BREAKING GROUND: HOW SEVEN YEARS AT MAINZ SHAPED THE EVENTUAL LEGEND OF JURGEN KLOPP

Energetic and charismatic, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp has achieved his status amongst the elite managers of the modern game through shrewd transfer business and continued overachievement with his clubs. Klopp is beloved by fans and reporters alike. His primarily jovial nature has led to some noteworthy sound bites, and his personality creates lasting legacies with the fans of the sides he manages.

Before becoming a household name in European football through his spells at Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool, Klopp paved his way at a relatively small club based in Rhineland-Palatinate. His playing career, one of limited success, was predominantly based at FSV Mainz 05, the club where his managerial legacy would begin.

Described by one-time teammate and footballing best friend David Wagner as ‘technically average, endurance average, but because of his attitude he ran more than he usually did, but he was a leader’, Klopp’s playing career wasn’t necessarily a widely successful one. A defender, albeit one who had started out as a striker, Klopp often lost his cool on the pitch, a trait carried over to the touchline. Wolfgang Frank, the man who managed Klopp on two separate occasions at Mainz, outlines the reasons for the loss of control, suggesting: ‘sometimes he lost control out on the pitch because he had many good ideas in his head, but not the footballing talent to act upon them.’

His playing spell at Mainz made up much of his career. He amassed 325 appearances for Karnevalsverein, scoring 52 goals for the side. As Mainz had never made it higher than the 2. Bundesliga, Klopp’s playing career was limited to the same level. As he said upon being appointed Borussia Dortmund manager, he had ‘fourth-division talent and a first-division head. That resulted in the second division.’ Whilst Klopp the player was never to receive international acclaim, the journey of Klopp the manager was about to begin on 27 February 2001.

With Mainz battling against relegation, sporting director Christian Heidel decided to fire manager Eckhard Krautzun. Klopp was asked to take over the team for their match against Duisburg the following day and led his former teammates to a 1-0 victory. A 3-1 win over Chemnitz in the following game saw Klopp appointed until the end of the season. It was the start of a journey that pushed Mainz to the top league of German football, and Klopp to the elite table of European coaches.

The decision to appoint Klopp over a more established managerial name came from then sporting director Christian Heidel. His decision came for a specific reason – finding someone to revert Mainz to how they played under former manager Wolfgang Frank.

By modern standards, the innovations of Frank were simple, but German football in the ’90s was dominated by the presence of the libero. Iconised by Franz Beckenbauer during the 1970s, the German national sides and successful club teams all employed a back-three system with a player in this role, and it was seen as the only way to achieve success. With Mainz struggling badly during the 1995/96 season, Frank decided to try something revolutionary: implement a 4-4-2 system.

Inspired by Arrigo Sacchi’s highly successful AC Milan team, Mainz experimented with a flat back four that focused on ‘ball-oriented zonal marking’. Frank’s system was predicated upon freeing up one of the traditional three central defenders in order to gain a greater control of the midfield battle. More than any other manager, Frank was the one who influenced Klopp’s future thinking about the best way to play the game.

Jump forward to 2001 and with the continued failings of Mainz using a back-three, change was needed. Heidel wanted to reimplement the back four that had worked so well, but, after the struggles of Krautzun who claimed to understand the principles of the back four, the Sporting Director decided to allow the players to coach themselves with Klopp as the figurehead.

One of the key characteristics of Klopp’s management style is his relationship to his players, and this was immediately clear at Mainz. Aided by the fact he was managing a side he had just finished playing for, his playing staff were quick to respond to Klopp’s embracing style. As Sandro Schwarz, former teammate and player under Klopp at Mainz and current Mainz manager described, he had a natural authority but there was no sense of formality and he was still just one of the squad.

The community spirit that Klopp fostered at Mainz helped give the team a strong sense of belief that they would be successful in their fight against relegation. Klopp was able to rejuvenate a dispirited squad and use his natural rapport with the players to convince them they could achieve what they set their minds to, a trait he has carried forward to his further managerial roles. At Dortmund, his side overhauled by Bayern Munich to win two consecutive league titles, and his Liverpool team’s improbable run to a Champions League Final is testament to the belief Klopp instilled in his players.

