Benjamin Weber’s sporting life has changed quite a bit since he became executive sporting director of Bundesliga 2 team Paderborn in January, after 13 years as Thomas Tuchel’s video analyst and assistant coach.
“A few months ago, I talked to Thomas and the coaching staff (at Bayern Munich),” the 40-year-old says. “While they were playing in the Champions League and listening to the anthem that night, I was at (fourth division) TSG Balingen with a few hundred people in the stands, eating a Nuremberg bratwurst and scouting players at a game against Mainz’s B team.
“The pool of talent you’re working with is a little different to what I was used to at Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund…”
That was said with a laugh. Taking over Paderborn had never been in Weber’s plans. He wanted to stay in London with his family following his and Tuchel’s sacking by Chelsea last September, but a surprise phone call from North Rhine-Westphalia changed everything. “I had thought about taking the next step for a while but couldn’t quite believe it when the club contacted me and said they wanted to interview me for the role of executive sporting director. I asked them: ‘How did you get my name?’.”
However, Weber quickly realised Paderborn had done their research. They knew that he had gone well beyond his official role in recent years to become deeply involved in squad planning at Chelsea, frequently discussing the needs of the team and potential targets with club officials such as Marina Granovskaia and Petr Cech.
Paderborn are one of the German second division’s smaller clubs with an annual turnover of €30million (£25.9m; $31.6m). But they have a reputation for good attacking football and making innovative appointments that tend to pay off.
Trained engineer Roger Schmidt, now coaching at Benfica, was given his first job in professional football there in 2011. They also saw the potential of Steffen Baumgart — now in charge of Cologne — and picked former player Markus Krosche, the current Eintracht Frankfurt sporting director, as CEO despite him having had almost no relevant experience.
Weber fits neatly into that line of alternative choices, but he’s perhaps the most left-field of them all. He didn’t even play the game at an amateur level before working in football. His thing was tennis. At one stage, he was ranked 35th in his age bracket before injury curtailed his career at the age of 18.
Studying sports science in Mainz a few years later, he met someone who was recording matches for Jurgen Klopp’s chief scout, Peter Krawietz, at the local club and was offered the chance to join the department in a minor technical role in 2006.
“At the beginning, I was simply editing videos. But I was always surrounded by football people,” he recalls. “They explained things to me in a way that I could understand and, soon after, they trusted me to analyse opponents without someone holding my hand.”
The most important lesson he learned about scouting opponents, he says, was to get a feel for their game plan. “You can analyse them 10 times, and 10 times they will play one way. But the 11th one, against you, you need to anticipate them playing differently. The bigger your team is, the more they will adjust to you. How? You first analyse your own game and then try to imagine what the opponent will do.”
One example of such reverse-engineering was the Champions League semi-final with PSG against Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig in 2020. Tuchel’s staff knew that the Germans would try to press them hard and came up with a simple, effective solution: they told their players to play many short passes in their own half with a maximum of two touches to deny Leipzig obvious pressing triggers. PSG won 3-0.
Interestingly, however, Weber thinks that football has become a little too obsessed with systems and formations recently. Tuchel was the first German coach to frequently change his setups between and during games while at Mainz (2009-2014) setting a trend for hyper-interventionist coaching in the Bundesliga that Weber considers counter-productive.
“For a while, things got quite wild because everyone thought everything could be solved by adjusting the system, all the time,” Weber says. “Now, I get the sense the best managers are taking a step back and sticking to one clear idea of playing. Coaches should never underestimate the fact that, by changing the system, they give players an excuse. You can blame the wrong formation for things not working out in the first half. But you can also tell your players, ‘If you had taken the extra step here and closed the gap there, things would have been better’.
“For the big managers, what matters less is what you do than how you do it. In Germany, we’ve had too many players relying on systems over the last few years. We should encourage them to have their own identity and convictions, to be characters who breathe life into tactics, instead of clinging to a coach or a system to do that for them.”
