December 14, 2017

Thomas Tuchel Out, Peter Bosz In: Now What for Borussia Dortmund?

Borussia Dortmund’s weird week and a half ended earlier today when the club announced the hiring of Ajax’s Peter Bosz as BVB’s new head coach, replacing the recently “fired” Thomas Tuchel, who, left the club after the DFB Pokal on May 27th. Today’s news brings closure to the uncertainty hanging over the club during the period between Tuchel’s dismissal and Bosz’s hiring. As rumored coaching names came and left (e.g. Lucien Favre), interpretations varied about the soundness of BVB’s dismissal of Tuchel. Time was dilated during this stretch, and ready-made judgments about BVB having no clear plan filled the time and our social media timelines. Thus, in these fervid times in which any news-related ambiguity drives us crazy, Bosz’s hiring is relief. Narrative closure. Cue the happy times!

Yes, in one sense, the BVB drama is done. The club lost a coach and now has a new coach. And a coach who is a great fit. Story closed. Yes. However, seen another way, a new story is just beginning. Or you could even say that we’re still in the middle of a story: Tuchel’s departure leaves behind a club with a provisional identity and status. The Tuchel project is unfinished. And this is not an insignificant fact. In the “auteur” vein of a Pep Guardiola, Tuchel is a meticulous systems builder. Like his Spanish spirit brother, the Tuchel project probably takes something like three seasons to complete — certainly not two.

Think about it like this: what if Guardiola had left Bayern after only two seasons? These past two seasons might have been really weird for Bayern, who would have been left with the towering scaffolding of a major unfinished renovation clinging on. Instead, Guardiola served his final contracted season, completing Bayern’s renovation. Thus, Carlo “Care Taker” Ancelotti (a coach certainly not in the auteur vein!) inherited a club with a clear identity — Juego de posicion! — and matching coherent squad that knew its on-pitch job. Moreover, looking beyond this recently finished season, it’s likely that in upcoming seasons Bayern’s identity will retain the Guardiola genetic code, given the permanent core of players who worked under Guardiola those three seasons. From this perspective, Bayern certainly appears to have a clear vision of itself as a football club, and of the path going into the future. It’s enviable stuff.

When Dortmund hired Tuchel, it appeared the club was moving in this direction; i.e. the direction of having a clear vision, identity, and charted future course. After Jürgen Klopp’s departure, this conceptual reset was necessary, and Tuchel was German football’s perfect man for the rebuild. Sure enough, after two seasons, Tuchel’s vision for BVB was visible and mostly flourishing, despite the squad turnover (Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gündogan, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan) and infusion of youngsters (Christian Pulisic, Ousmane Dembélé, Raphael Guerreiro, Julian Weigl, Emre Mor, and Felix Passlack). Tuchel’s Dortmund played a lovely version of possession-based football, armed with one of Europe’s most vicious attacks. Of course, defense was still largely a work in progress, but the more important point was that Dortmund took on a new identity and grew into it splendidly. This upcoming 2017-18 season was supposed to be the season when BVB fully grew into the Tuchel identity, and mastered it, so that the club’s future course could play itself in future seasons. Much like Bayern mastered its identity in Guardiola’s 3rd season in 2015-16.

A huge missed opportunity.

Of course, in hindsight we now know that the narrative of BVB under Tuchel these past two season was actually riddled with strife, staff wars, players taking sides, and downright feuding. The drama really began last summer, after Tuchel’s first season. Rumblings emerged every so often this season, and the rift within the club finally became visible in all its ugliness. Nobody emerged from with clean hands: Hans-Joachim Watzke, the players themselves, and Tuchel all fought dirty, so much so that Watzke felt compelled to issue a letter to fans explaining the Tuchel departure and seizing the rhetorical high ground. Watzke’s letter gestured toward competing value systems and personality conflicts as the main triggers in the Tuchel civil war.

Indeed, the most recent Talking Fussball conversation between Matt Hermann and the Fanatic‘s own Abel Meszaros picked up on this thread and clarified Tuchel’s departure as one in which results and winning were pitted against the BVB way with its attendant values, practices, and culture. This last word — culture — was Hermann and Meszaros’s key term. Watzke and many of the old guard players, it seems, took the side of culture, while Tuchel took the side of results and winning. For example, Tuchel wanted to compete with Bayern for the Bundesliga title this last season and felt betrayed when he didn’t get the transfer moves he wanted nor the unconditional backing of Watzke and company. On the other hand, Watzke’s side accused Tuchel of not buying into the BVB culture in a philosophical or even a physical-body-being-present sort of way.

Disclaimer: I’ve always been a Tuchel man. I loved him at Mainz and was very excited when BVB hired him three summers ago as Klopp’s replacement. I love that Tuchel is a big ideas and meticulous systems kind of guy. I love that he’s intellectual, philosophical, and cerebral. I love that he reads. I love that he gave Mkhitaryan a copy of The Inner Game of Tennis to resurrect the Armenian. The man changed the way players think. I love that Tuchel is interested in the wider world and burns with activity, learning, and teaching. I will miss him dearly and am already jealous of the next club he coaches.

