A week ago, Tuchel led Dortmund to the DFB Pokal, the club’s first major trophy in 5 years. But, let’s not overreact to the trophy and automatically declare Tuchel’s season a success. The Pokal is a fickle competition with strange turns of luck so we’ll need to cast a wider net.
Tuchel began the season with a team that was coming off an inspiring season, but had lost arguably its 3 best players. The Black and Yellows lost their creator in attack, Mkhitaryan, their engine in midfield, Gundogan, and their rock in defense, Hummels. These departures tempered expectations for the season. After all, clubs that lost less talent have been crippled the next season. BVB in Klopp’s last season after Lewandowski left, or Wolfsburg after de Bruyne’s exit are painful testaments to that. This forced the club to set modest public goals: the Pokal, guaranteed Champions League Football next season, and progression from the Champions League group stage this season.
Dortmund as a team clearly exceeded those expectations but of course not all of that can be directly attributed to Tuchel. Let’s start with the Pokal. Tuchel was often criticized early in the competition for not beating lesser teams more convincingly. Union Berlin and to a lesser extent Hertha certainly come to mind. But those criticisms were myopic and misleading. Union came in having won six of their last seven while Tuchel was choosing from a team without Auba, Puli, Bartra, Schurrle and Reus. Not to mention, he had to rest players for the Revierderby in three days. He astutely compensated by handing season debuts to Larsen and Sahin who both put in magnificent performances. With Hertha, the two teams met when a single point separated them in the Bundesliga table so this game really should’ve been close. And to Tuchel’s credit, he made two decisive substitutions at halftime against the capital club to save the match. Pulisic came on at halftime and assisted a Reus equalizer within two minutes. Finally, let’s not forget some of the brilliant choices Tuchel made to get us through Bayern in the semifinal at the Allianz Arena. Sure, there were a few ridiculously lucky plays like a physics defying block from Sven Bender on the goal line but tactically Tuchel did better than you could reasonably expect. Having BVB press high early in the game was a gutsy and unconventional call that ultimately created an early goal. Then with Dortmund down a goal and Ribery flaming our right flank, Tuchel made another unconventional move by substituting the defensive Durm for Castro in right midfield. It was another stroke of genius that solidified our flank and gave Ousmane Dembele the chances to save the day in the second half. Whether you wanted him fired or not, it’s undeniable that Tuchel’s fingerprints are all over BVB’s Pokal win.
From one tournament to another, let’s put Tuchel’s choices in the Champions League under a microscope. When the team is undefeated and sets a record for goals in the group stage though, it’s hard to say the manager wasn’t doing a good job. But just in case, let’s take a look at BVB’s biggest European games. Chronologically, we’d have to start with Real at the Signal Iduna Park and oh what a game that was! Substitute Andre Schurrle’s 87th minute thumper of an equalizer was exhilarating and assisted by another sub, Christian Pulisic. When two out of three subs are responsible for the Black and Yellows stealing a point from the consecutive European Champions, even the staunchest Tuchel hater has to give credit where credit is due. Some will criticize the now former manager for being too conservative against Sporting and trying to defend a one goal lead, but taken in context it was a smart choice. BVB were already top of the group and Sporting isn’t a pushover who’s offense could just be ignored. Further, Tuchel showed a consistent ability to correct tactical mistakes if the first half went poorly. The second game against Madrid at the Bernabeu is a perfect example. To put it lightly Dortmund were horrific in the first half. After trying to keep possession in the first 45 Tuchel set up his team with a counterattacking style in the second half to overturn a 2-0 deficit away from home. It’s telling then that we scored our first off the counter with Schmelzer bursting down the left side to assist an Auba tap in that was reminiscent of the Klopp era. The game tying, group clinching goal also had Tuchel’s fingerprints all over it. Two subs, made the goal. Emre Mor drove through the midfield with some dribbling wizardry to open up the Spaniards while Reus provided the critical pass for another Auba goal. Tuchel showed an ability not only to succeed between halves but also between legs. Despite an undeserved loss in Lisbon where BVB inexplicably scored zero when xG predicted three goals, he stuck with a 3-4-3 that produced a 4-0 thumping in the second leg. It was a formation that got the most out of Weigl and Castro and allowed Dortmund to suffocate the Portuguese side with possession. Once again, another tournament, another overachievement, and another case of Tuchel’s influence. This of course leaves us with just the Bundesliga to reflect on Tuchel’s performance.
Fans will surely be dissapointed that Die Borussen slipped to a third place finish this year in the league behind Bayern and corporate playtoy Leipzig. But, as is the case with the Pokal and the Champions League most of the criticisms of Tuchel don’t hold up under closer inspection and greater context.
Despite being forced to deal with significant turnover that he personally protested and a lineup filled with college age players Tuchel guided the team to a very strong start to the German season. It was only in October when BVB’s injury list looked like a Champions League starting XI that BVB stuttered. Even in many of Dortmund’s disappointing results Tuchel’s adjustments made a difference and salvaged at least a point. A draw against Ingolstadt of all teams is a great example. Of course giving up three goals to a side that would be relegated is a poor game. But keep in mind Schmelzer and Sokratis were both injured and forced Park (Park!) and Ginter into the starting defense. Down 3-1 Tuchel brought on Passlack as a left back and Pulisic who ended up assisting one and scoring another. More than anything, Tuchel showed an ability to get results against Bayern with a 3-5-2, 5-3-2 hybrid. Even the 4-1 thumping was a misleading scoreline that expected goals predicted to be about 1-1. Throughout Dortmund’s history, a manager that can get results against Bayern has been a manager that can win the league. Especially with Ancellotti, who’s teams have historically been poor domestically, at the helm in Munich, Tuchel’s Dortmund could easily have won a Meisterschale in upcoming seasons. Obviously, Tuchel was far from the perfect manager and the league was where it was most apparent. Throughout the season, BVB was vulnerable to being slow out of the gate and giving up opening goals. We even lost to teams in lower half of the table as a result. Realistically though, Tuchel met the larger expectation for the Bundesliga and offered a tantalizing preview of what could’ve been.
Just looking at the results, it’s clear that Tuchel deserves his reputation as one of the top young managers in Europe. Certainly, a manager is not only responsible for managing the on-field product but also the culture and the transfers. Maybe Tuchel fell out with some veterans in the locker room. Maybe he fell out with scouts and management. All of that though is rumor and conjecture at best. We know for certain that Tuchel’s tactical choices and substitutions often directly resulted in points. Managers that consistently make the difference and have a track record of developing young talent are hard to find. Tuchel wasn’t perfect but he had a great season.