Thomas Tuchel: inside the mind of an obsessive with the winning touch

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Christian Heidel laughs as he remembers a story that sums up Thomas Tuchel’s obsessive attention to detail. “We were in a training camp in Austria and had a match against Olympiakos,” Mainz’s sporting director says. “Thomas was looking closely at the lawn. He was measuring the height, sniffing the grass. He was so thrilled about this pitch that he wanted me to transfer the groundsman to Mainz. The next day the groundsman called me and said: ‘I heard that we’re going to have some talks about a contract.’ The deal didn’t happen but it shows what a perfectionist he is.”

Heidel, who gave Tuchel his break when he put him in charge of Mainz’s first team in 2009, is not the first person to marvel at the Chelsea manager’s quest for perfection. Hans Komm, who taught PE at the German’s Simpert-Kraemer high school, remembers a gifted sportsman who possessed a surprisingly bright tactical mind for a teenager.

Related: Édouard Mendy’s remarkable road from outcast to Chelsea’s No 1

“You could see it when he swapped the players on his team around during a volleyball lesson in order to win,” Komm says. “He showed great discipline when there was an important goal to achieve. I never saw him drink alcohol. He was very friendly. But he sometimes talked to his friends in the last row or had to be told off when he juggled the volleyball with his foot.”

Tuchel, who grew up in the small Bavarian town of Krumbach, was the best footballer in his class and helped his team win the German Schools Championship in Berlin in 1987. He starred for TSV Krumbach and appeared to be on the right path after joining FC Augsburg in 1988.

Yet difficulties were on the way. A slow but intelligent defender, Tuchel was released by Augsburg in 1992 and struggled at Stuttgart Kickers. He joined SSV Ulm in 1994 and the picture briefly looked rosy when the third-tier side appointed Ralf Rangnick as manager three years later.

Rangnick, described as the father of modern German football, opened Tuchel’s eyes to positional play. Yet when Ulm were promoted to Bundesliga 2 in 1998, Tuchel’s joy was limited by a chronic knee injury that forced him to retire at the age of 25.

The man who leads Chelsea into the Champions League final against Manchester City on Saturday had to adjust his ambitions, studying for a business administration degree and working as a barman in Stuttgart.

It was never going to last. Heidel describes Tuchel as a “footballaholic” and says he knows no one with a better understanding of the game. Andreas Rettig, Augsburg’s sporting director when Tuchel became their Under-19s coach in 2005, talks of a demanding individual “100% convinced” in his ideas.

“He thinks about football 24-7,” Heidel says. “Every training has to be perfect. He plays the game in his head beforehand. He needs everything to go according to plan, especially tactical discipline – where the players are standing, where they have to go. This makes it very hard to play against teams coached by Thomas.”

Thomas Tuchel at training with Mainz in 2009.
Thomas Tuchel with Mainz in 2009. ‘Every training has to be perfect,’ a former colleague says. Photograph: Frederik von Erichsen/EPA

Tuchel was offered a way back into football when Rangnick, who had become Stuttgart’s manager, asked him to manage the Under-15s. “He was the first coach I had at a professional club,” Andreas Beck, the former Germany international, says. “It was another level.”

Beck is not surprised when he sees Tuchel erupt during Chelsea’s games. Playing for the 47-year-old can be exhausting and working with him difficult. Before arriving at Chelsea in January, Tuchel was known for his combustibility. He made few friends when he managed Borussia Dortmund from 2015 to 2017 and although he was successful at Paris Saint-Germain, winning a domestic treble last season, he was fired on Christmas Eve after falling out with Leonardo, the sporting director, over transfer policy.

“It’s important for Thomas to be part of all the decisions,” Heidel says. “He’s not the type of coach where you can give him 10 to 12 players and say: ‘Roll with that.’ Everybody is lucky that he usually wins more games than he loses. If there is a loss, it’s almost like physical pain. He’s very emotional. He can blow up at players because he’s so eager to win. But he’s also someone who will hug them afterwards.”

Thomas Tuchel celebrates with Andreas Christensen after Chelsea reached the Champions League final.
Thomas Tuchel celebrates with Andreas Christensen after Chelsea reached the Champions League final. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

Although Heidel says there were some awkward moments when Tuchel reached the end of the road at Mainz in 2014, the pair are on good terms. “Thomas is a good guy, believe me,” Beck says.

Tuchel, who was mentored by the late Hermann Badstuber, coached Beck again after moving to Stuttgart’s Under-19s in 2004. “He built a very tight relationship with the players,” Beck says. “It felt like not just a player-coach relationship. We were like brothers. Other players felt it – Mario Gómez, Sami Khedira, Adam Szalai.

“He appreciates people who are willing to suffer. Then he feeds you with information and energy. You don’t get sweets from him just because you are nice. You have to do something for compliments. He once said: ‘The moment I don’t criticise you, you know something is wrong.’”

Although Tuchel led Stuttgart to the Under-19 title in 2005, the club tired of his personality and chose not to renew his contract, opening the door for Augsburg to hire him. “He was clever enough to say: ‘I will do this for poor money, but you have to support me in my education as a coach,’” Rettig says. “He did not have the full Uefa licence. We made an agreement. It was six and a half months in Cologne. It was very demanding on him, but he wanted to invest in his education.”

Tuchel was taught by Erich Rutemöller, the former head of training for aspiring coaches at the German Football Association. “He understood the science of training, sports medicine, physiology and psychology,” Rutemöller says. “He was already a very good student. He was pretty quiet. He was watching and listening. And he was smart. He knew what to do and how to get along with different participants. But he was not the big guy in the lectures.”

