Category Archives: Liverpool

Wolfgang Frank – Klopp’s Mentor and unheralded innovator of German football.

Many coaches are reluctant to laud their mentors. Whether it be a case of not wanting to appear inferior. or perhaps a fear of leaving themselves open to a charge of lacking individuality and creative talent, thereby diminishing their reputations, a lack of acknowledgement to the source of their influences is hardly uncommon.

Others though, are more open. Johann Cruyff always recognised the influence of Rinus Michels, and as Liverpool canter away at the top of the Premier league, the top man at Anfield, is equally open. In his book, ‘Klopp: Bring the Noise’ Rafa Honigstein quotes the Liverpool manager as declaring that Wolfgang Frank was “the coach who influenced me the most,” describing him as “an extraordinary human being.” Now, coaches of such distinction as Michels need little introduction, but who was the man held in such high esteem by Jürgen Klopp?

Born in the West German town of Reichenbach an der Fils in the Baden-Württemberg region of the country, Wolfgang Frank enjoyed a relatively unspectacular career as a forward, playing 215 first team games, and netting 89 goals across a dozen seasons with seven different clubs. He also played half-a-dozen games for the West Germany B team, although never achieving a full international cap with Die Mannschaft. A fairly low-key coaching career followed his retirement from playing but, in 1995, when he joined a 1. FSV Mainz 05 team struggling at the foot of 2 Bundesliga, he would instigate a tactical and organisational revolution that would not only transform the club, but also inspire one of Karnevalsverein’s players to become a global force in football coaching, and redirect the course of German football.

Much as Klopp credits Frank with his tactical inspiration, the Liverpool manager also points out that Frank’s own philosophy was also inspired from others. Both Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan with their pressing style that suffocated opposition teams and Ajax’s Totaal Voetbal observed whilst Frank was playing in the Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar, provided themes for his tactical template. With Mainz five points adrift at the midway point of the season, the club were prepared to take a gamble on something revolutionary, and Frank was the Lenin to lead it.

At the time, the standard formation in German football required a sweeper, something that become de rigueur Franz Beckenbauer. The problem was, of course, that very few clubs had players of such talent, and that was certainly the case with Mainz. Frank changed his defensive line to a back four, labouring hard on the training pitch to drill his players into the new system, and eschewed man-to-man marking on set pieces in favour of a ‘zonal’ system. Off the pitch, he also recruited people from the local university to provide video analysis, to help in development of the system. Something that is now seen as commonplace, was hardly the case in 1995.

The gamble paid off handsomely, and in the second half of the season, Frank’s team accumulated 32 points, a total that eclipsed every other club in the two top tiers of German football. Mainz strolled to safety and, unwittingly perhaps, Wolfgang Frank revolutionised German football producing a system that allowed clubs with inferior financial resources to both compete and, often, outshine the financial powerhouses of the game. Klopp’s time with Dortmund is an illustration of the success of the system he took from his mentor.

In 1997, with his reputation enhanced, Frank was persuaded to move to FK Austria Wien. It was a short stay however, and he returned to Mainz the following year. In his absence, the club had installed, and then removed, Reinhard Saftig and Dietmar Constantini, neither of whom favoured his system, and it was a case of rebuilding on his return. Whilst Frank had been in the Austrian capital, a certain midfield player with Mainz, by the name of Jürgen Klopp, had made it clear to the club’s hierarchy that the replacement coaches were destroying the work Frank had done, advising that only a return to the former coach’s way of playing would reinvigorate the club. His case was given merit when Frank’s return brought more than respectable seventh and then ninth place finishes for the club.

The latter season however saw a sliding doors moment for Frank, Mainz and Klopp. Seduced by what he perceived as a better opportunity to further his ambitions of coaching in the Bundesliga, Frank left to join MSV Duisberg. It was the beginning of a sad decline in his career. He would last just four months at the Schauinsland-Reisen-Arena, before being moved on. From there he gradually fell down the ladder, coaching at eight different clubs in the following eight years, with only limited success, before ending his coaching career with Belgian club K.A.S. Eupen in 2012.

