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Dortmund need win to save their season

Dortmund
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 By Nick Miller

Hannes Wolf, the coach who taught Christian Pulisic, is tipped for big things

Hannes Wolf is making real strides at Stuttgart, who are set for a return to the Bundesliga.

More than one thing links Christian Pulisic and Jurgen Klopp. There's Borussia Dortmund, obviously, as well as the relentless pace that has become the default setting of modern football, rather than the exception. But there's also Hannes Wolf, the man who mentored the former, was mentored by the latter and is now making his name as one of the brightest young managers in Germany.

Earlier this year Pulisic's father Mark, was asked about who was key in the young winger's early days at Dortmund: "Most important was Wolf. He helped Christian get accustomed to his new life, as a coach and friend, both on and off the field."

Wolf was Dortmund U-17s coach when Pulisic moved to north Germany, and a very successful one at that. With that team he won the league title in 2014 and 2015; then, for good measure, he also won the league with the U-19s after moving up the following year.

Wolf's early years with Dortmund were defined by those title successes but ultimately, his most lasting legacy might be the establishment of players like Pulisic. The winger was spotted playing in a youth tournament in Turkey at the age of 15, and his talent was obvious straight away.

"I saw a lot of potential," Wolf tells ESPN FC. "He was very fast but the most incredible thing was that he made so few mistakes under pressure. We knew from the beginning [that he was good]. His talent, combined with his personality -- he's a serious person who wants to get better -- make him a fantastic player.

"We never had to tell him to defend: a lot of talented attackers don't want to do this, but he always did it. He accepted the whole part of the game. Sometimes the calmness comes out later. All players are different but with Christian, we knew it from the beginning."

Pulisic's development, seemingly, had only to be guided and gently polished, which is what Wolf did with some carefully chosen words.

"It makes no sense to tell a young player 'you're talented' all the time, because then he thinks work is not so important," he says. "When you feel gifted, you don't have to work. It's about talent but then you have to put the work in, and that's what Christian did. But he's still 18, and has a long way to go."

Now, Wolf looks set to add another title to his collection. In September, the 36-year-old was appointed as VfB Stuttgart manager, charged with returning the 2007 Bundesliga champions back to the top flight after relegation last season. With one game remaining, they top the table on goal difference. Job done. Almost.

The 36-year-old Wolf is one of a few remarkably young coaches succeeding in Germany. The most prominent is Julian Nagelsmann, not 30 until the summer and snapping at the heels of the Champions League with Hoffenheim, but Werder Bremen's Alexander Nouri and Augsburg boss Manuel Baum -- both 37 -- could also still be playing.

"For me and Nagelsmann, we both had injuries when we were young players, so the decision was made for us to become coaches," Wolf says. "I've been a coach for 13 years, so I'm young but not a young coach."

Pulisic was nurtured by Wolf at Dortmund, so much so that the U.S. star's family credit him in their son's development.

It helps that he had some pretty good role models. While Wolf was a huge influence on Pulisic, it's clear that Klopp was just as big an influence on him. Wolf began work in amateur regional football at a very young age, coaching 34- and 35-year-olds when he was just 23.

In 2009, he attended a gala for the local sportsman of the year, at which Klopp was a guest. The Dortmund manager knew of Wolf by reputation and sought him out. The two talked and before too long, Wolf was installed at the Westfalenstadion.

"[Klopp] changed everything," says Wolf. "We worked together for six years and I was able to see his training, to be part of it. I saw everything. It's difficult to say in words how much [it influenced me], because it's not only about understanding how training works, but everything to do with the club. He was always helping me -- there was a lot of brilliant input for a young coach at this time. It was an unbelievable experience and a big part of me."

When Klopp left Dortmund in 2015, Thomas Tuchel arrived and further guided Wolf, who took elements from both men while trying not to "copy" either. The three are still in touch but their respective careers mean lengthy discussions of tactics and philosophies are no longer possible.

"I try to understand what they do, then bring things together for my style or working," says Wolf. "It's a lot of ideas but with my own voice and own language. Both [managers] are a big part of it, but I try to do it in my own way."

Perhaps this is why, in some respects, Wolf doesn't fit with the trend of modern coaches having a particular style and staunchly sticking to it. Rather, he prefers his team to be more fluid -- pragmatic, even -- and to be adaptable depending on the circumstances.

"I'm not dogmatic in my philosophy," he says. "It's about what I can expect on this day and against this opponent from my team. We don't think 'we always like to play like this.' Football is about everything: about having the ball, transitions, counterattacks, corners, free-kicks and the work you put in. Decisions are made in a few moments during the game."

Still, even if you read a little of what Wolf says, one words crops up pretty frequently.

Herculez Gomez doesn't buy the idea that Christian Pulisic is the future of world football.

"From the intensity to work you can develop your game. It's not only about intensity, it's not only about fighting. But without this intensity, technique doesn't help much. There's no team in the world who can play only with technique. Intensity is the basic for the rest. Tactics, technique: that only works when you play with intensity. It's the basis for everything."

Wolf has plans for Stuttgart: the club didn't demand an instant return to the Bundesliga but rather that he put in a long-term plan to fix a huge club whose relegation last term had been coming for a few seasons. But with promotion close, that is the main focus for the moment. After that, who knows?

"We knew from the beginning it would be difficult," Wolf says. "Stuttgart are a big club, so a lot of people thought that playing with them in the second division, it would be easy. But we knew that wasn't true, so we're very satisfied with the position we're in now. It's important that you're confident enough to think you can make it, but also respect the opponent and the league. That's a good mixture to be successful -- it's a culture we want."

The Dortmund job itself might be available shortly so there has inevitably been talk that Wolf could return home. And it really is home.

"It was a life-changing decision," Wolf continues, when asked if leaving his hometown club was a gamble. "My wife is from Dortmund, I'm from Dortmund, my parents are there, her parents are there, my children were born there, my brothers live in Dortmund. We had a very good situation, but this was a great chance to move into a city like Stuttgart with these fans, an unbelievable stadium and with the potential to get better. It was much more a chance than a risk."

One suspects that plenty more chances will be just around the corner.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.

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