Former FSV Mainz manager Wolfgang Frank had an infectious effect on Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and provided a football education which would inspire him to future success at managerial level.
Jurgen Klopp has become one of the most successful managers of his generation, following his heroics at the Westfalenstadion with Borussia Dortmund. Klopp won back-to-back German Bundesliga titles, temporarily ending Bayern’s domestic dominance and also reached the 2013 UEFA Champions League final.
Ottmar Hitzfeld had previously won back-to-back titles and sweetened his success in Dortmund with their UEFA Champions League triumph in 1997. However, Klopp had achieved the unimaginable by retransforming the club from the verge of extinction to a domestic superpower again.
He achieved this with an unfamiliar, pioneering and ground-breaking counter-pressing system, known as ‘gegenpressing’ or ‘heavy metal football’ in Germany. The players struggled to tune themselves into his unique system, due to the physical and mental demands required to execute this style effectively.
Once the likes of youngsters Mats Hummels, Shinji Kagawa, Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski understood and relentlessly practiced the system, it had a detrimental effect on their opponents. The mixture of youth and experience combined to form a squad destined for greatness and Klopp finally achieved this in his third campaign at the Signal Iduna Park.
The supporters had rediscovered their voices as the club gradually rose through the ranks and proved their critics wrong. Eventually, all good things draw to an end, and Klopp was unable to achieve the sustainable success that the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Bob Paisley had achieved at Manchester United and Liverpool respectively.
Klopp is now plying his trade in the adventurous world of the Premier League and is yet to replicate his success in his native homeland at Anfield. However, in typical Klopp style, he’ll maintain his philosophy and illustrate such stubbornness until his vision transforms Liverpool into kings of England once again.
One man to thank for the Jurgen Klopp we all know today is vaguely known to English supporters or even supporters outside of FSV Mainz. Wolfgang Frank was one of the pioneers of ‘gegenpressing’ in Germany along with Ralf Ragnick, but failed to receive the credit that his contributions to German football truly deserved, however Klopp lived his dream of managing in the Bundesliga and mirrored a numerous amount of characteristics which he clearly inherited from his father figure Frank.
I’ve written this article to retell the story of Wolfgang Frank and how he successfully contributed to the German football revolution. He may have a valuable place in FSV Mainz folklore, but I decided to tell his story to everyone, to ensure that as many people as possible remember his name.
Wolfgang Frank’s Tendency of Breaking Boundaries
Frank was fascinated – even obsessed – with the brand of football being played by AC Milan under Arrigo Sacchi. The Italian giants was the most successful club of their generation during the 1990s and Frank religiously studied and analysed their tactics and style of play.
He attempted to mimic – or at least copy segments of their play – with the clubs he coached during his managerial career. Unfortunately, his revolutionary ideas were rarely ever accepted during his time in Switzerland and Germany, but FSV Mainz accommodated arguably the most successful period of his managerial career.
AC Milan played a zonal system, which aimed at suffocating the opposition with synchronised and organized movement to significantly reduce the amount of space and time for them to navigate on the pitch. Frank quickly identified that tactical innovation with clubs at the lower level, could become a smaller club’s secret weapon in their quest to compete with the more superior clubs.
Therefore, Frank devoted himself to achieving this mission at FSV Mainz when club general manager Christian Heidel appointed him coach in September 1995. Wolfgang Frank was handed the keys to another poisoned chalice, as he had been at his previous club Rot-Weiss Essen.
FSV Mainz continued their demise under Frank and finished the winter break as by far the worst team in the Bundesliga 2. They were firmly planted to the bottom of the league table, swimming five points adrift of safety and registering a measly twelve points.
Something needed to change – as Frank persistently dwelled on the lack of success during the early stages of his reign. Suddenly, the eureka moment for Frank was met by scepticism and bewilderment by players, press, board members and supporters.
It would, however, prove revolutionary to the future of German football. During the 1990s, nearly every club in Germany played with a ‘sweeper’ and the notion that football could be played without a man portraying the ‘sweeper’ role was perceived as obscene and any experimenting adventurists were quickly quashed and characteristically assassinated.
Who would attempt to break the boundaries during the 1995 winter break? Of course, Wolfgang Frank was the man to force this change. Germany had won the majority of their major honours playing with a ‘sweeper’, with national icon Franz Beckenbauer most notably filling the role during the 1970s and 80s.
