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Nagelsmann Leaves His Mark on RB Leipzig's Run to Champions League Semifinals

The 33-year-old manager had all the answers to outwit Diego Simeone and coach Leipzig to its first Champions League semifinal–all after losing Timo Werner to Chelsea.

RB Leipzig was only founded 11 years ago but on Tuesday it will face Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League semifinals after a late goal from U.S. international Tyler Adams sealed a 2-1 quarterfinal win over Atletico Madrid. This was a victory for RB Leipzig's organization and planning, for the intelligent way it has gone about its business and, most of all, for its 33-year-old coach, Julian Nagelsmann.

PSG, of course, will be the favorite, but the threat it faces will be very different to that it overcame against Atalanta. The Serie A side troubled PSG with its pressing. Leipzig will offer that, but in a less direct, less obvious way. With Atalanta, an opponent knows what it’s going to get; with Nagelsmann's Leipzig it can never be quite sure.

RB Leipzig is through to the Champions League semifinals

Thursday's affair had been a predictably attritional game, with Atletico sitting deep and Leipzig playing with more caution than usual, refusing to get dragged forward and opened up to the counter. The Bundesliga side dominated possession, but on the odd occasion it did threaten to find a gap in Atletico’s rearguard, passes went astray.

The worry for Leipzig had been that without Timo Werner, sold to Chelsea and–disgracefully–allowed to move before the end of the season, it would lack a cutting edge. But it was Werner’s replacement, 22-year-old Spanish forward Dani Olmo, who opened the scoring six minutes after halftime. Konrad Laimer played in Marcel Sabitzer, and when he crossed, Olmo plunged forward to guide his header across Jan Oblak and in at the far post.

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Atletico for a long time offered minimal threat. There was a dive from Renan Lodi as he broke in to the left side of the box just after the hour, but even that felt like desperation with only one other Atletico player in the area. Then Joao Felix came on.

The 20-year-old Portuguese forward remains the fourth-most expensive player in history. There had been a sense that for all its investment in forward areas, this Atletico Madrid team is nothing quite like the coherent unit it was five or so years ago–as though by trying to become more expansive it has lost something essential. But after replacing Hector Herrera just before the hour mark, he injected a vital energy and imagination into the Atletico front line. On 70 minutes, darting into the box, he dummied to shoot, drawing a desperate lunge from Lukas Klostermann that became an obvious foul and penalty. Showing admirably composure, Felix then drove the penalty low and hard into the bottom corner.

That prompted a change from Leipzig, with Adams replacing Laimer to sit deep in midfield and pick up Felix with a switch to a back four. And that, of course, is one of the fascinations of Nagelsmann. He is forever adapting and making at times quite major tactical changes within games. Not only did that stifle Felix, but it brought a winning goal, as Adams was left in space just outside the box. Having been set free by a clever pass on the turn from Sabitzer, Angelino’s cutback found Adams, and his shot flew in with the aid of a big deflection off Stefan Savic.

After the equalizer, what had been striking was how subdued Atletico was. The momentum seemed to be with Diego Simeone's side, but it didn’t press home that advantage; in fact, quite the opposite–almost immediately, Nagelsmann’s change wrested the initiative back for Leipzig. Atletico was always going to struggle to cope with the departures and retirements of Diego Godin, Filipe Luis and Juanfran, but what was striking was–Felix aside–how pedestrian it looked elsewhere. Diego Costa is not the force of nature he once was. Koke looked old. Saul Niguez struggled to exert an influence. When Simeone threw on the defender Felipe to play as a makeshift center forward in injury time, it felt like an admission of defeat.

And that in turn led to two thoughts. Firstly, how could all that investment have made this hodgepodge of a team? And secondly, coming so soon after the Spanish champion Real Madrid was well-beaten by Manchester City, if the team that came third in Spain can be so comprehensively overcome by the team that came third in Germany, what does that say for the current state of Spanish football, which for so long has been dominant in Europe?