Young upstart coach Juergen Klopp has exploded unto the European football scene this season by brilliantly leading his Borussia Dortmund past all obstacles to book a date with powerhouse Bayern Munich in the first and historic all-German Champion’s League final at Wembley stadium on May 25th, 2013.
A first glance at the 45 year old German coach can be quite deceptive as his often unshaven face, unkempt hair, preference for casual clothes over the slick tailored suits worn by most top coaches and the boyish passion he exudes on the sideline may give him the air of a trivial character.
But underneath “Kloppo” is a smart and edgy coach and in five years at Dortmund he has won consecutive Bundesliga titles (2011 and 2012) but most impressively has developed and refined his personal “Vollgasveranstaltungen,” football philosophy which combines concepts of immediate counter-pressing, rapid transition from defense into a blistering counter-attack all played with soul and passion. A captivating character, Klopp is an old-fashioned student of the game who is not a big believer in statistics but more concerned with his team’s capacity to adapt to particular match situations and thus watches and re-watches matches religiously to find solutions. Alima Hotakie’s excellent article takes you into the intriguing world of Juergen Klopp.
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By Alima Hotakie
Q: What would be the most horrible form of training that you could imagine for your players?
A: A survival camp in the wilderness. Five days in tents with the rain, without food and all about self-sufficiency. If I had the time I would do it. That would be phenomenal. I don’t want to make a show out of it. It has to be real and hard to accomplish. Whoever survives such a thing, can achieve anything.
— Dortmund dreaming despite distractions
It was a jarring answer to an intriguing question posed by Bild yet one senses that if Juergen Klopp had the power, he’d also introduce timeouts into football.
Klopp’s Dortmund isn’t as deep as a club like Bayern, but he compensates with tactical planning and conditioning.
It’s hard to take the Borussia Dortmund coach seriously if one were to judge him solely on his appearance: unkempt hair, unshaven face and an expression normally signifying bewilderment. Oh, not to mention his preference for track pants and the “Poehler” baseball cap rather than suits.
But after topping the group of death with BvB, winning in dramatic comeback fashion against Malaga in the Champions League quarterfinal and hammering Real Madrid in the first leg of the semis, it’s obvious that his appearance doesn’t matter.
– Uersfeld: Dortmund dreaming despite distractions
– Rigg: Remontada, Remontada, Remontada for Madrid
– Delaney: Bravery the key for Klopp in Madrid
– Hunter: Real look to call upon spirit of Juanito
Klopp’s brand of football has mesmerized audiences in the Bundesliga for the past five years and is now catching admiration and respect on a global level. His coaching philosophy and tactics are quite distinct; his team plays a high-tempo, high-pressure, quick pass and transition game. The victories notched against Los Blancos, both in the semifinals and in the group stage, largely depended on Klopp’s tactical ingenuity.
While most experts believed the key to winning against Madrid was to contain Cristiano Ronaldo, the German coach told the Spanish paper El Pais he directed his attention away from the striker and focused on nullifying the creative abilities of Xabi Alonso instead.
“We knew where they would send their passes, how they look for Cristiano. Our plan was to take Xabi out of the game. Because if Alonso can play as he wants it is impossible to defend against Madrid.”
So he deployed Mario Goetze to keep an extra eye on Alonso, which forced the Spain international to drop deeper into his own half and therefore hampered his ability to launch long, diagonal passes out to his forwards.
“If you block Xabi, you make it so Pepe has the ball. That is a big difference.”
Even against Malaga in the return leg of the quarterfinals, the BvB coach’s tactical changes to use Felipe Santana and late substitute Mats Hummels as strikers in the dying minutes of the game miraculously paid off, speaking only further to his clever impromptu skills.
Behind the stubble and the impish grin, Klopp’s approach yielded back-to-back Bundesliga titles for Dortmund and a 5-2 humiliation of Bayern Munich in last year’s DFB-Pokal final. In fact, it wasn’t until this year’s German Cup quarterfinals that Bayern finally ended its losing streak against the Ruhr side (with the exception of the Super Cup).
