Michael Walker: Tuchel’s courage to be simple marks him out among his peers

The German coach may have found the perfect club for his philosophy at Chelsea

 Thomas Tuchel changed Chelsea from back-foot to front-foot at Tottenham and they went on to win 3-0. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

Thomas Tuchel changed Chelsea from back-foot to front-foot at Tottenham and they went on to win 3-0. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

 

Belfast’s contribution to Germany’s Euro 96 victory is often overlooked. It’s unforgivable. It was at the Danny Blanchflower playing fields and on other pitches in the city where the Germans prepared for the tournament. Sometimes media would be invited along and on one occasion we could watch Germany’s strikers practice shooting. The task was to hit small nets placed beside the goalposts – nets within nets. Hit the bottom corner.

Jürgen Klinsmann and colleagues performed this with gusto and skill and when Germany played the Czech Republic in their opening game in Manchester, the two goals they won by from Christian Ziege and Andy Möller were shots that hit the bottom corner. Practice, practice, practice.

Klinsmann was 31 at Euro 96 and 90 caps in. Ziege was 24 and playing for Bayern Munich. Möller was 28, on his way to 29 goals in 85 caps. These were seasoned professionals who had hit those bottom corners for years, but in training they did it again and again.

The concept of continual practice and the image of those German bottom-corner nets returned when reading the new English language edition of a book on Thomas Tuchel by Daniel Meuren and Tobias Schachter. It is called Rulebreaker (Biteback Publishing).

The book touches on some columns Tuchel wrote at Euro 2012, one of which focused on where strikers score – “I always use the term ‘small net’,” Tuchel writes. “This refers to the side of the goal net. That’s where the ball is supposed to go. I picked up this term during my coaching training . . . the important thing here is that precision takes precedence over sharpness. At the highest levels of performance, such as at a European Championship, players hit this ‘small net’ remarkably often.”

The influence of Germany’s coaching culture was obvious. Still, it was the observation of a details man, a meticulous man. This increasingly is our perception of Tuchel, that he possesses the sort of attentiveness others lack. Moreover, he seems to be a more expansive personality than the taut character at Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain. A rising force.

Last Sunday’s 3-0 victory at Tottenham, secured by a second-half display radically more coherent and powerful than the first, took Chelsea to the top of the Premier League and Tuchel to a new level of appreciation. How he feels about the latter is another matter.

Rulebreaker covers both elements – the coaching and the person – and due to the fact Tuchel succeeded Jürgen Klopp at both Mainz and Borussia Dortmund, the comparison is always there. Perhaps Tuchel’s unease with the book, which he has stated, stems from this.

Despite his success at Borussia Dortmund, Thomas Tuchel’s failure to completely buy in to the club meant he was never truly loved by the supporters. Photograph: Getty Images
Despite his success at Borussia Dortmund, Thomas Tuchel’s failure to completely buy in to the club meant he was never truly loved by the supporters. Photograph: Getty Images

“It’s not the ‘what’, it’s the ‘how’,” is a phrase he uses of match analysis, and its shortcomings. An example might be a back three of Andreas Christensen, 37-year-old Thiago Silva and Antonio Rüdiger and, superficially, what an unconvincing trio that is. How Tuchel has turned them into a defence yet to concede from open play in the league is the interesting bit.

Another example would be how Tuchel changed Chelsea from back-foot to front-foot at Tottenham. Introducing N’Golo Kante at half-time was viewed as a masterstroke; it could easily have been argued the failure to start Kante was an error. Analysis of ‘how’ does not have to be complimentary.

Cesar Azpilicueta (some player) said Tuchel had been “not happy” at half-time and if motivational words were used in the dressingroom the good news for Tuchel is how his players responded. Scoring three in the second half brought validation all round.

Winning over players is key to a coach’s future, particularly at a club like Chelsea. Winning over the public is key at a club like Dortmund and the book suggests how Tuchel was inhibited by his unwillingness to embrace the club as a whole, Yellow Wall and all. His departure was not mourned, nor was it in Mainz, where Tuchel placed enormous emphasis on the basics – clean striking of the ball, accuracy of passes – rather than overall club strategy.

He was taking over from Klopp but his head was in Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, where Mainz had their midwinter break in 2010-11 – beside Camp Nou. Drill after Tuchel drill stressed passing and control to experienced, established professionals. As Tuchel said: “Even Roger Federer has to practise his serve and groundstrokes every day.”

It is explained that Tuchel did not expect “mindless repetition” of passing, rather he would create scenarios in tight spaces where the repetition was constant but not repetitive. This was designed to bring in-game readiness. Jan Kirchhoff, later of Sunderland, says the patterns of training led to him understanding the rhythm of play better – “short, short, long” – while Andreas Ivanschitz says: “The beginning of everything is the simple but good pass. I’ve never seen a coach have the courage to be simple.”

It would make a great motto: ‘The courage to be simple’.

The aim of training was to make it seem easier to score in matches than in sessions. His coaching was hard enough for two senior players at Mainz to ask Tuchel to tone it down.

Just turned 48, Tuchel is undergoing re-examination due to the dramatic impact he has had at Chelsea in his eight months at Stamford Bridge. In that time Chelsea have become champions of Europe, reached an FA Cup final and have begun this season with such assurance they are now favourites to win the Premier League. It is a title Chelsea have not held since 2017.

Today Chelsea host Manchester City. At the end of May Chelsea finished 19 points behind City in the league. The former’s season had started with Frank Lampard in charge and Chelsea were eighth when Lampard was removed. Today Chelsea will move six points ahead of City if Stamford Bridge stages a home win. A 25-point turnaround can be further evidence that Tuchel’s team are on the up.

There will always be mixed emotions regarding modern Chelsea, Abramovich Chelsea, particularly in the week of another rigged Russian election. What cannot be overlooked is how impressive they are, how slick they have become under Tuchel.

Of course, acquiring Romelu Lukaku for €100 million is hardly an act of transfer market guile but then neither was Liverpool’s purchase of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson for a combined €160 million or so.

What both clubs’ transfers did though was address an issue within the existing team that would enable the rest of the squad to soar. Both have. Two excellent German coaches who know the score are in charge. Guardiola faces Tuchel today, Klopp next Sunday. Big fish, big fixtures, small nets.

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