However, even I was discomfited by some of the rumors about him that emerged from the Dortmund camp, like his treatment of teenager Emre Mor (made to crawl on all fours?). Or his mendacious ways with some players and Watzke. Of course, I know nothing the veracity of any of these stories. But I don’t have to. Because, in a sense, the truth of these stories is irrelevant. Clearly, there is something about Tuchel that didn’t work with Watzke and the larger Dortmund organization. I’m sure the rumors are the green shoots of kernels of something truthful lurking in the soil. Yet what I hate is the truth that Tuchel won’t be around for another season to complete his project and remove that provisional identity and status from BVB that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Auteur coaches live short lives at BVB, it seems.

Which brings us to today’s hiring of Ajax’s Peter Bosz. First, some basics. The Dutchman played professionally as a midfielder during a long career (1981-99) with many different clubs. His longest stint was at Feyenoord where he made 155 apps in five seasons. As a coach, Bosz is almost equally as traveled. Since 2000, he’s coached six different sides, including Vitesse, Maccabi Tel Aviv, and most recently Ajax. This last season, he led Ajax on a sensational campaign to the Europa League Final against Manchester United. (Sidebar: my favorite European match this season was leg two in the Europa League semi-final when Lyon hosted Bosz’s Ajax.) Schalke fans, Bosz was the guy who tortured your squad in extra during leg 2 of the quarter-finals at Veltins. Oh, and his boys were down to 10 men. Sooooorrrry!

Bosz’s Ajax squad was remarkable this past season, finally returning the club to its thrilling Totaalvoetbal spiritual ancestry. Ajax’s boys finished a point behind champs Feyenoord this season in the Dutch Eredivisie, while scoring the 2nd most goals (79) and conceding the tied-for-fewest goals (23) in 34 Matchdays. Furthermore, Bosz’s side possessed the ball 59.7% of the time and led the league in passing completion rate, and most shots per match. If you’re wondering, Bosz’s Ajax played in a classic 4-3-3 formation, which is well suited to Totallvoetball’s fluidity and position switching.

On the surface, Bosz is an excellent fit for Borussia Dortmund. His Ajax played in a style akin to Tuchel’s Guardiola-influenced possession football. In fact, Bosz was my personal favorite Tuchel replacement, so I’m relieved that my club nabbed him and grateful that Ajax didn’t fight harder to keep him (rumor has it that Ajax also had an internal rift involving Bosz — oh boy). I think that Bosz’s hiring is a best-case scenario for BVB in terms of stylistic continuity with Tuchel’s system. Besides, Bosz speaks German fluently. Whew.

However, as I asserted toward the beginning of this piece, Bosz is inheriting a club with a provisional status.

Much is in flux, by which I mean that much is a work in progress in the wake of Tuchel’s departure. For example, Tuchel’s backline never really congealed, nor does BVB seem to have the personnel or style to play careful defense. Then there’s the issue of Julian Weigl’s injury, which I’d argue is a very big deal. Weigl powers this team. Without him, BVB isn’t nearly as dangerous nor fluid. Weigl’s knee injury and time absent will be huge come the start of the Hinrunde in a couple months. Moreover, Weigl’s injury belies BVB’s lack of depth in midfield. Without Weigl, BVB is a weak Europa League club at best right now. Next, there’s the issue of Pierre-Emrick Aubameyang, an alleged “Tuchel man” in the civil war. Presumably, the Bundeslgia’s leading scorer is already a new PSG man. However, Auba’s departure is old news. What’s significant right now is that Dortmund does’t have an instant goals-for-goals replacement for Auba’s staggering production (he was responsible for a stunning 43% of BVB’s goals in 2016-17). Does this situation remind you of anything? Cough, cough. Robert Lewandowki, cough, cough. And I hate to say this, but Bosz’s Ajax relied heavily on two goal scorers, Kasper Dollberg and Davy Klaassen. Who will Bosz rely on for goals at BVB? Marco Reus isn’t healthy to be considered one of the go-to men right now. Finally, what about the rumored split in the club between old core and Tuchel’s youngsters? Splits don’t just magically disappear with new coaches. BVB needs some healing.

Bosz has a mess on his hands.

Although I’m actually happy about the Bosz hiring, I just didn’t think that BVB would find itself in need of a new coach two years into the Tuchel project. For a club aspiring to stability and consistent success, coaching changes like this seem a bit antithetical to the very culture that BVB claims to maintain. Us BVBers certainly hope that Bosz is a longterm replacement, and that the club isn’t entering the very first stages of some HSV-like death spiral of instability. (Oh, how the mind can run down the most anxious of streets with the quickest pace!) At least there’s superficial continuity — a family resemblance — between Tuchel and Bosz, stylistically, and at least there’s still a remaining core of players to adapt to the resemblances. But will it be enough?

These are the questions us fans ask, because coaches and players come and go, but we are stuck with our clubs on a ride of mutual joy and anxiety. With Bosz’s hiring, I know that I’m feeling both.

 

The following two tabs change content below.
Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply