Everybody knew It was coming.
After a horrific month, normality seemed to have returned to Westphalia, a sumptuous win in the Pokal over Bayern Munich being followed by a crucial victory over Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga. The result effectively secures third place and automatic qualification for the Champions League, with Dortmund fans beginning to look towards another European sojourn under Thomas Tuchel.
Hans-Joachim Watzke’s interview with Funke Medien changed all that. In a wide-ranging piece published last weekend, the Dortmund CEO went from being evasive about his coach’s future to outright admitting that they’d had numerous ‘disagreements.’ Their relationship has always been dysfunctional, but now it has reached crisis point. How did it get to this?
Rewind 12 months, and Dortumund were on the cusp of signing the young Spaniard Oliver Torres from Atlético Madrid. The deal had been engineered by the club’s main scout, Sven Mislintat, the man credited with the discovery of players such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Robert Lewandowski. With the papers due to be signed, Tuchel intervened in the last moment to cancel the transfer. Oliver, he decided, was a no – €24 million proving too high a price for the prodigious 21-year-old.
The Dortmund management were incensed, but it wouldn’t be the last time they clashed with their headstrong coach over transfer matters. After being promised by Watzke that at least one of Ilkay Gundogan, Mats Hummels and Henrikh Mkhitaryan would stay in the summer, the trio would all be sold within the space of six weeks. To make matters worse, none of Tuchel’s identified replacements were recruited.
The lack of communication came to a head in January this year. Whilst Dortmund fans flocked towards Youtube videos of their newest teen sensation Alexander Isak, Tuchel’s reaction to the capture was far more prosaic, the coach admitting that he’d only been informed of the signing “very late” into the negotiaitons.
Of course, Dortmund isn’t the only club boasting a management structure keen to intrude in sporting matters.
Not many, however, can boast a figure like Watzke. During his 17 year association with the club, the treasurer-cum-CEO saved the Schwarzgelben from bankruptcy before establishing it as a global brand. Dortmund fans remember all too well the struggles of the Mid-00’s, with Patrick Owomoyela and Bert van Marwijk stumbling to anonymous mid-table finishes. It is due in large part to the efforts of Watzke and Mislintat’s scouting network that Dortmund find themselves in such a robust position, boasting one of the most talented young squads in European football.
Despite the positives on the pitch, the fractures in the boardroom continued to widen before snapping altogether on Tuesday 11th April 2017. As three separate explosions rocked the Dortmund team bus during the now-infamous terror attack, simmering resentments were brought boiling to the surface.
With the agreement of both clubs, UEFA ordered that the game be rescheduled for the following night. It was a sideshow, Dortmund’s players showing clear signs of psychological and physical fatigue as they crashed out against Monaco’s young pretenders.
Tuchel’s post-match interview was a study in passive aggression, as he criticised the decision to go ahead with the match. It was a not-so-subtle dig at the board’s decision to agree with the reschedule, a choice which the defender Sokratis admitted left the players feeling like “animals, not a human being.”
Tuchel’s handling of the situation was roundly applauded by an army of coaches and players, including former boss Jurgen Klopp. Even the Dortmund fans, who have struggled to warm to the former Mainz supremo despite the team’s undoubted progress, rallied around him.
It was a strange departure for Tuchel, who has always had a bit of an image problem. His instransigence with the media has irked many of Germany’s footballing commentariat, but more damning have been the historical comparisons with his aforementioned predecessor Klopp. Unlike the beer-swilling, back-slapping everyman at Liverpool, Tuchel is a reserved character, a studious thinker whose aloofness had been noted warily by the Yellow Wall.
They aren’t the only ones to have been alienated. Rumours have leaked steadily from the club about Tuchel’s management style, the players upset by his incessant tactical and personel changes.
All of this makes Watzke’s intervention more understandable. Blamed indirectly for the decision to proceed with the Monaco match, and noting the increasing support for a manager growing more belligerent on a daily basis, Watzke has taken a calculated risk, as he aims to make the manager’s positon untenable.
“Thomas was, and is, very honest and sincere” said Tuchel’s spokesperson Olaf Meinking, after Watzke had hinted that Tuchel had indeed agreed with the club’s handling of the Monaco debacle. The implication was thinly veiled; Watzke was being less than honest in his assertion that “not once was I confronted” by Tuchel during the course of the decision.
The battle lines are drawn, and the victors already seem clear. Watzke, along with Mislantat and Sporting Direcotr Michel Zorc, have all the power. Faced with such an oppressive relationship off the pitch, it may be in Tuchel’s best interests to depart in the Summer.
You can be sure of one thing if he does leave though. He won’t be out of a job for long.
By Christopher Weir.