How the humble, understated Lucien Favre brought beautiful football back to Borussia Dortmund

How the humble, understated Lucien Favre brought beautiful football back to Borussia Dortmund

Johny Bordin, the coach of FC Echallens under-14s, a small town club playing in Switzerland’s third tier, came across a bright idea in the summer of 1991. A former professional footballer had moved back to his home village just a couple of miles out of town. He was a talented playmaker, who earned 24 caps for Switzerland and once scored a goal for the national team, despite a horrible knee injury affecting his final years.

The kids at Echallens would surely love it if he dropped into one of their training sessions and signed a few autographs. Known as being a thoroughly nice guy, the player probably wouldn’t mind. Bordin, therefore, called Lucien Favre, who happily obliged, and went beyond signing his name to offer a few tips to the youngsters. Favre was duly installed as Bordin’s assistant. 

Given the mastery of Favre’s coaching – most notably in how he has transformed Borussia Dortmund from incoherent underperformers last season to a side thrilling their way to the front of the Bundesliga title race – it is a little hard to imagine it all began with an element of chance.

Given Favre’s humility, it is fitting his time in management began in such understated fashion. His incredible tactical instinct also becomes better understood by realising it was honed in progressing from the ground up – with the ground being this little club in a pleasant rural area of western Switzerland. 

Steeve Devolz was one of the youngsters who trained under Bordin and his hard-working assistant, Favre. Devolz would go on to play under the latter as he took charge of the Echallens first team that earned a historic promotion to the second tier in 1994, and joined him again at Yverdon to move into the Swiss top-flight in 1999. He brims with praise for his former mentor, telling These Football Times: “As a young footballer, Favre’s coaching made me feel strong. He made me feel like I could achieve great things. My times under him were the best of my career.” 

Devolz is just one of a number of players Favre has improved. The custom of footballers saying nice things about others in the game shouldn’t detract from how heartfelt or passionate the appreciation of Favre is from those who have worked with him. Marco Reus was observed by the Ruhr Nachrichten swooning shortly after his appointment at Dortmund when saying emphatically that Favre was the best coach he has ever known. Jurgen Klopp, Joachim Löw and Thomas Tuchel didn’t get a mention.

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Likewise, the wife of the president of OGC Nice seemed a little perplexed to be approached at a fruit market by a film crew working for Swiss national broadcaster RTS during Favre’s time at the club. Her eyes lit up the instant Favre’s name was mentioned, as she’s filmed buying apples. “Aah … Lucien!” she says. “What an adorable, charming man.”

Switzerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung says Favre is known for being “clumsily charming”. With his softly spoken, bookish and occasionally distant persona, he isn’t exactly charismatic in an obvious sense. Favre has the air though of a college professor the students call a legend; not because he tries to be jokey or chummy with them, but because he cares endlessly for his subject and does everything to transmit his wealth of knowledge to them.

Having resurrected the career of Mario Balotelli at Nice, turned Granit Xhaka into a €40m midfielder at Borussia Mönchengladbach, and transformed an 18-year old Jadon Sancho from a bit-part player at Dortmund to a spearhead of their title push, Favre’s record in man management speaks for itself. What Favre lacks in magnetism, he seems to make up for in empathy. Reus has particularly appreciated Favre’s support while suffering injury blows, also when the two were at different clubs. 

Devolz says: “He always had a word for each player, even for those who were not part of the first 11. He’d say things to keep the whole group 100 percent together because he appreciated that if we have 11 playing at a weekend and a group of 20 to 25 during the week, he would need everyone pulling in one direction to achieve our aims.”

Devolz tells a story of not being able to train with the rest of the under-14s for a short while after breaking his wrist, and Favre taking him to a field in his home village to work individually on elements like passing and ball control.

Impressive man management has likely contributed to Dortmund’s formidable spirit this season. New signing Paco Alcácer was content to come off the bench and score a staggering 10 goals in seven substitute appearances in the first half of the season. Two of the Spaniard’s most notable strikes capped comeback wins – a 3-2 victory over Bayern Munich in November and a mad 4-3 win over Augsburg in October – at a vital time for setting the tone of Dortmund’s season.

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The term that comes up more than any other in association with Favre is perfectionism. He’s a man with a belief in hard work and picking up on the small details others would gloss over, while using his people skills to transmit these traits to his players. Raphael Honigstein reports for ESPN that Favre has been training Dortmund players to position their wrists when taking balls down.

Favre told Swiss newspaper 24 Heures when in charge of Nice with the typical straight-talking that seems to come from bemusement that others haven’t come to his way of thinking yet: “Speed of execution, anticipation, using both feet, first touches and second touches are fundamental to the quality of passing. If the ball runs away from you, you might lose the ball, and all the little details like that are the fundamentals.”

Favre also told them that it is vital for him that his players can change systems during a match. That is familiar to Devolz, who, having joined the Echallens first team in 1993/94 when Favre had taken charge, was put through two-hour training sessions in which the players would practice several formations to enable them to best adapt to their opponents – a level of detail unheard of in Swiss amateur football at the time.

Twenty-five years later, Favre continues to amaze with his mastery of tactics. Dortmund’s stunning 3-2 win against Bayern Munich in November provided a case in point, with a series of sharp forward passes in the second half allowing Favre’s team to beat Bayern’s pressing and weaponise their great attacking pace.

