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Evaluating Four Potential Lucien Favre Replacements

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An Argentine, a Croat, and Two Germans walk into a bar...

Tottenham Hotspur v Bayern Muenchen - Audi Cup 2019 Final
“So Mauricio, when we’re both sacked within the next month, which one of us will BVB hire?”
Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for AUDI

With yet another disappointing result this Friday against Paderborn, Borussia Dortmund manager Lucien Favre’s job is on thin ice. Several outlets have reported that BVB’s upper management is currently holding talks to decide upon a replacement for Favre. Some have even said that, should Dortmund fail to win against Barcelona in midweek, Favre will lose his job. With names of potential successors shooting around the football zeitgeist, I thought I’d take a look at four names in particular. These candidates, Niko Kovac, Mauricio Pochettino, Ralf Rangnick, and Roger Schmidt, were highlighted by an article in Bild am Sonntag. I’m going to do a brief analysis of their managing careers, and then try to determine the likelihood that BVB would appoint each one of them as new their head coach.

Niko Kovac

Eintracht Frankfurt v FC Bayern München - Bundesliga for DFL Photo by Christian Kaspar-Bartke/Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images

This man needs no introduction. BVB fans have gotten to know Niko Kovac very well over the last few years, both from his time at Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayern Munich. He has a very impressive track record in the Bundesliga, winning the DFB Pokal with Eintracht Frankfurt in 2017-18, before winning a domestic double with Bayern Munich last season.

Niko Kovac is a talented manager who plays a simple but effective brand of football. His predecessors at Bayern Munich, Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti, played intricate, possession-based football which suited Bayern’s many talented, ball-playing defenders and midfielders. While such tactics allowed Bayern to shred through lesser opponents in the Bundesliga, they often left Bayern open to counterattacks against high-quality opponents in the Champions League. Kovac brought a much more defensive-minded, direct playing style that focused less on possession and more on lightning-quick, vertical counterattacks along the wings, along with a pressing regimen to ensure that opposing teams don’t become comfortable on the ball. Despite a poor start to the Bundesliga that saw Bayern fall behind Borussia Dortmund in the title race, and rumors that Kovac might lose his job, his Bayern Munich squad pulled through, and with the help of a complete capitulation by Borussia Dortmund, climbed a 9-point deficit and won the title on the final day of the season.

Kovac’s Bayern got off to another poor start this season, losing to Borussia Dortmund in the super cup and dropping points to Hertha and RB Leipzig.

Regarding his firing from Bayern Munich, I think it was undeserved. Yes, Bayern had a series of disappointing results to start the season, but I don’t believe that Kovac was to blame. You see, he had the nerve to bench Thomas Müller. This is apparently a cardinal sin in Munich, because the entire squad (and upper management) threw a fit, and began to play significantly below their talent level. Say what you will about the talent that Bayern’s players possess, but if the manager gets on their bad side, he may as well pack his bags and leave, because they won’t play for a manager they don’t respect. This is, in my opinion, what happened to Kovac. I’m not the only one who holds this opinion: here is Jake Fenner of Bavarian Football Works giving his reaction to Kovac’s sacking:(Link)

So, would Niko Kovac get the job done with Borussia Dortmund? While I don’t think he’s the worse option on this list, I also think that there are better options out there. Even when Kovac had his players’ support, Bayern were still shaky defensively. BVB demonstrated last season how Kovac’s tactics can be carved open effectively. There’s also his conflict with Mats Hummels: irreconcilable differences between the two were reportedly what led to the center back’s return to Dortmund this summer.

Overall, I’m pretty skeptical that this will occur. I’d be ambivalent at best if Kovac did come to Dortmund, but because I don’t think it will happen, I’m not concerned too much.

Mauricio Pochettino

Tottenham Hotspur Training and Press Conference Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Author’s note: Alright, compose yourself, Sean. I know you love this man as if he were your firstborn son, but you have to be objective here.

I should probably preface this by saying that this is almost definitely not going to happen. Pochettino is the hottest commodity on the market right now. There are many big clubs around Europe that are in need of a top-level manager. If struggling clubs like Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich or even Arsenal haven’t already reached out to Pochettino’s agent, then they really are as clueless as they seem.

Famous for his rigorous pressing system, ingrained into his players with reportedly hellish practices, Pochettino is an aggressive, attack-minded manager whose squads can rack up goals by the dozen when on their game. His playing style would be a perfect match for Borussia Dortmund, far from the mechanical, defensive football that we’ve seen under Stöger and Favre. He’s also more than willing to give young players opportunities to thrive on the pitch. I’m sure that players like Zagadou, Balerdi, Sancho, and even youth squad products like Tobias Raschl would thrive under Pochettino.

