With the rise of analytics emphasizing reason over gut intuition, Borussia Dortmund’s decision to fire Lucien Favre last weekend came down to emotions. And considering how Favre’s distant, calm mannerisms contrasted the outward passion of one of the most famous supporter groups in world football, it was a surprise that he lasted over two seasons - or that he was even hired in the first place. Borussia Monchengladbach sporting director Max Eberl said that the difference between Favre and archetypal Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp was “apples and pears” in terms of personality. Sporting director Michael Zorc stated that interim manager Edin Terzic would bring “a very necessary emotion to the game” in the meantime. The 38-year-old Terzic played his part, adding that “emotionality” is an essential part of his management approach.
“I was produced by this club,” added Terzic, who began his career with Dortmund in 2010 as a scout under Klopp. The subtext was that the 63-year-old Favre, no matter how tactical, was not “of” Dortmund.
There are underlying ways to measure success outside of trophies. Favre did win the 2019 German Super Cup, a one-off preseason game that technically counts on the resume. And off the field, Favre advanced Dortmund’s role as the go-to club for the best young players in the world to develop before moving on. He created an atmosphere that allowed the club to beat larger clubs for the likes of Erling Haaland, Gio Reyna, and Jude Bellingham. It was a seemingly profitable hack within today’s global branding age. If a club is seeing financial success, what do results matter then?
Of course, we don’t judge managers on their ability to turn a profit on players. That situation presents the paradox of a Dortmund manager. The role treads the line between playing and developing young players for the transfer market, winning the league, and beating Bayern Munich with the understanding that players will be sold - all while creating an emotional connection with supporters. Favre’s dismissal has as much to do with Dortmund’s existential identity as it does with struggles on the field. Reductively, the top Bundesliga sides have their own niche: Bayern are the dominant machine, RB Leipzig the innovators of pressing. Dortmund, then, is the club of feeling and emotions.
But can they have it all? With his patient build-up through short passes and emphasis on possession, Favre is the type of manager that once appealed to us armchair tacticians in the past where the focus was on how a team played with the ball. Yet pressing represents the table stakes for a top club today, much less a side competing in the Bundesliga - much less a club that sees itself as one of Germany’s signature teams. After their 5-1 loss to Stuttgart, Favre’s last match with the club, Marco Reus said that Dortmund didn’t know how to defend. It was an especially cutting critique with the next generation of managers innovating without the ball.
“We always try to play small and small through narrow spaces and have a huge ball-loss rate. If it works, it looks like nice football. But it rarely works. That requires too much skill,” said centerback Mats Hummels following the Stuttgart loss.
In lieu of subtle build-up play and possession comes emotions. An emotional game implies letting go, exchanging controlling matches with the ball for the adventure of going without. Terzic laid out his plans, saying that a team can win a match by either conceding fewer goals or scoring one more goal than an opponent, and that he’s “more for the latter.” It sounds uplifting now considering the base and the lack of expectations from a first-time, interim manager, but there must be some line between heart and recklessness.
For a league that has systemized its coaching process in an academic setting, it is interesting to see how much emphasis is placed upon the emotional intangibles of a manager as opposed to measurable results. But it is these modern, forward-thinking methods that make the Bundesliga what it is today. We usually focus on what we can see, the tactics and spaces that players occupy, though the emotional component adds in another layer of analysis. We may not have the precise words to pinpoint a connection, but we can feel it when we see it, and inuit when the moment is lost.
When Klopp famously likened his football to “rock-and-roll” as compared to Arsene Wenger’s orchestra, we thought the reference was in the frenetic, pressing energy. Dortmund’s focus on regaining this feeling gives Klopp’s idea further context. The emotional element of pressing begets mosh pits; the symphonies of possession inspire more of a distant awe.
We’ll never know whether that lack of emotion actually translated into hard results, but two ideas immediately stick out when considering Favre’s time with the club: the first is how Dortmund were never able to fully take advantage of Bayern’s blip under Niko Kovac and win the league. The second was in how Dortmund never lived up to the pre-match hype during their 1-0 loss to Bayern when the league resumed following lockdown. His sides always got close but could never find that extra variable – a nastiness, a know-how, an emotion – to fully overcome Bayern when it mattered.
Even before the current focus on emotional managers, Favre felt a manager of a different time. Maybe it was his tranquil, background demeanor in a social media world. But we have to take into context where Dortmund was when they hired Favre in the summer of 2018. They had gone through two managers the previous season in an attempt to replace Thomas Tuchel, who had left for PSG. Favre was the peacetime manager. With the club now re-stabilized, there is room for volatility.
Favre’s legacy at Dortmund was of a stabilizing manager who attempted to play attractive football, developed young talent, and almost won. That emphasis on emotional IQ and culture fit feels like a uniquely modern view on management. It only further adds to the importance of relationships, not only between the boardroom, manager, and player, but also between the boardroom, manager, player, and supporter.
There is also a club’s relationship with the past, specifically Klopp, which seems an essential link in Dortmund’s next hire. Current Monchengladbach manager Marco Rose, reportedly rumored as the club’s top candidate, played under Klopp while both were at Mainz. Rose hits all of the proper keywords, saying his philosophy is based on “emotionality, hunger, and being active.”
For now, Terzic said that the move was a chance to go from speaking “in terms of theory” as an assistant to making real-life, hard decisions with consequences as head coach. He is expected to remain in an interim role for the rest of this season, though Hansi Flick proved that there is a path to get the job full-time with results. And you cannot underestimate the eventual return of live supporters. If Favre added the possession during his time with the club, all Terzic has to do is give it its heart.