Thomas Tuchel and the restless mind.


Thomas Tuchel – Is he an outstanding coach in the making?


I have to confess that I hadn’t heard of Thomas Tuchel at the time, but a while ago, he was linked with a move to take over at Aston Villa. After a little research, it quickly became clear that Tuchel was not, as perhaps Jose Mourinho may say, ‘one from the bottle.’ Here was a coach who had a different approach. Someone who had a penchant for engendering respect among his squad, with a novel approach practice sessions, and who had experienced working under the influential Ralf Rangnick. It seemed an inspired appointment if it had taken place. Tuchel had taken unfashionable Mainz to the top level of German football, and even at one stage had them sitting atop of the Bundesliga. I’ve also seen it reported that in the five year period running up to the end of the 2013-14 only three Bundesiga cubs had gained more points than the small club from Rhineland-Palatinate. There seemed the germs of a good story, so I made a few notes and thought I’d progress it when – or if – the appointment happened. It didn’t and as other events took prominence they sat in a virtual folder gradually accumulating virtual dust.

Then, following the German World Cup triumph last summer, his name surfaced again. Apparently, he had left Mainz at the end of the previous season and had become the sort of unemployed manager linked with any number of prospective jobs across the continent. Whether it was intended as a surrogate CV presentation or not, Tuchel gave a newspaper an interview that ran across six pages. Erudite and immensely readable, it analysed each of the countries participating in the Brazil extravaganza. It was a ‘tour de force’ piece illustrating the sharply analytical mind of a coming force in German football.

If you’re linked with managerial jobs, there’s always going to be a line somewhere that sees a move to England being on the cards – much as with the Villa connection a while ago that had come to nought. This time the name in the frame was Newcastle United. To many in England Tuchel was an unknown, and was always seen as an outsider to move to St James Park. Raphael Honigstein however refused to rule it out. In an article for Süddeutsche Zeitung at the time, he said, “I don’t think it’s utterly unrealistic. But I think he’s looking for a really, really big move.” Although many Geordie fans may think that description fits their club, it may not be perceived in the same light in Germany. Honigstein went on to to say that, “I think he’s a bit like Klopp, he is very much aware that his next move is important. He’s taking care of career and the question now is whether he stays in Germany or goes abroad. Is Newcastle the right fit for him at the moment? I’m not sure.” The reference to Klopp was no throwaway comment and, as things panned out, came to be most prescient.

Although open to new challenges, Tuchel to Newcastle was never really a likely outcome. At the time, the club’s Lee Charnley, perhaps seeking to pour oil on any troubled waters for incumbent Alan Pardew, mentioned that no change was likely as a number of managerial candidates were not viable until the summer of 2015, due to “genuine, contractual reasons.” Tuchel’s amicable departure from Mainz certainly fitted that particular bill, as Mainz would have been looking for a pay-off in the region of €15million if a club wished to secure Tuchel’s services before the end of his contract in July 2015. It was a price Mike Ashley would be about as likely to pay as he would be to be elected chairman of the Newcastle United Supporters Club.  There was a theory that if Tuchel sought employment outside of Germany, Mainz may have been prepared to waive the fee, but such ideas were never tested – at least not publicly. There didn’t seem much point in dusting off my folder on Tuchel, but I still thought there was a story coming form somewhere that would involve his pioneering approach. There was surely a place for him at one of the continents top clubs.

innovative German coach Ralf Rangnick was Tuchel's coach, and saw something in the defender that told him there was a talent to be nurtured.

innovative German coach Ralf Rangnick was Tuchel’s coach, and saw something in the defender that told him there was a talent to be nurtured.

Honigstein certainly played up his merits. Anyone who had served time under Ragnick had valuable capital. Add in his success at Mainz, together with an apparent ability to inculcate his squad with his tactics, and there was clearly something there. Talking of his time at Mainz, Honigstein related that, “He had an unbelievable run. There’s a lot of coaches like him coming out of German football, but not everyone gets players to play for them. Do most players want to gang up on the left-back in the 55th minute? That’s what his system calls for and you can only play that way if all 11 players sign up for it. If seven do, the four who don’t are going to cost you the game.”

