It has been described as a "football fairytale" in the Austrian media but Rene Maric's supersonic career progression from niche tactics blogger to assistant coach at Europa League semifinalists FC Salzburg is really something else, entirely.
The 25-year-old doesn't owe his success to an acquaintance with a friendly wizard or to a quadruped's backside producing gold coins but to total dedication, years of detailed work and a keen intellect, as well as the networking possibilities afforded by the internet. Maric's unorthodox rise also underlines the changing nature of coaching: he's one of the leading lights for football's move beyond the traditional emphasis on experience and status towards a more open, meritocratic system that rewards ideas and application.
Like many young coaches, Maric started thinking about football in depth when an injury curtailed his modest playing career at TSU Handenberg, a seventh-division team from a small Upper Austrian town close to the German border. The psychology graduate combined volunteer work as an U-17 coach with writing lengthy, fairly impenetrable treatises on tactics and players for abseits.at and the Spielverlagerung blog. While some football journalists belittled the jargon-heavy prose and the accompanying vector graphics of Spielverlagerung authors as the wilful over-complication of a simple game, some readers thought they offered real insight.
One such admirer turned out to be Thomas Tuchel. The then-Mainz 05 coach contacted Maric after coming across a piece dissecting his team's playing patterns against Pep Guardiola's Bayern. "He noticed it, sent us an email and invited us to a meeting," Maric told ESPN FC. Tuchel was impressed enough to commission Maric and some of his co-bloggers to write scouting reports on opposition teams.
Maric, a football-obsessive who spends up to 14 hours a day studying or coaching the game -- "I tried to to leave it alone for a day during the winter break but didn't manage it," he said -- soon found more work as a freelance consultant. Premier League clubs asked him to explain the mechanics of Guardiola's and Jürgen Klopp's pressing game; Ted Knutson's StatsBomb team tasked him with scouting players that could be of interest to Brentford or FC Midtjylland.
While embarking on his consulting work, Maric continued to manage teams at TSU Handenberg and wrote a book on coaching techniques before a much bigger opportunity to put his ideas into practice arose in the summer of 2016. Once more, a manager was eager to get in touch following one of Maric's tactics blogs. Marco Rose, FC Salzburg's U-18 coach, was so impressed with the analysis that him and Maric struck up a friendship, discussing tactics for hours on end. At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Rose, a former teammate and player of Klopp at Mainz, hired him as an assistant coach.
In their first joint season, their team overcame Barcelona, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and others to win the U-19 Champions League. No Austrian side had ever lifted a UEFA trophy at any level before.
On the back of their historic win, Rose and Maric were promoted to take charge of Salzburg's first team. After an indifferent start in the league, the champions hit their stride to knock out Borussia Dortmund and Lazio against all expectations. Marseille, their opponents in the Europa League semifinal, are once again heavy favourites but Salzburg's flexible system, a fast-paced combination of possession football and pressing, works well enough to overcome individual deficits.
A typical day for Maric consists of arriving early at the Taxham training ground to devise training exercises, conduct the sessions alongside Rose and write a recap. He'll then either analyse previous matches or work on video dossiers on future opponents before meeting with the coaching staff and holding talks with players.
But isn't it difficult to coach seasoned pros as a 25-year-old? Not at all, according to Maric.
"The team make it very easy for me. I get the full support of the other coaches and we have really easygoing, amenable players." While there are obvious differences between discerning playing patterns and implementing tactics on the pitch with actual players, Maric's declared aim is to keep the gap between theory and reality as small as possible. His 10,000-word blogs packed with complicated syntax bear no relation to the language and amount of words used on the training ground. Maric says they were written as "a reflection on observations," whereas the work with the Salzburg squad was all about filtering out the most relevant ideas and communicating them effectively.
"All [tactical] input has to be put across in a manner that's easily understandable for the players, it needs to come alive and burst with conviction," Maric said. "Marco Rose is my best teacher in that respect."
Talking to Maric, it's obvious that the characterisation of him and his ilk as "tactic nerds" (Die Zeit) is wide off the mark. Just like the new generation of young Bundesliga coaches who have found success by combining a scientific approach with expert man-management, Maric is clearly adept at motivating a dressing room, too. In his case, the players' willingness to follow his lead stems from the simple realisation that his methods help them to perform on the pitch.
Salzburg might hit the glass ceiling over the course of the next few days but for the man who started out mapping the passing channels of obscure South American teams in 2011, there could be even bigger things on the cards in the future. Rose is seen as a viable contender to succeed Peter Stoger on the Dortmund bench with Maric, his trusted "ideas man," in tow.