Bayern vs. Hoffenheim sees Ancelotti and Nagelsmann go head-to-head
Carlo Ancelotti and Julian Nagelsmann couldn't be more different if they tried. Bayern Munich's Italian boss Italian, 57, is the oldest coach in the Bundesliga; TSG Hoffenheim manager Nagelsmann is the youngest, at the tender age of 29.
Ancelotti is a multiple Champions League winner as coach and player and has been in management for more than 20 years; Nagelsmann never made it beyond under-19 level at 1860 Munich due to a knee injury and has only been in his job for eight months.
Ancelotti, lest we forget, has Germany's most expensive, star-studded squad at his disposal, whereas Nagelsmann's team is largely composed of promising talents, mid-level pros who were overlooked elsewhere and journeymen.
"While Ancelotti moved to Milan in 1987 to become part of Gli Immortali, the Immortals, newly-born Nagelsmann would have been wearing diapers," Munich tabloid Abendzeitung wrote.
And yet, a quarter of the way through the 2016-17 season, the teams of the two men are only separated by four points heading into Saturday's unlikely Gipfeltreffen -- summit -- between first and third at the Allianz Arena.
It's a remarkable achievement on behalf of the visitors and their prodigy on the bench, considering that they were bottom of the table and all but doomed to be relegated when Nagelsmann was appointed in February. But it's not a coincidence.
The Landsberg-born man in charge at TSG has been tipped as Germany's next big thing for a couple of years, with Bayern Munch -- in vain -- to sign him as youth coach for their under-17s in 2015. The only surprise is that Nagelsmann's promise has turned into reality quite so quickly.
"Nagelsmann has done a very good job, they are very well organised, they play with intensity and pace, and with enthusiasm, too," Ancelotti said of Hoffenheim. "They are full of confidence. It's a bit strange to me to see such a young coach. That makes me very old."
The last line was delivered as a joke, of course, but the meeting with the unexpected high-fliers from the southwestern region of Kraichgau could still potentially embarrass Ancelotti. While a recent run of five wins has put paid to any crisis talk, Bayern's performances, especially the 2-1 win at PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday, have been uneven.
There's a sense that the team rely on a series of individual heroics -- one day it's Arjen Robben, the next one Robert Lewandowski or Joshua Kimmich -- to lift them above the mundane. Collectively, the German champions have yet to convince fully, which is why a win or draw for the visitors would bring Ancelotti's more hands-off approach into sharp, unwelcome focus.
Hoffenheim are chiefly propelled by Nagelsmann's innovative ideas and minute coaching and there's little doubt that his lateral thinking represents the future.
He's told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about his dislike for tackles -- "There's an element of randomness to them, the ball can go either way, the referee can decide for us or against us. I'd rather we win the ball by shifting across the pitch properly, block passing options, put pressure on the opponent with the ball and force him to misplace a pass" -- and wants his team to play with two contacts in the final third, to ensure precision above pace.
Above all, however, Nagelsmann has proven adept at motivating a team by stressing the importance of solidarity and togetherness; qualities that tend to be underrated by some top coaches these days.
Ancelotti is well aware that Nagelsmann is on course to be considered a serious contender for the Bayern job in the not-so-distant future and so it's in his own personal interest that the hype doesn't get bigger this weekend. Bayern, after all, have a long history of poaching players and coaches who have proved adept at beating them.
"I wish nothing but the best for him", Ancelotti said, still in a humorous mood, when the idea of Nagelsmann as his eventual successor was put to him on Friday. "The best is coaching the best team in the world. I hope he'll be able to do that. Maybe in 10 to 15 years. That would be good."
It might not take quite as long. Nagelsmann, who refused to define a target for the season -- "I want maximum success, staying up is not a goal for us" -- was full of belief ahead of the trip to Bavaria.
"If you go there stiff with with fear, the result will be predictable," he said. "I demand of my teammates that they show courage and show people in the stadium and those watching on TV what we can do. Whether that will be enough for a win or a draw, we will see."
Five wins in a row have made it Hoffenheim's best start to a Bundesliga season since their 2008-08 top-flight debut when they went into the winter break on top of the table, ahead of Jurgen Klinsmann's Bayern.
Ralf Rangnick was in charge then and his (temporary) success, plus that of Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund soon after, left a lasting mark on German football: The importance of tactics and a coherent playing style became universally accepted. Ancelotti, for all his experience and calm demeanour, has yet to show that he can take Bayern to the rarefied levels of excellence they routinely occupied under Pep Guardiola.
Hoffenheim's ingenuity on the break, in particular, will provide a tough test for Ancelotti's incrementalist approach. As rank outsiders, TSG have nothing to lose and much to gain from shining on the big stage. They'll be heavily motivated, perhaps in contrast to a heavily-rotated Bayern getting back to attend to domestic chores after a tough midweek fixture in the Netherlands. Chances are that this will be a tight, high-class contest.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein