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Can Thomas Tuchel Return Borussia Dortmund to the Champions League?

Andy Brassell@@andybrassellFeatured ColumnistAugust 11, 2015

New Borussia Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel (right) with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who is starting to show his best under the new boss
New Borussia Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel (right) with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who is starting to show his best under the new bossMartin Meissner/Associated Press

It always seemed like Thomas Tuchel would be a perfect fit for Borussia Dortmund when the head coach vacancy finally arose. It’s partly his youth, partly his intensity—although expressed in a very different way to his predecessor, Jurgen Klopp—and, of course, the fact that he had already followed in Klopp’s footsteps at Mainz.

Tuchel and Klopp’s shared former club made light of this connection themselves in the below tweet, posted shortly after the former’s appointment. Mainz (albeit with a bit of a cheeky wink) referred to themselves as the place where Dortmund coaches are forged, with mock-ups of current boss Martin Schmidt and under-23 coach Sandro Wagner in BVB tracksuits, as the next in line.

1. FSV Mainz 05 @1FSVMainz05

#Mainz05 ist die Trainerschmiede des #BVB #Klopp #Tuchel #Bundesliga @BVB 😜😀😎 http://t.co/nNf3TWLP2q

While it’s refreshing to see a club’s official channel show a personality (something, incidentally, that Bundesliga clubs tend to excel in), there’s a serious point in there, too. Tuchel himself has always been keen to distance himself from the prospect of being seen as some sort of Klopp 2.0, but comparisons will inevitably be made in his debut season at Signal Iduna Park.

There is expectation. In a sense, Tuchel is lucky. At any other club, the shadow of Klopp’s body of work might leave a shadow that would be impossible to work under.

Yet the grounded disposition of Dortmund’s hardcore support that allowed Klopp’s poor final season to be put into perspective—against the astonishing title wins of 2011 and 2012 and the run to the 2013 Champions League final—is exactly what will give Tuchel some wiggle room as he gets to grips with his task.

Die Schwarzgelben’s struggles may have been a weekly source of horror and bemusement to European football aficionados outside the local loop but while their performances and results disappointed, there was never a mutiny against Klopp or Hans-Joachim Watzke, the club’s CEO.

The regulars on the imposing Sudtribune remember their beloved club making sustained eye contact with financial ruin back in 2005. To get from there to their high points under Klopp less than a decade later was little short of a miracle. A few poor results and a couple of duff signings were never going to turn Kloppo from a hero to an outcast.

That said, it’s clear that Tuchel does have a clean-up job on his hands. During last season’s DFB-Pokal final, in which Wolfsburg deservedly beat BVB, it was hard to escape the feeling of a shift in power balance. After a bright opening in Berlin, Klopp’s team rarely looked capable of giving his time in charge the fairytale ending that many were hoping for. They looked drained and sloppy, as they had done for much of the campaign.

There’s not the sense that a revolution is necessarily needed, but a very definite evolution is required, to paraphrase Tony Hares in that memorable restaurant scene in I’m Alan Partridge. The early signs for Tuchel are gently promising, with three wins, eight goals scored and none conceded in his opening three competitive matches in charge (there was also a friendly win over Juventus in there for good measure, if that’s your thing).

The quality of the opposition has to be taken into account, of course. Dortmund frequently take more fans on the road than the 7,300 that you need to fill Lavanttal-Arena, the home of modest Wolfsberger, whom BVB eventually obliterated in the Europa League third qualifying round.

Sunday afternoon followed that up with a 2-0 win over third-tier Chemnitzer in the opening round of this season’s Pokal. It was, as captain Mats Hummels told the club’s in-house TV channel (in German) after the game, “a classic cup match.” It was a germane point. There is little to win and everything to lose for top-flight teams in the Pokal’s opening round, positioned before the Bundesliga starts. Just ask Hamburg, dumped out by fourth-tier Carl Zeiss Jena.

Accordingly, it was never comfortable for Dortmund, and they diced with danger on a few occasions when last season’s shortcomings emerged. Chemnitzer’s Tim Danneberg missed a great chance on the half-hour mark after a dreadful mix-up involving Sokratis, and new goalkeeper Roman Burki prevented an equaliser 15 minutes from time with a smart save to deny home captain Anton Fink.

Ilkay Gundogan, pictured right, will have to rediscover his best to retain a place alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Marco Reus
Ilkay Gundogan, pictured right, will have to rediscover his best to retain a place alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Marco ReusMartin Meissner/Associated Press

Eradicating self-destructive bad habits is going to be one of Tuchel’s major challenges, and it is likely to be a gradual process. This is exactly the area in which the new signings can punch their weight. Gonzalo Castro, with his experience and energy, and young Julian Weigl (the teenager has been impressive in pre-season) have already lifted the level of a creaking central midfield.

Tempo is important for Tuchel’s teams, and this pair, playing together or apart, will help to provide it. Their presence also means that Ilkay Gundogan will no longer retain his place by default. If he is to recover his old form, it must happen now.

Burki, the other new arrival, has not yet been confirmed as No. 1 (Tuchel told the club’s official website that a decision between Burki and Roman Weidenfeller will be made “next week”), but his authority is such that it would be a major surprise if he wasn’t.

Even better news is that Henrikh Mkhitaryan is firing. His early season form has been very good, and he set up the opener for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang before scoring the second against Chemnitzer. His relationship with Aubameyang could be set to take off.

The pair, united by extraordinary acceleration, always looked like a natural fit, but only the Gabonese forward has truly impressed at Westfalen since they both arrived in the summer of 2013. Under Tuchel, that might finally be about to change.

The scene at the water break, midway through the second half on Sunday, gave a clue about how the new coach is viewed. An animated Tuchel commanded complete attention from his players. Not a few of them, not some of them, but all of them. By the end of Klopp’s tenure, for all his celebrated charisma, one got the impression that wasn’t necessarily the case.

Aubameyang's decision to extend his contract to 2020 is another sign that Tuchel is quickly gaining respect.

Dortmund needed a change, and now they’ve got it. Returning BVB to the Champions League will not be easy, with intense competition from Wolfsburg, Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen and, of course, big rivals Schalke. Yet already, this Dortmund feels fresh and new. They should be a force to be reckoned with again.

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