In the third part of our interview series finding out more about Thomas Tuchel’s backroom staff, we talk to his compatriot and long-time assistant Arno Michels.
A first-team coach, Michels has worked with top-flight players at Mainz, Dortmund and PSG before moving to Stamford Bridge, and he tells us about his passion for improving footballers, the intense period after joining Chelsea and a Tuchel characteristic most don’t see…
How did your football story begin?
‘It’s a long time ago. I started playing about seven years old. I did not go on to play as a professional player, I played semi-professional. In Germany I was in the fourth league more than 30 years ago and at the end of my playing career, I was in the third league with my hometown club Eintracht Trier but at the same time I had been assistant coach of the first team, so I played in and trained the same team. And I was responsible for the youth team and under-23 team.
‘Then we went up to the second league, the 2.Bundesliga, and I stayed as assistant for three years to 2005. I was half-a-year assistant coach at LR Ahlen, then also with my old head coach in Trier. Then I decided I had to do something different and did my UEFA pro licence in 2006 where I met Thomas. Then I worked again for a semi-professional club and I thought maybe this was my career in football.’
But it wasn’t, was it?
‘In 2009 I got the call from Thomas. I was working for the Football Federation and overnight he became head coach of the Bundesliga team Mainz. We had been in contact before because he wanted to play against my team but for me it was luck to have the opportunity to work for a Bundesliga club. So I left the German Federation after four weeks!
‘I became his assistant at Mainz and have stayed with Thomas now for 13 years. I think what I know about football I learned with him during this time.’
- Now read our interview with Anthony Barry
- More from the team with Benjamin Weber
- Watch Sterling and Koulibaly train at Cobham
What position were you when you were a player?
‘I played in central midfield. I started as an offensive midfielder and then like normal with experience I finished more defensive, as a single six or in a double six, more about organising.’
Was because you were playing at a semi-professional level the reason why you started coaching early, to earn the extra money?
‘Yes. I studied sports science in Cologne and I was always interested in not only playing but also everything that has to do with training. I was watching so many games at Cologne. In these times they were not bad and it was close to where I studied, just 100 metres from the stadium, so I felt all the time close to professional football, even if I did not play it.
‘It was my passion to be on the pitch and to work in football. I was always interested in how to improve the players.
‘I also worked in a rehabilitation centre when I finished my study. It was a centre for injured players but also for other injured people, and that helped me to have an understanding on the medical side and about injuries, which is good to have as an assistant coach.’
When you were doing your UEFA licence with Thomas, did you get to know him by having the same lectures together and working on the training pitch together?
‘Not so much. There was a group of about 25 but it was not that you had such a close connection. I would not say that was the start. For me, I would say it was pure luck I got the chance from him.
‘He was talking with different coaches when he needed an assistant and he asked me as he knew me. We knew each other but we did not know how it would work, so it was a try. My wife was also working in the same town where Thomas became a coach so circumstances were perfect to start together. I was completely hungry also to work in the German Bundesliga. It was always a dream.
‘We could also try things at Mainz. I would not say we had nothing to lose because it was important for Thomas, it was his first time as head coach of a Bundesliga team, but we were also able to do our work so that we could practise, we could try things, he let us do things, so we could gain experience by doing some things ourselves. It was a very first beginning.’
The dream became even bigger when you went to Borussia Dortmund…
It was completely different because of the amount of games suddenly we had to play. This was the first time we had to deal with lots of games, better players, experienced players, successful players. We survived the bomb attack there too [in 2017 three roadside bombs went off next to the team coach on the way to a Champions League game] which is also part of our big luck. I don’t like to talk too much about it but in these moments it beings everybody together.’
You’ve worked together now for a long time through different leagues, in France with PSG and onto Chelsea. You must have a well-established method of working but has it changed over time?
‘Definitely. Our experience changes, the experience of the players changes, the ambition of the players changes, and at different clubs you have to adapt to the style of playing and to the country. We have worked with very experienced, very successful players and it is amazing to see them on the pitch, the work ethic. We like to see football like this and it was a really fantastic moment when we played Wolverhampton in our first game here, to see what this league is capable of. You see the pictures, you see the videos, you see it in the stadiums, but if you are part of it, it’s a big thing for me.’
Thomas has explained previously that as a coaching team, if you’re not happy with a performance, you will first ask if there was anything you coaches should have done differently…
‘That’s important, to focus on ourselves, give ourselves feedback to talk about our work. If our approach to the game is right then we can demand from the players, sometimes our approach is right, sometimes it is wrong, so it’s a constant process that you give yourself feedback, be aware of what you’re doing and focus also on your work. It is a constant adaptation to a situation.’
What was the experience like from your point of view, arriving in January 2021 and then winning the Champions League just four months later?
‘It was fantastic. We had not much time to think about many things. We came in and our target was to make the qualification for the Champions League [for the following season] and we made it on the last day which helped us to win at the end the Champions League title.
‘It was to go step-by-step, to fight for the fourth place, and things went well from the start. We won against so many good teams, we won at Tottenham, we won at Liverpool, we won important games in the Champions League against Atletico, and suddenly you have so much trust and belief that you can make it also in the Champions League, but it is not that you come in and say will you make it to the Champions League final, it was not our first thought.
‘We stayed as four guys for three months in a hotel when we came, everything was locked down, so we were only focused on football, watching Premier League games and talking so much about football. It was a very intense time but we did not think maybe at the end would be a Champions League win. We were driven more or less to get fourth game by game.’
And then last season there were so many games for you to work on…
‘For me personally, that was the hardest season so far. It was 63 games to play and there was the Covid situation and we compete on this highest level with the best teams, and they do not lose so many games so all the time it feels like a final.
‘We had to deal also with injuries and there’s the FIFA Club World Cup and we’ve been in all competitions until the end or nearly to the end. We should normally be very happy with the season. We’ve been in two finals which we did not even lose, it was a penalty shoot-out, but it was a very tough season.’
Do you and your fellow assistant Zsolt Low have similar roles?
‘Yes, but he brings a different experience and approach from working at Leipzig and he can also add his experience as a professional player and knowing how a player feels. I cannot and Thomas was so-so as a player.
‘We share our ideas of football, we have more or less the same tasks to do, and we also have Anthony [Barry] in the coaching staff and there was Joe [Edwards] also which is interesting because they use different language and have also a different approach to things. It’s good for a team to refresh with new ideas.’
To finish, you’ve worked with Thomas as long as anyone has. Can you tell us something about him we may not know?
‘What most people don’t see is that he is one of the funniest guys you can ever imagine. He can switch it on like an actor in a role and he can be so smart, and he can laugh about himself. I said once to him that he can be an actor, I could see him acting in films.’