Der Spiegel speculated that Favre deliberately left match-winner Paco Alcácer out of the starting line-up to better exploit a tiring Bayern after he was brought on for Mario Götze. That Favre only selected Alcácer to start two out of Dortmund’s first 13 league matches of the season, despite him topping the Bundesliga scoring charts, is a testament to his clarity of tactical thinking, something many would call stubbornness if it wasn’t continually proven correct. 

Favre also displays that ruthlessness in squad planning, having vetoed Dortmund’s planned signing of Stephan Lichtsteiner shortly before taking the helm last summer, despite many thinking the experienced Swiss full-back would be a good fit. Alain Nef, a defender who played for Favre at FC Zürich between 2003 and 2006, says he has an incredible ability to see a player’s most useful position, appreciate their strengths and start working on their weaknesses. 

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Expansive, attacking football has always been a hallmark of Favre’s teams – matching his own as a player. Oliver Zesiger, a Swiss football expert and Football Manager’s co-head researcher for the country, tells These Football Times that Favre rose up the ranks of the Swiss league with his teams playing a style of sharp passing mixed with quick transitions. Zesiger adds that there is no obvious influence on Favre in developing his style apart from his own preferences as a footballer.

In another indication of the clarity of Favre’s tactical ideology, his teams play the football he wants, not what he himself was taught as a player, marking a curious difference to Pep Guardiola who absorbed so much playing under Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, and Jürgen Klopp likewise internalising a pressing style under Wolfgang Frank at Mainz. Quite possibly, the legendary successes of Arrigo Sacchi just the other side of the Alps in Milan shortly before Favre began coaching had an imprint on his keenness for pressing.

A metaphor doing the rounds among Bundesliga watchers is that Favre has got Dortmund playing modern jazz this season, in contrast to Klopp’s heavy metal style. While there are some obvious differences to Klopp – Favre’s teams usually being more restrained to rather match the two men’s personalities – there are clear similarities, with Favre also a proponent of pressing. What you think of the metaphor may come down to your own musical tastes, but there is more of a rock feel to Favre’s Dortmund this season, being meticulous, very punchy at times, and, above all, successful.

One exercise Favre uses in training at Dortmund is pitting two teams against each other, with one ordered to play patient passing football and the other pressing and breaking. The ease with which the Bundesliga leaders can play either style shows it is paying off. 

Maximilian Philipp, one of the club’s many attacking midfielders, provided an illuminating response to an in-house reporter who asked during pre-season training last summer what the players had been working on: “Starting from the goalkeeper, being patient, letting the opponents run around, switching sides a lot and tiring the opponents. Of course also winning the ball back and breaking quickly to shoot and score. There are really a lot of different things we train. We need to be able to play all the variants … in possession and on the break.”

Philipp added, in a clear insight into Favre’s carefully weighed pluckiness: “We have faith in ourselves and don’t just play it around at the back but we take an element of risk. Mistakes will happen but we’ll give it a go.”

Favre has altered little about his overall approach since his time in charge of the junior ranks at Echallens. Devolz says he sees clear parallels in Dortmund’s football to the time when Favre taught him to play simple passes, banned long balls, and told them to “never panic even when the opponents are having a good spell.”

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Favre says he is happy to be tactically flexible to meet the players at his disposal, but any flexibility takes place within a defined approach. Dortmund may have played a 4-2-3-1 this season, but Favre favoured a more rigid 4-4-2 when taking Borussia Mönchengladbach to two top-four finishes. “I don’t think formations really matter so much to him as it’s more about how his teams act together,” says Zesiger.

The consistency of Favre’s approach and decisiveness of his tactical mind could be rooted in his humility. While he puts everything into football, he hasn’t forgotten his roots as a farmer’s son in the Echallens region and travels back to his house in his home village whenever his schedule permits. “He likes the calmness of our region, and when he comes across us, he always asks us how things are going at the club,” says Devolz, who is now vice-president at Echallens.

Favre often defies his stern appearance with his own philosophy, telling RTS for instance, “We shouldn’t attach too much importance to football, as I think currently we are at the limit on that.” Zesiger points out that Favre has always been held in great esteem by the fans of his clubs, and is also happy to echo the views of ordinary supporters, recently speaking out strongly against the introduction of Monday evening fixtures in Germany.

After rising to the top in Switzerland by guiding FC Zürich to their first title in 25 years in 2006, Favre’s understated approach was a natural fit for a trio of unheralded clubs in major European leagues – Hertha Berlin, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Nice. Remarkably, he took them all to the top four of their respective leagues.

This season has marked the first time Favre has worked for a leading light in a big league, and his talent for inspiring individual excellence and team success took a very able but previously disorganised Dortmund squad into a six-point lead at the time the Bundesliga went into its winter break. If Favre can manage to hold off a resurgent Bayern and do a sound job of navigating the Champions League knockout stages, this season could well be the highlight of an already distinguished career. 

Given the spectacular progression at Dortmund in the first half of the season, it is difficult to imagine Favre being lured elsewhere next summer, but success in the Bundesliga could eventually make him highly coveted elsewhere. Aged 61, he clearly isn’t among the young generation of Bundesliga coaches, but he carries their forward-thinking attitude and packs a wealth of experience. Zesiger says: “Personally I would love to see Favre in the Premier League one day, as I think he would be a perfect fit.” 

By Dan Billingham @D_Billingham

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