Wolfgang Frank: The Making of Jurgen Klopp
“I have told more than a thousand players. 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 is made of the tactical influence of Dutch football icon Johan Cruyff upon a young Pep Guardiola. That is, during their time working together at Barcelona in the early ‘90s. As one of the 21st century’s most decorated managers, Guardiola frequently expresses his great admiration for his former mentor. He spoke 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.
The Late Wolfgang Frank
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 can be garnered with reference to one man whose name is far more unfamiliar in football. That’s the late Wolfgang Frank.
A fine footballer in his own respect, Wolfgang Frank made over 200 Bundesliga appearances. He featured for VfB Stuttgart, Eintracht Braunschweig and Borussia Dortmund as a forward, scoring an impressive 89 goals.
With a nickname of ‘The ‘Flea’, in light of his slender frame and aerial spring, first found success in coaching as player-manager of Swiss minnows FC Glarus. He steered to the second national division for the first time in its history.
Frank was meticulous in his quest to forge a successful coaching career. His eldest son, Sebastian, referred to his father as a ‘freak, in a positive sense’. Qualifying as a teacher of sport and religion towards the end of his playing days, Frank’s other son Benjamin spoke how Frank’s coaching ethos revolved around a central belief that there was:
A Meticulous Freak
“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. The Italian’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 oversaw, the synchronicity and programming of the pressing of his players and their use of space was 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. The analogy made a markedly strong impression upon one player in particular. That being 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. Frank’s methods reportedly 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 potential of tactics. He saw how pressing and utilising space as an organised collective unit could enable a side to trump ‘superior’ opponents.
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 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.
Ahead of the Curve
Frank, a coach very much ahead of his time, was always looking for 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, Sports Science students supplemented Mainz’s tactical preparation with visual aids. They 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 football. He desired for his players to be as strong mentally as they were physically and technically. This led to Frank 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. The now-Liverpool head honcho 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.”
Fascinated by Frank
A first Bundesliga promotion in Mainz’s history, back-to-back Bundesliga titles at Dortmund, and European glory with Liverpool to follow. It is fair to say that Jürgen Klopp didn’t half make good use of his master’s teachings.
Klopp, thrusted into the deep end of managerial waters, began at a former club. Off the back of a ‘gut instinct’ call from Mainz’s sporting director Christian Heidel, he turned to his former master’s principles.
Over the course of the next two decades, Klopp’s managerial career has gone from one incredible success to another. As a result, his achievements as a coach are so astounding. He now stands as a legend at all three of the clubs he has presided over. Mainz, Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool each hold Klopp in the highest regard.
At every step of the way, one can locate the roots of Wolfgang Frank’s methods from the DNA of Jürgen Klopp teams. 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:
Klopp’s Open Fist
“No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation.”
Frank’s regard for video analysis and mental conditioning also forms an essential part of Klopp work at Liverpool’s training ground today.
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.
From Doubters to Believers
In his first public unveiling as Liverpool manager back in 2015, the German set his stall out. He outlined a plan 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 begs as to why it was the apprentice, and not Frank the master who reached the top level. 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. He did not necessarily know when to switch off or change tune. This sets him apart from Klopp. Jurgen, 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.
An Outreaching Legacy
Although Frank was not able to climb to the top of the managerial ladder, his legacy far outreached his personal 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. A motion to inspire the next generation of elite German coaches.
The success of his protégés as managers in their own right has certainly been a source of profound pride for Frank. It would have 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.
Wolfgang Frank: The Making of Jurgen Klopp