People always expect great players to become great managers, although it is known that this is not often the case. In that respect, probably even Thomas Tuchel himself never saw himself becoming a coach, let alone one of the most talented managers in Germany.
His first football move from his youth club TSV Krumbach was to FC Augsburg in 1988, a fourth-tier club at the time. After four years spent in Augsburg, he played for Stuttgarter Kickers and SSV Ulm, second and third-tiers respectively. He played 77 senior matches as a defender, scoring three goals, before retiring at the age of 25, due to a chronic cartilage injury.
This rather unsuccessful attempt at a career in playing football did not discourage Tuchel from trying to establish his name in the footballing world. In 2000, he became VfB Stuttgart’s U19 manager. He spent five years there before returning to his old club FC Augsburg. In 2009, Tuchel was appointed a new manager of 1. FSV Mainz 05, having previously spent two years in the club as the U19 coach. He was at the helm of the club for five years, before a mutual termination of contract in 2014. He brought daring, attacking football to the club and finished his tenure with a 39.56% win rate, which is a very respectable number, considering he inherited a newly-promoted team. His most successful season was 2010/11, when his team finished fifth, 11 points ahead of sixth-placed Nurnberg. He started off the campaign that year with seven straight wins, including an away victory against Bayern Munich.
Tuchel names Hermann Badstuber, his mentor during his time at Stuttgart, as his greatest influence. “I’ve never known a coach that’s had so much expert knowledge while being such a creative thinker, to question himself so much, work so hard and yet remain so modest. He was a massive influence both personally and professionally. He became like a sporting father figure to me.”, said Tuchel about his tutor.
The first thing Tuchel worked on with his new squad was team spirit. He noticed that there was no cohesion in the team. He changed that not through strictness and a thorough control of schedule, but through motivation and the gradual development of team unity. In the season 2011/12, the team started off badly, with two losses in the league and an unexpected early exit from the Europa League (they lost to Romanian club GazMetan in the third qualifying round). He gave a motivational speech, where he even quoted Michael Jordan and made a team that lacked morale go onto the pitch and win the next game.
The main thing about Tuchel’s tactics is the high pressing, similar to the way the Klopp’s squad played when they reached the Champions League final. As soon as Thuchel’s team lost the ball they worked on regaining it. Instead of running back and taking defensive positions, they tackled hard up on the pitch, without allowing the opposition to steadily develop their attack. But, when the quick pressing failed, they relied on a well-organized defense.
On the ball, they played direct football with as much work done as in defending. Tuchel introduced differently shaped pitches on the training ground – they were not rectangular, but in the shape of a diamond or circle. Different shapes restricted the players from long passes on the flank, where a winger would make a run for it, but rather made them play directly, organizing their attacks with quick-paced forwards who would create space.
His preferred formation was a narrow 4-3-1-2 structure, which gave him the opportunity to control the center of the pitch. The formation, however, would leave the team vulnerable to the attacks through the flanks, which he solved by defensive midfielders covering opposing fullbacks, and the attacking midfielder pressing the opponent’s defensive midfield players.
Although he had his preferred formation, he was known for adjusting the tactics and the starting eleven to the opposition. He would often change his formation and leave his best players on the bench, which kept his opponents guessing on the way he might play. This was best illustrated against Bayern Munich. He fielded a 4-1-4-1 formation against Van Gaal’s 4-3-3 and won 2:1, and against Heynckes’ side he was victorious with a 4-3-2-1 shape. The way he dealt with the opposition fullbacks greatly affected the outcome of the matches. He limited their space which caused them to have less passing options, which in turn caused the other players to drop deeper for the ball and be constrained in a narrow part of the pitch.
Though Tuchel himself said that Guardiola’s work at Barcelona influenced him more, there are a lot of similarities in his and Jurgen Klopp’s careers and the way they see the game. First of all, they were both defenders, although Klopp had a lengthier playing career. They both made names for themselves at Mainz, and now Tuchel will replace Klopp at Borussia Dortmund.
They both appreciate attacking football, with pacey forwards, high tempo and high pressure. They are both the type of manager who likes not only to win, but to win in style. Both approach their jobs as fans, asking their players to play attractive, passionate football. As it’s almost becoming a pattern, if you want to a bet on who is going to be Tuchel’s successor at Borussia, just take a look who is doing well at Mainz.
Tuchel faces a difficult task of replacing the fans’ favorite and one of the most charismatic and respected managers in Klopp, and, if the transfer rumors are to be believed, he will also have to work on rebuilding the team, already in decline as it is. In the next few years, he will show whether he is up to it or not.