Back at Mainz, the club made similar mistakes to when Frank had left them previously. Coaches came and went, without any signs of progress, and by February 2001, the club was in dire danger of relegation, once again. General Manager, Christian Heidel, decided it was time to grasp the nettle once more, and return to the tactics that Frank had proven to be so successful. Eckhard Krautzun was dismissed, and the decision was taken to appoint someone not only steeped in the Frank philosophy, but also who had advocated his return before, and had the required charisma and respect among the squad to deliver. The reins were handed to Jürgen Klopp, who took over in his first managerial post.

True to his mentor’s philosophy, Klopp reinstalled the Frank system and duly reaped the rewards as his team garnered 21 points from a dozen games and, again Frank’s philosophy exorcised the spectre of relegation. Unlike Frank however, Klopp remained with the club, taking them to the unheralded heights of promotion to the Bundesliga and the undreamt of heights as an established club in the top tier of German football.

After seven years coaching the pillars of Frank’s tactical approach and adding his own personal developments, Klopp moved on to Dortmund and more unheralded success, taking the philosophy he had built from Frank’s foundations to new heights. The debt he owed to his former manager was hardly forgotten however. Upon reaching the Champions League final with Dortmund in 2013, Klopp messaged Frank to offer his thanks for all he had done to foster his coaching career.

Later that same year, Wolfgang Frank passed away, at his home in Mainz. In another act of homage, Klopp gathered his former team-mates from the successful days with the club to attend the funeral. It was both a tribute and a respect paid to coach often overlooked in the history of German football, but one whose tactical innovation altered the direction of the game, opening the door to not only Klopp, but also a whole new generation of managers including Joachim Low and Ralf Rangnick.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Pundit Feed’ website.

CSKA Sofia – European football’s Slayers of Champions.

CSKA

In the history of Europe’s premier club competition, be it as the European Cup or, more latterly, the Champions League, only one club who have never lifted the trophy – in either guise – can claim to have eliminated reigning champions on three occasions. That club is CSKA Sofia or, to give it the full Anglicised title, the Central Sports Club of the Army, as located in Sofia. Both Juventus and Real Madrid have eliminated more champions, but CSKA’s achievement remains unique. So too are the stories and strings of apparent coincidences surrounding the story of the oft disregarded Bulgarian club that became European football’s Slayers of Champions. Continue reading →

Xabi Alonso – Liverpool’s Pass Master.

On 1 June 2018, the man who, less than a week later, would be appointed as manager of Segunda División B club Real Sociedad B, quietly settled into his seat at Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium. He was there to watch former club, at which he collected a Champions League winner’s medal, and the words inevitably playing through his mind were of a different song, one that asserted no-one who was part of that footballing family – one he felt strongly that he belonged to – should ever feel alone.  Xabi Alonso, was there to watch Liverpool win their sixth title as Champions of Europe. Continue reading →

The tragic tale of Roma legend Agostino Di Bartolomei.

Any footballer’s career can have many peaks and troughs, almost regardless of the level at which they play. Games won or lost. Goals scored or conceded. Moments of exaltation mixing freely with others spent in sad reflection of errors made or chances missed can be a toxic and highly volatile cocktail. It’s rarely the case however that the absolute zenith and nadir of a career can occur at almost one and the same time. For Agostino Di Bartolomei, captain of AS Roma at the time, some would argue that is precisely what happened on the penultimate day of May 1984, when his club faced Liverpool in the European Cup Final staged at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. Continue reading →

Crouchinho – The legend of Peter Crouch

When confronted with a survey question enquiring what he would be if he wasn’t a footballer, Peter Crouch delivered the quippiest of ‘one-liner’ answers. “A virgin,” the lanky striker replied. It was a typical piece of self-deprecating humour from the man mocked by opposing fans for his gangly deportment, less than elegant appearance and style of play. The self-appointed nickname of ‘Crouchinho’ is another example. Continue reading →

Emile Heskey – Blunt instrument or under-rated and unselfish leader of the line?

