Even after Lucien Favre turned 60, he could still do things with a ball that left even some of European soccer’s brightest talents just a little awe-struck.
He could juggle it as well as any of the budding superstars under his tutelage at Borussia Dortmund. He had tricks up his sleeve that some of them had not yet mastered. He could join in a small-sided training game — alongside Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho and the rest of his squad, all more than half his age — and hold his own.
Favre has always been a coach in the traditional sense. Some managers are characterized as motivators, rhetoricians and demagogues, urging their troops into battle. Others are portrayed as canny, scheming strategists. Favre is, to some extent, a throwback to what the role was when it was first conceived: He is, at heart, a teacher of technique.
His training sessions — at Dortmund and at Nice and at Borussia Monchengladbach, and all the other stops on his long and subtly successful managerial career — are regularly interrupted in order to amend some individual technical detail, to make a minor alteration to where a foot is planted or how a ball is struck or the way a body is shaped to receive a pass.
It is a risky approach for a coach in elite soccer. In his time at Real Madrid, Rafael Benitez found that his interventions along similar lines were not warmly welcomed by his star-studded squad. They did not, several players made clear, need someone to tell them how to play soccer.
Favre, though, never faced that issue at Dortmund. In part, that was because of his own, enduring ability. Those tricks in training games were not just evidence of a showman streak or a waxing nostalgia for his days as a player in his native Switzerland; they were a way of garnering respect, a sign to his players that he had something to teach them.
Just as significant, though, the tricks were a testament to the profile of Dortmund’s squad. Favre was fired this week because a club of Dortmund’s stature could not tolerate yet another season drifting away from Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga title race. It most certainly could not accept the idea of a 5-1 defeat at home to Stuttgart, or a struggle to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
Dortmund is, after all, Germany’s other superpower, a club that regards itself — in terms of finance and history and clout — as effectively the Bundesliga’s second in command. It is one thing being overwhelmed by Bayern; it is quite another to glance down the league table and have to spool through Bayer Leverkusen, RB Leipzig and Wolfsburg, too, before finding Dortmund.
If Bayern Munich expects to win championships, Dortmund at least demands to be contending for them. Under Favre, in charge since 2018, that had not quite materialized. When it started to look like this season, too, might prove another false dawn, the cutthroat rules that govern Europe’s elite clubs kicked in, and the 63-year-old Favre had to go.
But Dortmund is not like any other club of its size in Europe. Though Favre and the sporting director Michael Zorc had added a dash of experience to the squad over the last couple of years, reacquiring Mats Hummels from Bayern and signing the likes of Emre Can and Axel Witsel, it remains a tremendously young place.
Haaland and Sancho might be two of the most coveted players in Europe, but they are both only 20, and Haaland has yet to complete a full year in one of the continent’s major leagues. Giovanni Reyna has emerged as a key part of the team over a similar time span, but he is still just 18.
Jude Bellingham was signed over the summer with one eye on a slow-burn introduction to the first team, only to force his way into Favre’s plans almost immediately. He is 17. Youssoufa Moukoko, a prodigiously talented striker in the club’s youth teams and regarded, already, as a natural deputy to Haaland, has only last month turned 16.
This is Dortmund’s system: to recruit blue-chip talents from across Europe — and occasionally further afield — and to expose them to elite soccer, in both the Bundesliga and the Champions League, earlier than might be possible elsewhere. It is that reputation for trusting and empowering youth that the club emphasizes in its sales pitch to prospective signings.
And it was that approach that made Favre, in some senses, the perfect coach for Dortmund. For all their very obvious talent, these are players who still need some instruction on the finer, technical points of the game. They have not, unlike Real Madrid’s squad, learned all they ever need to learn.
They are all at Dortmund to improve, and to be improved, so that they can then be sold on, to make the leap to Real Madrid or Barcelona or one of the Premier League’s great houses (or, to Dortmund’s chagrin, to Bayern Munich). Favre fit not just Dortmund’s philosophy, but its financial model.
The problem, of course, is that both are a little at odds with how the club perceives itself. Dortmund has more than enough quality in its squad to beat Stuttgart at home. Its team should not reasonably expect, for example, to find itself trailing Wolfsburg in the table, as it was when it changed coaches. Dispensing with Favre, by those simple metrics, was justifiable.
But there is a cost to operating, as Dortmund does, as effectively a high-end finishing school for Europe’s next generation of stars. It means the squad must constantly be a work in progress, as players arrive, flourish and inevitably leave, to be replaced by some new prodigy.
It means the emphasis must always be on attack — that, after all, is where there is money to be made — and the style of play must always be fraught with just a little risk. It means accepting a degree of oscillation in performance, the sort of problem Bayern almost never has, over the course of the season. It means riding out the bumps in any young player’s road.
Dortmund should not find it hard to appoint a new manager. This is the club that Jurgen Klopp turned into the lodestar of the pressing game, after all. Many of the tenets of modern soccer orthodoxy are not just scoured into Dortmund’s soul, but emanated from here in the first place. It is, in that sense, to soccer in the 2020s what Barcelona was a decade before: the ideological home of the current iteration of the game.
There is a wealth of candidates out there, then, who share Dortmund’s principles, who play its soccer, who would fit neatly into its traditions and would be tempted by its prestige. Monchengladbach’s Marco Rose is the early favorite, long since hailed by Klopp, no less, as a bearer of his flame. But there are others: Erik ten Hag, the mastermind of the resurgence of Ajax; Ralph Hasenhuttl, shining at Southampton; and the many other alumni of the Red Bull school of coaching, ranging from Adi Hutter to Jesse Marsch.
