January 23, 2017

Thomas Tuchel’s Mainz: a Retrospective

With all of the press surrounding the World Cup that kicks off in Brazil this week, it bears repeating that Thomas Tuchel is currently unemployed as a football manager (well sort of, more on that later).  At the conclusion of the season, Tuchel, for reasons that are still unclear, resigned from his post as first team manager at Mainz.  This move is truly a head-scratching decision considering what a success the season had been, culminating in Mainz’s 7th place finish in the Bundesliga, which resulted in their qualification for the 2014-15 Europa League’s 3rd Qualifying Round.

This success obviously did not sit well with the brass at Mainz, and when a mutual “termination” agreement was eventually agreed upon, it was specifically worded so that Tuchel would not be able to join another club until the end of his then contract in June 2015, unless of course the club was consulted with and, not surprisingly, adequately compensated [i].  However, Mainz sporting director Christian Heidel was quick to dismiss any thoughts of animosity between the club and Tuchel and has always been a very keen backer of his now former manager.  This relationship left things between the two parties in a much more amicable state in the aftermath of the whole ordeal, but still left Tuchel not collecting a paycheque.

Even though things seemed to be smoothed over, it still seems a fairly unorthodox, almost vindictive, stipulation to be set upon a manager who by all accounts was incredibly well-liked by his players, assistants, and upper management; this critique is to say nothing of the genuine success the club enjoyed over the entire length of Tuchel’s tenure.  But before launching into an analysis of Tuchel’s time at Mainz, let’s take a brief look at the man himself.

Hermann Badstuber and the Career Student

At only 24 years of age, Thomas Tuchel’s playing career was cut short due to ongoing knee problems and for awhile it seemed as though a career in football was the furthest thing from his mind.  But after completing a Business Degree, Tuchel was brought back into the footballing world by Ralf Rangnick, under whom Tuchel had played during his final season at SSV Ulm.  In 2000, Tuchel was given a position in Stuttgart’s youth academy (where Rangnick was the senior team manager) where he stayed for 4 years before moving up to the U-19s.

After a single season in Stuttgart, Tuchel moved on to manage the Augsburg U-19s and FCA II, where he completed his DFL Coaching Training, before finally landing in Mainz in 2008 where he was appointed as manager of the Mainz U-19s.  He kept this position for a season before he was promoted to manager of the senior team, succeeding Jørn Andersen, who was relieved of his duties after gaining Mainz promotion to the Bundesliga.

A common theme keeps popping up, that of continual learning.  Tuchel himself attributes this trait to his mentor the late Hermann Badstuber (yes, Holger’s father).  Tuchel knew Badstuber from his time in Stuttgart’s youth academy where Holger trained for two years.  In a 2009 interview, Tuchel (barely a month in as Mainz’s manager) spoke very candidly about how much of a mentor Hermann Badstuber had been to him; Tuchel said that Badstuber was a master at thinking outside the box who nurtured a player’s natural talents and emphasized, not only hard work, but also modesty.  Tuchel credits Badstuber as his greatest influence both personally and professionally and took his death very hard [ii].

Additionally, a Spielverlagerung.de article reveals – perhaps unsurprisingly – that Tuchel was also a huge admirer of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side, whom he called a model side in that they were dedicated to constant improvement and remained ambitious regardless of all the success they achieved [iii].

In the same article, Tuchel’s youth football mentality was stressed as a factor that makes him such an effective manager.  He is a motivator and a true player’s coach who stresses an importance on education and dedication to self-improvement, especially to the younger professionals.  He’s not a one trick pony, mind you: some of his old dogs also learn new tricks.

Tactics

Now that we know a bit more about the man and his coaching philosophy, we can now turn our attention to the on field tactics.

The aforementioned Spielverlagerung.de article (from 2011, but it serves its purpose extremely well) describes Tuchel’s tactics in great detail, so I will break it down as simply as possible.  In Tuchel, Mainz not only had a spiritual successor to Jürgen Klopp, who’d been their longtime manager until he moved to Borussia Dortmund in 2008 but Tuchel’s admiration for Barcelona shaped the way he wanted his side to play football.  Tuchel had his team press the opposition relentlessly, most notably in the opposition half and when his side had lost the ball, and rely on quick attacks once they’d regained the ball.  If ball retention wasn’t an option, Mainz could always fall back on a well-organized defensive unit to stop opposition attacks.

