The Thomas Tuchel Approach – A Tactical Project Part One

This is written by guest author Gegenklaus.

Thomas Tuchel is one of these rather new managers I’ve grown quite a big fascination for. His first half season at Dortmund, the 2015-2016, stands out for me as a quite unique team with a very fascinating way of playing football. Tuchel’s positional play got paired with Klopps intense counter pressing and together it produced something quite unique. Tuchel gave them a better positional sense on the field, a better pre determined structure where each player knew what half spaces and positions between the lines to occupy according to where the opposition and the ball was.

Something they really lacked in the last days of Klopp. Instead of being direct and very vertical under Klopp, the passing under Tuchel got shortened a bit. A bigger focus came on retaining possession but for possessions’ sake. The real goal was to move the opposition by controlling the match through possession. A possession side who constantly scanned the field for space. When it got applied best it looked like this;

It was fast, positive football when applied best, but also quite clever in its focus to lure the opposition on one side of the pitch to create space somewhere else, then quickly spring the trap, launch the ball into that area and attack.

I have been trying for countless of days and hours to emulate Thomas Tuchel’s footballing philosophy directly to Football Manager, but I find the play would often be way to forced and the many Team/Player-Instructions would drown even the most intelligent players. So I go for a new approach. You could say that I did something similar to Tuchel before he in 2015/2016 took over Dortmund. Like Tuchel took a sabbatical year to study how Guardialo sets his team up, I took some “time off” from the game to study a great community member who has been the biggest influence on.

There is of course talk of @Özil-to-the-Arsenal’s many threads on his Very Fluid playing style with Ajax and his vision to make a general playing style which can easily be applied in various formations. I thought then instead of trying to replicate Thomas Tuchels way – how the players exactly move and what roles they have played on the field and so on – I will instead take the essential philosophy of Tuchel and translate it into an overall style of play. So, lets narrow down what Tuchel essentially asks of his teams:

The research: – and everything they have written about Tuchel.


Tuchels Tactical Philosophy

The German managers stands, as I see it, on two great pillars:

The Counter Press:

His team defends from the front and tries to win the ball back quickly after lost possession. Very much like the school of Klopp.
To give a better framework for this, the team is rather compact between the lines when the defense transitions happens, operating with a high defensive line to control and squeeze the space for the opposition to play in. 

Positional Play:

Tuchel organises his team to facilitate certain and very specific overloads on certain areas of the pitch. The team is structured in passing triangles and diamonds so several passing options opens up – especially in the half spaces and between the lines.

The goal of this is to make the team to be more able to control possesion, dictating the game and create space. One of the things that is so fascinating about Tuchel’s approach is that in the 2015/2016 the team prefered to open up – through rather short diagonally and vertical passes – passing options rather than opening up dribbling routes. When this certain style peaks, it’s like watching a german and more aggressive version of Pep’s Barca. A fast one-two unit of players with an incredible high understanding of teamwork.

They build out from the back often retaining the ball with clever passing, patiently trying to open up a route to attack.

So how do we apply this overall philosophy into Football Manager? 

This is where it gets extremely tricky. Because, simply, you can’t. Not directly. At least not a 1:1 version. 

The pressing:

In Football Manager, you can tell your players how much they should press overall, but not when they should press. There isnt certain pressing triggers. We can however control the defensive line and we can take the essential of the philosophy of counter pressing:

We want to put the opposition under huge pressure. Making it difficult for them to organise their own play, forcing them into stressed long balls. They should simply not be given time to breath.

We want to squeeze the space they can play in by having an extremely high line – and to start our own closing down as soon as possible.

The possession play:

We got a lot of control of how a player should act on the field – generally. Do we want them to roam outside of their area? Should they defend? Should they attack? Should they support? What space should they hit, who stretches the field horizontally and vertically? We can all do this, but what we can’t tell our players, is how to exactly operate according to firstly where the ball is and where the opposition is. We cant be so detailed. Instead we can focus – like with the counter press – on the essentials of this philosophy:

  • I will use formations that naturally favours the creation of diamonds. We will change the formation and the movement inside the formations according to how the opposition play to take advantage of the opposition’s formation’s weaknesses in certain areas of the pitch. Like Tuchel does, I will not be afraid of changing formation from opponent to opponent. How do we do this? We give ourselves a set of rules to follow.

They will be like this:

We need an advantage of at least one man in central areas of the pitch, namely in the defense and midfield. Example: Against formations that has two strikers we will have 3 defenders (well hello there, Bielsa). Against formations with a central attacking midfielder we will have a DM to nullify that threat. But the main question I always should ask is this: 

How can we build from the back against the specific formation? If I manage to answer that correctly I have come far.

The key here is to adapt, but the overall playing style should stay the same.

The overall framework aka. the playing style

After all this writing and reading I will now try to create a framework which facilitates what I want.

