Moritz Volz arguably has the best job in the coaching game, as assistant to Julian Nagelsmann at RB Leipzig. He tells the Totally Football Show about working at the most exciting young club in Europe…
For those that remember Moritz Volz’s time in England, you might not think he’s the obvious choice to be assistant to Europe’s most exciting young manager.
Volz made nearly 200 appearances for Arsenal, Wimbledon, Fulham and Ipswich over a decade in England, but it was his personality that most will remember, rather than his play. Here was a man who rode his bike to home games, who wrote a weekly column for the Times that you might call ‘offbeat’ and who once had ‘The Hoff’ stitched onto his boots, in the hope that the Knightrider actor and erstwhile demolisher of the Berlin Wall would bring him some luck. Which, in fairness, it did: he scored in that game.
The idea of him being a key coaching cog at a young but well-funded and aggressively ambitious Bundesliga football franchise, becomes even less likely when you consider that he had no coaching experience to speak of before last summer, having spent most of the time since his playing retirement as a scout for Arsenal.
But then you talk to him, and you quickly realise why Julian Nagelsmann picked Volz to be one of his assistants when he took over at RB Leipzig last summer. It’s immediately obvious that Volz is smart, has a feel for what good football is and, perhaps most importantly, communicates his thoughts clearly and cogently.
“Normally you’d have your first coaching experience at youth level, which was really what I was prepared for,” Volz tells the Totally Football Show. “The fact that I started here at this high level was both a blessing, but also a huge challenge, because as you can imagine, without much coaching experience, you’re having to basically function right away.”
In the first few months I was far from being myself because the self-consciousness was so present.
It’s an unforgiving world, particularly for someone going into the coaching game relatively cold. “When you go into it as an ex-professional, having played at a certain level, you don’t necessarily have to earn the respect, but you certainly have to keep the respect of the players. I think initially they give you the benefit of the doubt because I’ve been in their shoes for many, many years, and not too long ago.
“But I know exactly what professional football players are, and how they think. They have sharp minds, and all these guys got to the level where they are because they sniff out the details. Whenever you speak in front of the group, you have 25 sets of eyes on you, watching your every move, hearing your every word. Any time where you have a stutter, where you give away a weakness, it will get to the group.”
One obvious question that occurs, when remembering how Volz came across in his younger days, is whether he has to tone down his personality to maintain that respect in the eyes of the players he’s coaching.
“I think there’s a certain element where you have to alter your appearance – sort of put on the coach’s hat. You just have to act according to your position and what your role is, what your job is and where you fit into the whole piece. Apart from that, it’s best if you as much as you can, be yourself.
“Although, I think the first few months I would say I was far from being myself because the self-consciousness was so present, basically due to the fact that I’m doing something new for the first time, almost every single day – that was a huge challenge.”
Volz says he feels more settled now though. Leipzig’s results this season will certainly have helped that: until a few weeks before the suspension of the season, they looked the most likely candidates to end Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga dominance. Indeed, they were the ‘winter champions’, top of the table (on goal difference) at the mid-season break, and although a run of two wins in seven games since the end of January punched a hole in their title challenge, they’re still third and are in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, having comprehensively beaten Tottenham before the shutters came down.
It’s obviously always important to remember why and how Leipzig have reached this stage, how they have managed to rise from the regional divisions to the top of the Bundesliga in a decade. Their status as one arm of the global Red Bull franchise still doesn’t sit right with many in Germany, the fizzy medicine behemoths having purchased the playing license of an obscure club called SSV Markranstadt in 2009, rebadged them and funded them all the way to the top.
But even with that lavish financial backing, their rise has been pretty extraordinary. The arrival of Nagelsmann from Hoffenheim was a coup, the 32-year-old coaching prodigy assumed by most to be heading for the pinnacle of the game, and quickly.
Everything about Leipzig is young: Nagelsmann is almost half the age of Borussia Dortmund coach Lucien Favre, Volz is only 37, only one of the 27 players who’ve appeared for them this season is 30 and the club itself is technically only 11 years old. Emil Forsberg, their 28-year-old Swedish winger, made his first professional appearance before the club did.
But far from that being a weakness, relegating them to the status of wide-eyed brats, Volz says they consider their collective youth a strength, that it makes them fresh and not encumbered by history or convention.
“It is definitely something that has been ingrained in the way things work at the club,” he says. “You can pretty much work in a way that is not really inhibited by standard ways, and standardised ways of thinking. So the old ideas of ‘you can’t do this or you can’t do that’ is much less here than than in other places because we’re such a young club.”
And while Nagelsmann is five years younger than his assistant, by the sounds of things Volz could hardly be working with a better teacher. The pair knew each other from Volz’s trips around Germany scouting teams and players, so when Nagelsmann approached him about a coaching role, it was a no-brainer.
You can work in a way that is not really inhibited by standardised ways of thinking.
“It’s phenomenal to see how very, very clear he is about his ideas of how he wants football to be played,” Volz says of Nagelsmann, “Not mainly due to natural talent, but really by observing the game in detail over a long, long period. He sees very quickly if the game is going the way he wants it to or not, and therefore he’s very able to quickly adapt and to make changes and also very willing to to adjust and try to influence the game from the sideline.
“There are different stages of managing certain situations. The first part is always observational, being able to notice certain patterns, problems or opportunities as the game arises. Everyone has an idea going into the game of how it may look…but once you’re able to observe, the next thing is how can you change things? What tools do you have available to to affect the situation and then change it in your favour?
“That’s where it helps you to have that clarity of mind [that Nagelsmann has]. But also the advice and the trust and the people around you. The great thing for me, being part of his team, is that whilst he’s so clear and specific about his vision for for for the game, his principles and the way he wants to see the game played, he’s also listening to the staff around him. In the end, Julian will make the ultimate decision, but he’s brave and he’s wise enough to to use his team around him to help him make better decisions, more often than not.”
Volz continues: “Training is also very specific, geared to the next opponent, precisely analysed and taken into account. We play very flexibly in three, four different systems. It’s a huge challenge for staff, it’s a huge challenge for the players to have that flexibility and to not think necessarily in positions, but more being guided to lead by playing principles that are more important than the tactical system, if you like.
“Julian really works by the main principle that atmosphere in a club and the working environment is really important, and he wants people to be able to enjoy what they’re doing.”
The future looks bright for Volz: he’s aware he’s still learning, and also that his time in England has influenced not just his coaching but his appreciation for the game and its place in the grander scheme of things.
“I think what I learned is that, you can work in a successful way and you don’t necessarily just have to focus 100 per cent on on every situation, and not be able to enjoy the process as well.
“I think in Germany, there is a great care and appreciation for discipline, for focus, for accountability, and in England, in a football sense, I really got to know and got to appreciate the sometimes childish, sometimes light-hearted hearted realisation that in the end, no matter how much you care, football is and will ever stay a game. It should be enjoyed, and it should be enjoyable.”
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