Paul Gardner once said that “to the spiritually inclined, it (football) is a religion.”
Whilst this may be true, and many do travel to church on a Saturday afternoon, one of the crucial differences is that in football we are constantly searching for a new God. Innumerable players have been labelled as the new Maradona or the new George Best, only to fall short of our impossibly high standards.
To a lesser extent, this is also done with managers. Mark Hughes, David Moyes, hell even Paul Ince have all been labelled as the new Alex Ferguson. However, whereas we are very quick to label foreign players, almost as a means to rationalise their ability, as a rule we do not do the same with managers from abroad. Who is the new Mourinho? The answer may lie on the banks of the Rhine.
If you were asked to name the next three superstars of German football, players would be chosen. It is predictable that the response would be Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller and Marko Marin perhaps. But there is a new man in town. And his name is Thomas Tuchel, the 37 year old coach of FSV Mainz 05.
On Saturday, Mainz went into their game with champions Bayern Munich having won their first five Bundesliga games, beating Stuttgart, Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg on the way. But this was Bayern. In the Allianz Arena. This was setting the record straight. Parity would be restored. Mainz would be put in their place.
Except that it didn’t quite happen like that. Mainz outplayed Munich, thoroughly deserving a 2-1 win sealed by Hungarian striker Adam Szalai.
There are many things that make this a ‘football fairytale’. They hail from a town with the same population as Dudley. Their four strikers have an average age of 22. Their squad includes ex-Barnsley goalkeeper Heinz Muller. But these tend to pail into insignificance when looking at the part the coach, Tuchel, has played.
Tuchel was a promising central defender whose career was cruelly ended at only 24 through a degenerative knee injury. Falling out of love with the game, he worked in a bar and completed a degree in economic studies.
Three years later, he regained the bug for the game. Rather than attempting to get a senior job straight away (Alan Shearer take note?), he instead chose to work with Stuttgart’s under-14 team. Crucially, Tuchel made a conscious decision that he could not simply learn to be a manager through doing his coaching badges. Instead he needed to submerge himself in all levels of the game, picking up knowledge and wisdom along this path.
By 2007 he had become Mainz’s under-19 manager, and had won the league. On 3rd August 2009, he got the top job, a week into the new season.
Mainz were a club that had just gained promotion to Die Bundesliga, and had a reputation as a Top 25 club (the German equivalent of a yo-yo team, see West Brom). Remarkably, Tuchel gained plaudits as he led the club to ninth in the league in his first season. This season, the start has been breathtaking.
This is not to say that Mainz do not have good players. They were able to spend £1.1million on Austrian playmaker Andreas Ivanschitz, and brought in four other players, but these were all for under the million pound mark. They have the captain of the German under-21s Lewis Holtby (who has stated he may want to play for England) and Andre Schurrle who will move to Bayer Leverkusen for £7million next summer.
But it is Tuchel who is the star, and his vision is very much in the Mourinho mould, if not his personality. Players must smile and look each other in the face and say good morning before training. There is a first name policy throughout the club. But there is more than this.
Tuchel is a perfectionist, self-confessing to working fourteen hour days through studying videos and attending matches. He watches training sessions from afar, considering minute changes that he believes will make the 1-2% difference and give his team the advantage. A quote, taken after the fifth win of the season, reinforces his message: “A start like this is perfectly possible if you play to your strengths and then enjoy the rub of the green too, even for a club like Mainz.”
Attracting talented young players through his reputation as a schoolteacher and nurturer of talent, Tuchel is also not afraid to chop and change his squad on a game by game basis, although somehow not appearing as a Ranieri-style tinkerman. One statistic (admittedly read elsewhere) states that last season only four outfield players started more than 75% of league games. This season, out of 360 minutes of playing time, 17 players have played over 150 minutes.
Football rewards innovation, and always has done. The Cruyff turn, the stepover, the 442 formation, the use of genuine wingers; all of these were progressions from coaches that allowed for change within their own psyche.
Thomas Tuchel has blended a genuine fluidity with the solid foundations of obsession. This may not seem to every reader as anything from leftfield. But when this is combined with an encyclopaedic knowledge of schooling young talent and the revitalising aspect of new age thinking, it has produced a seemingly magic combination.
FSV Mainz will probably not win the Bundesliga. In five years time you might struggle to remember their name. But you just might remember Thomas Tuchel’s.