How seriously, if at all, Newcastle considered Tuchel as a possible replacement for Pardew at the end of the season is open to debate. Very much like the links with Aston Villa, they may merely have been press speculation. Perhaps too risky for a Premier League club to indulge in a coach with such novel approaches. Honigstein was however on the mark, and his comments regarding Klopp were shown to be accurate this month.

Twelve months after leaving Mainz, for a prolonged period of ‘gardening leave’ Tuchel has landed one of the most difficult jobs in German football as the heir apparent to Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund. Maverick coach Klopp had taken ‘Die Schearzgelben’ to back-to-back Bundesliga titles and the Champions League Final, only to come up short against Bundesliga behemoths Bayern Munich. Already previous Champions of Europe, Dortmund of late have been cast as the perennial thorn in the side of Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, as the Bavarians continue their domination of the Bundesliga. This season however has seen a slump in the Westfalian club’s fortunes, with an early season struggle against a realistic threat of relegation, with VW-funded Wolfsburg now in the driving seat for the challenge of chasing the Bavarians.

Klopp had consistently managed to mitigate the seemingly constant drip-dip loss of his best players by developing new talent, often picked up at bargain prices. Inevitably however, there’s a day when you go to the well, and the bucket comes up empty. That may be what as happened to Klopp this season; there were simply no more rabbits in the hat. Last summer, World Cup hero Mario Goetze decamped to Bayern and along with him went star striker Robert Lewandowski. Little wonder that Klopp decided he had “taken the club as far as he could.” As Tuchel slides into Klopp’s old chair, rumours abound of Europe’s top clubs again selecting from the prime cuts on the Dortmund menu as Hummels, Bender, Gundogan, Mkhitaryan, Subotic and Immobile have all been linked with bids to move them away the Westfalenstadion. Even the ‘Yellow Wall’ may fall if enough bricks are removed.


Cab Tuchel pick up Klopp’s baton and reinspire the ‘Yellow Wall?’

Despite The announcement of Tuchel’s appointment coming in mid-April, the terms of his agreement with Mainz, mean that he will not be free to take control at Dortmund until his contract with the ‘Carnival Club’ expires at the end of June. When he is eventually freed from his year-long stint in the garden, Tuchel may have some rebuilding to do. Klopp will see out his contract in the interim, although there will inevitably be a propensity for some kind of end-of-term ‘wind-down’ amongst staff and players. There’s a certain symmetry in Tuchel’s appointment as he also succeeded Klopp at Mainz, although in that case there were twelve months between the exit and appointment, with Dane Jorn Anderson serving a brief interlude in between. Tuchel will be taking over with a three-year contract, and the club will no doubt be hoping that he can produce the similar sort of magic that he produced at the Coface Arena.

Almost precisely twelve months ago, Tuchel shocked Mainz by announcing that he wished to leave the club after a stunningly successful four-year period; especially so, considering the resources available to him, even surpassing the achievements of Klopp by qualifying the club for the Europa League on two occasions and guiding them to a best-ever Bundesliga finish of fifth place. After securing European qualification last season, it became clear that Tuchel was keen to move on. He may well have considered, much as Klopp has now, that he had achieved all that was feasible, and from there, the only way was down. Whatever the truth of such speculation however, a ‘mutual solution’ was reached whereby Tuchel would not be paid a salary for the remaining twelve months of the agreement, but would still be bound by the contract preventing him from taking up another post without the express permission of the club.

Although to many, it would appear to be an agreement heavily weighted in favour of Mainz, Tuchel was quick to applaud the agreement. “I’m delighted that we’ve reached this agreement,” he declared at the time. “This mutual solution is what we’ve been after. I would like to thank the club, the players and all my colleagues for six great years together and we can be proud of what we have achieved in that time. I would like to express particular gratitude to [sporting director] Christian Heidel, who gave me the opportunity to be the first-team coach here in the Bundesliga five years ago. I wish the club and their fans all the very best for the future.

