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It is a memory that still provokes a smile from Thomas Tuchel’s teacher at the Simpert-Kraemer high school in his home town of Krumbach. Tuchel was studying for the German equivalent of his A-Level in physical education but the rest of the class had decided to head for the pub. “Basically to drink a few beers,” says Hans Komm.
And then there was a knock on the office door. It was Tuchel and he wanted to know if Komm could instead get some footballs out for him to practice with.
“Every other student was drinking a beer at the pub – and he was running around the pitch with a ball,” says Komm. “Thomas was very disciplined. He did not drink alcohol – never throughout his whole time as a student. He was eager, talented and always wanted to win. He was also a little stubborn. He had his own mind and didn’t really always hear other people’s thoughts. He wanted to go down his own path.”
Such drive made him an invaluable part of the school football, handball and volleyball teams. Krumbach is a Bavarian town of only 13,000 people but, inspired by Tuchel, the footballers triumphed against some of the biggest schools in Germany at the 1987 national finals in Berlin.
“Even then, he always had this tactical approach to sport – and would make changes and swap the football or volleyball team around,” says Komm. “He had an independent mind and, when it mattered, he worked hard and seriously. I feel great pride to see what he has achieved.”
Tuchel’s father was a coach at the local SpVgg Krumbach club and, according to their director Jonas Schlosser, “also had high expectations of the players”.
Like many leading managers, however, Tuchel’s playing career was shaped by moments of intense disappointment. He was released from the FC Augsburg academy and then, after playing as a centre-back in the German lower leagues with Stuttgarter Kickers and SSV Ulm, a knee cartilage injury sent him into full-time coaching. He was 25.
An obsession would take hold and there are a myriad of stories illustrating just how deeply he thinks about football.
Andre Schurrle played under Tuchel at Mainz and recalls receiving an unexpected present from his former manager shortly after signing for Chelsea in 2013. It was a book – The Inner Game of Tennis: The Ultimate Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey – which investigates how to train the unconscious mind. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who played under Tuchel at Borussia Dortmund, says that the book described “everything I did wrong” and changed his life.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang calls Tuchel “one of the best coaches I’ve had” but “someone a bit crazy, a little like me”.
He is known to German sports journalists as “The Professor”. “He can talk football for hours and hours but if he thinks an interview is just about getting a headline it can be a disaster,” says Lars Wallrodt, sports editor at Bild. “He can be very charming, but also very tough.”
The pathway to the Stamford Bridge dugout could hardly be more different to Frank Lampard. Tuchel began with the Under-15s team at Stuttgart before winning the German Youth Cup with their Under-19s and becoming academy director at FC Augsburg. He coached the Mainz Under-19 team before being promoted to first-team manager and overseeing promotion, a record Bundesliga finish of fifth and a European campaign. There were also periods spent working in a bar while he completed the compulsory 800 hours to receive the German Pro-Licence qualification.
Only after five years with Mainz did he succeed Jurgen Klopp at Dortmund, where Ben Lyttleton was granted an audience for his book, Edge: Leadership Secrets from Football’s Top Thinkers.
Describing Tuchel as looking “more like an artisanal coffee-shop owner than the most exciting coach of his generation”, he says that he combined technical curiosity with clear ideas about education and man-management. “It’s holistic,” says Lyttleton. Tuchel also explained what can be called the ‘ABC’ scale for identifying the primary motivation of players. The aggressive (a) tends to be the star player who is driven by personal glory. The binding (b) is motivated by the team whereas the curious (c) is most driven simply by maximising their potential. Tuchel seeks a balance of ABCs in his team.
He famously also delivered a talk to German economists entitled ‘Rule-Breaker’ and is always ready to challenge orthodox thinking. Striking training innovations have included rearranging the pitch into a diamond so that forwards improve their diagonal runs, having players train with one eye covered, introducing deliberate mistakes so they learn how to recover and making defenders hold tennis balls to stop them instinctively grabbing opponents.
One big question-mark, however, hangs over Tuchel’s patience with the political machinations that surround any high-profile club.
Wallrodt believes that the problem with Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke stemmed ultimately from a clash between two forceful personalities rather than specific incidents. “It had to go wrong,” he says, “but he learned in Dortmund about what he wants and doesn’t want.”
That was then evident, says Wallrodt, when he turned down an approach by Bayern Munich, a club where former players Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge extracted a vast influence.
Watzke recently described Tuchel as a “difficult person, but a fantastic coach” and tensions also bubbled over at Paris St-Germain before his sacking just before Christmas. He won a domestic treble last season but, after losing in the Champions League final, expressed frustration at the club’s transfer progress. “If he decides to stay, he must decide to respect the choices of the sports management,” replied Leonardo, the sporting director.
Tuchel was gone by Christmas and, according to Wallrodt, he will not last if interventions at Chelsea are deemed excessive. In this, his relationship with director Marina Granovskaia will be crucial. “He is an amazing coach – I think in the ‘Champions League’ with Klopp and Guardiola if they trust him and let him work in peace,” says Wallrodt.
And what will be his objectives? “He is not coming to London for second best.”