Jürgen Klopp – Admired tactician and motivator feared by opposition managers

All real Liverpool supporters certainly know most all things possible about Klopp’s basic tactical approach called Gegenpressing or, in English, counter-pressing. What is more, all English managers are very aware of what this tactical approach of Klopp’s can do to their teams. So much so that most all of them talk about ‘parking the bus’ in their post-match interviews after having been defeated by this new-look Liverpool team or having managed to achieve a draw and gain a point against this very tough opponent of theirs, which was Liverpool Football Club.

Most all Premier League managers (probably all of them apart from some very few) are, in fact, openly scared of Jürgen Klopp and truly admire him. The attacking prowess of the Liverpool team we are watching this season is amazing, and we can also no longer be regarded as weak defensively, with centre backs like Dejan Lovren and Joël Matip, plus two offensive wing backs of the highest quality in Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner – and also, amazingly, a properly tuned defensive midfielder in the captain Jordan Henderson. This development in terms of defensive solidity has occurred in an amazingly short while, too. It is just like Jürgen Klopp so often says in public: he is all about training, and not about big name transfers. What has happened at Melwood these past few months is indeed key to our recent success on the pitch either home or away. As has been said by such a lot of former players I do not even need to mention a single name, Jürgen Klopp’s dugout and sideline antics have been really something to watch. What we are watching is a great motivator. Liverpool F.C. fans haven’t seen anything like this since Bill Shankly’s very long tenure as manager. Having come from Borussia Dortmund, Klopp certainly knows and appreciates the importance of the proverbial 12th man – the enormous mass of people present in the stands. As a motivator, Jürgen Klopp also is important to the very young players under his and his other staff’s command as he has always, ever since he started out at Mainz 05, been extremely interested and enthusiastic about the thought of developing first class senior players in the youth academy of his. We have already seen players like Ovie Ejaria, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kevin Stewart, and Ben Woodburn get into the first team to do important jobs at this level. It must of course be motivating for the U-19 and U-23 team to see the club manager Jürgen Klopp watch them play and train time and again, and also giving some of them a chance to shine in the first team at times. The thing is, as of now, there really are no more than three Premier League club managers who have always done this. Klopp is one; Arséne Wenger and  Mauricio Pocchettino are the two proven others.

To give a couple of examples, Wenger was Thierry Henry’s manager at Monaco, where he gave Henry the chance to make his full first team debut as a left winger at the age of seventeen. Thierry Henry was sold to Juventus as rather a young lad, and struggled to secure a first pick spot in this world class Serie A team. After two seasons playing on and off for Juventus, Wenger re-signed Thierry Henry, only this time to Arsenal. He made the left winger become a world class striker at Highbury. Since then Wenger has produced a lot of class players coming through the youth ranks of Arsenal time and again. Pocchettino on the other hand, has had a good eye for great young talents ever since he arrived in north London. We all watched the likes of Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Danny Rose, and Eric Dier really excell last season. Young Dier and Kane have this season both signed new long term contracts at White Hart Lane, and we have seen Pocchettino making use of highly skilled youngsters like Harry Winks, Kevin Wimmer, Cameron Carter-Vickers, and Kieran Trippier this season.

Let me take a brief look at a pick of great coaches / managers of world football history and try to explain how some (or indeed all of them) have had qualites that we can see Jürgen Klopp clearly has.

Brazil’s 1970 and 1982 World Cup teams is my chosen place to begin my journey into the realm of world football history.

In 1970, Mario Zagallo had just recently been appointed as the new Seleção manager. He swifty changed the system that had already qualified Brazil for the World Cup tournament in Mexico from a 4-2-4 formation he believed was out of date to a more modern 4-3-3 formation – the same team structure with which Brazil were victorious in Sweden 1958. He moved Rivelino a little behind and allowed for attacking football with some defensive grit as well. Brazil won the World Cup of 1970 and reached the semi final of the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. Zagallo then went on to have further success with Al-Hilal and Kuwait. He then took the United Arab Emirates to their first ever World Cup in Italy 1990. Zagallo’s ability to work with the finest football talent as well as inspiring players to overachieve were perhaps his finest assets.

