Thomas Tuchel: flexible styles to control the center in the final third

Thomas Tuchel is the new manager for Borussia Dortmund. What is his style, how effective is he, and what will change at Dortmund next season? There are many quotes and summaries out there about his style, including several from the man himself: “There’s definitely a style that’s been attributed to me, that we brought to the table at Mainz: pace going forward and attack-minded football. I prefer certain qualities, an active playing style, bold defending and pacy play in attack.” is how he described himself. He’s been described as someone who is constantly looking for new ideas and ways to improve his tactics from teams and coaches around him. He has supposedly been visiting with basketball and volleyball coaches during his year off to see if he can glean anything from them. By all accounts he is an intellectually curious man, let’s see how that translated to the pitch at Mainz.

I only have data for the previous three seasons so some of Mainz’s best seasons will be cut out of this analysis. Tuchel took over in 2009 right as Mainz were promoted to the Bundesliga:

2009-2010: 47 points, 36 GF-42 GA, -6 GD
2010-2011: 58 points, 52 GF-39 GA, +13 GD
2011-2012: 39 points, 47 GF-51 GA, -4 GD
2012-2013: 42 points, 42 GF-44 GA, -2 GD
2013-2014: 53 points, 52 GF-54 GA, -2 GD

Very similar goal difference except for the brilliant 2010-2011 season where the team won 7 straight to start the season. Mainz and Freiburg both came up in 2009, both have similar monetary limitations (Freiburg even more so) and have generally overperformed them. His Mainz record can’t be described as anything other than a success. They are one of the bottom 5 teams in revenue and have performed like a middle of the pack team since promotion.


One training strategy Tuchel uses that has become widely reported is his “rhomb-training” where the pitch is adjusted to discourage low-percentage passes. Most of the articles about him mention something similar to the following:

“Tuchel’s focus in practice is on “rhomb-training” with the pitch dimensions being cut to resemble a diamond, ruling out long passes down the touchlines.”


Let’s see if his 2 most recent Mainz teams really ruled out long passes down the touchlines, first in 2012-13:

Here we see his teams take their training to the pitch and joined Bayern and Dortmund as teams that rarely use the long ball down the touchline. In 2013-14 however, it was a different story:

Mainz hit more passes to those spots than the average Bundesliga team in 2013-14. Is this ineffective coaching or did Tuchel simply change his system? I think he changed, this next chart shows the main difference:

The red line indicates final third control or the ratio of Mainz passes in the opponents final third to opponents passes in the Mainz final third. You can see this ratio drop significantly throughout the second season (which starts halfway through the chart). In 2012-13 Mainz generally made about as many passes as their opponents did in the final third but for the large majority of the next season, they were making only 75% or so as many passes. The blue line is the % of passes forward that are long balls, with the “1” on the left axis signifying a league-average amount. With more possession and territory being ceded, Mainz moved the ball up the field using significantly more long balls. The defense was also sitting noticeably deeper in 2013-14. In 2012-13, the Mainz defense won the ball back an average of 40 yards up the field, which dropped to just over 38 yards up the field the next season.

In the 2012-2013 season, Mainz attempted fewer than the league average in long balls while the next season they led the league in long balls as a proportion of the total. Sitting deep, ceding possession, and hitting long balls are things Dortmund has done very little of in the past three seasons.

High press

Klopp has been well-known for his gegenpressing, which involves attempting to win the ball back high up the pitch. Some of the criticism of him this season has claimed he has no plan B after this strategy and that the cumulative effects of this (and losing his original fitness coach) have led to fatigue and a performance drop. Tuchel brings a different approach to the high press.


In the 2012-13 season we see Mainz actually has a similar pressing rate to Dortmund up in the top half of the league, but then the next year they press (press here referring to takeaway rate) less than any team in the Bundesliga. Tuchel is clearly not fixed on pressing high up the pitch. Mainz pressed less, played deeper, and had the ball less in 2013-14 but did keep one defensive metric near the top of the league, we will get to that next. We can see from the changing possession, pressing, and passing styles that Tuchel cannot be accused of lacking a plan B, he is a very flexible coach.

Centrality: the Tuchel goal?

Tuchel’s teams in these two seasons do a great job of forcing opponents possessions to the wings while moving their possession through the center of the pitch. This is important because chance creation is more than twice as likely from the center as it is from the wings.



Mainz also do a great job of getting the ball to the center of the pitch when on offense.