The club reciprocated. “I’m really happy we’ve been able to come to an agreement regarding our terms of employment and thereby put an end to talk of Thomas Tuchel’s resignation,” added Heidel. “We’re now free to focus on the future. Six great years together will live long in our memories. For that, we’d like to thank Thomas Tuchel from the bottom of our hearts. We wish him all the very best for his future.” If all that sounds a little ‘gushing’ it should be remembered that Mainz gave Tuchel his break in coaching at the top level and were rewarded with the success he delivered as his talent blossomed. The gratitude expressed may well be more than mere political window-dressing.

Back in 1999, Thomas Tuchal was a no-nonsense defender playing under Ralf Rangnick at SSV Ulm. Rangnick was visionary coach, and before he moved on to manage a further five Bundesliga clubs, and was then seconded by the Red Bull organisation as Sporting Director for their Salzburg and Leipzig franchises, he was a key factor in Tuchel’s development as a coach. This however was a major coaching success to take amateur club Ulm to the highest level of German football, and was an early part of the legend-building for Rangnick. Unfortunately for Tuchel however, after two successive promotions, dreams of playing glory were about to bite the dust as a serious knee injury forced a premature retirement at a mere 24 years of age. In May 1999 it seemed that football had done with Thomas Tuchel, who took on work as a bartender in Stuttgart’s ‘Radiobar’ to fund an Economics course he was studying. He unashamedly relates that he was not a happy man, and decided that, perhaps the doctors were wrong.

“I was angry with my fate. That was the day I decided to stop working in the bar,” he remembered. As much to convince himself that he had the staying power to see something through to its conclusion, he completed the Economics degree, although he had fallen out of love with the subject some time before. He had previously baled out on a Sport and English course, and was determined not to fall short again. It was a precursor of a determination and resilience that was to feature in his career from that point.

By this time, the rising star of Rangnick had been spotted by VfB Stuttgart, and he was quickly snaffled off to be the driving force at the Mercedes-Benz Arena. His old manager was happy to give Tuchel an opportunity to prove his fitness as he sought a Lazurus-like resurrection of his playing career. Sometimes determination and resilience just doesn’t get the job done however. The return was short-lived as medical reality could simply not be ignored.  Shortly afterwards came the final decision to retire.

Rangnick however was astute enough to notice that the young Tuchel had something about him that suggested he could become a successful coach. Never the easiest player to coach, there was a persistent questioning attitude about the defender that suggested an insight into the game missed by many of his peers. Rangnick was a maverick, always looking to develop new ideas and change things. He may have recognised a little of himself in Tuchel. Whatever the reason, he offered Tuchel a job at the club. “He allowed me to shadow him as an intern and then I became manager of the Under-14s. That’s how things started,” Tuchel recalled. It was just the beginning.

Applying himself with the dedication that was now part of his approach to all things, Tuchel quickly proved that Rangnick’s intuition had been sound. He recalled that training was “something you need to learn and understand, not a thing you do because there’s nothing else left or because it seems like the logical next step after 400 professional matches.” He secured the Bundesliga U19 title for Stuttgart in 2005, before moving to Mainz and winning the same title there in 2007. In the same year he also achieved his Pro License Badge. Two years later came his big break.

Tuchel's approach to squad building and tactics, propelled Maniz to their best ever Bundesliga finish.

Tuchel’s approach to squad building and tactics, propelled Maniz to their best ever Bundesliga finish.

In August 2009, he was promoted to control of the senior squad. It was an opportunity to deploy the successful techniques he had honed at junior level. Would he have the conviction to be true to his beliefs? Would his tactics be as successful in the unforgiving Bundesliga, with a newly promoted squad? True to his principles, he refused to abandon his convictions in favour of a ‘defend and survive’ strategy. Deploying his high-tempo pressing game when out of possession, and the rapid transition to attack when it was regained, the Cinderella club finished the season in a highly impressive ninth place.