Team Shape: Very Fluid:

Why? Very Fluid secures the team acts like one unit. Every player should be a part of the transitions. Is this exactly how Tuchel structure his team? No, maybe not. It’s an endless debate of how guys like him and Guardiola and so on sets up his team in Football Manager terms. You could argue Tuchel prefers a Structured approach. He is telling his players exactly what he wants them to do. Meanwhile he gives certain player on the pitch creative freedom to move around.

An example of this was the ARM (Auba, Mhiki and Reus) in the first season. They moved all over the place in offense to create overloads, while Kagawa came from deep and acted very much like the “Iniesta”, the most offensive of the creative quartet, Gundogan, Weigl and Hummels being the other three.

But as I stated before I can’t tell my players in detail how to act under specific situations, like Tuchel and Guardiola does. Instead I want to create a framework of where free-flowing, yet defensively compact, football with a high amount of creativity and movement. A framework that, like Tuchel, favours intelligence and technique over raw physique.

In other words; Julian Weigl > Sven Bender.

Team Instructions


Mentality: Standard 

As Özil-to-the-Arsenal has championed, the Standard mentality balances out the mentalities in a Very Fluid shape. By choosing Standard I can still organise my team in to who is mainly in charge of defending, supporting and attacking while the team still acts like a unit . You could argue that Tuchel plays on the Control mentality, but after I – nearly – only been playing the game  on a high mentality I want to try out something new. This is our starting point in every match. We can always go higher or lower if the situation gets desperate (if we want the unit to act more aggressively or just park the bus).

Much Higher Defensive Line:

 As previously stated, we will defend from the front, squeeze the space the opposition can play in. This requires a high defensive line.

Closing Down Much More:

 Tuchel employs an intense kind of pressing – even though this changed a bit during his two seasons – but the kind of playing style I want is the pairing of the two pillars: The German aggressive counter press and the possession based game.

Passing: Mixed

You could argue that the passing directness should be shorter – and it is something I will evaluate further on – but for now I want a style that gives my intelligent players a frame to where they can decide for themselves. The best passing option will often (thanks to the formation(s) I choose) be shorter, but Tuchel’s Dortmund was also famously known for their fast counters and at certain points very direct passing – when the situation was suited for it.

Play Out of Defense

We want to build out from the back. This is where our possession game starts. We want to be in control and not give away possession by simply kicking the ball up the field. 

Work Ball Into Box

I am having my doubts about this, as it might limit our directness when it comes to counter attacks, but Work Ball Into Box organises the team around the box and also reduces crosses attempted in to the box. Having players around the box also gives us a good chance to win the ball back high. It tells the players to be more patiently when looking for an opening and this is very much what Tuchel wants. Pass the ball around, move the opposition and attack the free space. Also Tuchel rarely tell his two very high wingbacks to cross the ball into the box, they often do a cutback. Their main objective is to stretch the opposition’s defense, providing a wide passing option high up the pitch. They are often the first receivers when the switch of play happens after an overload on one side of the pitch.

Prevent Short GK Distribution

We want to press the opposition high, disturbing their build up play. This team instructions should do that.

Dribble less

Tuchel favours a pass before dribbling mentality. That players pass and move. Circulating the ball, instead of dribbling relentlessly. I am having my huge doubts of this as I have no experience using this. But as the tool tip states:

“Dribble Less instructs players to adopt a pass-first mentality rather than retain possession and dribble their way into attacking situations.” 

I am really interested in hearing others what their experience is with this.


Now I have the overall playing style set I need to apply it on the field. A couple of key points here:

Tuchel often favours a deep-lying creative midfielder that can rotate the ball, retain possesion and provide a screen for the defense (something very much-needed when it comes to the central defenders, that Dortmund has (Sokratis 13 positioning, 12 for Bartra, yikes!). In many of his formations, being it the 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1 or 3-1-4-2, he often gives two players the job of providing the width in the attack. This is often done through the two wingbacks that push forward and stays wide in most cases. In the 3-1-4-2, when playing with 3 central defenders the wingers/very aggressive wingbacks provides the width. 

The 4-1-4-1


Why? The 4-1-4-1 can be ever-changing. It provides a strong midfield presence and with simple changes it can adept to certain opponents. Like; If the opposition fields a top-heavy, aggressive pressing 4-2-3-1, the deep-lying midfielder can turn into a Half Back, dropping in between the two central midfielders to get a numerical advance, while the two wingbacks push high up and help with the build up in the midfield, creating an overload on the wings. Against a 4-3-3, the space in front of the defense is rather free and the deep-lying midfielder can turn into a more creative and supporting role, like a regista, where the play can be dictated from deep. The possibilities in this formation is, almost, endless.