Frank was prepared the defy history and did so by abolishing the ‘sweeper’ role and simply played with a back-four. He designed his training sessions to execute exercises used by Sacchi, which helped educate the players on counter-pressing football. It was the beginning of something special, but at the time, many felt it was the beginning of Frank’s insanity and the demise of FSV Mainz.
Altering The Landscape of German Football
Numerous questions were asked of his system, which to many was verging close to insanity and self-destruction. Such irrational changes would surely take months to implicate, but to make such sweeping alterations in the middle of a relegation battle was incredibly controversial.
He brought the ideology of ‘attacking being the best form of defence’ to Germany, with the emphasis of his system heavily involving high pressing from attacking players. Experts questioned that it’d leave them vulnerable to the counter-attack, which is an argument that is currently still being debated in England regarding Klopp’s system at Liverpool, but he remained determined and assured that it’d achieve success at FSV Mainz.
Frank explained that pressing the opposition’s defence would force them into resorting to long balls, which would increase the likelihood of them conceding possession, especially with the aerial superiority of Jurgen Klopp in defence. The efficiency and seriousness of training sessions improved immediately according to Heidel, but the effectiveness of his ground-breaking and high-risk system was yet to be revealed until after the winter break.
It would go one of two ways; it’d be a complete disaster (as many expected) or not just transform the culture of FSV Mainz but contribute to the development of football in Germany entirely. Fortunately, his risk paid off with The Carnival Club, who’d previously been a laughing stock in Germany, suddenly becoming one of the strongest teams in the second division.
They subsequently avoided relegation and recorded more points than any other team in the 2. Bundesliga (32) after the winter break. They’d recorded just under three times as many points as they’d accumulated in the first half of the season and finished in a respectable eleventh place.
Frank’s lack of patience was demonstrated when he attempted to rapidly increase the speed of their progress by demanding for improved training facilities and a more modernized stadium. He attempted to instil a mentality that would inspire them into the Bundesliga, and they were in pole position of achieving this dream as they headed into the winter break of the 1996/97 season in second place.
Their results declined at the beginning of the second half of the season and FSV Mainz slumped to defeats against fellow promotion candidates Hertha BSC and VfB Leipzig. Frank pinned the blame on himself for their two defeats and abruptly announced his decision to leave the club. FSV Mainz subsequently missed out on promotion to the Bundesliga by finishing in fourth place, and his predecessors were untrusting of the back-four.
Wolfgang Frank returned to the club in April 1998 to rescue them from another relegation fight, but he was again unable to propel them into the German Bundesliga. He concentrated on the “cognitive development” of the players in his second spell, but rather obsessed over the theory, and ultimately contributed to his downfall.
His predecessors once again abolished the counter-pressing system and back-four until Jurgen Klopp surprisingly emerged as the next coach in February 2001. Klopp reinstalled the philosophy provided by Frank and exceeded expectations by dragging them clear of relegation and subsequently achieving their first ever promotion to the German top flight in 2004 after two close attempts in 2002 and 2003.
Klopp evolved and improved the style first implicated by Frank and achieved further success at Borussia Dortmund, winning back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012 and reaching the UEFA Champions League final in 2013. He’s now plying his trade at Liverpool and hoping to replicate this success at Anfield. He’s currently facing an uphill battle of succeeding in the Premier League with a trending ‘counter-pressing’ system, which has been questioned in the early stages of his reign with The Reds, but if he’s given the time to flourish, he’ll surely achieve a similar level of success in England.
Wolfgang Frank sadly passed away in September 2013, but Klopp has ensured that his legacy will live on by remaining loyal and committed to achieving success by utilizing the skills he learnt from his mentor. Just like Guardiola learnt from Cruyff and Ferguson learnt from Stein, Klopp has been infectiously inspired by his former master, so remember the name, Wolfgang Frank.
Sources of Information
I was inspired to write this report after recently reading Raphael Honigstein’s fantastic book titled ‘Klopp – Bring The Noise’. It illustrated the evolvement and development of German football and credited a previously forgotten and unknown devotee to football in the shape of Wolfgang Frank. I also discovered further information via Wikipedia, Transfer Markt and Spiegel.