Edin Terzic apologises for being a couple of minutes late but the 40-year-old had important business to attend: the traditional Marbella training camp match between the Borussia Dortmund coaching staff and journalists. (The Athletic, in case you’re wondering, didn’t take part on account of not having packed any football boots, lacking stamina beyond 15 minutes and being uneasy about conducting the interview all sweaty and in shorts.)
Terzic cuts a relaxed figure on the sun-kissed terrace of Dortmund’s team hotel, but the pressure he’s facing ahead of the Bundesliga restart today is considerable. BVB are only sixth, two points behind the Champions League places after a disappointing first half of the season in which they’ve all too often conformed to the stereotype of being Germany’s flakiest top team. Performances in the Champions League have been good this year but for every exhilarating 2-2 draw with Bayern, comfortable 3-0 win over VfL Bochum or cool 5-0 dismantling of VfB Stuttgart in the league, there’s also been one maddeningly meek 3-2 defeat at 1. FC Koln, just like in previous seasons.
As interim manager in 2021, Terzic won the DFB Pokal in an empty Olympic stadium during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But in his first full-time campaign, the challenge for the former assistant of Lucien Favre is not only to find the kind of stability that has eluded every BVB boss since Jurgen Klopp, who won the double in 2012, but also to rekindle the supporters’ dampened enthusiasm. A series of managerial changes and tactical rejigs after Klopp’s departure seven and a half years ago as well as the squad’s transient nature have watered down the club’s footballing identity and loosened the bond with the Yellow Wall. Now the whole of Dortmund is looking at the lifelong supporter turned head coach to bring back the noise.
Terzic is well aware that his responsibilities don’t start and end with results. “We want to make every game an experience,” he says. “That’s what people identify with, that’s what it was like in 2010 to 2013 (under Klopp) when the ground was bursting with expectation each week and people couldn’t bear waiting for the next game. It didn’t happen by somebody pushing a button, it didn’t happen immediately (when Klopp arrived) on July 1st 2008, but you could immediately feel that things were on the up, that a new fire had been lit, that the stadium was turning into a fortress that made it tough for any opponent to play well. We want to embody that intense football, too. When the crowd feel we are ready to invest everything to win a game, then they won’t be that cross if it doesn’t work out sometimes. There might one or two teams that are better than us. But there can’t be another team that put more into it than us.”
It’s not a coincidence that this mission statement sounds quite familiar to anyone who’s ever supported a Klopp team. Terzic, a decent amateur striker, joined Dortmund as an assistant youth coach and scout after finishing a sports science degree in 2010, just when the Swabian’s purple patch at Signal Iduna Park started.
“It was an incredibly intense time for everyone connected with the club, every supporter and all of Germany were charmed by that team. When we won two championships and made it to the Champions League final [in 2013], it felt as if the whole world took an interest. I was lucky to watch Jurgen and his players close up. But, even more importantly, I could watch Zeljko Buvac and Pete Krawietz, two of the very best assistant coaches, at work. I learned so much from them.”
In addition to his duties with the under-17s, under-19s and under-23s, Terzic worked as a scout for the seniors including one amusing occasion where he disguised himself as a steward to watch a closed Real Madrid training session and find out who their penalty takers were. “That was the start of the journey,” he says, a little wistfully. But going back in time, he emphasises, is not an exercise in nostalgia; Dortmund’s glorious past a decade ago should instead become the blueprint for the next golden years to come. “We have a big advantage: we don’t have to invent lots of things,” he says. “We just have to remember them.”
Terzic grew up in Menden, 40 kilometres east of Dortmund, a son of Yugoslavian immigrants who had met in Germany as so-called Gastarbeiter, guest-workers. “My father was Bosnian and my mum Croatian, we spoke Yugoslavian at home,” he says.
One day in the early 1990s, the civil war forced him to vacate his bedroom — his parents took in family members who had fled the bloodshed. Not all his relatives were this lucky: an uncle was killed and cousins of his were taken prisoners of war. The Terzic family collected money for those affected. “We would listen hours on end to radio transmissions, that was the only way to find out news then,” he recalls. “I partially experienced what war did to those people. We also stopped going to my parents’ home countries on holidays. That’s when I lost a bit of the language and we started speaking German at home.”
Terzic holds dual citizenship but says “my nationality is football”. He does admit to having a “German head”, with a liking for punctuality and discipline, as well as “emotions and a heart from the Balkan” and “a tongue in between”. Watching Germany, Croatia and Bosnia affects him in equal measure, he adds. “These are the only matches in which I don’t count how many players are defending corners.”
