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Borussia Dortmund’s Evolution No Longer Includes Lucien Favre

If Dortmund’s young core is destined for greatness, it will be under the guidance of another manager

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When the end came for Lucien Favre, it arrived in an uncannily familiar form. Favre, who had been in charge of Borussia Dortmund since 2018, was fired Sunday following the same kind of catastrophic defeat that had led to the dismissal of Niko Kovac from Bayern Munich last year. Just as Kovac had lost his job after a 5-1 thrashing by Eintracht Frankfurt, so Favre lost his after a 5-1 evisceration by VfB Stuttgart. In both cases, these results had to be emphatic because there were so many ways in which Kovac and Favre were the right managers for their respective clubs. In Favre’s case, it may be that his legacy emerges as one of the most important yet least celebrated in sports: that of being “the guy before the guy,” the person who prepares the team or the club for eventual success, but who never gets to taste that success themselves.

There is little obvious joy in being “the guy before the guy.” In romantic terms, it is like being someone who reminds a broken person that they can love again before that person goes off and marries someone else. The closest phenomenon to this in modern film is the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a character that, in the words of the film critic Nathan Rabin, “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” It’s not a comparison that Favre might expect, but when he was at his very best during his three seasons at Dortmund—and that was more often than not—his teams played football that wholly embraced the infinite mysteries and adventures of the beautiful game. Full-flow Favre was glorious.

Most notably, of course, there is a cluster of outstanding young footballers who have flourished under his guidance. It is no accident that Dortmund’s first team regularly features a quartet of the best players under the age of 21 anywhere in the world. Erling Haaland (20 years old), Jadon Sancho (20), Gio Reyna (18), and Jude Bellingham (17) are all elite talents, capable of being decisive in the biggest games. Yet they have been enabled by Favre in a way that few other managers could or would: Ironically, the only other coach who would so readily put such faith in youth is Favre’s nemesis, Bayern Munich’s Hansi Flick, the man who replaced Kovac. If Haaland, Sancho, Reyna, Bellingham, and the rest of the Dortmund squad go on to win big under their new manager, they will have Favre in large part to thank.

There is something uniquely poignant about being a beloved coach or player who cannot quite lead their team over the finish line. DeMar DeRozan is probably the most extreme recent example of being “the guy before the guy” in the NBA. DeRozan, born in Compton, California, played nine seasons for the Toronto Raptors and so enjoyed his time there that he wished to retire as part of that franchise. He became beloved by the fan base, but after several failed attempts to get past LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs, the Raptors decided that DeRozan’s excellence was not quite excellent enough. And so they traded him without fanfare or remorse to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard, who promptly inspired the Raptors to an NBA championship in his very first season.

Favre met a similar fate in the Bundesliga, with Bayern Munich taking the role of the LeBron-led Cavaliers. If there is a fair and consistent criticism of him, it is that his Dortmund team were too often subpar against Bayern Munich, who have now won the German league title eight times in a row and are the defending Champions League winners. In five league fixtures against them, Favre won only once and lost four times, including scorelines of 4-0 and 5-0. Though his last three defeats to Bayern all came by a single goal, there was a sense that this was an arm wrestle that, by the most heartbreakingly small of margins, Favre was never quite going to win.

Dortmund’s discomfort in this tie predated Favre, but the grim truth is that if they had won other key games, then they could have afforded losses to Bayern. There too often seemed to be games, such as the 4-2 derby defeat in 2019 to Schalke and the 2-1 loss a few months later to Hoffenheim, where they inexplicably lost control of the tempo of the contest. The inability to get leadership from his key players at key points is what, in the end, did in Favre.

The only consolation for him is that he has left Dortmund in very good condition for whoever takes up the mantle. Not only did he develop young players with notable success—something he had been doing since his days in the Swiss league—he also brought out some of the best form of Emre Can’s career and saw Axel Witsel blossom into a formidable force in defensive midfield. If whoever comes after him is able to resolve a couple of key challenges in attack and defense and get the right recruitment in these areas, then Dortmund will be a robust title threat both in Germany and in Europe. And if that coach ends up being the one who leads his team to the promised land, then Favre will have been “the guy before the guy.” It’s fitting that this expression, “Lucien the penultimate,” sounds so good in his native tongue—“Lucien, l’avant-dernier.” It’s an elegant role to have played; and as Favre reflects on a tenure that will be fondly remembered by many Dortmund fans, he will hopefully know that there is no shame in that.