Why Thomas Tuchel is the ‘pain in the ass’ at the heart of Borussia Dortmund vs PSG

“A pain in the ass.”

The words, for once when it came to Paris Saint-Germain, did not refer to Neymar. The Brazilian is struggling to make yet another Champions League knock-out tie since joining the club, but it was actually another entirely predictable episode playing out that brought such a description. These were the words of a Borussia Dortmund figure who knows well how Thomas Tuchel works, and again sees him having difficulties with players.

Whatever about a “pain in the ass”, and despite the many attacking stars that will feature in Tuesday’s first leg between the clubs, the PSG manager is by far the figure around which the entire tie with Dortmund revolves. It is not just that he is the only figure involved to have been employed by both clubs. It is what he represents, and what he is responsible for.

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For many at PSG and beyond, the single biggest issue at the French champions is finding the right figurehead, who can bring all these brilliant stars together for a Champions League victory. There are many questions as to whether Tuchel can do that, that mirror so much of what happened at Dortmund, a club so different in profile.

In truth, it always seemed a little hopeful to put a coach so utterly methodical in charge of a group of players who are both indulged and prone to individualism. The image of Tuchel trying to explain specific training instructions to Neymar, as the Brazilian ponders a dribble, remains somewhat comic.


Power rankings: Champions League last 16 teams





1/17 Champions League Group Stage Power Rankings

2/17 16. Atalanta

3/17 15. Lyon

4/17 14. Valencia

5/17 13. Napoli

6/17 12. Tottenham Hotspur

7/17 11. Chelsea

8/17 10. Atletico Madrid

9/17 9. RB Leipzig

10/17 8. Borussia Dortmund

11/17 7. Bayern Munich

12/17 6. Real Madrid

13/17 5. Manchester City

14/17 4. Juventus

15/17 3. PSG

16/17 2. Barcelona

17/17 1. Liverpool

1/17 Champions League Group Stage Power Rankings

2/17 16. Atalanta

3/17 15. Lyon

4/17 14. Valencia

5/17 13. Napoli

6/17 12. Tottenham Hotspur

7/17 11. Chelsea

8/17 10. Atletico Madrid

9/17 9. RB Leipzig

10/17 8. Borussia Dortmund

11/17 7. Bayern Munich

12/17 6. Real Madrid

13/17 5. Manchester City

14/17 4. Juventus

15/17 3. PSG

16/17 2. Barcelona

17/17 1. Liverpool

For his part, Neymar is said to tolerate Tuchel, but that is as much because of the extreme power he has in the dressing room as anything else. What any manager demands doesn’t matter so much to him. He will generally play as he likes.

That isn’t the same for everyone else, and it is also relevant that Neymar didn’t play in last season’s infamous elimination against Manchester United.

Tuchel’s problems with this squad go back to that night, when many felt he – of course – “threw them under a bus”.

It is an issue that has festered for a year, and was visible again last week when Tuchel and Kylian Mbappe had that touchline face-off, when the forward was taken off. What many feel was most striking about the incident was not that it happened, but that Tuchel felt he had to remonstrate with the player in public.

It is perhaps an indication to some of the power dynamics, especially as there remains considerable doubt as to whether the German will be there next season.

Much will depend on how this goes.

There will be a few at Dortmund only too willing to enact revenge.

Many of his issues at the German club stemmed from the fall-out from another Champions League tie, but this over the more serious incident of the bus attack ahead of the game with Monaco in 2016-17. Recriminations ensued over who exactly wanted to play and who didn’t, souring relations, but those with the players were already being tested.

It is why so much of this is so familiar.

Most pointed was the public criticism of Mats Hummels after the 2016 German cup final defeat to Bayern Munich, which the players naturally felt were unnecessary. Bad feeling also lingered because Neven Subotic had initially been banned from the team hotel because he wasn’t part of the match-day squad. Players were “baffled” and “angry” about that.

There were even problems after actual trophy wins, such as the “clash” following the following year’s German Cup victory, over the ousting of Nuri Sahin from the team.

Tuchel is estimated to have had an issue with almost every key player during his time at Dortmund. It’s just his personality.

And yet there remains the argument that his more intense approach better suits what Dortmund need than someone like Lucien Favre. If the German side hope to exploit any schisms in the PSG set-up, the French champions hope to capitalise on the actual gaps in the Dortmund team. They cough up so much at the back. Even if Neymar doesn’t play, it is the type of line with which Mbappe could enjoy one of those freewheeling Champions League displays. It is by no means outlandish to imagine one of those nights where he finds himself streaking away for two breakaway goals early on.

But there’s then what might happen at the other end, and the excitement about Erling Haaland. A further irony here is that the Norwegian really isn’t Favre’s style of attacker, and yet his goals – and his sheer force – have pretty much reinvigorated Dortmund’s entire season. Haaland is the type of player who, late in a tie, has the daunting capacity to make any PSG anxiety about these games really tell.

It could cause a lot more pain, beyond that which is said about Tuchel. It is still his approach that feels like it will determine all.

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