In 1982, Tele Santana’s amazing Brazil side took the world by storm in the World Cup tournament hosted by Spain. Brazil cruised through the first round beating the USSR 2-1, Scotland 4-1, and New Zealand 4-0 and then ended up in the middle round’s ‘Group of Death’ featuring Argentina, Italy, and the Seleção. Italy had been lucky getting through the first rnd’s group stage, having only qualified for the twelv team middle round as number 2 behind an astonishingly good Polish team. Italy ended up with draws against all their first round opponents (Poland, Peru, and Cameroon). In the last first round game against Cameroon Italy knew they would go through to the next stage of the tournament with a draw against Cameroon, as they had a 1-1 goal difference and 2 points after their two first games whilst Cameroon had 2 points and a 0-0 goal difference. What happened was, Cameroon outplayed the Italians and really should have defeated them, but the game ended 1-1, Graziani and M’Bida scoring the goals. Italy went through on more goals scored than Cameroon. For great Africa afficionados like myself the whole thing was a massive disappointment. The second round started well for Brazil as a team of great attacking prowess that included fantastic players like Zico, Socrates, Eder, Falcão, Junior and Cerezo beating Argentina 3-1. Italy had also defeated Argentina 2-1, so the last middle round game between Brazil and Italy only meant Italy had to beat Brazil to reach the semi final. Brazil would reach the semi final with a draw, that’s all. Quite amazing errors allowed Paolo Rossi to score his two first goals. In the 75th minute no real defensive error was made as Paolo Rossi scored his third goal. Brazil never managed to equalize, so Italy went through to the semi final, then went on to win their third World Cup trophy in football history. Tele Santana’s team is however the team everyone who watched the 1982 World Cup remembers to this day. This team, alongside the 1974 Dutch team and the 1954 Hungarian team, is recognized as the very best teams that didn’t win the World Cup trophy. What a team! Pure class! Except for the goalkeeper Perez if I might say so. The way the 1982 team played was simply amazing, with offensive wing backs on both sides, an excellent midfield and a free-flowing type of attacking play where all the players apart from two centre backs and a defensive midfielder would always take part. Now, my personal opinion is their goalkeeper Perez cost them the semi final spot that year. If that team could have had a Taffarel between the goalposts, its captain Socrates would have lifted the 1982 World Cup trophy, I have no doubt about that. Tele Santana’s 4-1-3-1-1 formation was just fantastic to watch. We were once again watching Samba on the Pitch.

Another great national team and manager that must be mentioned, in as much as this man just might be understood as a possible Jürgen Klopp inspiration in terms of tactics. The legendary man I think of is Rinus Michels and the team he most famously trained: The Netherlands of the 1970s, whilst not forgetting about his fantastic Ajax team featuring yet another footballing legend known all over the planet: Johan Cruyff, who first excelled as a great football player and later excelled as really a great club manager primarily with Barcelona in Catalonia / Spain.

Rinus Michels invented the system that would be popularly known as ‘total football’ – The Michels trained Ajax team of the early 1970s and his Netherlands of 1974 would be known for players who could and were expected to be able both to attack and defend as a team. With the ball in the team, ten outfield players were expected to be an attacking force, and as soon as the ball was lost the same ten outfield players were expected to act like great defenders, again as a good team. Everything to Rinus Michels was about team work. He would do the same thing in 1988, when The Netherlands won the European Championship, starring players like Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman, Erwin Koeman, Ronald de Boer and Frank de Boer. We now watch Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool F.C. approach each game in this way every time I watch this team play a game. Every time, all the time. Just like Rinus Michels’ national team and club team Ajax would be taking on every team every time they played a game. Johan Cruyff learnt most everything from Rinus Michels, and took this knowledge with him to Barcelona as a player and later on developed the philosophy even further as a Barcelona manager. By the way, Johan Cruyff had also learnt more in Amsterdam, as he made sure Barcelona built an excellent football academy and training grounds both for the first team and the youth teams.

Klopp certainly is a coach of the same ilk, being very clear about the development taking place in training at Melwood and Kirkby. He has even made it clear he wants the Kirkby youth training ground to be moved to Melwood, so that the really young talents will at all times be closer to the first team players when they themselves train. As the rather young Liverpool F.C. youth coach Pepijn Lijnders with a coahing background from PSV Eindhoven and Porto said: ‘I was not nervous when Klopp arrived because he stands for modern, total football. I just looked forward to working with him. That first week was full of emotion—a hard week. There is a famous saying: Be quick but don’t hurry. That’s exactly how he is constructing our specific way of play. We want to become a team in which everyone is a front player and everyone is a defender. Basically, everyone is responsible for everything. With a club like Liverpool you need to delegate and create trust; that’s why better people make a better team. Klopp ignores what is beyond his control and by influencing and developing his staff he indirectly influences all the players. The force of character is cumulative.’