I won’t pretend that Pochettino is a perfect manager, either. He can definitely be too stubborn. He’s often unwilling to make tactical changes in-game, and often leaves his substitutes until the final ten minutes or so. His playing style is also so rigorous that he needs his players to buy in, or it will quickly fall apart, as Tottenham’s performances this season have demonstrated. These flaws pale in comparison to his successes with Tottenham, and could be said of many other managers, including the other ones listed in this article. I believe that his record at Tottenham over the past few years speaks for itself, and demonstrates that Pochettino is a first-rate manager.

At this point, I should admit that as a Tottenham fan, I am completely biased in favor of Mauricio Pochettino. I love this man. Tottenham were a perennial Europa League competitor before Pochettino arrived, but he through hard work, he brought them to the cusp of English and European glory. While the rest of the “top six” opened up their bank accounts in a manner unprecedented in modern football, Tottenham remained relatively frugal, even as Spurs climbed into Champions League contention. Even without major signings, Pochettino’s Tottenham surpassed the likes of Man United and Arsenal, becoming a staple of the top-four over the past couple seasons. His crowning achievement was taking Tottenham to the Champions League Final last year. Unfortunately, fate (and an absolutely ridiculous Sissoko handball) got in the way, and Spurs went home from Madrid empty-handed.

Yes, he had many quality players at his disposal, like Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, and Toby Alderweireld, but for every Kane there was a Vincent Janssen, for ever Eriksen a Harry Winks (ugh), and for every Alderweireld, a Kevin Wimmer. What Pochettino was able to accomplish with some of the players he had was remarkable. At their height, Tottenham were a joy to watch, and capable of taking down anybody in Europe, from Zidane and Ronaldo’s Real Madrid to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, and even... Lucien Favre’s Borussia Dortmund.

And no, he never won a trophy with Tottenham. Frankly, that’s a ridiculous reason not to hire him. Over the past few years, it’s been an argument exclusively used by hacks like Lee Dixon and Piers Morgan to discredit all of his accomplishments with Tottenham. If four successive top-four appearances, an FA Cup Final, and a Champions League Final (not to mention the beautiful football) aren’t enough to convince you that he’s a great manager, then you need to lower your standards. If you want proof, look at all the Arsenal fans out there who have been mocking his lack of trophies for years, and who are now begging on their hands and knees for him to come lead the Gunners.

Right about now, you’re probably asking, “Sean, was this whole article a contrived excuse for you to write a manifesto about how much you love Pochettino?” To which my response would be: not entirely. While I don’t think it’s likely that Pochettino will come to Borussia Dortmund, I also don’t think it’s impossible. As a former Espanyol man, Pochettino has publicly stated that he would never manage Barcelona, and his demanding coaching style may not play well at Real Madrid. Manchester United are a mess right now, even more so that Tottenham, and he may not want to take up that mantle. Bayern Munich might be content with Hansi Flick for now. Again, I’m not saying it’s likely, but I could see a scenario in which the cards fall right and Pochettino comes to Dortmund.

The biggest obstacle, in my opinion, would be Pochettino’s willingness to move to Germany. He spent years in England coaching at Southampton and Tottenham, but only recently has his English even started to approach fluency. The cultural and language barrier shouldn’t be understated. If I had to envision a club for him to visit next, it would probably be either Real Madrid or Manchester United.

Of the managers on this list, I actually don’t think he’s the least likely. I think the least likely would actually be...

Ralf Rangnick

Rangnick starts bicycle project for children Photo by Jan Woitas/picture alliance via Getty Images

Ralf Rangnick is currently the director of international sport and development for Red Bull GmbH, the conglomerate that owns the various Red Bull subsidiaries in Leipzig, Salzburg, and New York. He has a long, decorated career as a manager. While he has spent the last seven years with Red Bull, he earned his reputation with Hoffenheim, bringing them all the way from the Regionalliga Süd to the Bundesliga in only three years. He had a brief stint at Schalke before joining Red Bull’s Front Office in 2012.

