Jürgen Klopp’s tactical revolution – from a miracle at Mainz to ending thirty years of hurt at Liverpool

In this series of articles we take a look at the greatest managers in Premier League history, focussing on their respective career paths philosophically and tactically throughout the years. This edition takes a look at the journey of Jürgen Norbert Klopp – the “normal guy” from the Black Forest who brought Rock n’ Roll back to Merseyside.  

Mainz (2001-2008)

Major Honours: Promotion to the Bundesliga 2004

Jurgen Klopp will tell you himself he was no Franz Beckenbauer as a player, in fact he was no league average Bundesliga player:

I never succeeded in bringing to the field what was going on in my brain. I had the talent for the fifth division, and the mind for the Bundesliga. The result was a career in the second division.

Klopp’s first gig as a manager was at Mainz 05 in the Bundesliga 2, the club he had spent over a decade with as a player.

His talent as a coach was obvious early on, influenced by his former coach Wolfgang Frank, he implemented his pressing and counter-pressing tactics as he guided Mainz to a fourth-place finish in his first full season in charge. In 2004 he secured Bundesliga promotion for the first time in the club’s history. He became a cult hero at Mainz, so much so there was even talk of a statue being built for him.

After suffering relegation in the 2006–07 season, Klopp resigned in 2008 as the club’s longest-serving manager. On 23rd May, 2008, more than 20,000 people gathered in Mainz to say farewell to Klopp. “All that I am, all that I’m capable of, you all made that possible,” he told the crowd.

Borussia Dortmund (2008-2015)
Major Honours: 2x Bundesliga (2010-11, 2011-12) 1x DFP Pokal (2011-12) 2x DFL Supercup (2013, 2014)

It is worth remembering that Borussia Dortmund, at the time of Jurgen Klopp’s appointment, were a team in decline  – in 2007-08 they finished 13th only nine points above relegated Nurnberg and 36 points behind champions Bayern Munich.

Klopp’s arrival transformed the club into a real contender. In his first season in charge Dortmund finished sixth with 59 points, a 19-point improvement from the previous season. In Klopp’s third season in charge, Dortmund were champions, finishing with 75 points and league’s best defense, conceding only 22 goals in 34 games. The he peak of the Klopp era came in 2012-13 as Dortmund won the domestic double, scoring 80 goals in the league.

Its questionable if Klopp’s Dortmund knocked Bayern Munich off their ‘f***ing perch’, to quote Sir Alex Ferguson, but achieving back-to-back Bundesliga titles, a DFB Pokal trophy, Dortmund’s first win away against Bayern in almost two decades (a 3-1 win at the Allianz Arena in February 2011) and a five-two thrashing of Munich in the cup final is no small feat.

Klopp was renowned for his man management while globalising the tactic gegenpressing (‘counter pressing’), calling it the best playmaker in the world:

Think about the passes you have to make to get a player in a number 10 role into a position where he can play the genius pass. Gegenpressing lets you win back the ball nearer to the goal. It’s only one pass away from a really good opportunity. No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good gegenpressing situation, and that’s why it’s so important.

The German’s departure from Dortmund has left him a legend in North Rhine-Westphalia. Dortmund have not won a league title since and are forever in search of appointing and finding the next Jurgen Klopp.

Liverpool (2015-)
Major Honours: 1x Premier League (2019-2020) 1x UEFA Champions League (2018-2019) 1x FIFA Club World Cup (2019) 1x UEFA Supercup (2019)

I am ‘The Normal One’. I am a normal guy from the Black Forest. I was a very average player. I don’t compare myself with these genius managers from the past.

From day one at Anfield Klopp had won Liverpool hearts and four-years down the line not much has changed. Affable, quick-witted, charming, feisty, fierce, friendly, and honest – Jurgen Klopp’s media personality resonates well with his players too, saying I’m their friend, but not their best friend”.

At Liverpool, Klopp has adapted tactically. When he arrived from Germany his philosophy was to play “heavy metal football”, also known as – physically fit, technically flexible and shot out of a canon football. Often ending in either blowing teams away in the first thirty-minutes or getting caught out defensively and running out of legs offensively in the second half.

This period of high-tempo, high-pressing style got results against the big boys. Take for example, in Klopp’s first full-season in charge, that Liverpool lost six games all season in the league to Bournemouth (9th), Leicester City (12th), Crystal Palace (14th), Swansea (15th) and Hull (18th), while taking 20 points out of possible 30 from ten games against the ‘big six’.

2017-18 results improved against sides below them in the table, losing only twice to teams below them – Chelsea who finished 5th and Swansea who were 18th. Mohamed Salah had a career year, breaking out as a superstar scoring 32 league goals, setting the record for most goals in a Premier League season.

Phillipe Coutinho left for Barcelona in January for eye-watering £146 million. Virgil Van Dijk signed in January for a then world record for a defender, costing £75 million. His arrival, along with goalkeeper Alison in the summer of 2018, transformed Liverpool defensively, going from conceding 38 goals in 2017-18 to finishing 2018-19 conceding league best 22 goals in 38 games.

They ended the 2018-19 season second with the second highest point total in league history – 98 points – and won the UEFA Champions League, beating Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 in the final.

Domestically Liverpool responded by winning the league in 2019-20, setting a number of records including the most consecutive home wins (24; of which 7sevenwere carried over from the previous season) and the biggest point lead at any time (25). They also matched the Premier League records for the most wins (32), the most home wins, winning 18 of their 19 home matches in 2019-20.

The modern-day version of Liverpool is a well-oiled machine, capable of winning football matches in a variety of ways. Firmino, the perfect number-nine, a ravenous presser who creates goals. Mane and Salah, two of best wide forwards in Europe. The full-backs Robertson and Arnold are also arguably the best in Europe. Thiago Alcantra arrival from Bayern Munich, adds to an already dynamic midfield.

This Liverpool side can withstand pressure, counterattack with precision, keep possession, defend set-pieces, score from set-pieces and win games even when they are not playing well.

What is next?

Historically a project manager, Klopp spent seven years at Mainz, seven years at Borussia Dortmund and is now in his fifth year in charge of Liverpool. He is by all accounts a personal manager, someone who is clearly galvanized by the fans, by the very embodiment of the club.

German journalist Rapheal Honigstein reported in a piece for The Athletic titled ‘Understanding Jürgen Klopp – its never about him’, that one of Klopp’s oldest friends, German reporter Martin Quast is quoted saying:

The thing he will enjoy the most is looking at the happy faces of the Liverpool fans – their joy is his.

It is impossible to predict where Klopp’s future lies after his time on Merseyside. Another Premier League job seems highly implausible. A return to the Bundesliga for a second spell in charge of Borussia Dortmund? Only Klopp knows the answer to that. Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Paris Saint Germain all feel a little too flashy, too corporate. The Italian league intrigues, Napoli? That would be fun. A break from football? It would be understandable, for a man who gives one-hundred and ten percent to his job and kicks every ball on the side-line.

Whatever the future holds for Jürgen Klopp, his legacy is written in the history books. Ending thirty-years of pain at Liverpool will do that for you.


The Author

Sam Stobbart

I tend to focus my writing on big picture analysis, looking at iconic players, managers and teams. I will be predominantly writing about the Premier League and the Champions League, but follow closely all of Europe's top five leagues. I support Newcastle United, I know ... but it could be worse ... I could support Sunderland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *