Thomas Tuchel at Mainz: ‘You need A-levels for some of these exercises!’

Over the course of 10 years in youth football, Thomas Tuchel had made progress. First, as assistant manager, he learned from Hansi Kleitsch at Stuttgart, who was considered a luminary in German junior football. Then he gained experience as head coach of teams in various age groups.

As was both tradition and doctrine at German academies at the time, Tuchel used repetition to drill in his exercises: the same pass practised 100 times, the same 100 passing sequences repeated during a training routine.

“Now, we’re doing a much higher number of repetitions but no longer in a drilling manner,” he said. “We train on very complex, tight pitches and always get the players to come up with new solutions depending on the shape of the game.” Put more simply, players were practising passes in game circumstances under higher pressure than in a match, without thinking about what they were doing.

Practising forms of attacking play when outnumbered by their opponents, such as in a seven-on-two situation, facilitated the need for a creative passing game to such an extent that mindless drilling was not necessary. There was one thing that would never be seen in a Tuchel training session: an 11-v-11 match on a full pitch – which he had used as a natural final exercise in training sessions in his youth coaching days.

It just no longer made sense for Tuchel. “I have completely said goodbye to copying the game from the weekend. We’ll never be able to do that,” he said. Instead, he was concerned with the basic forms in which his team operated.

“The principles have to be clear: which foot is used to receive the ball, which foot do I play the ball into? Is it possible to move the other player into an open position or is it a closed situation? If it’s a closed situation, how do I offer myself to the defenders to restart the attack? When the player turns, where does a running path start on the other side, and where doesn’t it? These principles are clear. And within these principles, there is maximum creative freedom for every player,” Tuchel explained.

Week by week, the Mainz players trusted their coach more, realising the small-sided exercises were the best preparation. The league and cup games, with the sudden increase in space on the pitch, which provided more time to make decisions, became easier than the training sessions, just as the coach intended.

At the time the midfielder Eugen Polanski remarked: “You need A-levels for some of these exercises!” After such training sessions, the players’ minds were more tired than their bodies. Tuchel was getting into his players’ heads.

During the sessions, Tuchel would usually stand by the halfway line, constantly making comments, criticising players for mistakes, pushing them, putting them under further pressure. Above all, work on technique was never neglected. “Just as even Roger Federer has to practise his serve and groundstrokes every day, a footballer also has to practise basic techniques again and again,” Tuchel said.

It’s a concept that resonated with players like Andreas Ivanschitz. “We played an extremely large number of passing drills with him, where he was constantly concerned with the quality of the pass. Based on that, he then practised moves over six or seven stages with us. Again and again, we had to open up new triangles. That’s when football is fun. But the beginning of everything is the simple but good pass. I’ve never seen a coach have the courage to be simple before,” reflects Ivanschitz.

The defender Jan Kirchhoff remembers his under-19s days with Tuchel and how formative the coach’s sessions were for the team’s style, and his own. “With Thomas, I learned how to add rhythm to a game. During the exercises, he always drilled short, short, long into us. That influenced my game a lot.”

In this approach, the first two passes in a team’s build-up play are short. The idea is that if, for example, the centre-back plays a short pass to the No 6 defensive midfielder and the latter returns a short pass, the opponent is forced to move. Passing lanes then open and the centre-back has won a few seconds to orientate himself and look for a long pass – preferably a low one through the centre to a playmaker or striker. This is repeated in the opponent’s half. Here, too, two passes help orientate the No 6 or the playmaker, who has an eye on goal, and the decisive pass can be played or an attempt on goal made.

In addition, Tuchel was fond of what is known as differential learning. According to this sports science theory, a person doesn’t best learn movement sequences and techniques through simple repetition but rather if small deviations or distractions are incorporated again and again.

As chance would have it, one of the intellectual fathers of this theory was teaching and researching at the Institute of Sports Science at the Johannes Gutenberg University during Tuchel’s time in Mainz, just two kilometres from the Bruchweg training ground.

Tuchel had discussions with Prof Wolfgang Schöllhorn, and he found his encounters with the scientist groundbreaking. “It has totally changed my role as a coach,” he said. “I started to orientate myself more and more towards the fact that training provides the players with much more complex tasks than a match does. The problems the opponent creates in the game should seem as easy as possible to them.”

The pitches set by the coach were fundamentally stressful in terms of their basic dimensions. They were small and narrow. There would always be pressure on the player with the ball, so passes had to be played and processed accurately.

In addition, there were special rules or pitches with forbidden zones – for example, the centre circle may not be played on or passed through, or the wing may be restricted, depending on their next opponent. Tuchel once analysed Stuttgart as being very strong when they won possession on the wings. Therefore, he wanted his team to build up through the centre while exposing the wings as little as possible. On the Tuesday before the match against Stuttgart, during the opening session of the week, he was already gearing the – still relaxed – exercises towards this goal. On the Wednesday, Tuchel limited the pitch in an extremely unorthodox manner so that it looked like an hourglass.