Yet Tuchel was making his presence felt at Augsburg. “He had problems with referees,” Rettig says. “After we got penalties for his behaviour from the Bavarian Football Association, I told him he had to pay the fines himself. He said: ‘OK, I am responsible for my behaviour.’ It was not a question of money for him. It was a question of ambition. He wanted to win. He did not think about saving a few Euros by being calmer.”

Tuchel wanted to learn. “When I was at Hoffenheim with Rangnick, Thomas invited me over to Augsburg,” Beck says. “He asked for information about Rangnick. He wanted to know all about our innovations.”

An identity was forming. Tuchel was promoted to first-team coach of Augsburg II and played dashing football. Yet Rettig sensed frustration. “At this level there was a gap between his ideas and the quality of the players,” he says.

Keen for a new challenge, Tuchel became Mainz’s Under-19s coach in 2008. Heidel, who had seen Jürgen Klopp inspire Mainz before joining Dortmund, had never met such an interesting coach. He took note when Mainz won the Under-19 title in Tuchel’s first season, beating Dortmund in the decisive game. “I watched with Jürgen,” Heidel says. “After Jürgen said: ‘There were 10 better players for Dortmund but they lost against one better team’.”

Heidel gambled, asking his 35-year-old novice to become Mainz’s manager at the start of the 2009-10 season. Tuchel was shocked. Mainz had just won promotion to the Bundesliga but his impact was instant. His team took the breath away: tactically flexible, fast and organised. “You felt stressed because of their players,” Beck says. “You didn’t know how to play against them. They were so sharp. You could not guess which team would play. They always had a new plan.”

Tuchel, who inspired Andre Schürrle and Lewis Holtby at Mainz, was an innovator. He has cut the corners off the training pitch to improve passing and movement. He decided that players would stop grappling opponents if they held tennis balls.

It is no wonder that Tuchel, who has two young daughters with his wife, Sissi, is known as a football professor. Mainz were a small club but caused a sensation by winning at Bayern Munich in September 2010. “For years I used it in my course as an example of tactical thinking,” Rutemöller says. “It was a kind of 4-3-1-2 and it was very interesting. He had a plan in offence and defence.”

Mainz punched above their weight, qualifying for the Europa League in 2011, and beat Bayern again later that year. Tuchel’s staff scoured the press and stumbled upon a tactics blog, Spielverlagerung. Two of the young bloggers were Rene Maric, now the assistant manager at Borussia Mönchengladbach, and Martin Rafelt, recently assistant manager at Hajduk Split. They were excited when Tuchel’s video analyst, Benjamin Weber, invited them for a meeting with Mainz’s manager. Maric and Rafelt were asked to provide occasional scouting reports on Mainz’s opponents.

“Thomas was very open,” Rafelt says. “He was interested in us. He wanted us to write down any ideas we had about how to improve football. He was saying it can be crazy or stupid – put down everything.

“They asked about an article I wrote about Swansea. This was Swansea’s first season in the Premier League and they beat Man City. The article was about winning by playing as an inferior team. Mainz were still very counterattack-focused. For them it was interesting that they were inferior but could still do something with possession. Thomas is curious and wants to find things he doesn’t understand.”

Mainz became one of the few teams capable of disrupting Pep Guardiola’s Bayern. “We were once on the bus and there was a documentary about Guardiola,” Heidel says. “They showed a map that looked like some sort of knitting pattern. But it was a pass pattern of Guardiola’s players and Thomas studied it for two hours. He was obsessed with learning this pattern.”

Tuchel needed more. He left Mainz for a sabbatical seven years ago, during which he had intense tactical chat with Guardiola over dinner in a Munich restaurant. A friendship blossomed and Tuchel’s rivalry with Bayern grew when he joined Dortmund, who needed a fresh outlook following Klopp’s exit in 2015. Tuchel was an energising presence and Dortmund played scintillating football during his first season, making Guardiola work hard for his last title at Bayern before joining City.

Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola before Borussia Dortmund’s game against Bayern Munich in March 2016.
Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola before Borussia Dortmund’s game against Bayern Munich in March 2016. Photograph: Boris Streubel/Getty Images

Yet it would not last. Compared with Klopp, Tuchel seemed remote. Tensions with the hierarchy grew. Dortmund were unable to keep their best players and Tuchel failed to hide his frustration, tiring his players. His mood darkened and it hardly helped when a man named Sergei Wenergold tried to blow up Borussia Dortmund’s team bus before a Champions League quarter-final against Monaco in April 2017.

Relations with the board became more strained after the attack and victory over Wolfsburg in the DFB Pokal final was not enough to prevent Tuchel’s departure at the end of his second season. Hans-Joachim Watzke, Dortmund’s chief executive, has since called the manager “a difficult person”.

“Thomas has a very funny side,” Beck says. “He is a family man and he has a warm side. He is very intelligent. But when you have something very warm inside you, you have something very cold too. You need both sides.”

Tuchel, who turned down Bayern before joining PSG in 2018, knows how to connect with people. He motivated Neymar and Kylian Mbappé in Paris. With those two on board, PSG reached the Champions League final last season before losing to Bayern.

PSG’s loss has been Chelsea’s gain. Since replacing Frank Lampard, Tuchel has impressed with his warmth and tactical acumen. He has turned Chelsea into a cohesive unit and has carried them to within 90 minutes of greatness, although victory over City will depend on Tuchel deciphering Guardiola’s passing patterns. He will need the perfect plan.

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