October 24, 2021

What made Thomas Tuchel Roman’s new man?

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After Frank Lampard’s sacking by Chelsea, what prompted Roman Abramovich to make Thomas Tuchel his 12th permanent manager in less than 18 years?

While it was a Blue Monday for Lampard, Tuchel will take over at Stamford Bridge less than a month after his own sacking as PSG boss, on the back of a fractured relationship with the club’s board and the big spenders sitting third in Ligue 1.

The German has honed a strong CV since getting his first break in management at Mainz, one year after a young Jurgen Klopp had departed for Borussia Dortmund in 2009. Tuchel has since gone on to re-establish Dortmund in the Bundesliga before winning back-to-back Ligue 1 titles with PSG, as well as leading the club to its first Champions League final, albeit during a tenure of mixed fortunes in Paris.

Thomas Tuchel - AP Images
Image: Tuchel led PSG to last season’s Champions League final, where they lost 1-0 to Bayern Munich in August

Tuchel has long dreamt of a move to the Premier League and has nurtured a reputation for being tactically astute and developing players, but could the 47-year-old’s history of fall-outs with his previous clubs’ hierarchies – something already not unusual at Stamford Bridge – be a worry before he even enters the hot seat?

A tactical thinker

Tuchel’s reputation as a student of the game has been growing ever since he took the helm at Mainz more than a decade ago, and with Chelsea lacking a clear identity under Lampard this season, that may well have played a role in attracting Abramovich to his new manager.

In his first club role, he inherited a squad just promoted to the Bundesliga but lacking in technical nous. However, under the young manager’s guidance, and some versatile, adaptable tactical calls, they finished ninth in their first season and twice went on to reach the Europa League qualification spots, before he resigned in 2014 over a lack of transfer funds.

Tuchel succeeded Jurgen Klopp at Mainz before also taking over from him at Dortmund following his resignation in 2015
Image: Tuchel closely followed Jurgen Klopp at Mainz before taking over from him at Dortmund following his resignation in 2015

By that point Tuchel had built his standing in the Bundesliga, aided by his side’s tactical astuteness, including an unusual 5-4-1 formation in his first meeting with Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich where Mainz took a 1-0 half-time lead before eventually succumbing to a 4-1 defeat.

Like Klopp before him, one hallmark of much of Tuchel’s career has been mastering the Gegenpress, deploying a high intensity out of possession and pressing high up the pitch to win the ball back in advanced areas, while generally looking to build with a high tempo and pace in attack.

Not long after taking his role at Mainz, he singled out Guardiola’s Barcelona as an example of a tactical philosophy to follow, saying: “I believe that Barcelona’s outstanding performance is based on the way the whole team with abandon and passion tried to win the ball back after a turnover.”

Even in PSG’s run to the Champions League final last season he showed his continued willingness to adapt, switching to a 4-3-3 to overturn a first-leg deficit against former club Borussia Dortmund in the last 16, after initially setting up to match the German side’s 3-4-3 formation.

“From the very beginning, it was very clear he’s a very tactical coach, someone who likes to experiment a lot and changes the system quite often,” French football expert Jonathan Johnson told Sky Sports News. “That’s both to get to see all the players at his disposal and also find his strongest line-up, and to fit the game plan to win matches.”

Tuchel’s seasons in management

Season Club Position Achievements
2009/10 Mainz 9th
2010/11 Mainz 5th Europa League qualification
2011/12 Mainz 13th
2012/13 Mainz 13th
2013/14 Mainz 7th Europa League qualification
2015/16 Borussia Dortmund 2nd
2016/17 Borussia Dortmund 3rd DFB-Pokal cup winners
2018/19 PSG 1st Ligue 1 champions
Coupe de France runners up
2019/20 PSG 1st Ligue 1 champions
Coupe de France winners
Coupe de la Ligue champions
Champions League runners up

High-profile fall-outs

Where Tuchel’s appointment may raise the most eyebrows among anyone familiar with his – and Chelsea’s – recent past comes from his public spats with his former clubs.

At PSG, tension between Tuchel and director Leonardo was long rumoured in the French press, but bubbled over into the public eye in October 2020 due to the manager’s frustration that captain Thiago Silva, among others, had not been replaced after leaving to join Chelsea. “If it stays like that, we can’t talk about the same goals,” he said when asked about PSG’s ambitions this season. The comment was not well-received.

