BY LIAM WALK
On May 10th the Dortmund dream was dead, eleven days later it was buried. Mats Hummels was returning home and Bayern reigned supreme in all arenas, taking home the DFB-Pokal on penalties to match their Meisterschale and Supercup gongs. The Pokal final was this brave Dortmund side’s last gasp at glory, a chance to end a brilliant if not entirely glorious era with some star dust. As it was, penalties decided a tepid final, with a ragged BVB eleven and their forlorn captain falling on their own sword deep into the Berlin night.
Robert Lewandowski netted Bayern’s second spot-kick and Mario Gotze wasted away in the stands while Hummels watched on uncomfortably in his black and yellow shirt. Dortmund fans were unsure what sight hurt most. Die Schwarzgelben’s most prodigious talent was either in Bavarian purgatory or paradise, all at the expense of Germany’s most fervent fans. With Hummels’ departure, the grand Dortmund team which had threatened Bayern’s domestic supremacy since the early Klopp years was now at a crossroads. Bayern had chipped away at the Yellow Wall, destroying its foundation, blowing away its ramparts, until all that held it together was the undying passion of its patrons. Tuchel could well have walked away. However, the former Mainz man had a plan.
Two days after Hummels announced his imminent return to Bavaria, Ousmane Dembele decided the Ruhr Valley was the best place to take the next step in his career. It received little media attention, Dortmund fans still up in arms at the conduct of their back-stabbing captain.
Three days before Hummels dropped his bombshell, he was replaced in Dortmund’s league defeat versus Frankfurt by seventeen year old winger Christian Pulisic. He had scored a brace two games previously.
Felix Passlack, 18, sat beside the American on the bench at the Waldstadion. Julian Weigl was rested after starring in Dortmund’s 5-1 thrashing of Wolfsburg.
As Germany lumbered to an unconvincing semi-final defeat at the Euros, Dortmund fans may have caught glimpses of Emre Mor’s brilliant outings for Turkey, or Raphael Guerriero’s upstaging of Ronaldo on dead balls. They likely didn’t think twice, but Tuchel did. By June 16th both were Borussia players.
However, the world didn’t sit up and take note of Dortmund’s resurgence until the following month. Henrikh Mkhitaryan had joined Mourinho’s United side and Dortmund were looking light on players of attacking quality. That was until the prodigal son returned. Bayern had grown so bloated on talent that they could afford to release Mario Gotze, the wayward German messiah. His return to the Westfalenstadion was met with little internal fanfare, but its implications on the world stage were much more far reaching. The next day Andre Schurrle, the man who assisted Gotze at the Maracana two years ago, arrived from Wolfsburg. Neither looked assured of places in the starting XI, Schurrle had spent much of his time under Dieter Hecking as understudy to Daniel Caligiuri, but they represented a formidable injection of star quality into BVB.
Tuchel has himself a side of mavericks, a lethal combination of superstars with a point to prove and young guns with the world at their feet. Marc Bartra is ready to step out of Pique’s shadow, Sebastian Rode to take the reigns of a top-class midfield. This is Tuchel’s side, few echoes of the glorious Klopp years remain, gone along with the hurt of defeats in four major cup finals after 2012.
2016-17 will be a defining year in German football, and Dortmund are brilliantly placed to take full advantage. Schalke and Wolfsburg are in limbo; and while Moenchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen are threats, they lack the sufficient depth to break the Dortmund-Bayern duopoly.
Even Bayern themselves have question marks. Ancelotti is a coach known for his cup exploits, notably in the Champions League, and given the Bavarian’s recent semi-final failings the Italian could focus his resources on the European Cup in the spring. Although Bayern have a reserve of quality that is the envy of most other clubs, senior players Ribery, Rafinha, Lahm, Robben, and Badstuber represent a sizeable aging or injury proned contingent in the first team. Come April, the squad could be stretched thin once again, as they were in 2015 against Barcelona. However, unlike a year ago, Dortmund will be revitalized and nipping at their heels.
Tuchel fields a mixture of 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, all subscribing to his Gegenpressing interpretation. 4-2-3-1 seems to be his preferred mold, especially with this new group of players, although his variant of the tactic is not synonymous with famous Mourinho or Pochettino flavors. Unlike the two England based managers, Tuchel’s sides play in isolated intensity on both sides of the ball. They don’t sit back on defense a la Mourinho or thrive off width in attacking areas like Poch’s Spurs. Instead, Tuchel’s sides press unrelentingly to constrict the pitch for their opponents, and in possession siphon play toward the middle of the field. With the midfield five roving inward to overload the most dangerous area of the pitch, there is little genuine attacking width, except for that which is provided by the fullbacks in spurts. His style focuses on quick transitional play, not sustained pressure or possessional dominance.
Tuchel likes to strike a balance between pragmatism and silk in defense, thus Bartra, a poet if not a hatchet-man, will partner the battle hardened Sokratis with Bender (now principally a defender for Tuchel) and Subotic in reserve. Alongside the Greek and the Spaniard will be two adventurous, if not swashbuckling, fullbacks in Schmelzer and Passlack or Piszczek. Tuchel sets his defenses up to feed more advanced players in possession, and frowns upon line-hugging wingers and fullbacks who play vertical passes. The former Mainz boss famously reshaped some of Dortmund’s training pitches into diamonds to prevent his fullbacks from playing this way. His wide defenders will look to play diagonal balls to feed the two deep-lying central playmakers, likely Rode, Castro, Guerreiro (principally a left-back, but one who Tuchel sees as a potential holding midfielder), Sahin or Weigl.
A 4-2-3-1 in name only, Tuchel’s midfield five will pack-in toward the middle of the pitch and suffocate the opposition’s passing lanes. Behind Aubameyang, Tuchel will likely name a roving three of Reus, Gotze (when match fit), and Dembele. Schurrle, Mor, Kagawa, and Pulisic are formidable reserve options. With Gotze still shedding weight he gained in the Bayern gym to fit the mold of zippy midfield ace, Schurrle or Kagawa could be in for a sustained run in the first team.
With a new identity and a mixture of talent to suit Tuchel’s intense footballing ethos, Dortmund will be a menace to Bayern’s Bundesliga monopoly. And while the Bavarians are imperious, Dortmund’s scars of the last four years have healed. They no longer identify with failure, no longer see the Westfalenstadion as merely another step toward greatness, no longer believe Bayern is more easily joined than vanquished. They are reborn. They are ready.