When RB Leipzig appointed Domenico Tedesco in November, the club were in the bottom half of the Bundesliga having apparently lost their way since Julian Nagelsmann’s exit. His arrival changed everything. Leipzig are now into the top four.
At 36, Tedesco is among the more fascinating coaches at the top end of the European game. Born in Italy, he grew up in Germany, a football obsessive known to play Football Manager even while he was leading to Schalke to second spot in the Bundesliga.
He finished top of the class in his DFB coaching exams – ahead of the current Bayern Munich boss Nagelsmann. “He was already coach of Hoffenheim and he did not have that much time to learn for the exams, this is the truth,” offers Tedesco in mitigation.
He is speaking to selected international media, reflecting on his experiences at Schalke, Spartak Moscow and Leipzig. He will reveal how he celebrated Italy’s 2006 World Cup win in Berlin and what he had to change to arrest his team’s slide under Jesse Marsch.
Asked specifically by Sky Sports to explain his philosophy, his answer is unusually pragmatic for this new generation of coaches. “My idea of football is that you have to adapt to the kind of players that you have, the strengths you have inside the squad,” he says.
“At Schalke, we had many physical players, we played a lot of counter-attacks and got second behind Bayern Munich because of a lot of matches where we defended very compact, lots of counter-attacks, corner kicks, free-kicks, goals after free-kicks and corners.
“At Spartak Moscow, I had a completely different team. We had the youngest team in Russia with really good guys who were technically strong on the ball. We had 70 per cent of possession each game. I have to be flexible as a coach, I have to adapt.
“Here, I have a completely different team.”
Tedesco is careful to praise his predecessor and the opportunity that he inherited. “I found here a team that is strong physically but also from the point of view of the mentality – really good guys, really good squad.” But Leipzig had also lost as many as they had won.
The players were struggling to embrace Marsch’s pressing game with one of the key players, Angelino, bemoaning the basketball-style approach. Tedesco turned up to discover a team that was, in his words, longing for possession of the football. He made the change.
“When you come to a new club you have to know the team, you have to speak a lot to the senior players, try to find out what was the problem in the past. We changed the system, we tried to speak a lot with the players, we wanted to play a little bit more with possession.”
Leipzig still press, a hallmark of their game since they reached the top division under Ralf Rangnick. But the aim has been to bring greater control than before.
“We wanted to press a little different. Sometimes we needed to stay a little bit more calm. At the start of my work here, I realised that the players are hungry to press really high. It is the same way that I like but sometimes it is better to stay calm in some situations.”
The improvement has been dramatic since the brief winter break with Leipzig taking 23 points from their 10 games. “We had three games in December and then we had this short time. I analysed the games and tried to find out what we needed to improve.”
Sunday 10th April 6:30pm
Cutting out the noise was essential. Tedesco had to control what he could control and try to prevent the players from becoming distracted by the external chatter. “Not reading the newspapers,” he says. “The most important thing is to analyse the game by yourself.”
He cites the recent 6-1 win over Greuther Furth. “Everyone is celebrating but we conceded four counter-attacks.” Even the six goals could have been improved upon. “Analyse it. Why? We could have scored eight goals. Why did we not score eight goals?”
He continues. “Or you can lose a game and everyone is destroying you but you are telling the team the truth because you can tell them, ‘We had a great build-up, we didn’t concede too much, we did really good on the pressing’. Always work on the detail.”
That analytic approach is in Tedesco’s nature. He was 22 when he began coaching at Stuttgart’s academy, a product of the Germany system but someone whose influences were Italian. He cites Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capello and Antonio Conte as inspirations.
Those Italian roots remain important. He has fond memories of the 2006 World Cup. “You cannot imagine,” he says. “My German friends were teasing me. In the end, we won in Berlin. It was a big satisfaction. For Italians living in Germany, it was beautiful.”
His multi-cultural background has an impact on his coaching. Meetings at Leipzig are in English because that is the language that most of his players understand. “I want everybody [involved].” But for Tedesco there are other plenty of other options too.
“It is important to understand them and have meetings in other languages. We are a German club so I want everybody to speak German but it is not that easy. Sometimes it is useful to speak French with the French guys or Italian with Andre Silva.”
Silva scored three goals in 14 games under Marsch, but has seven in 13 under Tedesco. Christopher Nkunku already has nine goals under him but he refuses to take the credit. “He was already in form before I arrived,” he says. “This is the truth.”
On the whole, however, this is a team that has been transformed. Not only is Champions League qualification likely – if the season had started at the turn of the year then Leipzig would be top – but they are still in the German Cup and the Europa League.
Suddenly, there is expectation once more. Does that bring added pressure? “Absolutely no pressure because we know where the team is coming from,” he says. “In December, Leipzig was, honestly speaking, in 11th or 12th, with many points to the fourth place.
“Now it is good that we have this April with a lot of finals, if we want to call them finals, but it is due to our work. The pressure in football is always there. But no special pressure because it is a present to play these games. It is important for the players to see it as a present.”
For Leipzig, it is the arrival of Domenico Tedesco that feels like a gift.