Thomas Tuchel: the thinker approaching a key juncture

Thomas Tuchel: the thinker approaching a key juncture

“Dortmund stands for attacking football. That’s what I feel comfortable with. We will defend a lot and attack a lot. I enjoy that and the fans enjoy that,” Thomas Tuchel said at his first press conference as head coach of Borussia Dortmund in June 2015. Tuchel was prepared for his address to the BVB nation. Words left his mouth without any pause for thought. He knew how to put across his message, executing his well-elaborated speech beautifully. Fans and media praised the then-41-year-old’s first appearance on a stage he was not familiar with.

A change of scenery: 14 months later, Dortmund is in the midst of a hard-fought battle against second division team Union Berlin. BVB’s survival in the German Cup is on the line. Tired players in black and yellow are forced to go to extra-time. Their coach seems ossified sitting on the bench.

Tuchel abandons giving any instructions; his players are out there on their own. Eventually, Dortmund wrestle down the underdog, beating Union in a penalty shootout. Afterwards, when asked about an ongoing streak of mediocre performances, Tuchel hides behind some vague platitudes. He praises the fans’ support, but his message vanishes into the cold Dortmund night.

Tuchel has shown two faces – one of a fully prepared spokesperson who has everything under control and can manipulate public opinion, and one of a hesitant, introverted and brain-driven academic. It was clear from the start that Tuchel would have a hard time following in Jürgen Klopp’s steps, and nobody in Dortmund expected him to imitate the former beloved coach who carried the moniker Menschenfänger (which means that he could catch people’s emotions through passion and eloquence).

Tuchel, however, tries to avoid the spotlight. He only faces TV cameras and reporters’ notebooks when he has to. Hans-Joachim Watzke, Dortmund’s CEO, has taken on the role of the club’s mouthpiece. Although success on the pitch is still the biggest reason why football fans around the care about a team, a club that intends to break into the global market step by step needs a voice in the media.

“A coach, however, defines the image of a club only for a short time. Then he and his staff move on,” says Stephan Uersfeld, ESPN FC’s Germany correspondent. “Of course, Borussia has lost the emotionality that was ever-present under Klopp. But that also paralysed BVB at some point.”

Tuchel’s personality could temporarily help the club evolve and become more cosmopolitan. Several years ago – marked by an era of megalomania and near insolvency – Dortmund craved after someone like Klopp who embodied hard-working football coupled with down-to-earth informality.

Success has changed the club’s priorities, though. Having enjoyed a tremendous amount of sympathy from around the globe during the heydey of the Klopp era, BVB wanted to be more than just an above average Bundesliga club with a huge following. That being said, it is hard to push the marketability of a blue-collar football club while signing partnership contracts with companies from Asia or America.


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“The club is certainly going through a bit of a crisis of emotionality at the moment, which was partly induced by Jürgen Klopp’s departure but also partly started when he was still here,” explains Matthias Dersch, who has covered Borussia Dortmund as a reporter for the local newspaper Ruhr Nachrichten since 2012. “It’s predominantly down to the club’s internationalisation strategy that often focuses on fans outside of Dortmund. Larger parts of the local fan base feel neglected because of that.”

Inevitably, Borussia Dortmund has become somewhat of a luxury product that, for many reasons, is still supported by the hard-nosed 25,000 on the Südtribüne – widely known as the Yellow Wall. “The club, of course, evolves. It has to change its way of communicating in order to be allowed to compete in a global competition,” Uersfeld points out. Lars Pollmann, Bleacher Report‘s BVB correspondent, adds: “Dortmund appear a little more professional in the post-Klopp era, it’s more business-like and less catering to the heartstrings of the people.”

Tuchel, who is very open about his admiration for Pep Guardiola, defines himself through success. While Klopp did not lose the supporters’ trust completely when he struggled during his last season at Dortmund, Tuchel cannot rely on more than what is shown on the scoreboard. Perhaps it is appropriate that a hugely success-orientated coach who does not make decisions based on his gut instinct became Klopp’s successor. On the other side, Tuchel’s apathy and the lack of offhand big talk does not help marketing the coach who in many clubs is a hugely important public figure.

How Tuchel approaches his job off the training or playing pitch could remind Bundesliga followers of Guardiola and his three-year spell at Bayern Munich. The Catalan became famous for his oddly amusing press conferences, where he often praised his players’ or the team’s performance using the words “super, super”. Guardiola refused to give individual interviews to the big German outlets whose reporters secretly took offence at that. It is only one of many similarities between Tuchel and Guardiola.

“To me, Tuchel seems to be heavily influenced by Guardiola, his ideas of football and also his interaction with the sport and the team in general. It’s not sensible in every aspect, however it would also be a bad idea to play-act to resonate better with the fans,” says Dersch.

Both Guardiola and Tuchel like to lay out detailed plans for every training session and every match. “Tuchel is meticulous almost to a fault and, especially when things are not going his team’s way, will always be criticised as a pedant,” Pollmann thinks. In his eyes, the 43-year-old “is one of the new guard of coaches who, instead of relying on instinct and experiences from their own playing days, take an almost scientific approach to football.” Certainly, Guardiola is somewhere close to this new generation, despite his great success as a player.

And apart from similarities in regards to their coaching in general, both Tuchel and Guardiola prefer dominant, possession-orientated football. When he signed at the Westfalenstadion, Tuchel saw his chance to utilise highly skilled players in order to form a basis for a Guardiola-like style of football he could not implement during his five years at FSV Mainz 05.

The three encounters between the two coaches in 2015-16 saw Guardiola victorious on two occasions, including the German Cup final. The picture of a teacher-student relationship was drawn, although both were on eye-level when meeting in private.

