“I have told more than a thousand players that Wolfgang Frank influenced a whole generation of footballers and continues to do so. He is the coach who influenced me most. He was an extraordinary human being.”
Widely recognised as one of the greatest football managers in the world, the recipient of FIFA’s Best Football Coach award for 2019, Jürgen Klopp’s journey towards the very pinnacle of the sport has rarely been traced back to its humble beginnings.
Much has been made of the tactical influence of Dutch football icon Johan Cruyff upon a young Pep Guardiola during their time working together at Barcelona in the early ‘90s. As one of the 21st century’s most decorated managers, Guardiola has frequently expressed his great admiration for and gratitude to his former mentor, outlining following his tragic passing in 2016 that: “I knew nothing about football until I met Johan Cruyff.”
As perhaps Guardiola’s most formidable managerial foe, Jürgen Klopp’s win percentage of 47% against the Catalan is the highest of any manager to have faced a Guardiola side on more than four occasions.
It is therefore compelling to ponder just how Klopp, a largely workmanlike footballer who spent the entirety of his playing career outside of the top flight of German football, came to develop into a Champions League-winning coach.
The answer, as it so happens, can be garnered with reference to one man whose name is far more unfamiliar in the world of football – that of the late Wolfgang Frank.
A fine footballer in his own respect, Wolfgang Frank made over 200 Bundesliga appearances during his playing career for clubs such as VfB Stuttgart, Eintracht Braunschweig and Borussia Dortmund as a forward, scoring an impressive 89 goals.
The ‘Flea’, as he was nicknamed in light of his slender frame and aerial spring, first found success in coaching as player-manager of Swiss minnows FC Glarus, a club he steered to the second national division for the first time in its history.
Referred to as a ‘freak, in a positive sense’ by his eldest son Sebastian, Frank was meticulous in his quest to forge a successful coaching career. Qualifying as a teacher of sport and religion towards the end of his playing days, Frank’s other son Benjamin has spoken of how Frank’s coaching ethos revolved around a central belief that there was:
“No such thing as coincidence, that everything – injuries, defeats – happened for a reason.”
His tactical philosophy was to a great extent inspired by the playing style of the great Arrigo Sacchi’s domineering AC Milan side who ruled European football in the late eighties and early nineties.
Coupled with his respect for the Dutch ‘Total Football’ era during the 1970s which he witnessed first-hand as a player for AZ Alkmaar in 1973-74, Frank focused on a collective way of playing his brand of football. In the teams he governed, the synchronicity of the pressing of his players and their use of space was programmed to the finest degree.
Tactics, as far as Frank was concerned, were the one great neutraliser for small provincial clubs to compete with opponents with vaster budgets and resources. He described his tactical philosophy as merely a professional advancement of the most rudimentary form of football played at a children’s level:
“Everybody had to go where the ball was. The aim was to create numerical superiority to win the ball, then to sprawl out, like a fist that opens.”
This ‘opening fist’ analogy would go on to characterise the way in which teams managed by Frank played, and made a markedly strong impression upon one player in particular – a 28-year-old no-nonsense centre-half by the name of Jürgen Norbert Klopp.
It was at the perennially struggling Bundesliga 2 club Mainz 05 in the mid-nineties that Wolfgang Frank and Jürgen Klopp’s working relationship began, with Frank’s methods reported to have prompted an ‘epiphany’ for the charismatic Swabian nicknamed ‘Kloppo’ by his teammates.
For the first time Klopp, as a leader on the park for Mainz, became aware of the true power and potential of tactics, and how pressing and the utilisation of space as an organised collective unit could enable a side to trump opponents with perceived superior talent.
It was not just in this system of pressing that Frank was tactically revolutionary. His disposal of the ‘libero’ at Mainz, a role of a sweeper deployed behind a back four made famous by the legendary Franz Beckenbauer during a glorious period for German football in the 1970s, was met with conspicuous derision from football commentators up and down the country.
Frank, a coach very much ahead of his time, was always looking for additional means of gaining an edge over opponents. Inspired by his self-study of Sacchi’s stellar AC Milan side using recorded videotapes, he sought to instil video analysis as an integral part of his team’s pre-match tactical preparations.
In conjunction with Mainz University, Mainz’s tactical preparation began to be propped up by visual aids put together by sports science students who were able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of opponents on a week-to-week basis.
Ever obsessed with the finest of details, Frank also began to become increasingly conscious of the psychological dimensions of the sport of football. He desired for his players to be as strong mentally as they were physically and technically. By bringing in specialist mental coaches who implemented autogenic and elocution training programmes, Frank strove to maximise his players’ ‘mental potential’ on the park.
Over the course of their time spent together at Mainz, Klopp became increasingly fascinated by the art of Frank’s coaching: devouring drops of tactical insight like a sponge. A disciple in every sense of the word.