I’m not willing to go so far as to say this is the fulcrum of Tuchel’s ideology, but when possession, press intensity, long ball rate, and territory all changed significantly, this remained near the top of the league. In both seasons, Mainz consistently denied opposition access to the center in danger areas on the pitch and got into those areas when on offense. This means Mainz faces low percentages of attacking balls played into the box (3rd and 2nd lowest the last two seasons) while being one of the better teams at getting the ball into the box at a high rate (6th and 1st). Their forays into the final third are much more dangerous than their opponents.

Shots, Goals, and Expected Goals
In both seasons, Mainz had a similar total shot rate. In 2012-13 they took 46.9% of the shots in their games, and the next season they took 46.9% again. Mainz increased their shots from 10.7 to 13.8 per game but saw their shots allowed rise from 12 to 14.8. The pace of shots increased from 2012-13 to 2013-14 but shot quality (expG/shot) was extremely close league average for Mainz and their opponents in both seasons. The less active defensive approach in 2013-14 led to more shots from both teams in total.

Mainz and their opponents had basically league average shot profiles as far as distance was concerned but angles saw some slight deviations. In 2013-14, Mainz forced opponents to shoot from sharp angles more than anyone outside of Bayern and in 2012-13 they took shots from central angles more than anyone else, this is likely related to the fact Mainz has the ball in the center so much and forces opponents out to the wings.

Exp G and G ratio:

Mainz ranked 7th in goal% over these two seasons. They outperformed their exp G% at a level higher than any team other than Gladbach and (who are simply a bizarre statistical case that warrants a deep dive but that’s for later). Some call this overperformance “manager efficiency”, crediting Alex Ferguson for dragging a United side that didn’t have league winning expG numbers to titles. It’s certainly not as simple as any difference from expG is manager quality, most likely Tuchel was had some element of luck in outperforming expG.

Game States

In the 2012-13 season, Mainz were simply awful after falling behind, being outshot by a greater margin than any other team in the Bundesliga. They coupled that with getting a worse quality of shot than any other team in the league. A ridiculously lucky conversion rate (twice the expected rate) covered up their level of performance, which was the worst in the Bundesliga. When taking the lead, Mainz would also sit back and cede the majority of the shots (opponents took nearly 60% of total) but would pick their spots with precision as they took a higher quality shot than any other team (over 50% better than the average shot).

In the 2013-14 season Tuchel fixed this problem. There were only minor differences between Mainz at the different game states. They were the same team ahead, even, and behind, one that is basically 50/50 to get the next goal.

Have we learned anything?

Keep in mind this is only a two-season look, so no conclusions should be taken as firm. With that said, I feel confident saying Tuchel is a very flexible manager. In 2012-13 he played a reasonably high-intensity press, Mainz and their opponents spent equal time in the opponents final third and his teams hit few long balls. The next season, the press totally disappeared; Mainz spent way more time defending in their own third, and played a lot more long balls. The counter attack was used much more. Both seasons saw similar results. Tuchel is not an idealogue like Klopp is.

He’s also a problem solver. His team was awful when falling behind in 2012-2013, they were lucky to get back in as many games as they did. Whether the entire style change was because of this or not, the next season Mainz were much better when falling behind.

He values the center. No team did a better job of getting to the center of the pitch in the final third and denying it to their opponents than Mainz over the two-season sample. Dortmund’s playmakers like Kagawa, Reus, and Mkitaryian will have plenty of chances to get the ball in dangerous areas.

There will be a change in style, the passion and non-stop running of Klopp’s press will not seamlessly transition to a like-minded manager. However, with opposing teams simply letting Dortmund have the ball and Dortmund not really knowing what to do with it maybe something new will benefit the side that will be looking to climb back into the Champions League spots next season. It will be interesting to see how Thomas Tuchel adjusts and tinkers with a side with much more financial power than Mainz.


6 thoughts on “Thomas Tuchel: flexible styles to control the center in the final third

  1. Nice summary of Tuchel’s work at Mainz. I’m curious to what extend he’ll try something new as he’ll be in a very different position with Dortmund as compared to the “Karnevalsverein”. ^^
    I’m intrigued that he publicly revealed as first German coach that he values statistical analysis and is open to challenge “conventional football coach believes” by it. Sadly, there’s no German journo up yet to drill deeper with him on this subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yes would be fascinating to hear what metrics he looks at and considers helpful. there is such a large variety of statistical analysis out there he could be referring to a bunch of different things


      1. IIRC, Tuchel mentioned ideal (most promising) shot locations as an example.

        I’m not sure how deep he’ll dive into football statistics and unfortunately, as German journos are still celebrating players for goal tallies, neither adjusting for actual play time nor for non-pen goals, I don’t expect that we’ll hear anything more (unless Tuchel unsolicitely tells them; doubtful, IMHO).

        Liked by 1 person

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