Robert Lewandowski, Mario Götze, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Neven Subotić all fondly reminisce of their time working with Klopp at Dortmund. Every player who has worked under Klopp praises his nature, and he is often described as a father figure to those he works with. His desire to work closely with his players and helping them to develop both on and off the pitch has been a significant factor in helping Klopp rise to the top of the footballing pyramid, and it was at Mainz that he perfected this policy.

Klopp’s Mainz, having switched to a back-four system, dragged themselves away from the relegation battle and avoided relegation with a game to spare. It represented a remarkable turnaround for a team seemingly destined for the drop and a large proportion of that can be attributed to Klopp. It was during the team’s final game that arguably Klopp’s most notable trait became engrained into his mindset. As described in Raphael Honigstein’s Bring the Noise, both Klopp and Heidel realised in the final few weeks of the season that ‘little old Mainz could only grow as a club if the supporters were on board.’

His long-standing relationship with Mainz enabled him to build a bound quickly with the supporters, but his confident public appearance gave fans hope. The fans believed in Klopp and felt he was the one manager who would be able to secure them a first chance of playing in the top flight of German football. After missing out on promotion on the final day of the 2001/02 season, Klopp and Heidel believed that their chance had gone. And yet, upon arriving back home in Mainz they were greeted by hundreds of fans to cheer them. Klopp had turned a carnival city who rarely cared about their football team into a passionate base on which Mainz could grow.


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His ability to build relationships with his team’s fans is one of the German’s greatest strengths. His two appointments since Mainz have been clubs that are underperforming in respect to the beliefs of their fans. Both Dortmund and Liverpool were struggling prior to Klopp’s arrival, and both flourished under him. His style of play, as well as his boisterous personality, creates an instant bond with the supporters. This relationship allows his teams to flourish and is a vital part of the Klopp method of management, one which was refined in the carnival atmosphere of Mainz.  

Mainz went from strength to strength under Klopp’s tutelage. Having narrowly avoided relegation in his first few months in charge, his side began to push themselves further up the 2. Bundesliga. Mainz had two near misses in achieving promotion to the Bundesliga, finishing one place outside the promotion spots two years in a row, but this was still an improvement for Mainz. The system had changed slightly by this point.

Utilising his mentors’ 4-4-2 system to bring Mainz away from relegation, Klopp had transformed the system into a more fluid 4-3-3, a system which he employs currently. The 4-3-3 allowed Mainz to gain a greater control of matches and create a style of play which would allow his side to be successful regardless of the opposition. The aim, in effect, was to remove the element of randomness from the matches.

Klopp and his faithful assistant, Željko Buvač, used their training sessions to this end. Buvač would place walls and poles around the penalty area when practising shooting so that the ball would bounce unpredictably on the rebound. Whilst obviously unable to simulate the random events of the actual match, the Mainz players were always been trained to be on the move for any potential second chances. When watching Klopp’s Liverpool side, they appear to be quicker to react to second chances than their opponent. This seems likely to come from a training pattern established by Klopp at Mainz, one which gives his players the edge in the midst of uncertainty.

The 4-3-3 system was designed in order to allow Mainz to be in greater control of the match, thereby placing the destiny of the outcome in their own hands. Much like at Dortmund and Liverpool, Klopp’s team aimed to unsettle the opposition with a hard press that was started by the forward players and instantly win the ball back. Once he reached Dortmund, there was a higher calibre of players at his disposal meaning his style of play was easier to achieve, but whilst at Mainz he perfected his system.

After guiding Mainz to a successful promotion push in 2003/04, Klopp began to become an increasingly well-known manager. Previously he had received small press attention due to his overachievements with Mainz and the soundbites he often provided reporters in his press conferences but being outside the top flight limited his exposure.

His and Mainz’s first season in the Bundesliga was a huge success. After ten league games, Mainz had five wins and three draws. It was a start that nobody expected and belied the belief that Mainz would be certainties for relegation, even if they would party the whole way. Mainz under Klopp were a side that would outrun all others. As Klopp himself stated: “We want to run incessantly. That’s our code of arms. We are the vanguard of the regular guys in the pub. They want us to run and fight. If one guy leaves the stadium thinking, ‘they should have run and fought more today’, we got it wrong completely.”

