casual NFL viewers, it may be his only known action in the NFL because of its rarity. 

Football will never recreate the intensity of the NFL's strategic importance, with teams finishing the season with several hundreds of plays in their playbooks.  But it will create more moments of individual excitement. World Cup finals are often defined by these moments – Andrés Iniesta's late strike in 2010 or Zinedine Zidane's less eloquent headbutt in 2006 – could not be replicated otherwise.

However, Nagelsmann's suggestion of using a microphone may not be as extreme as it sounds to football supporters without an interest in the NFL. A specific set of rules strictly enforces its use, and only one offensive player and one defensive player can have a speaker in their helmet. They remain unable to communicate back to the coach, and the audio shuts off at a specific time to prevent the coach from directly interfering once play has begun.

Similar rules in football could mean that a manager cannot easily give instructions to assist their player when the ball is active. This addition would not provide new opportunities between manager and player, but would make the existing task simpler and more efficient. It also opens up opportunities for broadcasters to bring new levels of depth to viewers. It remains to be seen what technology would be available for a similar approach without the need for a helmet, although Nagelsmann has hinted at his awareness of developments being underway.

A voice worth listening to

Simply put, it would be foolish to disregard the suggestions of Nagelsmann immediately. The average supporter will not experience and understand football in the way that those involved in the day-to-day management of a football team can.

While Nagelsmann may be more focused on his team's results than the entertainment spectacle, an open conversation is needed about improving the game for all parties. This discussion would require managers, players, clubs, supporter representatives and even media figures to come together to find a solution that benefits everyone.

After all, the German is not the only one to suggest that football should be developed and modernised. Arsene Wenger was once praised as a progressive manager himself after changing training intensities, improving diets and creating a radical shift in the style and philosophy of Arsenal. And in his role leading FIFA's Global Football Development, the Frenchman has suggested overhauling the offside rule and even replacing throw-ins with kick-ins. 

The level of detail and analysis that Nagelsmann incorporates into his management is likely to be a significant reason for his success at such a young age. And if it has worked this well for him so far, his voice is worth being heard for football development.

Working both ways

Nagelsmann's suggestions are not as extreme as can be inferred. His ideas do not suggest the constant stopping of play to refer to a playbook and are unlikely to disrupt the game's flow that fans love to watch. But the advancements within the NFL can be adapted to improve football. He even noted in his comments that the two sports couldn't work in the same way.

"In the NFL you generally only have one-year contracts, so if you make the wrong run three times then you're out and you don't get a new contract. That means you always have to push yourself to the limit as a player," he added. Not only does Nagelsmann want football to learn from the NFL, but he believes the NFL can also learn from football's individuality.

A decade ago, the use of analytics that is now deemed essential to success would have been frowned upon. Technology has already changed football with far more significant impacts than those that could be developed based on the NFL. But as the difference between success and failure comes down to marginal gains, changes like this will soon be desired by many more than just Nagelsmann.