Tuchel always liked to keep his opponents guessing and would switch up his starting 11 on a nearly weekly basis.  This beguiling strategy also meant that Tuchel employed a very fluid formation on the pitch.  He experimented (and still uses to this day) a 4-3-1-2 formation that was designed to control the centre of the pitch.  This type of formation is vulnerable to attacks from the flanks, so Tuchel had his defensive midfielders cover the opposing fullbacks to remove some passing options, all the while his attacking midfielder would hound the opposition’s defensive midfield players when they had possession of the ball.  Tenacious final third pressing at its finest.

Another aspect of Tuchel’s game was his prolific use of substitutions; in his 5 seasons at Mainz, Tuchel used up all of his available subs in every, or nearly every, match.  As mentioned above, Tuchel did not always field his strongest starting 11 and instead kept some of his stronger (mostly attacking) players on the bench in order to be able to utilize them later on in the match.  This strategy equates to something like ‘false squad depth’.

Tuchel was able to do this because of the abundance of attacking players he selected each week for the squad.  A byproduct of this squad rotation was that he was able to keep all of these players game ready, and used his excellent skills as a motivator to curb any potential squad unrest.

Conclusion: Heidel’s Praise and the “Tuchel Tabell”

In an 11freunde.de article published a few months before Tuchel’s departure, Christian Heidel couldn’t help but heap praise on top of his then manager [iv].  He said that Mainz are inexplicably still considered underdogs in the Bundesliga and finds it rather incredible that the team hasn’t garnered the attention it probably should.  He comments that often times, and he cites matches involving Augsburg, Hertha, and his own Mainz, when the smaller clubs beat the bigger ones it is more a case of the losing side having an off day then it is of the achievements of the winner.

He also makes mention of what has been coined as the “Tuchel Tabell.”  He elaborates by saying since Thomas Tuchel took over as manager of Mainz, only 4 clubs (at the time he was right) were ahead of them in the combined year over year table.  For your reference, here are the Bundesliga top 7 club standings over the past four seasons:

Club

Points Wins Draw Losses For

Against

Bayern 399 120 29 21 422 134
Dortmund 350 105 35 30 362 169
Leverkusen 307 88 43 39 306 206
Schalke 228 85 33 52 286 212
‘Gladbach 239 64 47 59 239 224
Mainz 239 65 44 61 229 230
Wolfsburg 233 65 38 67 269 285

As you can see in the table above, Mainz are only 6th due to a worse goals for/against record than Borussia Mönchengladbach and are ahead of big spending Wolfsburg and the traditionally large clubs such as Hamburg, Werder Bremen, and Stuttgart.  In addition to this table, Mainz under Tuchel have never for even 1 day occupied any of the relegation spots, which Heidel felt was a remarkable feat for a small club like Mainz.

It is no wonder that when Tuchel tendered his resignation, the club was stunned.  Heidel himself said that the manager is the most important part of the team, remarking that Tuchel especially was able to get the most out of what most would call an average team.  It is also mentioned in the article that the club, provided Tuchel got them into Europe – which he did – was going to provide Tuchel with the resources necessary to get them into the group stage; an achievement that for a team like Mainz would prove to be, in a relative sense, quite lucrative.  Unfortunately, things didn’t quite pan out that way.

In the same 11freunde piece, Heidel foreshadows Tuchel’s departure, saying that he wouldn’t be worried if the manager left.  After all, Jürgen Klopp left as well and Mainz managed to pull through it, and even improving themselves in the process.  Heidel did, however, have some cautionary words for Tuchel, cautioning his former managing that moving to a bigger club will bring the attention and pressure to succeed and that there will always be eyes upon him, especially internally, implying that at Mainz he could have nearly full autonomy to run the team as he liked.

It is still a mystery as to why Thomas Tuchel left the club.  Perhaps, much like Pep Guardiola did with Bayern, Tuchel is spending a year away from football in order to land a prime job when one becomes available.  Perhaps he felt that he’s done really all he can with Mainz and is seeking a new challenge for himself.  Whatever the reason, fans of the Bundesliga can only hope that we’re graced with Herr Tuchel’s presence sometime soon.


[i] http://www.bundesliga.com/en/liga/news/2013/0000294912.php

[ii] http://www.spox.com/de/sport/fussball/bundesliga/0909/Artikel/thomas-tuchel-hermann-badstuber-fsv-mainz-05.html

[iii] http://spielverlagerung.de/2011/09/05/thomas-tuchel-alles-andere-als-bequem/

[iv] http://www.11freunde.de/interview/mainz-manager-christian-heidel-ueber-tuchel-hoeness-und-underdogs

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Born in Toronto, Adrian is a first generation Canadian by way of Bavaria. A lifelong supporter of FC Bayern, his first ever exposure to the club was the 1999 Champions League Final, a true baptism of fire. Follow @AdrianSertl

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