By Tilman Blasshofer
HOFFENHEIM, Germany (Reuters) - He may be the Bundesliga's youngest ever coach but 29-year-old Julian Nagelsmann has built up a level of trust with his players which he says is key to their incredible unbeaten run in the Bundesliga this season.
Nagelsmann took over midway through last season with the team anchored in 17th place and he was charged with the task of keeping them in the top division.
After succeeding in his first major mission in the Bundesliga, Nagelsmann has taken the league by storm this season with Hoffenheim unbeaten in 11 matches, a feat equalled only by leaders RB Leipzig.
Hoffenheim, who have won five of their last seven matches, are on 21 points, level with third-placed Borussia Dortmund and three behind second-placed Bayern Munich.
"I think a basis of trust and good ties are important," Nagelsmann told Reuters during a break in training on Tuesday.
"It is also clear that due to my age I also do not come across to players as the big cheese," he said. "But I am not one of the boys, that is clear as well. At the end of the day I take those decisions that at times are tough on the players."
One could mistake Nagelsmann, given his short blond hair and youthful face, for one of his players but there is no mistaking his tactical nous which has earned him the nickname "baby Mourinho" in reference to the Manchester United coach.
Like Mourinho, Nagelsmann never made it to the big leagues as a player, a knee injury ending his playing days abruptly at the age of 20.
He started his coaching career as an assistant to then Augsburg coach Thomas Tuchel, now at Borussia Dortmund, before joining Hoffenheim in 2011 and leading the Under-19 team to the German title in 2015, the youngest coach, at 26, to achieve the feat.
With Hoffenheim enjoying their best season since their maiden Bundesliga campaign in 2008-09, Nagelsmann has quickly turned doubters into admirers and he has been hailed him as the "wunderkind" of German football by international media.
"I am not alone on the coaching staff," Nagelsmann said, clearly uncomfortable with the praise he has been receiving. "Obviously, I am more in the focus than my assistants but we all contribute to the success.
"At the top is the team which has to apply the ideas and at the moment it is doing it very well. We are proud that we are still unbeaten."
The comparison with Mourinho is not lost on Nagelsmann who has long admired the charismatic Portuguese manager as well as Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.
"I always say that Pep Guardiola is a role model for me given the way and style of his football," he said. "Though I do try to copy something from every coach."
Mourinho's silverware haul is also something Nagelsmann wants to match.
"I can say that this is my long-term goal," he said. "To play with my team in an international competition and play for the title. If I can do that then I will have reached a major goal of mine."
Hoffenheim's success has raised the question of Nagelsmann's future at the club but sports director Alexander Rosen is convinced the coach, whose contract runs to 2019, will remain with them for some time.
"He is certainly an ambitious man," Rosen told Reuters. "On the other hand he is still very young who knows exactly what he has here. I do not think he is wasting any thoughts of going somewhere else at the moment.
"I am certain Hoffenheim will not be his last coaching stop but I also don't think that in the short term he is thinking about changes."
(Writing by Karolos Grohmann, editing by Ed Osmond)