When “Kloppo” took the reigns at Dortmund in 2008, he promised his supporters exciting football and introduced a sense of obligation toward the fans that’s unheard of at other clubs. He gave them his vocabulary word to play with: Vollgasveranstaltungen. That’s entertaining football played with soul and passion.
“The calculation is easy. We go out and give it our all. That’s what the people want to see.”
On a tactical level, it’s a concept that entails different aspects. In addition to the high speed at which Dortmund plays, the idea is to disorganize the opponent. This is anchored in his use of “gegenpressing” (counter-pressing), referring to his team’s ability to harass high up the pitch in order to immediately recover the ball after losing it.
At its core, Klopp relies on exploiting a momentary mental weakness in his opponents.
“The most convenient moment to win back the ball is directly after losing it. The opposition must first orient themselves, look as to where they can pass the ball,” he told the local newspaper Ruhr Nachrichten.
Of course another benefit of gegenpressing is the more obvious one of cutting the distance to the opponent’s net. It also allows Dortmund to control the pace of a game or slow it down when necessary.
Too add to that control is the tightness of Klopp’s favorite formation, and those who have observed Dortmund in action know how compact the team plays. In an interview with 11 Freunde, Klopp said, “his 4-2-3-1 system has to remain so compact that there are only a maximum of 34 steps from Robert Lewandowski to Hummels.” This meticulous spacing is what makes the formation so hard to beat, he said.
Behind the scenes, Klopp is just as influential in preparing the psychological dimension of his team. Although he denies mastering the art of motivation, many believe his optimism and positive attitude have contributed to his team’s accomplishments.
“We approach every game positively, that the opponent is beatable,” Klopp noted in a television interview with Sky Sports.
He added that it’s only logical to focus on one game at a time, on the now rather than the past or future. While the 45-year old naturally flourishes in an inspirational role, he isn’t the most enthusiastic supporter of statistics, once telling Der Tagesspiegel that he’s more concerned with adaptation and how his team reacts to particular situations.
“These insights (stats) don’t tell me much. Because I must devise a plan based on the abilities of my players and not on the law of statistics.”
But the few stats he is concerned with are speed, stamina, time for the body to regenerate and any information that tells him more about the players’ health in order to avoid risks. Stamina, in particular, draws his curiosity. Dortmund’s fitness level is one of the best in Europe despite lacking the depth on the bench as rivals Bayern. The ability to not tire easily is vital because it directly improves his players’ concentration.
“Stamina cannot be practiced with the ball but with running, running and running. And the better the stamina, the more players can concentrate on their roles … at our level you have to be exceptionally trained so that you can stay awake mentally.”
But optimal mileage is just as imperative. For the German coach, the ability to think fast and run efficiently are two important components. While he agrees with Barca’s Xavi in that it’s important to know what to do with the ball before even receiving it, optimal mileage is just as imperative. For that reason he analyzes his team’s wins to decipher which victories were run with lower and higher distances as a difference in 18-22 km is enough to determine if his players ran appropriately or wastefully.
Despite this study, his best analysis still remains re-watching games. In fact, that’s how Klopp taught himself.
“I know it’s very old fashioned. Tape in, forward and rewind, forward and rewind, a thousand times. I’d spent five or six hours on a 90-minute game. I haven’t been able to do it any faster. But to be clear: This was my education, no book or seminars or anything from renowned trainers. Ten games a week and I usually started before breakfast.”
Though Dortmund have lost some ground to Bayern this season, Klopp’s deceptive, meticulous managerial style should keep Die Schwarzgelben amid the European elite regardless of which players come and go. Both Nuri Sahin and Shinji Kagawa were replaced smoothly by FC Nuremberg’s Ilkay Guendogan and Borussia Moenchengladbach’s Marco Reus respectively, though the loss of Goetze to Bayern might be a tougher sell. Not that you’d bet against Kloppo, of course.
Regardless of what happens to Dortmund in the Champions League and beyond, the scruffy scamp from Stuttgart has caught our attention, captured our imagination and earned our respect.
Alima Hotakie (@AlimaHotakie) is a sports journalism graduate and the associate editor at theScore’s Counter Attack blog. She was raised in Europe and fell in love with the game after Germany won the World Cup in 1990. She speaks three languages and is passionate about football, with a particular soft spot for the Bundesliga.