Rangnick has spent two years coaching RB Leipzig in his time with the club. His first was the 2015-16 season, RB Leipzig’s second season in the 2. Bundesliga. Rangnick only stepped into the managerial role when Leipzig’s search for a qualified candidate was unsuccessful. It was a successful season that won RB Leipzig’s promotion to the Bundesliga, but Rangnick still decided to step down in favor of Ralph Hassenhüttl, who Leipzig poached from FC Ingolstadt. Rangnick would step in a few years later with Hassenhüttl’s move to Southampton, coaching Leipzig to 3rd in the Bundesliga during the 2018-19 season. Despite another successful season, he again stepped down, this time for Julian Nagelsmann.

With Rangnick, the question isn’t simply whether he would want to manage Borussia Dortmund: it’s whether he would want to manage at all. Despite his success as head coach of Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, Rangnick has never been particularly enthusiastic about coaching, preferring to run his clubs from the executive suite rather than the touchline. When he’s coached in recent years, it’s only been out of necessity, to give his club time to find the right replacement. He seems happy in his role as director of development for Red Bull GmbH, so the idea that BVB would pry him away so that he could take a position he doesn’t even seem to enjoy would be very far-fetched.

Also, did I mention that he’s coached Schalke not once, but twice? Add in RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim, and you basically have the perfect trifecta of clubs that BVB fans hate. If he ever coaches Bayern, it’ll be enough for a teenage boy band.

Roger Schmidt

2019 CFA Cup - Shandong Luneng v Beijing Guoan Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images

After Friday’s disappointing 3-3 draw against Paderborn, Marco Reus stated in an interview that Borussia Dortmund don’t know how to press anymore. Well, if you want somebody who knows how to press, look no further than Roger Schmidt. If Jürgen Klopp’s BVB ran a full-throttle press, then Roger Schmidt’s Bayer Leverkusen jammed the throttle all the way forward, then ripped it out for good measure.

Schmidt burst onto the Bundesliga footballing, when he moved from Red Bull Salzburg to Bayer Leverkusen to start the 2014-15 season. His pressing system paid off immediately. Literally. In Leverkusen’s season-opener against Borussia Dortmund, Leverkusen’s forwards careened forward off the kickoff, and just nine seconds into the match, Karim Bellarabi found the back of the net. At the time, it was the fastest goal ever scored in Bundesliga history. Dortmund were shocked, the Bundesliga was shocked, and it looked like Schmidt’s Leverkusen would be ready to climb into the Bundesliga’s elite echelon. For a while, Die Werkself hung around the top rung of the league, finishing fourth and third in successive years. They produced some impressive results, too, managing to challenge Pep’s Bayern Munich and Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund on the pitch on several occasions.

Unfortunately for Schmidt, the wheels fell off in 2016-17. As tends to happen with systems that rely on heavy pressing, fatigue began to set in, and Leverkusen began to sacrifice defensive stability for the sake of offense. A series of hidings at the hands of Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund exposed how vulnerable Schmidt’s system was to the right combination of defending and quick counterattacking. When Schmidt couldn’t make necessary adjustments, Leverkusen’s season unraveled, and he was sacked by March.

Of the four candidates on this list, Schmidt would be the safe option. He’s a perfectly-capable but unremarkable and one-dimensional tactician. He has a decent record leading above-average teams to top-four finishes in the Bundesliga. He would probably cost a fraction of the salary that the other three managers on this list would require. He wouldn’t ask too many questions of management regarding salary or transfer policies.

Unfortunately, all these reasons which make him the safest option would also make him the least ambitious choice for the board. It would be S.S.D.D: another example of the Borussia Dortmund board choosing a bland manager simply to avoid ruffling feathers, rather than someone who will take full control and push the club where it needs to go. BVB under Schmidt would play perfectly-acceptable football. They would make top-four every season, make the knockout round of the Champions League, and go deep in the Pokal. In all honestly, he may be exactly what BVB need as an interim manager to right the ship this season. As a permanent solution, though, Schmidt is simply not the answer.

Conclusion

I’m not entirely sure how Bild arrived at these four names. I only see two, Kovac and Schmidt, as realistic options, and neither one would particularly excite me. Of the two, I would prefer Kovac, but unfortunately, his feud with Hummels and connection to Bayern raise some eyebrows regarding the possibility of him coming to Dortmund. That leaves Roger Schmidt, the safe choice. If there’s one thing that has characterized BVB’s management over the past decade, it’s been that they consistently make the safe choice. In which case, get ready for more of the same, because Dortmund won’t be going anywhere under Schmidt.

That being said, if Mauricio Pochettino has any desire to come to Dortmund, Watzke and Zorc should be more than willing to write a blank check to try to snatch him up. He’d be a perfect match for this club’s structure and how we want to play and, well... he’s magic, you know?