The 3-4-3


Against formations, that has two strikers up front, we want to have a numerical advantage. This formation can be changed too. For example if we face a formation, the 3-4-1-2, with two central strikers and a AM we can drop the holding central midfielder down to nullify the attacking midfielder, giving us a – again – 4v3 advantage, and our right AM down to midfield, give him an attack duty, so he starts a little deeper, but links and help with the midfield and our DM. You probably get the idea by now. Also, if I am up against a really aggressive 4-4-2, that is very direct and attack down the flanks, I could make the wingers more conservative and drop them down to the wingback strata. Making the distance they need to track back shorter. (This one is heavily inspired by Bophonets 3-4-3)

The top-heavy 4-2-3-1


Lastly, against really defensive systems (if the oppositions report states that they line up in a 4-1-4-1 in a defensive mentality) we can make use of a plan B. This is against formations that only has 1 striker and that is not top-heavy. Where we need a little bit faster transitions by having a lot of players already up front and to apply a really heavy metal style kind of pressing.

So what is left? Well, now I need to start playing. 

I want to say that this is the first time I ever try to do something like this. I might fail miserably, as I am no veteran. The goal with creating this is to get feedback. If I am wrong at something, please point it out. I am no Football Manager Veteran. Pretty far from it. I have played the game on and off for some years, but I usually just download some tactic and start pressing the space button. This last year has been different for me though. I have read a lot of the content this fantastic community creates, tried out some things myself and finally feel comfortable of putting myself out there. 

A speciel thanks should be given to my heavy influencers:
Bophonet (who makes a fantastic effort to emulate real life tactics, you should check him out. He is italian, but if you cant speak that language (like me) we luckily have Google Translate)

I will update you guys after I have done the first season. I will – of course – be playing as Der BvB, throwing out Bosz, to continue the legacy of Tuchel in my own interpretation. As a newly BvB fan, I think Tuchel was on his way to create something special. We saw in glimpse in his first season that with the right kind of players he could turn a team into world beaters – for a match or two.

Unfortunately in his second season, they lost the very backbone of that team: Hummels (who was so essential in building attacks from deep), Mhiki (a world class playmaker, at the right time, in the right system) and Gundogan (when fit) a fantastic, wise, complete midfielder, that acted like the heartbeat of the team on the right central side of the pitch.

Oh, the dreams, what couldnt it have been? Instead of building on, Tuchel had to (almost) start from scratch again in the second season. In my opinion he did well – considering the injuries and new players – to win the DFB Pokal, a Champions League quarter finale and CL-qualification in the league. But that’s a whole other talk. The dreams continue in FM. 

7 thoughts on “The Thomas Tuchel Approach – A Tactical Project Part One”

  1. This seems very very interesting! Thank you Gegenklaus for writing it and thanks Cleon for sharing it. I was also wondering if something like this could be pulled off. Good luck man!

  2. Btw isn’t it counter productive to have dribble less as instruction and have roles that promote dribbling in a setup?

  3. Sounds like a great project. Looking forward to it. Definatly a good idea to have a core set of team instructions in place & then have 2 to 3 tactical shapes that are being trained. Then your team will be familiar with them when asked to play that way.

    If you are looking at high press only, then maybe some opposition instructions to close down specific positions more would be useful?
    I’m no expert on these but maybe others will have some suggestions.

    Good luck with the season!

  4. Really great read, inspiring me once again to give it a try to really go and fix a good philosophy for myself before starting a game.

  5. Thank you for the article. I started with Dortmund for my beta save and had a hard time figuring out a system to accommodate all of the deep lying playmakers they have. Your article really inspired me and has gotten me finally hooked on fm18. The 4-1-4-1 is my most used formation with the only changes being the right mid as an inverted winger and roam from positions to encourage movement to give passing options.

    Awesome stuff! Thanks again!

  6. My approach to the team shape is this: I think he play in flexible, but he instructs every player who should roam and who should hold poisition.

    1. You could be right. Although from various reading and seeing videos, Tuchel asks his in general to act extremely compact. The space between defense, midfield and attack are limited. They do act like a unit. An example of this was Hummels who would often step into midfield and initiating attacks while Weigl would drop deeper in defense to cover. Also, the front Four, Mhiki, Auba, Reus and Kagawa all swarmed the center of the pitch. Doing quick one-twos and acting in small pockets of space.

      How his team acts on the field is extremely fluid. The very fluid shape is the one thing I am very certain of. Although getting their counter attack right is the one thing I am finding very hard. Tuchels philosophy is a hybrid between Kloops and Guardiolas. Its a mix of extreme pressing, direct counter attacks (Kloops way) and a more patient and slow build up that orchestrates to move the opposition through own possesion. It is extremely hard to get this right in FM terms. When Tuchel’s team is in possesion They always focus on building through the center of the field – mainly through the left center half space. In FM terms this would be Narrow width, as They focus the play centrally while the two wingbacks stays wide to offer a wide forward pass oppertunity.

      I find it is extremely hard to replicate. I am through half of the season now and results have been excellent. Ive lost one match, away against Bayern, and I sit top of the table. But I still havent found the right playing style yet.

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