Football is of course full of stories about ‘one season wonders.’ A successful campaign, rapidly followed by a sobering second season and a fall back into welcoming embrace of reality and obscurity. Tuchel was having none of that. In fact for a period of time, Mainz topped the Bundesliga, looking down on the supposed bigger clubs of Bayern Munich, Dortmund and Leverkusen. The club was not without good players of course. Starlets such as Lewis Holtby and Andre Schurrle, both of whom would later play in the Premier League – and Schurrle in the World Cup Final of 2014 – were both in Tuchel’s squad. Although even at the tender age of 19, Schurrle was lost to Leverkusen for €8million.

At just 37 years old, Tuchel was seen as both a revolutionary, and one of the hottest properties in German football. He even talked about his job differently from other coaches, emphasising that he thought from ‘practice session to practice session’ rather than the more traditional, if hackneyed old cliche of ‘game to game.’ His squad was also a manifestation of himself. The epitome of a club reflecting its manager. After a game that confirmed Mainz’s top spot in the Bundesliga, Tuchel declared that “The way we pressed and the quality of our runs would have made it possible for us to play in the Premier League tonight. This was the best game since I came here.” An analysis of the match in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung seemed to concur. “Mainz play the way romantics still perceive English football,” it proclaimed.

His players were young and enthusiastic; keen to learn and develop, and committed to the way of playing. Such adherence to Tuchel’s teachings was not limited to the 90 minutes of a game however. There was an entire mindset that emphasised the different approach. Some coaches have a preferred system, although that may change over the years. For Tuchel however, such approach was folly. Adapting tactics to suit the players selected was very much the order of the day. I’ve read in a few reports that during training sessions he sometimes would set up patterns of play in pitches of various shapes and sizes. Sometimes a very narrow one, at other times a diamond or even a round playing area, all designed to emphasise how play should be developed and where spaces could be best exploited.

Although tactics were important, Tuchel also worked on the relationships within the squad to develop a healthy mutual respect that built trust. Lewis Holtby remarked that, “He combines absolute authority with humanity.” There was an insistence that players always had to address each other by their first names, and when saying ‘good morning’ should always look each other in the eye to convey sincerity. Good manners, courtesy and mutual respect were the foundations that allowed Tuchel to build his tactical formations on solid foundations. Summing up his philosophy, Tuchel said “Leading a Bundesliga team is 100% about human relations. My idea of leadership is all about respect and appreciation.”

It’s been widely reported that the team Tuchel admires the most is Barcelona. Strangely enough however, it isn’t because of the intricate geometry of their passing, or their devotion to dominating possession. More, he focuses on the almost rabid determination to recover possession once it is lost, especially in the opposition’s half of the field. Many stories have been written about how Blaugrana players are brought up to treasure the ball and when it’s lost, there’s a three-second window to win it back again. Tuchel identifies with this. “Their outstanding quality is their devotion and passion when it comes to winning the ball back in the opposition’s half once they lose it,” he has said. “That’s only possible with a huge amount of humility. It’s not a given that stars at this high level are collectively committed to an idea and that no one takes the liberty of doing a little less of the hard work.”

Tuchel exceeded Klopp's achievements at Mainz. Can he do the same at Dortmund?

Tuchel exceeded Klopp’s achievements at Mainz. Can he do the same at Dortmund?

Despite, or perhaps because of, the success enjoyed at Mainz for even the most far-seeing visionary, there’s an end to the road. That Tuchel saw it, and clearly identified the appropriate exit strategy is surely a sign of strength rather than weakness. As the summer rolls round and Thomas Tuchel assumes control at Dortmund, expect nothing but the same application of the same principles that have served him – and his employers to date – so well. I’ve dusted off the ‘Tuchel’ folder for this article, but there’s more than a feeling that this story has a way to run yet.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: