First, it was Bayern Munich before Karl-Heinz Rummenigge ruled out the signing. Then it was Arsenal as Arsene Wenger’s eventual replacement. Then, of course, Chelsea are never far behind when it comes to getting attention in the rumor mill. All of this before PSG was declared the current frontrunner to sign Thomas Tuchel as their next manager after the season. Even beyond another nine-figure winger changing sides, Tuchel’s signing will have the biggest impact for a big club looking to gain an extra edge in passing and attacking adrenaline, however short his reign may be.
At age 44, the former Mainz and Borussia Dortmund manager has somehow became an elder statesmen of the German coaching ranks filled with 30-year-old prodigies. He bridged the gap between Jurgen Klopp and Julian Nagelsmann as the most exciting German manager in the Bundesliga. After taking over a Dortmund side influential in their off-ball pressing style in 2015, he changed their approach and implemented a possession-based philosophy centered around then 19-year-old Julian Weigl in midfield. It’s this type of transformation with a foundation in player development that appeals so greatly to any club ready to start its next competing cycle.
And having big pockets to match his ambitions would appeal to Tuchel. While his tactical acumen is without question, a controlling, unforgiving style put him in this year long sabbatical in the first place. He was described as a manager who “does not like players who question things or give their opinions.” He clashed with management, players and even supporters. After the success of his first season at Dortmund, he fell out with team CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke over the transfers of Ilkay Gundogan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mats Hummels that summer.
He then fell out with chief scout Sven Mislintat, currently in charge at Arsenal, specifically over Mislintat’s inability to sign midfielder Oliver Torres as a replacement that summer. The divide between Tuchel and the board was further symbolized by Alexander Isak’s signing in the 2017 winter transfer window, to which Tuchel admitted he had no prior knowledge of the player. Beyond that, he was accused of never connecting with Dortmund supporters or identifying with the club, although Klopp’s energy and charisma would be a difficult act to follow for any manager.
He gained plaudits for defending his team in the wake of a bus bombing before Dortmund’s Champions League quarterfinals match against Monaco, describing how UEFA “completely ignored” his side’s emotional state in postponing the match just one day. Yet this criticism displayed another rift in communication with the club board as Watzke was part of a group responsible for rescheduling the match. Regardless, that warmth did not last. After leaving midfield veteran Nuri Sahin out of the starting lineup of the German Cup final months later, captain Marcel Schmelzer described his shock and said that Tuchel “would have to explain” his decision. Sahin added that his relationship with Tuchel was “professional”. He officially left the club three days after winning the finals 2-1, his only trophy with the club. The sequence encapsulated the Tuchel experience: alienating to almost everyone, yet his side won.
Which explains the eagerness of the top European clubs lining up for his services despite his stubborn personality. Playing a possession oriented 4-3-3 formation, his Dortmund sides combined the pace and aggression of German football with the control and fluidity of La Liga sides, reaching a stylistic peak on par with any club in the world. Weigl, the holding midfielder, dictated tempo in possession. An attacking, improvisational trio of Marco Reus, Shinji Kagawa and Mkhitaryan complemented Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s pace up front. Center back Neven Subotic described the intricate details of possession Tuchel imparted on the side, such as with “which foot do I receive the ball” in order to speed up passing sequences. That 2015 side finished second place in the Bundesliga, ten points behind Bayern Munich.
This is the second of Tuchel’s year-long managerial sabbaticals, the first taking place between Mainz and Dortmund jobs. How a manager spends their time away from the game has become its own myth within football storytelling worlds. Pep Guardiola went unrecognized in New York City for a year after leaving Barcelona, and the relationship between the two is significant. Tuchel studied under Guardiola’s Bayern Munich side during his first sabbatical, both adherents of the positional play philosophy of controlling matches through possession. Guardiola wanted Tuchel to succeed him at Bayern and maintain his style. And Tuchel has been spotted at various Manchester City matches throughout this season.
The Tuchel premise is clear cut: under his direction, a team will win with young, up and coming players with pace and style. He may end up alienating a section of those same players. He will clash with senior figures on the board. His time could end just as quickly as it begins. His influence in player development will last for years.
After going up 1-0 in the first leg of their round of 16 matchup at Real Madrid this season, PSG found themselves in a position increasingly familiar in recent European competitions: on the wrong end of two Ronaldo goals. Marcelo added another goal late, and just like that, PSG and manager Unai Emery were effectively out of the Champions League. After the match, midfielder Adrien Rabiot said that his PSG side “always say the same things, and always get caught out the same way.”
While that comment appeared to be aimed at Emery’s inflexible tactics, the bigger picture is in what Giorgio Chiellini described as a club’s aura in Europe’s biggest competition. It is the specific story the PSG board sought to build with the hiring of Emery and his three consecutive Europa League trophies. With the league in hand, the Champions League was the obsession. Last season, PSG lead Barcelona 4-0 after the first leg of round of 16 matchup. History turned on Emery’s side as they gave up three goals in the final seven minutes in the return leg and lost 6-5 on aggregate. It was the type of spectacular result that Chiellini would say is embedded in a club’s European DNA. And down 3-1 this year to Real Madrid, there was no foundation or history to fight back from.
Yet it is difficult to imagine Tuchel being anything but a success at PSG. It is one of a handful of clubs where his vision could play out without being undercut before its time by transfer moves to balance a budget. He would take over a side loaded with attacking talent in their early to mid 20’s ready to make a leap as individuals and as a team with his structured approach. He already has a ready-made controlling midfielder in Marco Verratti. PSG have the deep pockets and international ambition, with Tuchel the vision to match. All he has to do this time around is get out of his own way.