 Back in the latter years of the 1990s, Leicester City fans had often chimed up with a chant of “Bruno, Bruno,” whenever Emile Heskey featured significantly in a game. I used to think this was a complimentary reference to the muscular build of the pugilistic heavyweight warrior of the time. A Leicester supporting later friend corrected that assumption for me however, insisting that, rather than his physique, it was the young striker’s propensity to spend much of his time on the floor after any physical contact, no matter how slight, that provoked the comparison. Whether that was just a personal view or an accurate reflection of a number if Leicester fans’ attitude wasn’t clear. It serves however as an example of how a player who spent the best part of two decades in top level English football and accumulated 62 full England caps, found it far easier to inspire ridicule than respect. Continue reading →

Ray Clemence – The White Hart Lane years.

In 1981, at the age of 33, Ray Clemence decided to leave Liverpool. He had been with the club since 24 June 1967, when Bill Shankly paid a reported £18,000 to Scunthorpe United to take the goalkeeper to Anfield. Across the next 14 years or so, Clemence would accumulate enough silverware to fill the most ostentatious of trophy cabinets. Five League Championships, FA Cup and League Cup triumphs and five Charity Shields added up to a sizeable domestic haul, but there was also substantial success in Europe. No less than three European Cups came his way, along with two UEFA Cups and a UEFA Super Cup. With that lot bringing towards 20 medals, it’s a good job that Clemence had pretty safe hands if he was ever required to hold them all at the same time. Continue reading →

Harry Kewell – Leeds United’s Aussie hero – and villan!

When Luis Figo infamously left Barcelona to join bitter rivals Real Madrid, he was forever cast into the pit of hatred by all Cules. Returning to the Camp Nou, wearing the Los Blancos shirt, he even had a pig’s head thrown at him that had somehow been smuggled into the stadium. A banner at the ground said, “We hate you so much, because we loved you so much!” There were never reports of any such parts of a pig’s anatomy being thrown at Harry Kewell when he left Leeds United, but for so many of the Elland Road faithful, after he left the club, the feelings they had for the Aussie they had once idolised were very similar to those expressed on that Catalan banner. Continue reading →

John Toshack – Cardiff City’s favourite son who led Swansea to England’s top tier.

For a man born in Cardiff, who served the Bluebirds with such distinction across a five-year career in which he netted 74 league goals in just 162 games before moving to Liverpool, joining bitter rivals Swansea City as Player/Manager must have been looked on by fans from the Welsh capital as some kind of treachery. To deliver unheralded success with the club could hardly have helped salve the open wounds, and surely must have left those Cardiff supporters thinking about what might have been. Continue reading →

Chelsea 4 Liverpool 4 – All thud and blunder in a very British Champions League encounter.

Although hardly a formality, it seemed that the home team held all of the trump cards. Chelsea had travelled to Anfield two weeks earlier and returned with a 1-3 triumph. Despite falling to an early goal from Fernando Torres, Guus Hiddink’s team had played their way back into the game with cool assurance amongst the raucous Merseyside atmosphere and with a brace of headed goals from Branislav Ivanovic plus a strike from Dider Drogba, had ended the game as worthy winners. It gave the Blues an excellent chance to reach the last four of the Champions League for the second time in consecutive seasons.

Twelve months previously, they had met Liverpool in the semi-finals of the competition when, after a 1-1 draw at Anfield, Chelsea had triumphed 3-2 after extra-time in as closely contested home leg to take their place in the final, where they would ultimately lose out to Manchester United on penalties. This time however, with three away goals safely pocketed from the win on Merseyside, Chelsea would have been expecting progress along a much less rocky road. In a game that throbbed and pulsated with tension and a repeated switchback of advantage and emotions though, that would hardly be the case.

In the previous five years, Liverpool and Chelsea had faced each other two dozen times, with seldom much to choose between them, especially in the days when Continue reading →