Neither was it his first outburst aimed at the boardroom. He had openly criticised Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke in 2017 when the club agreed to play their Champions League quarter-final match with Monaco the day after their team bus had been targeted by a bomb. The pair’s relationship remained so strained the press release announcing his sacking several months later went so far as to state the decision was “in no way” related to a “disagreement between two people”.

Given Chelsea’s recent history on the managerial merry-go-round and their own disputes with Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte in recent years, it would be no huge surprise should he add the Stamford Bridge board to his list of fall-outs at some point in his reign.

Developing players

Lampard undoubtedly succeeded in bringing players on during his short tenure at Stamford Bridge, blooding Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Reece James among others as they finished fourth in the Premier League last season.

But after spending more than £200m in the summer on new arrivals, the likes of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz have not adapted to the Premier League in the manner Chelsea fans, nor crucially Abramovich, would have expected.

Timo Werner misses a penalty against Luton
Image: Timo Werner has floundered after a bright start with Chelsea – and missed a penalty in Sunday’s FA Cup win over Luton

In addition to the bonus of bringing in a German compatriot to lead the team, Abramovich will have looked back keenly at Tuchel’s record of developing players in his career to date, with several impressing enough under his stewardship to seal Premier League moves.

Indeed, a young Andre Schurrle, who joined Chelsea in 2013, cut his first-team teeth under Tuchel with Mainz, developing enough for Bayer Leverkusen to snap him up two years before moving to west London.

Shinji Okazaki and Christian Fuchs, who would both leave Mainz to pick up Premier League winners’ medals with Leicester, then followed. Among the rest, Ousmane Dembele remains his most impressive apprentice, joining Barcelona for almost £100m just a season after he had joined Dortmund from Rennes, such was his improvement under Tuchel’s guidance.

“He was always there for me and brought me on a lot,” Dembele later said after his former boss was dismissed by Dortmund two months after his own departure.

“He is a very good coach with whom I had a great time. But that’s how football is, our management decided like this.”

Sky Germany reporter Max Bielefeld told Sky Sports News: “One thing that is maybe the biggest essence of Tuchel in Germany is that he makes players better.

“He did it in Dortmund with Dembele, he was a rising star under him and still today he says he was the most important coach of his career.

“If I look at Chelsea, with Werner and Havertz, they have both flattered to deceive until now, and his task will be to get those players to perform.”

Kylian Mbappe took to social media to thank Tuchel
Image: Kylian Mbappe and Tuchel were reported to have endured a strained relationship towards the end of his tenure

Tuchel’s combative personality has not always won him suitors in the dressing room, however.

While Neymar, still the world’s most expensive player, was described as L’Equipe as “surprised” by his sacking from PSG last month, his relationship with another of the club’s star players, Kylian Mbappe, was reported to have disintegrated in 2020, and the player was left visibly angry after being substituted in a game against Montpellier in February.

Familiar faces

Tuchel’s knowledge of the Bundesliga and familiarity to Werner and Havertz will undoubtedly have proven a plus point for Abramovich in his assessment of choosing Chelsea’s next manager, even though the trio have never worked together before.

But the Chelsea squad does already include some Tuchel alumni, in the form of two important players at both ends of the pitch.

Christian Pulisic played under the incoming boss at Borussia Dortmund, and developed from a fringe youth player into one of the club’s most potent attacking outlets during the two years they worked together, making 55 appearances for the club in that time even before his 20th birthday.

“I’m just very thankful for everything [Tuchel] did for me,” Pulisic said in 2017. “Tuchel always just trusted me and gave me a chance.

Thomas Tuchel gave Christian Pulisic his break in the Borussia Dortmund first team in 2015
Image: Tuchel gave Christian Pulisic his break in the Borussia Dortmund first team in 2015

“Of course he’s given me tips and feedback with what he sees every day in training and stuff like that, small things.”

Silva, who joined Chelsea last summer and has started nine of the Blues’ last 10 Premier League games, was also Tuchel’s captain at PSG – where they both led the club to the Champions League final and back-to-back Ligue 1 trophies.