oritz Volz’s preparations for this interview have taken a surprising turn. Once upon a time the quirky, self-deprecating content of his website earned almost as much attention as a solid spell in the Premier League with Fulham. He has just discovered, though, that volzy.com has been colonised by someone purporting to be a Japanese face-cream merchant.
“You should purchase some and see if it’s any good,” he suggests, prompting a panicked check of the video call’s pixelation. “No, I just stopped maintaining it for a while and then the domain was obviously taken up by somebody. Nothing to do with me right now.”
The last 15 months of his career have been virtually bereft of wrinkles. Volz is speaking from RB Leipzig’s hotel in Lisbon and that fact alone is evidence things have gone to plan. He will patrol the touchline on Tuesday night, as one of Julian Nagelsmann’s assistants, when they make history by contesting a Champions League semi-final with Paris Saint-Germain.
It has been an intense and deeply rewarding immersion into a first coaching role that arose through an unexpected phone call. While Volz was looking for a job with greater responsibility after four years scouting for Arsenal, his first English club as a player, he had little idea Nagelsmann was sizing him up as a sidekick for his own arrival at Leipzig last summer.
“It was fairly out of the blue,” he says. “But I’d already made up my mind that I’d learned enough in the scouting role. I was ready for a new challenge and had other things lined up; fortunately, before any signatures were made or deals finalised, the call came and I didn’t need much time to decide I really wanted to take this opportunity. Sitting here now, it’s a great feeling and it doesn’t turn out to be the worst decision I made.”
His football brain is so developed that I feel that I’m learning with and from him every day. It’s exciting to be around somebody so inspirational
Such a sudden leap meant what he describes as “a cold start” and a rapid adaptation. While Volz had enjoyed his previous job, being a scout meant “watching, assessing, rating all the time … but you’re never really active in the game, you only work on a certain part of the food chain”.
Now he was fully hands-on. Having come through as a young right-back during Arsène Wenger’s peak years, working for an organisation with sky-high standards, a thirst for innovation was nothing new. Even so, the amount of responsibility handed to a Leipzig coach was an eye-opener.
“The way the role is interpreted, I found myself really at the heart of all the operations involving the players,” he says. “The medical team, the sports scientists, the analysts, the psychologist, even the kit men. They all come to you for information and for planning.” He notes a focus, during the cut and thrust of the season, on “working the players’ minds when you have to spare their legs”.
At the core of everything, though, is Nagelsmann. At 33 he is four and half years Volz’s junior and his achievements this season have, regardless of Leipzig’s fate against PSG, borne out all the hype around his extraordinary talent. “His football brain is so developed that even I – as someone who’s played the game for 20 years, scouted it for four and has had plenty of different insights – feel that I’m learning with and from him every day,” Volz says. “It’s really valuable for me, and exciting to be around somebody so inspirational in the way he approaches certain situations.”
No topics are off limits when Nagelsmann sits down with Volz and his co-assistant, the recently appointed 39-year-old Dino Toppmöller. Both are trusted to work independently to a large extent, channelling thoughts towards the manager. The trio’s youthfulness reflects that of the Leipzig squad, who finished third in the Bundesliga, and indeed that of a club born only in 2009.
It is an exceptional story and one that will never unite opinion. You would be hard pressed, however, to find people in football who think negatively of Volz. He remains his friendly, interested, gregarious self and admits he has had to work on maintaining a certain distance while overseeing an elite group of players.
“I would say I’m still finding my way like that,” he says. “It’s been a year of experience and a very fast one. Especially at the start, it was tough to have enough time to reflect and take it all in. I always feel you need time to reflect, learn lessons and really grow.
“But I think it helps having been a player. You know when you leave someone alone and when it’s a good moment to have a heart to heart. You also know you’re only ever dealing with 11 – maybe 12 or 13 – happy individuals, and just as many unhappy guys who you have to address with at least the same attention. But that’s what I love about coaching; these are not situations I shy away from. The great advantage of coaching is that you’re very involved with the people.”
Volz feels a coach at this level has to “match ambition with hard work, smart work, good work and integrity”. They are good bywords, too, for the overall approach of a club whose clarity and efficiency put more famous institutions to shame.
Leipzig’s relationship with Red Bull and subsequent tie-ins with its operations in Salzburg and New York, among others, are certainly advantageous. But there is a sense that, in explaining their success, that can be too easy for others to hide behind when plenty might be learned from their processes. As things stand they remain cast as upstarts, disrupters, and Volz believes it has suited them this summer.
When you’re in the semi-final and you’ve beaten established teams like Tottenham and Atlético, you know you have what it takes to go all the way
“We went into this competition wanting to be the team nobody really wants to face,” he says, pointing out that the alien format of the tournament’s finale might have spooked some of its traditional greats. Atlético Madrid, who they deservedly beat on Thursday, might once have been the ones to avoid.
But Volz feels Leipzig showed they are “a really resilient team full of effort but also full of quality” in winning so dramatically. They were sharper, quicker, but hardly gung-ho. For all their youth, and despite the sale of their striker Timo Werner to Chelsea, they fitted the blueprint of a modern, balanced, fastidiously-drilled European side.
“When you’re in the semi-final of the Champions League and you’ve beaten established teams like Tottenham and Atlético, you know you have what it takes to go all the way,” he says. “We’re far from saying we are dead certs, but we want to make sure PSG will find it really, really tough. We’re facing a different animal, a team that has great and perhaps better individual quality, certainly up front, where we’re going to face some of the best players in the world. But we still feel very confident that as a team we can match them.
“Do I care that we’re probably not favourite to win it? No, I don’t. I know what we can and what we can’t do, and I certainly see an opportunity for us to stay here a little bit longer.”
The blogger might have inadvertently become a vendor of anti-ageing serum, but there is every chance Volz and RB Leipzig will come out of this heady summer shoot-out looking spotless.