How Thomas Tuchel turned Borussia Dortmund around in six weeks
After Borussia Dortmund pulverised Borussia Mönchengladbach 4-0 on the opening day of the Bundesliga season, even the measured, pragmatic Mats Hummels was struggling to contain his excitement.
“It’s only been six weeks,” the newly appointed captain told ZDF after the match, “but it’s going very well.”
You can say that again, Mats. Fast-forward to late September and Tuchel’s team are flying. The comprehensive 3-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen in Sunday’s late game stretched the club record winning streak to 11 in all competitions, with Dortmund having scored at least twice in all of those games.
By the end of August, Tuchel had achieved the best-ever Bundesliga start of any incoming Dortmund coach. After a difficult end to Jürgen Klopp’s incredible reign, BVB are having fun again, and it's a delight to watch.
Aubameyang heads home against Gladbach
The whole club has regrouped, and the season’s excellent start is a testament to good planning. It doesn't feel like there’s been a revolution in Westphalia, and there’s been no dramatic clearout and accompanying slamming of doors – but for the first time in a couple of transfer windows, Dortmund have done what’s needed to be done stealthily and efficiently.
BVB under Tuchel
The ins and outs have been significant. Goalkeeper Roman Bürki and young midfielder Julian Weigl were low-key arrivals who have both been influential already. On the other side of the coin, club legends Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kevin Grosskreutz were gently but firmly moved on, decisions that hurt but were the best thing for player and club in both cases.
Tuchel – as he has always been at pains to point out – is a very different personality to Klopp, and is far less extrovert in interviews. He is polite to a fault, and was extremely gracious in praising the “outstanding foundations” left to him by his predecessor when speaking to Sky Germany after that dazzling opening-day showing against Gladbach – even if it was clear at that early stage that the difference between this season’s team and that of the last campaign is like night and day.
Yet as letting both Blaszczykowski and Grosskreutz proved, Tuchel has a ruthless side. Perhaps aided by coming from outside, the new man has no hierarchies or sense of obligation or favour
Yet as letting both Blaszczykowski and Grosskreutz proved, Tuchel has a ruthless side. Perhaps aided by coming from outside, the new man has no hierarchies, sense of obligation or favour.
Gonzalo Castro, the headline (and certainly the most expensive) signing of the summer, arrived from Leverkusen with experience, a reputation and a price tag. He has had to take a back seat to Weigl who, having started the season still a teenager and without having played a top-flight match, has wrested himself a starting place on merit. Other tough decisions have included leaving out Weidenfeller in favour of Bürki. That the camp has remained happy speaks of Tuchel instilling a genuine team ethic.
Kicker’s Thomas Hennecke wrote a piece detailing nine ways (because the club were founded in 1909) in which Tuchel had improved the environment around the team. The first one was fairly unambiguous. “The team is the star,” wrote Hennecke. “Not the coach.” Even before Dortmund imploded last season, there was private disquiet among some figures at the club that Klopp’s profile might be overshadowing his work. The idea of the coach taking his eye off the ball is worth taking with a pinch of salt. After all, Klopp’s extensive media work before he arrived at Dortmund didn’t stop the club hiring him in the first place or, of course, prevent the Stuttgart native from taking BVB to hitherto unimaginable successes.
That he had become the face of Dortmund was undeniable. That face had become haggard and drawn by midway through last season. The counter-attacking style of Klopp’s team had thrilled Europe during the run to the 2013 Champions League Final.
Under Tuchel, there’s another approach – and a plan C, D and E. His Dortmund know when to press and when to sit off, when to go for the jugular and when to keep possession
By last season, it was plain that experiments to find a plan B had failed – so while Dortmund could still mix it with Arsenal and Galatasaray in continental competition, they were frustrated (and beaten) by modest opposition including Hamburg and Hannover back at Signal Iduna Park.
Under Tuchel, there’s another approach – and a plan C, D and E. His Dortmund know when to press and when to sit off, when to go for the jugular and when to keep possession and kill the pace of the game, to recuperate. They can probe and pick locked defences too, which wasn’t the case last season.
When Marco Reus was missing last term, it felt like Dortmund had no ideas. On Sunday, they could afford to keep him as an unused substitute as he returned from a toe injury.
Mkhitaryan stabs home a Dortmund counter-attack in their first game
Fitness and form
The stunning form of Henrikh Mkhitaryan has helped hugely (the Armenian has already scored as many goals as in the whole of last season, and assisted only one fewer). The sparkle of Mkhitaryan and Shinji Kagawa has been representative of how Tuchel has got the best out of players that seemed like duff signings under Klopp. The now ex-boss could well be a great coach of his next club, be it Liverpool, Bayern or whoever else, but he had stopped being that for Dortmund. The endless cycle of repeated mistakes just said the players had stopped listening. When the usually discreet sporting director Michael Zorc broke cover to express his exasperation towards the back end of last season about the amount of early goals Dortmund were conceding, it sounded like a straw breaking a camel’s back.
Fitness may well be an issue. Klopp’s side were never as dynamic after the exit of coach Oliver Bartlett – now employed at Leverkusen, another team fond of gegenpressing, having worked with head coach Roger Schmidt at Red Bull Salzburg. The early signs are that Tuchel’s appointment of Rainer Schrey, who he worked with to good effect at Mainz, has already sharpened up the Dortmund squad.
It’s early days, of course. Dortmund also won the first five league fixtures of 2013/14, but as the astute Hummels pointed out after Sunday’s game, it didn't mean much come the final reckoning. A ruinous November (in which they suffered a humbling 3-0 home defeat to Bayern) and December undid much of that good work, and they ultimately finished the campaign 19 points adrift of Pep Guardiola’s champions.
After Wednesday's visit to currently winless Hoffenheim and Sunday’s home fixture with promoted Darmstadt, a meeting with Bayern at the Allianz Arena on the first weekend of October looms large. That, evidently, will be the acid test. For now, Yellow Wall regulars and interested neutrals alike can just enjoy having the old Dortmund back.