Even as the gloss of the new season began to wear off and results started to regress towards the expected norm for Mainz, Klopp’s job security was secure within the club. A slight switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation helped Mainz rediscover some form, and safety was ensured with two matches left. That in itself was a huge success for Die Nullfünfer. Finishing as the eleventh best side in Germany? That was the icing on the cake.

The cherry came as the season ended. Due to winning the national fair play award, Mainz had been awarded a place in the following seasons UEFA Cup first qualifying round. A second Bundesliga season was impeded initially by the UEFA Cup run, with Mainz losing their opening five matches of the season. Their form slowly recovered, and once again, Klopp led Mainz to an eleventh-place finish.

Klopp’s third season in the top flight was the most difficult of his short career. His side started slowly, being bottom of the league after half the games had been played. Some good results during the second half of the season were not enough to ensure Mainz would be playing another season of Bundesliga football and Mainz were ultimately relegated back down to the second division.

Although the result was devastating for Klopp, and he would only last one more season at Mainz (he resigned after failing to secure an immediate return), the experience had thrust Klopp into the limelight. Whilst attempting to earn promotion again, Klopp was contacted by Uli Hoeneß, general manager of Bayern Munich, about the vacant managerial position at the Bavarian giants. Ultimately the German powerhouse ended up hiring the “other” Jürgen, the more reputable Klinsmann being chosen over Klopp. Despite missing out on the Bayern job, the fact remained that Klopp had been shortlisted for the role. The continued overachievement had earned Klopp recognition and it seemed inevitable that a top job was around the corner. Borussia Dortmund would be the club for him.

Mainz’s and subsequently Klopp’s success did not come by accident. Much has been said about Klopp’s transfer policy whilst at Liverpool, with his willingness to wait for his number one target to become available paying dividends so far. The pull of Klopp was evident in the summer transfer window of 2017, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain joining Liverpool from Arsenal on a contract that offered less money due to the benefits of having Klopp help him develop.

Klopp’s careful screening policy surrounding new signings was developed on the more shoestring budget which Mainz had to work with. With no room to make mistakes in recruitment, Klopp and Christian Heidel conducted interviews with prospective signings in order to determine their character. Both men would meet with the players, and their families if possible, and try to build a picture of the signing, both as a player and a human being.

The interviews were about understanding if the player would fit into the existing philosophy of the club. Would they train hard? Would they be willing to run continuously? The players had to be willing to buy into the system entirely otherwise they would not be joining the club.

Arguably the biggest question that was asked of potential recruits regarded their thoughts on Mainz. They had to be wanting to play for Mainz as if they were the only club for them. Mohamed Zidan, who joined from Werder Bremen, was initially ambivalent to a move to the side, but after meeting the club, he didn’t want to move anywhere else.

It is all a part of the Klopp charm. For the teams he manages, Klopp represents more than just a manager. He is an almost cult-like figure, a term labelled at him by players wanting out of Mainz. The description instantly draws negative connotations, but it ignores the finer aspects of Klopp’s management, a style based on the finer details. Details such as offering Fabian Gerber the day off training to celebrate his mother’s birthday. These finer details create the family atmosphere that Klopp want his club to have. Players are drawn to Klopp as, not only does he make them better footballers, he tends to make them better people.

Mainz was the starting point for Klopp’s legacy. His title wins at Dortmund and potential future trophy success at Liverpool and possibly beyond will inevitably draw the most media attention in the full story of the German, but Mainz is the all-important opening chapter. It was on the banks of the Rhine that Klopp swapped his football boots for a tactics board. He transferred his love of Mainz from the pitch to the manager’s office.

The top level of European football is the playground for Klopp nowadays, but his stay in the small carnival town of Mainz was the making of him. The principles that have so inspired players, staff and fans in the yellow and black of Dortmund and red of Liverpool were refined and honed. For the normal one, it has been anything but a normal journey, one which began amidst the lights and sounds of Die Nullfünfer.

BY MICHAEL GALLWEY

ARTWORK BY VARDHAN CHULANI