June 29, 2017

Tough Times for Tuchel in Dortmund

Before any BVB fan gets mad, let me get this out-of-the-way. Thomas Tuchel is an excellent coach. At his first Bundesliga coaching gig at Mainz 05 Tuchel managed to gain 1.4 points a game on a tight budget. Last summer Tuchel upgraded his employer, when he took over for Jürgen Klopp (1.9 points per game) at the Signal-Iduna-Park. Quite a tough act to follow for a newcomer, but so far Tuchel has actually outperformed (2.2 ppg) the legendary “Kloppo”. What makes this even more impressive, he did it on his own terms.

During Tuchel’s debut season in Dortmund, the team moved on from “Heavy Metal Football” and was able to execute slower, more possession oriented game plans. This summer 43 year-old coach got to oversee a 100 million € rebuilding project. The 2017 BVB team is “Tuchel’s Baby”, everything bad that happens from here on is his handiwork.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like “TT” deals with that kind of pressure all that well. After a frustrating away loss (the second one in only six Bundesliga matches) at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Tuchel made some ill-advised comments that have turned almost the whole league against him.

What did Tuchel say exactly?

 

Tuchel v Schmidt
Tuchel v Schmidt

Dortmund lost 0:2 away at Leverkusen in week six. BVB players were fouled 21 times that evening. By contrast only seven fouls were called on Dortmund players. When Leverkusen head coach Roger Schmidt called it a “fair match” during the post game interview, Tuchel lost his cool:

‘A fair match’ said the coach of the team with 21 fouls to the coach of the team with seven fouls — in that case I have a different idea of what a fair game is, Gonzalo Castro and Sebastian Rode couldn’t continue and people do as much as they can to prevent our players from dribbling and I think it oversteps the mark. Methods are used which, to such an extent, would usually ensure that you don’t end the game with 11 men. I didn’t see a dominant match with 35 percent possession and 21 fouls. In that case I saw a different match, sorry.

“Shots fired” is what every Bundesliga journalist thought when Tuchel finished his interview. No matter how much you twist and turn this quote around, in the end Tuchel did accuse Leverkusen (and BVB opponents in general) of cheating.

Of course, those words didn’t sit well with Bayer 04 manager and Germany legend Rudi Völler:

We (Leverkusen) didn’t do anything wrong. We are not an unfair team, our coach has set up his team extremely well. That’s all there is to this laughable story.

Germany legend “Ruuuuuudi” Völler didn’t appreciate Tuchel’s remarks
Germany legend “Ruuuuuudi” Völler didn’t appreciate Tuchel’s remarks

 

Mainz player and “Tuchel-Insider” Stefan Bell also gave his two cents:

We all know Thomas. He is a pretty sore loser.

Whether Tuchel is right or not, no Bundesliga club (besides Bayern) feels sorry for a coach who gets to work with a roster worth 350 million Euros like Tuchel. The Bundesliga average is 141 million. This number drops all the way down to roughly 100 million per team, when you leave Dortmund and Bayern out of the equation. “Cry me a river” or “Deal with it” was what most Bundesliga managers and coaches thought. Some actually said it.

A pattern emerges

Ahead of the 2016/17 clash between BVB and Hertha, Pal Dardai went straight at Tuchel:

It’s unfair towards referees and puts pressure on them. We (Hertha) are the second fairest team in the league, but if we get a yellow card after just two or three fouls, then I’m going to run to the fourth official and complain about Tuchel’s comments. It’s all well and good being friendly before and after the game, but this is a man’s game and I think Tuchel’s comments are very borderline.

two send offs and a missed penalty made BVB vs. Hertha a very entertaining battle
two send offs and a missed penalty made BVB vs. Hertha a very entertaining battle

 

Wow, no need to tell you that the stage was set for an aggressive Friday Night battle at the Westfalenstadion. In the end Hertha actually committed more fouls (22) than Leverkusen and came away with 1:1 draw that way. Pal Dardai didn’t apologize for anything: “This was some good old men’s football. I like that.” Tuchel had apparently learned his lesson and refused to further comment on the situation. Away at Ingolstadt his Dortmund side escaped with a late 3:3 draw while being fouled 20 times. Union Berlin forced a penalty shootout in the DFB Pokal match at the Westfalenstadion thanks to 20 fouls. Interestingly, the only Dortmund win since September 23rd came away at Sporting Lisbon, where BVB players got fouled “only” ten times. Apparently, the news about Dortmund being a little “soft” didn’t make it to Portugal.

Where Tuchel got it wrong

Tuchel's biggest loss -- to the man he succeeded at BvB
Tuchel’s biggest loss — to the man he succeeded at BvB

Tuchel chose to sign for one of the biggest clubs in the world. Well, then he also has to deal with problems literally every “big time team” in pro sports faces.

It’s not a recent trend that underdog teams try to be as physical, aggressive and conservative as possible to offset their lack of pure talent or athleticism. Big players or coaches adapt to that reality and deal with it. Giovanni Trapattoni once said it best: “It’s very windy at the top of the mountain.”

Just like other coaching legends did before him, Tuchel needs to figure out how to deal with “big club” problems on his own. Whining and finger-pointing won’t help. Why should fellow coaches, referees and league officials take advice from him? I mean, the DFL appoints four referees to every Bundesliga match. In case they miss something, there are hours of footage from numerous angles to sanction dirty plays after the fact. The comments made by Tuchel (which he backed up a week later) insult the people who work hard to enforce FIFA rules just as much as they do fellow coaches. During the infamous game at the BayArena, Dortmund was awarded 24 free kicks after all. It’s not like Leverkusen players went unpunished, as the Werkself received a whopping five yellow cards. Bundesliga refereeing is top-notch and some of the DFL refs are among the most respected in the world. What are they supposed to do besides handing out cards and awarding free kicks? Would they really not notice if a big conspiracy was going on to rough up BVB stars? “Why are opponents not concerned to give up a ton free kicks against us?” is the only question Tuchel should worry about.