As Benjamin Frank posits: “Dad advised him [Klopp] to write everything down: team talks, tactics, training sessions, playing ideas. He had a sense that Klopp would make good use of it one day.”
A first Bundesliga promotion in Mainz’s 99-year history, back-to-back Bundesliga titles at Dortmund, and Champions League and Premier League glory with Liverpool to follow, it is fair to say that Jürgen Klopp didn’t half make good use of his master’s teachings.
As it was, when the time came for Klopp to be thrust into the deep end of managerial waters, off the back of a ‘gut instinct’ call from Mainz sporting director Christian Heidel, it was to his former master’s principles that he naturally turned.
Over the course of the next two decades, Klopp’s managerial career has gone from one incredible success to another. His achievements as a coach are so astounding that he now stands as a legend at all three of the clubs he has presided over – Mainz, Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool respectively.
At every step of the way, the roots of Wolfgang Frank’s methods could be sourced from the DNA of teams managed by Jürgen Klopp. Klopp’s revered ‘gegenpressing’ approach, which rose to prominence at the height of Dortmund’s striking success in the Bundesliga and Champions League at the turn of the last decade, was regarded as revolutionary at the time.
In actual fact, nothing was pioneering at all about such ideas of zealous, synchronised pressing of opponents within structured patterns. Klopp, albeit unquestionably stamping his authority upon his instructions, advanced the same ‘open fist’ philosophy laid out to him by his mentor Wolfgang Frank, outlining this system’s value with beautiful metaphoric conciseness:
“No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation.”
Frank’s regard for video analysis and mental conditioning can also be recognised to form an essential part of Klopp and his staff’s work at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground to this current day.
There is no more striking parallel to be uncovered than the fact that a certain Peter Krawietz, one of the band of sports science students who supported Frank’s tactical preparations at Mainz, is now one of Jürgen Klopp’s most trusted right-hand men. Krawietz is chiefly responsible for video analysis as one of Liverpool’s two assistant managers alongside Dutchman Pep Lijnders.
A shift in mentality was at the forefront of the job that Klopp has been able to execute at Liverpool. Klopp achieved this in such a fashion that the first Liverpool team to win the Premier League last season were dubbed ‘mentality monsters’ within the media, in homage to their perceptible unrelenting mental fortitude.
This remarkable campaign, which saw the Reds go unbeaten in their first 27 league matches, spelt the culmination of Klopp’s work to alter the overall culture and mentality within the club at all levels.
In his first public unveiling as Liverpool manager back in 2015, the German set his stall out to change the outlook of the team and the supporters – ‘from doubters to believers’.
It is this growth mindset, transforming Liverpool from a club suffering under the strain of the perpetual failure to capture a first Premier League crown into an imperious juggernaut of a title-winning side, that has defined Klopp’s tenure at the club.
The question thus begs as to why it was Klopp, the apprentice, and not rather Frank the master who was able to reach the top level as a manager. Having been employed by no less than 16 clubs during his 28 years in the dugout, Frank himself has admitted that he may have taken on too many different jobs during his time as a coach.
It has also been suggested by Christian Heidel that Frank’s somewhat compulsive nature concerning his work could, on occasion, rub his players up the wrong way and that he did not necessarily know when to switch off or change tune. This sets him apart from Klopp, whose unique ability to diffuse situations of tension with a smile or a joke at the flip of a coin represents one of his standout traits as a manager.
In as much as Frank was not quite able to climb to the top of the ladder as a manager, his legacy can be viewed to far outreach his own achievements. With reference to not only Klopp but other players he worked with including Joachim Löw and Ralf Rangnick, it was undoubtedly Frank’s ideas which set the wheels in motion to inspire the next generation of elite German coaches.
The success of his protégés as managers in their own right will have certainly been a source of profound pride for Frank and has served to vindicate the merits of his innovating methods. Klopp has stated how Frank had said to his players at Mainz that:
“When you’ve all become managers, please come back and tell me about your heroic deeds.”Wolfgang Frank
In light of Klopp’s Champions League triumph in 2018, and Löw’s masterminding of Germany’s World Cup victory in Brazil in 2014, you would be hard tasked to argue against the notion that Wolfgang Frank ought to be recognised as one of the most influential football figures of the 21st century, not only in his homeland but universally.
That Frank’s passing aged just 62 in 2013 predated both of these monumental feats represents a true tragedy. This underlines the true importance and virtues of storytelling: to keep stories such as Wolfgang Frank’s alive. In honour of the man whose footballing ideals of high-intensity running, pressing and counter-attacking play have shaped the modern game which we all know and love today, we as football fans are indebted to illuminate his legacy.
After all, there is no Jürgen Klopp without Wolfgang Frank.
Words by James Wilson – @jamesddwilson
Inspired by Raphael Honigstein’s ‘Bring the Noise: The Jürgen Klopp Story’ (2018) – @honigstein
Feature Image: Bild