In 2012, Slaven Bilic, then the national manager of Croatian, wondered if Terzic had come across Euro 2012 opponents Ireland in his various scouting missions. Terzic had. “I put down a few observations and ideas for playing. Things like Luka Modric’s position. The Irish always closed down the No 10 space really effectively, so in order to get Modric on the ball as often possible, it was necessary for him to play deeper, almost like a quarterback.” Observations also included a lack of height in the Irish back four — two goals came from headers — and the full-backs’ unwillingness to defend. The outcome was a 3-1 win by Croatia, Bilic referencing some of Terzic’s recommendations in his press conference and an invitation to submit more scouting reports.
When Bilic received an offer to take over Besiktas a year later, Terzic went with him to Turkey. In 2015, the pair moved on to West Ham United. “You can study for years, listen to many talks and do all of your badges, but it all feels different once you’re standing in front of 25 egos from as many countries,” he says. “ You can’t learn that. You have to live it. I’m incredibly grateful that I was able to make these experiences in different cultures.” Finding effective ways to communicate was the key challenge. “How much information comes across when you’re thinking in German, talking in Croatian within the coaching team, speaking in English to players via a Turkish translator? Will it be enough to mention things, or should I replicate moves on the training pitch, show them stuff on the tactics board, produce a video or make a little animation?”
Bilic gave Terzic plenty of space to try out new things and find out what worked and what didn’t. “He let me speak in team meetings, and I was even his ghostwriter for one or two written interviews he did.”
Working in the Premier League, Terzic was taken with the ritual meeting between managers and their staff over a glass of wine after matches. “Often, us assistants were already in the room while the managers were still doing their press conferences. Suddenly, you hear about problems in the dressing room at places like Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea but also at teams such as Crystal Palace or West Brom. You listen and try to figure out what might be relevant to your own situation, you see how coaches like Klopp or Jose Mourinho deal with things away from the cameras. That was extremely important to me. Sometimes, you were happy after a win and saw that your opponents were close to getting fired… Those were moments you never forget. Some of those meetings developed into friendships that last to this day.”
Other enjoyable memories from his time in East London included Mark Noble’s testimonial (“It was brilliant to see such a deserving player receive that level of adulation, six years before he actually finished his career”) and beating Manchester United 3-2 at the last game at Upton Park, with thousands of supporters outside the ground. “You saw what it meant to them. I carry those images with me, forever.”
After Bilic’s sacking by West Ham in November 2017, Terzic returned to Dortmund to work as an assistant to Favre and stepped into the breach when the Swiss manager was sacked in December 2020. He spent a year upstairs as technical director afterwards, a position designed to fend off interest from other clubs. His charisma and perfect English had attracted many suitors, including a blue-chip Premier League side. But Terzic stayed in Westphalia and became BVB head coach when he took over from Marco Rose at the start of this season.
His popularity with supporters, his feel for the club’s needs, as well his successful stint as interim coach and his extensive coaching track record convinced Dortmund’s bosses that Terzic was the right man for the big job. “This isn’t meant to sound arrogant, but after 13 years in dressing rooms I’ve got the feeling that I know every player in the world — I just don’t know their names yet,” he says about an experienced coach’s ability to recognise certain recurring patterns. “This player is a little bit like that one I worked with, this one is more like that other guy… Sometimes, I also feel as if I’ve seen that opposition side before, just wearing different shirts. But working with people, you still learn something new every day. It started then and it’s continuing now.”
Terzic often doesn’t sleep after matches, going over things that should have gone differently one way or another. He’s rarely happy with a match, irrespective of the result, and has adopted the habit of writing his thoughts down before going to bed to trick his brain into believing the matter has been dealt with. Another ploy to stop himself from thinking about the game all day is to designate certain rooms of the house off-limits for football. But that self-imposed border has proved porous at times.
He never talks to his team immediately after a game. He says he’s too emotional, that he thinks the game was “either much better or much worse than it really was”, and that he needs a night to sleep on it first. He’s at his calmest just before the game, when all decisions have been made and all scenarios have been accounted for. What happens when BVB concede, when there’s a red card, when the opposition change their system? Terzic has thought about it in advance. The problem is to stop the thinking before the next game. But stop it most at some point in the evening: “I’m like my mobile phone. I need to plug in and recharge. Otherwise, my battery’s gone.”
Another thing he’s having to learn — aside from living up to expectations that have been raised to very high levels by Klopp’s triumphs — is dealing with the structural effects of Dortmund’s transfer strategy. BVB are easily Germany’s second-biggest club by turnover and popularity, but they can’t compete with Bayern Munich’s wages nor with those paid by Europe’s elite. They’re thus forced to either sign players that are a little below the German champions’ level or to focus on high-potential international youngsters such as Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham, who are bound to spend the bulk of their careers elsewhere. As a former regular on the terraces, does Terzic understand supporters finding it harder to cheer on players who see BVB as a stepping stone?
“I get it, to an extent,” he replies. “But if our supporters feel that their values are being represented on the pitch, in our shirt, in our stadium, they’re alright with that. I would of course love nothing more than the boys deciding to stay for their entire careers with us. But we also need to understand that if we bring in somebody at 16 or 17, another club will try and lure them away three or four years later.”