The media, he adds, can be too focused on formations as well.
“Four at the back can easily turn into five at the back if you’re a little deeper and vice versa. These things often happen naturally in a game, not because a manager is pulling invisible strings on the sideline. There are too many nerds like me now, talking about formations and tactics. Things are often more simplistic, with back to the roots, man-to-man pressing coming to the fore again, for example.
“What’s far more important (than the formation) is a coach working out where every player feels happiest on the pitch. The system and structure follow on from that.”
Weber has always been watching games from the stands. He says he never really had ambitions to coach himself but, at some stage, found out that he was “particularly good at evaluating players, in terms of their individual potential and also how they would fit in and make for the right mix in a team”.
Coaches, he thinks, have a tendency to be overcritical of their own players. “The lawn is always greener at your neighbour’s (house) — you see all the strengths but not so much the weaknesses. You easily forget that you also have quality players.” But he would never buy a player without a manager’s explicit blessing.
“The manager is the most important person, he needs to conduct the orchestra, and he needs to be backed. There’s no point emasculating him, by buying him players he doesn’t want. It can never work.”
At PSG, there were well-documented tensions with sporting director Leonardo. “You’re not in control but you still get the blame — that’s a tough one,” Weber says about the French club dismissing Tuchel and his entire coaching staff on Christmas Eve in 2020. “We gave it our all there. You learn the language, you move your family, you play the best season in the club’s history (winning every domestic trophy and reaching the Champions League final in the 2019-20 season) but, a few months later, you’re gone. That was very hard on us.”
The first few months at Chelsea in 2021, by contrast, were “something of a boy’s adventure comic”, he says. Tuchel and his assistants, Zsolt Low, Arno Michels and Weber, all stayed in the same hotel, travelled to training and back in the same car and made the most of the COVID-19-induced isolation. “We watched football every night, we spoke about football every night; we never took off our tracksuits in four months. The hotel we stayed in wasn’t the most beautiful one and we all missed our families, but those are wonderful memories.
“It was a time of extreme loyalty and friendship, and very successful on the pitch as well.”
Thomas Tuchel’s first month as Chelsea manager
How did they turn things around that quickly at Chelsea, especially defensively, which wasn’t known as Tuchel’s forte until then?
“We saw that the team could be better than the position in the table we found them in. Thomas has always been very adaptable. His footballing ideas are more attacking, but he had to work with what he had at Chelsea and got it absolutely spot on with the switch to five at the back. Those were good players before, too. But he managed to put them together on the pitch in a way that brought success and, with every win, confidence grew.
“That’s a manager’s biggest skill: to bring out players’ strengths on the pitch and hide their weaknesses. I’m convinced that Thomas is one of the best coaches in the world and am incredibly proud and happy for him that he was able to show that by winning trophies.”
Yet, Tuchel’s Champions League triumph did not cut too much ice with Chelsea’s new co-owners, Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital. Having bought the club in May 2022, the new owners wanted to be across everything, which made for a very different way of working for Tuchel and his staff. “Marina trusted us, and Petr was a very effective link,” adds Weber. “We spoke once a week and sometimes less. We just got on with it.”
The writing was on the wall after a difficult pre-season but Weber was still surprised they were fired as early as September 2022. “I know the coaching staff well enough to know what we can put up with and what not,” he says. “I had a feeling things would escalate. But I thought we would get at least the whole season. We all desperately wanted to stay.”
But that’s football. Without enduring the sack at Dortmund in 2017, the journey might have never taken him to winning the Champions League in Porto in 2021. In a parallel universe, he would still be analysing matches on the gantry at Stamford Bridge this week. Paderborn, meanwhile, are six points off a promotion spot.
With a bit of luck, they will take on Tuchel’s Bayern next season.
Thomas Tuchel, the innovator who took Chelsea to Champions League glory
(Top photo: Westfalen-Blatt)