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Despite his admiration for Guardiola, Tuchel had developed his own coaching philosophy years before the Catalan arrived in Germany. Since his days as a successful youth coach, he has made a name for himself as an innovative pioneer. He always anticipates the latest tactical trends and continues to re-equip his toolbox. Away from chalk and drawing board, Tuchel keeps an eye on various areas of studies.

During his sabbatical in 2014-15, he met Brentford owner Matthew Benham to talk about statistical evaluation of player and team performances. To enhance training methods he draws on studies by sports scientist Wolfgang Schöllhorn, as he intends to introduce playful exercises to replace dull fitness training. Complex practice is supposed to exercise the minds without tiring out the bodies of his players. Less wear and tear should prevent injuries and allow more effective regeneration between matchdays.

Tuchel’s ultimate goal is to create an environment in which his players can thrive. He does not believe in the concept of football being a coach’s game. He has repeatedly admitted that the influence of a coach – in particular throughout the 90 minutes – is very small and that he himself can only try to prepare his players for stressful in-game tasks. This part of his mindset completes the picture of a coach who fully understands his role when interacting with the team and has figured out the pillars of his own philosophy.

Thus far, Borussia Dortmund’s higher-ups could not complain about the impact Tuchel has had on the team and the development of his players. The first season saw him implementing a variety of tactical systems while enabling players such as Mats Hummels, İlkay Gündoğan, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to use their full creative potential.

Until December 2015, Tuchel refined the inner structure of a 4-3-3 in which Dortmund normally attacked through the left in order to lure the opponents toward the flank and play quick crossfield passes to the empty right side where full-back Matthias Ginter had all the time in the world to receive and control the ball.

As opponents in the Bundesliga and UEFA Europa League began to figure out how to beat Tuchel’s frequently used system, BVB’s coach put on his thinking hat and found a solution he introduced after the winter break. Now Dortmund started using a back three and unorthodox formations which often confused opponents but also weakened their own build-up play.

Against top-tier teams, however, the Black and Yellows continuously struggled. Tuchel did not find the right answer in big matches, like the Europa League quarter-final blockbuster at Anfield when Liverpool, under the guidance of none other than Klopp, turned the match around and knocked Dortmund out of the competition.

“There are a few issues, namely his in-game coaching and his big-game coaching, but one shouldn’t forget he’s still a fairly young manager who has to adapt to this level,” Pollmann says. “Tuchel deserves more credit than he currently gets by the public for doing what Klopp couldn’t: turning a team that was used to being the underdog into a dominant side that can beat just about anyone.”

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Tuchel made a great impression during his first season and his impact was not confined to what happened on the pitch. He left no stone unturned. Living up to his reputation, he changed diet plans, pre-season conditioning and much more. German media covered the fact that players like Marcel Schmelzer looked much leaner and obviously benefited from a more balanced nutrition in particular. Tuchel, who himself lost several pounds during his sabbatical, was praised as a coach who would pay attention to every detail that can improve the performances of his team, even if they just gain the tenths of a percent.

In his own mind, Tuchel set up a three-year plan prior to signing a deal with Dortmund that lasts until 2018. Just like Guardiola, he intended to view his engagement at the club as a project which would finish with winning at least one major trophy. The brutal reality of the business, however, forced him to change his initial plan, as three key players left the club during the summer transfer window in Hummels, Gündoğan and Mkhitaryan.

Having the heart ripped out of the team, Tuchel has now been challenged to rebuild Dortmund and keep them competitive at the top of the Bundesliga and in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League. Without the biggest bank account and the necessary international reputation, BVB were more or less forced to return to their business model from a few years ago. Tuchel found himself in a similar situation that Klopp faced early on, although Dortmund are now able to pay much higher transfer fees.

The club attracted young talents such as Ousmane Dembélé, Raphaël Guerreiro and Emre Mor, who were in high demand throughout Europe. Signings like these emphasise Dortmund’s standing among the clubs on the continent. The Black and Yellows have not reached the mountaintop, but have made a name for themselves as a top-class address for highly skilled young guns who are not quite ready for the Barcelonas and Bayern Munichs of the world.

Tuchel, initially going into this adventure with the idea of forming a team around the likes of Hummels and Mkhitaryan, is now in a unique position. He has to cope with high ambitions – including his own – and the fact that his young players might be very talented but also perform inconsistently. It will take time until he can push Dembélé, Mor or BVB academy product Christian Pulisic to the next level. Fortunately for Dortmund, one of Tuchel’s biggest strength is his ability to work stoically toward a goal. And if he is successful, no one will complain about his occasional invisibility.

In late October, the German sports weekly Sport Bild titled: “Is Tuchel ready for a crisis?” For the first time during his spell at Dortmund, the media raised doubt about his longevity in his current position. A lack of success makes him, like every coach, vulnerable, though in Tuchel’s case critics tend to pick him to pieces.

Luckily, after Dortmund battled through adversity against Union Berlin, the team started to pick up steam again, winning matches against Sporting CP and HSV. Prior to the encounter with Sporting, Tuchel was forced to suspend his first-choice striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who left the country two nights before the Champions League match without the club’s permission.

When the Gabonese sensation scored four goals against Hamburg only a few days later, he ran into the arms of his coach to celebrate together. Tuchel smiled and whispered a few words in Aubameyang’s ear. He enjoys success and lets the world know about it. A more open side of him is what many fans enjoy, even when he usually embodies a changed attitude and shows how rationality and professionalism have become a part of Borussia Dortmund’s identity. After all, and despite his shortcomings, BVB’s boss seems to be the right man at the right time.

Tuchel, just like his hero Guardiola, and just like his predecessor Klopp, is quite the character – certainly not the most personable coach, but definitely a unique one.

By Constantin Eckner. Follow @cc_eckner


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