Pep Guardiola certainly also needs to be mentioned here. Guardiola is already a coaching legend both in Barcelona and München, having enjoyed great success both in Catalonia and Bayern. He is now all about embarking on an equally successful Manchester City spell, and we have already seen how he has rejuvenated Raheem Sterling after a very short while in England. He is also about to make Kevin De Bruyne much better than he was under Manuel Pellegrini. He has made some new signings, and already has players like the above mentioned as well as Pablo Zabaleta, David Silva. Yaya Touré, Sergio Agüero and lots of others. As he has done before, Joe Hart has been off-loaded to the Italian Serie A team Torino. Players like Denayer, Mangala, Silva, and Bony have also been sent out on loan deals by Pep Guardiola. The first things he did when he became Barcelona’s first team manager was to off-load Ronaldinho and bring a very young Lionel Messi into the first team, and this is only one example. Then again, looking at it: Jürgen Klopp off-loaded lots of players this summer. Jordon Ibe, Joe Flanagan, Martin Skrtel, Kolo Touré, Joe Allen, Christian Benteke, and so on. He brought in some new players, notably Joël Matip, Loris Karius, Gini Wijnaldum, Marko Grujic, and Sadio Mané to strengthen his squad. The next player to be sold to the highest bidder is Mamadou Sakho, who simply can no longer be regarded as a trustworthy kind of person for a no nonsense manager like Jürgen Klopp. Sakho has masterminded his quick exit by his own doing. In far too many ways. –

Two more teams, three more coaches. My favourite football club is without a doubt Liverpool, but I also closely follow the ups and downs of three other teams: Bodø/Glimt (North Norway), Athletic Bilbao (Basque country / Spain), and Sporting Lisboa e Benfica (Portugal).

The Argentine Marcelo Bielsa is probably best known for his spells as the head coach of Argentina and then Chile’s national team, then also a short Olympique de Marseille spell. Marcelo ‘El Loco’ Bielsa also spent two years as Athletic Bilbao’s manager. His first season there (2011-12) would see Athletic Bilbao ending up as number 10 in La Liga, but also finishing Copa de Rey runners-up and doing extremely well in the Europa League, beating Paris Saint-Germain in a group stage game and then eliminating Locomotiv Moscow, Manchester United, Schalke 04, and Sporting Clube de Portugal to reach the final in Bucharest – the Basque club’s first European final since 1977. In the all-Spanish Europa League final against Atlético Madrid, Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao were beaten 3-0, but no one in all honesty had expected them to reach the Europa League final, that feat in itself was one fabulous achievement.

For a foreign manager the problem with Athletic Bilbao is that this club’s most important ethos lies in the recruitment of players. Basque players are the only ones eligible to play for Athletic Bilbao. As Marcelo Bielsa didn’t get the club’s board of directors on his side when he wanted the club’s very expensive Lezama training ground to be improved much more than had already been agreed to. Bielsa strongly felt the training facilities would still be inadequate. He would only stay one more season in Basque country before he left for new pastures – this time around Marseille.

Olympique de Marseille would finish fourth in Bielsa’s first Ligue 1 season (2014/15). He would spend the summer signing lots of new players, defeated Juventus in a pre-season game, but then came the biggest possible shock. –

A very good tactician Bielsa was already known as ‘El Loco’ – Bielsa all of a sudden just resigned as Olympique de Marseille’s manager after losing 0-1 in the first game of the 2015/16 season to Caen citing a lack of trust with the club’s management (the board of directors) as his very simple reason for doing so.

On 6 July 2016 Bielsa was appointed manager of Italian Serie A club Lazio, only to resign two days later. This time around legal action has been taken against him. Lazio calls it breach of contract and is suing him for €50 million.

Marcelo Bielsa is commonly known for his 3-3-3-1 formation, but there certainly is no rule without exceptions to it. What is commonly known is very often proved to be completely wrong. Marcelo Bielsa is tactical adept. He doesn’t necessarily use the same formation against all opposition sides. Athletic Bilbao under Marcelo Bielsa used a great variety of formations. 3-3-3-1 was seldom used, as this team had such a lot of good wide playing offensive full backs and wingers. Bielsa more commonly used a 3-3-1-3 or 3-4-3 Diamond formation. Bielsa could also at times have a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 formation put in practice depeding on the strengths and weaknesses of any opposition team Athletic Bilbao would be up against. Bielsa would always be very meticulous in terms of match preparation, studying the next opponent’s variety of game plans, strenghts and weaknesses. Just like Klopp does. And then, how often have we not seen Jürgen Klopp do much the same both as the tactical leader of Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool? Changing systems and adapting his game plan according to the opposition teams varied strengths and weaknesses?