Is Thomas Tuchel’s brand of football too soft?

thomas-tuchel-78

Tuchel’s BVB squad is stacked with lightweight speed freaks and dribblers. Against Dortmund defenders must avoid foot chases at all cost. Defenders rather risk a yellow card then letting a guy like Dembele blow past them. Moreover Dortmund generally has 60+% of possession and regularly forces one on ones on the wings. The problem: the coach’s youngsters might have all the skill in the world, but some don’t have a “Bundesliga body” yet. On top of that you have injury prone players like Marco Reus and Andre Schürrle.

So it makes sense that defenders try their best to use their physical advantage. The coaches Tuchel faces aren’t trying to win a Nobel Peace Prize, they want to get a result.

Exploiting every possible weakness is part of the job. If a Bundesliga coach refuses to attack Dortmund’s weak spots, his club will find a coach who doesn’t care quickly. Of course, Tuchel can keep complaining and hope that teams stop fouling Emre Mor & co. Alternatively he could revisit his squad building strategy.

Ottmar “Der General” Hitzfeld
Ottmar “Der General” Hitzfeld

The greatest BVB coach of all time, Ottmar “Der General” Hitzfeld always made sure he had a couple of “enforcers” on his teams. Steffen Freund, Knut Reinhardt, Paul Lambert or Martin Kree were just as important to him as creative artists like Andreas Möller. Hard working players also resonated will with the working class in Dortmund. So did Klopp’s intensive Gegenpressing. Under Tuchel Dortmund has evolved into a finesse team that kinda lost that grittiness associated with Borussia Dortmund’s coal mining heritage.

Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Marcel Schmelzer and Sven Bender (when healthy) are the only Dortmund regulars that thrive on physical play. The rest of the squad consists of finesse, skill and speed. During this summer’s roster overhaul Tuchel has apparently forgotten that he needs physicality too. Mats Hummels’ replacement Marc Bartra doesn’t scare anybody, he is actually most famous for getting outmuscled by Gareth Bale in the 2014 Copa Del Rey final. Raphael Guerreiro and Sebastian Rode aren’t physically imposing enforcers either.

To make matters worse Tuchel spent the bulk of his summer budget on offense, which resulted in a pretty top-heavy squad. If Julian Weigl or Sokratis go down, Dortmund has no adequate replacements on payroll. On the other I have no clue what will happen once all offensive BVB stars become available to Tuchel at the same time. Who is he going to sit? So a debate can be had, whether Tuchel should have gone harder after a hard-hitting central mid like Granit Xhaka (45m€) instead of getting Andre Schürrle (30m €) and Sebastian Rode (12m€). If you look at the money spent on Schürrle, it’s baffling that Dortmund haggled with Leverkusen over a couple of millions, instead of signing Ömer Toprak last summer.

Dejan Lovren overpowers Adrian Ramos and kicks out Tuchel’s BVB side
Dejan Lovren overpowers Adrian Ramos and kicks out Tuchel’s BVB side

The “new BVB” is vulnerable to set pieces but can’t capitalise on free kicks themselves. The squad lacks guys like Kevin Großkreutz who can deal a good hit here and there plus the team gets rattled by adversity very easily. At Mainz, Tuchel had to deal with a much smaller budget, at Dortmund he needs to deal with low budget tactics. He isn’t the first Bundesliga coach who is frustrated by rough play and teams that park the bus. A proud club like Hertha BSC doesn’t travel all the way across the country to play the supporting cast in a “BVB Friday Night Gala Show”. Veteran Bundesliga players do not like to end up on YouTube clips called “Amazing Nutmeg by Dembele”.

Moreover, getting fouled 20 times is not quite as uncommon as Tuchel claims. Look at both Sunday games of match day seven: Mainz and Darmstadt had 19 fouls a piece. RB Leipzig players were fouled 20 times by Wolfsburg. During the Premier League match Liverpool vs Manchester United, the Red Devils committed…… 20 fouls. It is not a good look for Tuchel, that none of the coaches involved complained about fouls.

Can Tuchel turn it around?

BVB fans can relax. Many coaches in Germany have been labelled “too soft” before. The German media and public were extremely critical of Joachim Löw before he became a world champion. Löw teams played the most beautiful attacking football but failed to bring home trophies in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Many Bayern fans were glad when Pep Guardiola left because he came up short in three Champions League runs with his positive football. Yet when he signed with Bayern coming off two UCL title runs with Barca, Pep was seen as a messiah. Long story short, a coach is only “soft” until he wins.

The German football scene tends to hand out the “soft label” to well spoken coaches who dress a little different. If a coach wears a tracksuit he’s automatically a coach “players would die for” or “one of the guys”. Other coaches wear nice suits and automatically are called a “tactical genius” or “maestro”. Oh and if a coach has enjoyed a great playing career, the prestige carries over. Thomas Tuchel, just like Jogi Löw and Ralf Rangnick, looks more like college professors or IT experts than coaches. His playing career didn’t take him further than the 2.Bundesliga and he doesn’t care what people think. Add it all up and no Bundesliga follower should have acted surprised when it was open season on Tuchel after his comments.

Outsiders get questioned until they win, that’s just the way it is. While Rudi Völler and Pal Dardai had to deal with journalists since their teens, a guy like Tuchel needs time to adapt to the limelight. If Tuchel has learned from his mistakes, injured players become healthy and a couple of squad holes get filled next summer, the sky is the limit for Dortmund and their coach.

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