Jurgen Klopp: From a Middling Defender to a World-Class Manager

Long before the success with Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp was a middling defender playing in front of a few thousand people in the second-tier of German football. What happened next was quite a story! To understand the rise of Jurgen Klopp, it is important to start here.

Between 1995 and the beginning of 1997, Mainz was coached by Wolfgang Frank. They were a rust-bucket club bouncing bottom of the 2. Bundesliga. Frank was an unusual character who was obsessed by Arrigo Sachi and believed in zonal marking, high pressure and playing without a sweeper. Basically, everything that German football stood against.

In two separate coaching spells his football would inspire an unlikely rejuvenation. While that would end in a promotion for Mainz, it would be the most profound influence on Jurgen Klopp and his teammates.

The Origin Story of Klopp, the Manager

From a Veteran Player to a Makeshift Coach

By the Easter of 2001, Frank was long gone. The club was again circling the 2. Bundesliga drain. Mainz had re-embraced orthodoxy and that lack of originality left them in the relegation zone needing a dramatic solution. Their sporting director, Christian Heidel found one. He dismissed Coach Eckhart Krautzun and replaced him with nobody.

Heidel wanted Franck’s football, but he was in search of someone who could teach it. With a team that still was dominated by players who understood Frank’s pressing and zonal marking, and who knew how to play with a back four, he reasoned that it could probably coach itself. But, Heidel needed a leader in the group and that led him to Klopp, the team’s veteran right-back.

To everyone’s amusement, the team responded. Back came the back-four and the zonal marking. The training was again dominated by positional drilling and a determination to outrun the weekend’s opponent. By the end of the season, Klopp had hauled them far enough up the table to avoid relegation. This led to his first offer of a full-time managerial contract at 34.

First Season on a Full-Time Managerial Contract

The next season would be quite remarkable. Mainz’s first team was reinforced solely from the free transfer market. Yet, a club that had never played in the Bundesliga came within a game of promotion. The following season, another near-miracle: for the cost of 600,000 pounds and after selling a few players like Manuel Friedrich and Blaise Nkufo to Werder Bremen and Hannover for a combined 3.5 million pounds, Mainz lost out on promotion on goal difference alone.

Klopp’s emphasis on the system over individuals was not only sponsoring unlikely improvements but also reducing the effect of inevitable departures. Klopp’s managerial personality was also beginning to reveal itself. Always an opinionated and outgoing player, he was an equally gregarious and sociable coach.

At the end of his first season, as recalled in Raphael Honigstein’s biography of Klopp, he and Heidel had organized for a huge boat to take the team, the coaches, and some fans down the Rhine after the final game at Waldhof Manheim. The next year, when promotion had evaded them, it was Klopp leading the defiant speeches in front of nearly 10,000 Mainz supporters in the city center. Such character was the main difference between Klopp and Frank.

Speaking to the club’s YouTube channel in 2021, Klopp described Frank as ‘the best coach I ever had’ and as the figure ‘who initiated the development of this great club’. Profound influence though Frank was, personality-wise, he was introverted and self-critical. Sometimes he struggled to develop bonds with his players.

For Klopp, communication was his strength. His man-management had its quirks, including on one occasion, a team-building retreat to the Swedish wilderness. But, the connections formed were deep, and devotion followed. As would promotion in 2004 and it was well-timed.

First Go At the Top-Flight

That summer, Germany suffered a humiliating exit from the European Championships, and the Bundesliga was still a ponderous, individual-led league. Klopp wasn’t the only opposition to that, Ralf Rangnick’s upstart Hoffenheim was also a part of that movement. But, Klopp possessed charisma and personality that others didn’t.

The public liked him. For their coverage of the 2005 Confederations Cup, German broadcasters ZDF used Klopp as a pundit. As they would again, for the 2006 World Cup. Klopp’s in-studio analysis with his tactical emphasis and infectious enthusiasm caught the mood of a country that wanted something different. Beyond platitudes and famous ex-players. None of which would’ve mattered had Mainz sunk without a trace in the Bundesliga.

But, they didn’t. In their first season, they sank as low as fifteenth but recovered to finish eleventh. After the game which clinched their survival, a spirited loss to Bayern Munich, Klopp was spotted drinking in a local pub with the fans. Courtesy of the Fair Play award, Mainz would also earn an unlikely spot in the then-UEFA Cup at the end of that first season. Yet, the extra burden wouldn’t affect them.

Despite a wage bill of just 13 million euros, around half the Bundesliga’s average, Mainz would survive again in eleventh place. The 2005/06 season would end with Klopp celebrating in the stands with the supporters.  This was a fairytale playing out in Germany’s carnival town. And, Klopp was the star.

Part of Mainz’s recruitment during the period depended on prospective new signings’ willingness to bent his will and be enraptured by the team’s hard-running, well-built system. Mainz was a movement as much as a football team. And, such due diligence protected their chemistry. It’s also why as desirable as their players were to other clubs and as willing as sides were to snatch them away, those transfers were rarely successful.

Then, as before, Heidel and Klopp would replace what had been lost with unheralded players. Ahead of the 2007/08 campaign, Mainz spent just 1.65 million pounds on five permanent transfers. Center-back Bo Svensson-today Mainz’s head coach- was the only signed directly from the Bundesliga. The turnover was miraculous but it’d prove unsustainable.

2006/07: The Cursed Season

A disastrous start in the 2006/07 campaign saw Mainz in the bottom of the Bundesliga for seven straight games. Although there was a resurgence following the winter break, they’ll slump back into the relegation zone with six games left. But this time, there was no escape. The miracle was out of magic and the 2. Bundesliga was beckoning. Klopp would still accompany them. His profile was well beyond that of a second-tier coach in 2007. Yet, he was totally in his commitment. He rather pledged to remain at the club as long as they could win immediate promotion back to the Bundesliga.

Big Clubs Take Interest in Klopp

But, they’d finish fourth in a strong division. Klopp, of course, was in demand. Norther giants, Hamburg took an interest but dithered in making a decision. Bayern Munich was also paying attention. Ultimately, they opted for Jurgen Klinsmann instead in what was later acknowledged as a bad decision. Borussia Dortmund, though, had fewer doubts.

Has-Joachim Watzke had rescued the club from near bankruptcy and had watched the Westfalenstadion tire of the pedestrian football coached by Thomas Doll. In Klopp, he saw someone who could bring energy and life back to Dortmund and also a great personality to the touchline. But, also a system that would allow the club to compete beyond its means.

When the news broke that Klopp was leaving, Mainz mourned the end of an era- almost 20 years of Jurgen Klopp. He shed tears at the Stadium as fans sang him farewell. And again in the city center when 30,000 fans turned up to thank him and wave him goodbye. And, that is how Jurgen Klopp, the manager, was born. From a middling defender, Klopp is today a fan-favorite coach at Anfield and it is all thanks to his formatives years as a manager with Mainz in Germany.

Main Image Credit Embed from Getty Images


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