Long Reads

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

Wolfgang Frank and Jurgen Klopp
Credit: Welt.de

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, 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. 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 develop 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 compete with 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 Duisburg. 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 well schooled in the Frank philosophy 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 became 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. 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.