Terzic also says it’s important not to lose sight of the positive aspects that come with Dortmund’s position as one of the most desirable destinations for teenage prodigies. “We have Jude, we have Jamie Bynoe-Gittens. We had Jadon. Would it have been conceivable 10 or 15 years ago that top English talents are playing here? It’s easier to convince those players of joining us on our journey because they have seen that it’s worked out for others. That’s not a given. We’re also one of the few clubs, aside from Ajax and maybe two Portuguese clubs, who regularly qualify in the Champions League with many key players who are under 21. That’s a unique position in Europe’s top leagues.”
The macroeconomics won’t change until Dortmund and other Bundesliga big guns sell themselves to outside investors, which might never happen. But more incremental progress is possible, Terzic insists. “I believe that we need to work on keeping these young guys one year longer. In my first season [as interim manager], I was able to put Jadon, Jude and Erling on the pitch, but that was their only year together. That was also partly due to COVID-19 and empty stadiums: there were financial considerations. But if we can get to the point where it’s two or three years of such a trio, maybe we can break the mould. Maybe we don’t get knocked out by Manchester City in the quarter-finals but make it to the semi-finals. And then you might plant the thought into players’ heads that they don’t have to move at all to achieve what they want to achieve. That’s down to us.
“We want the same as the players: maximum success. And, right now, we’re one of the few clubs that can offer two types of pathways. You can be Erling or Jadon, taking the next step, or you can be Marco Reus or Lukasz Piszczek and make Dortmund the club that defines your career.”
The tie against Chelsea, curiously the two teams’ first-ever competitive meeting, won’t define Terzic’s season. It’s in the Bundesliga that he’ll need to deliver. The top four is a must — a season outside the Champions League would hurt a lot economically. But Dortmund’s solid results in Europe this year have bred optimism about their chances in the last 16. For Terzic, it’ll be an emotional reunion with Chelsea manager Graham Potter, who was on the same FA course with him as they studied for their Pro Licence in 2018. “I know Graham well and really like him,” Terzic says. “I have my fingers crossed for him for every game — with the exception of the two against us.”
We discuss another English side going through difficult times this season. Jamie Carragher has suggested Klopp’s Liverpool have become “too technical” for their own good. Could the same perhaps be said of Dortmund? When other Bundesliga teams copied their trademark gegenpressing game or sat deep to avoid transition moments, BVB reacted by becoming more intricate in possession under Thomas Tuchel and Favre and signing the apposite players. In addition, their transfer policy has targeted young, foreign individualists such as USMNT forward Gio Reyna who further ups the “creative” ratio. Terzic and his predecessor Rose have tried to push the tempo and pump up the volume, but one wonders if that’s actually possible with the current squad.
Terzic says this take is too simplistic in the sense that it underplays the varied demands on an attacking team. “We won’t turn anyone away because he’s a good footballer. But one thing that shouldn’t happen is having too many similar players in the same positions. As a coach, I like variability and flexibility — not just in tactical terms but also in terms of player profiles. You need to be able to react to everything in a game. Sometimes it’s more important to have someone who’s extremely good on the ball, able to play in very tight spaces, making sure you keep the ball for a few seconds. But sometimes you also need the player who immediately sees the depth, not just the player who makes the run but also the one who plays that ball. My preference is for variability in all positions, to have answers for any problems the opposition might pose.”
He adds that “football is often described in terms that are too complex”. For him, there are essentially three ways of playing in possession. “We can get behind them, we can play through them or we can play around them. That’s also the right sequence. Our first aim is to get behind them as quickly as possible. If that doesn’t work, we try to play through them. If we don’t manage that, we play around them. Because depth hurts the opposition but width makes them tired. If we manage to play around them, spaces open up to play through them and then we get behind them. You need the right player profiles for all these phases.”
Terzic winces a little when The Athletic brings up “consistency” and “mentality” — two buzzwords that often get thrown around whenever Dortmund have one of their off days. But, as a man who “cannot stand laziness and people not fulfilling their potential”, he will accept that the team have to sharpen up. “We need to change many things and behaviours. My staff and I are ready for it. We have pushed and will keep on pushing,” he says.
Shielding his side from corrosive discourse about their lack of resilience is a big part of the rebuilding project too. “We know we’ve played poorly in some games. But we mustn’t forget the many good moments we’ve already had. I can’t let the negativity get too close to the team. We have to find a positive way of dealing with setbacks. That’s my job to do. Because no one else will.”
This feels like the natural endpoint to an absorbing conversation that’s gone on for much longer than planned. Terzic gets up from the table and bids goodbye.
But, hold on one second, there’s an important question that hasn’t been answered.
How did the game against the reporters go?
“4-0 to us”, he says, looking over his shoulder with a big smile. In the battle to guide Dortmund back to a louder future, every small win matters.
(Top Photo: DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
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