Next up: Benfica. Best known for the world class teams of the 1960s and early 1970s, Hungarian coach Béla Guttmann who had previously coached and some times won trophies with several other clubs in different countries, first enjoying real success with Ujpest (Hungary) in 1939. After many years of trouble with war (Guttmann was a jew), bad temper and big difficulties with a series of club owners in Romania and Italy, in 1957 Béla Guttmann coached a Honved side that featured world class players like Ferenc Puskás, Zoltán Czibor, Sándor Kocsis and others. After five friendlies in Brazil, Guttmann decided to remain there, taking on the São Paulo job and immediately winning the São Paulo State Campionship that same year. He introduced the 4-2-4 formation tht had first been developed in Hungary to Brazil, and this system was employed by the Brazilian national team that won the World Cup trophy in 1958. In 1958 Guttmann returned to Europe, this time to Portugal and Porto. He won the Portuguese league title with Porto in 1959, then went on to become the manager of old Porto rival Sporting Lisboa e Benfica. There he promptly sacked 20 senior players, promoted a host of youth players and won the league again in 1960 and 1961. Under Guttmann, Benfica, with a team that included Eusébio, José Aguas, José Augusto, Costa Pereira, António Simões, Germano and Mario Coluna also won the European Cup twice in a row. In 1961 they beat Barcelona 3-2 in the final and in 1962 they retained the title, coming from 2-0 and 3-2 down to beat a Real Madrid side which included big attacking stars like Ferenc Puskás, Alfredo Di Stefano and loads of other great names of players 5-3. These Real Madrid players had one little flaw in common: they were now coming of age, and the great motivator Guttmann’s half time teamtalk made this point clear for his Benfica playyers: ‘They are old and tired, you are younger and more fit. You have stamina, they do not, so go out there and run them down in this second half.‘ And that was exactly what Eusébio, José Augusto, Simões, Germano and the others did. Benfica scored three goals in the second half, and Real Madrid just couldn’t respond even once.

‘There is no magic wand in football or in any other aspect of life that can create success. You need to have the talent, be good enough and have the motivation, commitment, pride, et cetera. And that generation had all of that. The fact that Benfica has this history shows that we have a culture for success. That is the history of this club, so it gives them a sense of responsibility and motivation that playing for Benfica means to win.’

~ António Simões

On 17 June 2009, Jorge Jesus replaced Quique Flores at the helm of S.L. Benfica. A brand new era of development and success was at hand with immediate effect, as the new manager in his very first season led the Eagles to the first division title after a five-year wait, with only two league defeats and 78 goals scored. Benfica also reached the Europa League quarter final, losing to Liverpool on a 3-5 aggregate score. Jorge Jesus had quickly implemented a 4-1-3-2 formation which resulted in a long awaited period of highly attractive football which also – and more importantly – brought some real success to arguably the largest, the most vibrant and the most fanatic football club fan base in Portugal.

Before the 2010-11 season, Benfica had sold Angel di Maria and Ramires, didn’t have a great lot of rotation options and could only win the domestic League Cup. In the 2011-12 season Jorge Jesus guided Benfica to the Champions League quarter finals and Benfica won the League Cup. The next season (2012-13) ended up as a bit of a disappointment although Benfica did very well, ending up as second in the domestic league despite being on top of the table before the two last league games of the season. The club also reached the final of the Europa League, losing to Chelsea and also lost the Portuguese Cup final to Guimãraes – something that can be compared to Liverpool’s F.A. Cup final defeat at the hands of Wimbledon in 1988.

Benfica struck back in an amazing way, winning the domestic treble of league, cup and league cup in 2013-14 (the first ever domestic treble in Portuguese football history, regardless of clubs). They also reached their second consecutive Europa League final, beating Juventus in the semi finals, but lost the final on penalties against (surprise, surprise!) Sevilla. On 17 May 2015, Jesus guided the club to its second consecutive league title, making it the first time Benfica won back-to-back league titles since 1984 (31 years), after Sven-Göran Eriksson, and became the first Portuguese coach to win two consecutive league titles at Benfica (remember: Guttmann was Hungarian). On 29 May 2015, he won his fifth League Cup trophy, then shortly after the contract extension negotiations with Benfica failed, and Jorge Jesus became big local rival Sporting de Portugal’s new manager one day after that. Benfica under the new manager Rui Vitória once again won the league title, Sporting ending up as second in the domestic league. Fine with me, lovely for all those half mad Benfica fans. –

‘The one proudest moment of my career was winning the league championship. There was celebration when we won it, but it wasn’t overexuberant – or we didn’t get carried away with it. And what that taught me was that it’s fantastic, we’ve won, forget about it, it’s gone. What is gonna keep you hungry for success is we don’t put too much importance on successes of the past.’

~ John Barnes

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