Most would leap at the task. Dortmund offers the chance to work with a wonderfully gifted squad, to shape young players in their image, to craft a legacy for themselves. And, as both Klopp and Thomas Tuchel have shown in recent years, its profile and its potential is such that it can be a springboard for a coach’s own ambition.
But whichever new manager takes the post will have to navigate the contradiction at the heart of the club’s identity. Is Borussia Dortmund’s ultimate purpose to win the Bundesliga, to collect a second Champions League crown? Or is its success judged not on the field but in the transfer market? Can the two ever run, truly, in tandem?
Dortmund is an appealing job, of course. But that, as all of Klopp’s successors have found, does not make it an easy one.
The Better Team Lost. The Better Team Also Won.
Jose Mourinho grasped Jurgen Klopp by the arm, pulled him close, and delivered the line. At Anfield on Wednesday night, the Tottenham manager told his Liverpool counterpart, the better team had lost. Only the width of a post had denied Spurs a victory it deserved. Liverpool had been lucky.
In a way, in a year of such uncertainty, there is something comforting about seeing an old standard raised: Mourinho has spent much of 2020 actually being quite likable on Instagram, but it is reassuring to know that, deep down, he has not changed. He is still the recidivist fire-starter he always was.
But that does not mean his assertion should be dismissed. Liverpool’s 2-1 win was a reminder that there are many ways to read a game and — this is the bit that is too often forgotten — it is possible that all of them are right.
Mourinho, certainly, had a case: Spurs created four “big chances” — a measure used by Opta, the data provider, to describe occasions when a team might reasonably expect to score more than half the time. Heung-Min Son scored one; Harry Kane and Steven Bergwijn, between them, missed the others. Liverpool, by contrast, created none.
The Expected Goals metric told much the same story: Spurs won that, too. Mourinho’s team went to Anfield with a plan and, bar some erratic finishing — one of those vagaries of soccer that can never be entirely controlled — found that it worked. Mourinho was not playing fast and loose with the facts.
But neither was Klopp when he, predictably, disagreed. Liverpool dominated the ball. It dictated play for long stretches of the game. It had more shots. It had countless more opportunities to have shots.
Expected Goals is a valuable statistic, but at its basic level it does not (and is not designed to) tell the whole story of a game. It does not capture, for example, the ebb and flow of pressure, how the current of possibility shifts between teams. Not every attack ends in a shot, but that does not make all of those attacks worthless in assessing a team’s performance. (There are metrics, like nonshot Expected Goals, that measure this.)
Liverpool won that contest by a country mile. For much of the game, it felt as if Liverpool was the team on the cusp of a breakthrough. Spurs were not hanging on, but nor was their threat constant. So Klopp’s denial was not rooted in fantasy, either. The better team did lose. But also the better team won. It depends how you read it. And neither of those readings is invalid.
Still Suspicion Holds You Tight
It is remarkable, really, how complicated soccer can make even the simplest thing. Introducing a rule allowing players who have sustained suspected head injuries to be removed from a game for their own well-being should not, really, be an especially convoluted process. It is the sensible thing to do. It is odd, if anything, that the rule does not yet exist.
And yet here we are. The body that oversees the game’s Laws — always capitalize; people get very funny if you don’t — has mandated an experiment in which two concussion substitutes per team, per game are allowed. The Premier League, on Thursday, confirmed that it will give the idea a go.
But still there are so many questions. Why two? Why not as many as you need? It’s unlikely that there will be several in a game, but you never know, do you? Why limit it? And, more pressing, why in the name of Santa Claus and all his gig economy elves has the Premier League felt the need to add a clause allowing the opposing team to make a change, too, if a concussion substitute enters a match?
What are we saying here? That we have to assume teams will try to use this perfectly logical and utterly straightforward health measure for their own ends? That players will be falling over with fake head injuries to try to gain an edge? Do the executives who made that decision have so little trust in each other, and in themselves, that even player welfare cannot be left to chance?
Oh, right. Yes.
You may remember Vincent Tjeng’s question from last week, wondering whether soccer had an equivalent to baseball’s Wins Above Replacement metric that I don’t fully understand but is basically a number applied to assess how much more likely a team is to win with Player X than it is with the average player in their position.
Well, Vincent, the hive mind has found you an answer. A couple of executives at clubs got in touch to say that they have something along those lines, but it is all proprietary, so they’re not going to tell you precisely what it is, thank you very much. They take into account various performance metrics, position, time on the field and specific attributes, and provide a general idea of how much impact players have on their team.
There is one possible, publicly-available candidate that several of you, including Avi Rajendra-Nicolucci and Brandon Conner, suggested: G+, which sounds like something you add to Chrome, but is in fact a metric designed by American Soccer Analysis.
That’s all for this week. You will have noticed that next Friday is Christmas Day, which means that next Thursday, when we normally prepare this newsletter, is Christmas Eve. We had considered taking a week off, but rather than skip a newsletter, we have something up our sleeves instead to say thank you for reading during this strange, brief and yet also somehow endless year. (Note: It has no monetary value.) So if you’ve gotten used to reading the newsletter online every week, this is the day you may want to finally break down and subscribe.