Thomas Tuchel's toxic breakdown with Borussia Dortmund hierarchy
Despite winning the DFB Pokal -- Borussia Dortmund's first trophy in five years since they last won Germany's top cup competition along with the league title -- Thomas Tuchel seems set to leave following a power struggle with the club's hierarchy and key parts of the squad he could not win over. A toxic mix of mistrust and communication failure has led to a point of no return.
Having joined as Klopp's successor ahead of the 2015-16 season, Tuchel, a young and exciting coach who earned his stripes at Mainz, relieved the squad from the heaviness of the final year under the now-Liverpool boss. BVB were stuck in a cul-de-sac but Tuchel guided them out with a fresh brand of exciting, attacking football.
In his first season, they were the best-runners up in Bundesliga history, racking up 78 points, denied the title only by Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich. Even so, the run-in that year included a dull draw against Bayern when they could have closed the gap and entered the title race in early March, and that terrible defeat at Liverpool, where Dortmund threw away a 3-1 lead to blow the chance of reaching the Europa League semifinals. A penalty shootout defeat to Bayern in the DFB Pokal final meant Borussia once again failed to bag a title.
While Tuchel had put his name on the European football map, the first cracks in the relationship between the head coach and the club's leadership became visible. Last summer, BVB once again were not able to keep key players, and lost three of their stars in Henrikh Mkhitaryan to Manchester United, Ilkay Gundogan to Manchester City and Mats Hummels to arch rivals Bayern.
Tuchel was not happy. He hoped to push for the title in 2016-17 and knew he needed those three, the backbone of 2015-16, to make it possible. CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke had even promised not sell all of them. But they left, and Dortmund cashed in over €100 million for three players who were about to enter the final year of their contracts.
Dortmund decided to add attacking power and continue to refine young exciting talent while also bringing in some experience. They signed eight players, including young talents like Ousmane Dembele, and Mario Gotze, returning from Munich, for over €110m. It was a weird mix -- none of them able to replace midfield connector Gundogan or playmaking defender Hummels.
All the while, club legends Jakub Blaszczykowski and Neven Subotic,both fan favourites but past their prime, were shown the door although the latter, haunted by injuries, stayed for a further six months before eventually leaving.
Tuchel felt Watzke could not get him the players he wanted, like Leverkusen defender Omer Toprak, who could have added Bundesliga experience to the back four. In the summer, while the coach called the rebuilding process "risky," Watzke said it was "ambitious."
The relationship went downhill from there.
Even earlier, in January 2016, Tuchel had fallen out with head scout Sven Mislintat, who had unearthed strikers Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The pair clashed over the transfer of Atletico Madrid's Oliver Torres, and it resulted in Mislintat, a close companion of sporting director Michael Zorc, being banished from Dortmund's training facilities.
More bridges were burned and the fall-out with the club and the fans continued. Tuchel had lost Mislintat, and he already had parts of the team questioning him, when he hit out at Bayern-bound Hummels following his last match for BVB in the 2016 DFB Pokal final.
The coach also lost influential parts of Dortmund's fan base. Jan-Henrik Gruszecki, notable fan and historian, told ESPN FC: "Tuchel never identified with the club."
Regardless of the perceived lack of identity, Dortmund had a very successful Champions League group stage, scoring more goals (21) than any other team had ever done. Yet in the Bundesliga, they were sixth at Christmas, nine points off Leipzig and 12 off Bayern.
In December it became evident Tuchel might not have a long-term future at the club. By January, Watzke upped the pressure when he said that anything but a top-three finish would be a disappointment. With 18 months left on the coach's deal, contract talks were delayed.
The turbulence continued at the start of 2017. A friendly at Erfurt in January was cancelled because of the landing conditions at the local airport; they bought Alexander Isak, a player Tuchel had never heard of; in early February riots at the match against Leipzig led to a partial stadium closure against Wolfsburg. In between the riots and the closure, BVB suffered a defeat at rock-bottom Darmstadt, with Tuchel again hitting out at the squad planning; in late February Gotze was ruled out for the rest of the season with metabolic disorder; in March, a cup match at Lotte was called off due to the bad weather. And every now and then, Aubameyang, when not celebrating with a sponsored mask, flirted with a transfer.
Reports of rifts soon made it into the press. Some papers sided with BVB while others published secrets the club believed were leaked by the coach's advisor, Olaf Meinking. Some suggested he was pulling strings behind the scenes to make his client look better than he deserved.
"Those travesties are only shaped by a few people inside the football business and placed anonymously," Meinking told ESPN FC. "That's an evil play. It says a lot about those spreading the anonymous rumours and nothing about me. As Tuchel's closest confidant, there have been attempts to also attack me."
On April 11, on its way to the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal against Monaco, the team bus was hit by three explosions. Ultimately, the squad were incredibly lucky -- only defender Marc Bartra was taken to hospital with injuries.
The match was postponed to the next day to avoid a fixture build-up. One of those who agreed to the rescheduling in a room at the Westfalenstadion was Dortmund CEO Watzke. The show had to go on, but Tuchel and the players weren't happy. The coach hit out at UEFA for the rescheduling; only being informed about it by a text message. But he also meant Watzke; and the players felt treated like animals.
BVB crashed out of Champions League, understandably lacking focus on football in the first leg and also the second -- where the players had to wait inside the bus for 20 minutes without knowing why, before making their way to the stadium in Monaco.
Tuchel won over some public opinion with his strong statements, just like he had done for major parts of a turbulent 2017, but not everyone at Dortmund believed him.
"The way Tuchel communicated in the last couple of months, he was just trying to save his neck," Gruszecki added.
During an eventful few days in early May, Watzke accused Tuchel of not speaking the truth about the aftermath of the attack. He first confirmed a "disagreement" with the coach and then in Suddeutsche claimed he informed Tuchel on the phone -- not by text message. It was a childish fight given the magnitude of the events.
The following weeks, dirty linen was washed in public, where Tuchel was portrayed as someone not sticking to the truth in his statements. But Meinking told ESPN FC: "Thomas was always open and above board in his communication. That's the most important thing."
Dortmund and Tuchel will now enter talks, and while they were initially planned to be over a bright future, they will instead be about parting ways without any side damaging their reputation.
In early May, Watzke said talks in the summer break would be about "strategy, communication, trust beside the sporting aspects" and Tuchel's advisor has reiterated their side "will enter the announced talks on an equal footing." Instead, those talks will now be about a divorce. Tuchel has burnt too many bridges at the club, where leadership, players and employees have turned against him.
The rift between coach and, at least, parts of the dressing room became evident once again in the aftermath of Saturday's DFB Pokal final defeat of Eintracht Frankfurt. Despite Julian Weigl's ankle injury, Nuri Sahin, one of the leaders in the side, was not named in the matchday squad; both club captains, Marcel Schmelzer and Marco Reus, called the midfielder's exclusion "a shock," adding they are fully behind their teammate.
All trust in the relationship between Tuchel and Borussia Dortmund has been used up, and there is no way to bring it back.
For a club used to upheaval each summer, the upcoming postseason promises to be another period of uncertainty. In all likelihood, the next task will be to find a manager to take Dortmund away from the chaos off the pitch, while making them a force to reckoned with in the Bundesliga and Europe once more.
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.