Upon his arrival in May 2018, Adolf “Adi” Hütter was set with the task of appeasing a previously success-starved Frankfurt side that spent two years in dreamland following Niko Kova’s extraordinary transformation of the club; expectations were reevaluated in a practical manner with the prospect of what preceded being exceeded seemingly out of the question.
Nevertheless, as has so often been the case throughout his career in management, expectations are merely there as a foothold to humble Hütter’s brilliance. Yet another outstanding season on and expectations of the club have skyrocketed once more, but with the departures of their deadly duo Luka Jović and Sébastien Haller amongst others, how will the Austrian fare in his toughest season in management to date?
Since the start of his playing career in 1989, Hütter has always been closely associated with his native country Austria. During his 18 years as a midfield player, he spent every season in Austria, winning three top-flight trophies, an Austrian Cup as well as a UEFA Cup runners up medal along the way, but despite his relative success and interest from elsewhere, his ability never outweighed the quality of Austrian football.
Following his retirement in 2007, Hütter’s managerial tenure began in the same vein as his playing days, building his way through Austria’s footballing pyramid, only this time, with a seemingly incessant rise through the tiers of the beautiful game.
It all began in the one place Hütter has consistently seen success throughout his career, Red Bull Salzburg, or SV Casino Salzburg as they were known when he reached a European Cup final and won three league titles in four years there as a player. After seeing out his final years on the field in their junior teams, Hütter took up the assistant role alongside fellow countryman Gerald Baumgartner before taking over as head coach when Baumgartner was promoted to assistant coach of the first team.
A record of 13 wins from 35 matches in his first taste of management was far from groundbreaking, but it was a start, and with a team that he had played in and worked alongside for three seasons, it was an ideal entrance into what is a typically uncomfortable transition for many.
Hütter ventured elsewhere the following season to gain some much-needed managerial maturity, and he returned to Red Bull Salzburg five years later with that in abundance. Once again, he opted for home comforts with Erste Liga’s SCR Altach, the place where it all began for him in his youth just a few miles from his hometown of Hohenems.
Hütter’s three years at the second division club between 2009 and 2012 saw him stabilise a newly-relegated team with a third-place finish in his opening campaign before two successive second places the following years. Having narrowly missed out on top-flight promotion on all three occasions, the fortune wasn’t quite there, but the potential and the quality of football certainly was, and when he moved on to SV Grödig in the summer of 2012, his impressive work prevailed.
The move back to the state of Salzburg was understandable geographically with the potential of a return to RB Salzburg in years to come, but in a managerial sense, it was odd. One more crack at it with Altach and he would have almost certainly achieved promotion and put himself in the shop window for a more up-market move, so it was a surprise when a man with top-flight credentials joined a mid-table Erste Liga club in SV Grödig. Not long after however, it soon became apparent that a questionable decision was the right one.
In two seasons, Hütter managed to convert a team riddled with third-tier relegation worries into a tight-knit unit on their way to the club’s first-ever appearance in Europe. Season one saw him blitz the second division, finishing first and ten points above who else but former club SCR Altach who secured a hat-trick of runners up medals, missing out on promotion largely down to Hütter’s move.
After taking the club to a record league finish in spectacular fashion, the season that followed was, by all accounts, inconceivable. Only Red Bull Salzburg and Rapid Vienna finished above Grödig, who bettered some of Austria’s long-standing great teams in Austria Vienna and Sturm Graz amongst others in their first-ever top-flight campaign.
To give his absurd accolades some added perspective, the town of Grödig populates just over 7,000 people, this compared to Salburg’s population of 153,000, Graz’s 289,000 and Vienna’s 1.8 million. Hütter well and truly put the club and himself on the map with his work at Grödig, particularly in Austria, and with his career in the dugout still in its infancy, there was only one place he was heading next.
Given his track record in management up until this point and the reputation he had attained as a result, many would argue that he had already outgrown Austrian football, and whilst the move to Red Bull Salzburg was hardly surprising considering his long romance with the club, the inevitability of his success was almost unfair to the rest of the league.
The Austrian joined Salzburg in June 2014 and left just over a year later with a league and cup double, both of which were hard-fought, but dominant throughout, and ultimately expected. His talisman, Jonathan Soriano, contributed to 66 goals (46 goals and 20 assists) in 49 appearances including 31 goals from 32 in the league. His maestro in midfield. Marcel Sabitzer, also surpassed 20 in both goals and assists (27 goals and 21 assists) in all competitions.
The orchestra were all of Austria’s finest in their respective craft, Hütter simply had to turn up and conduct them. Another triumphant year on his CV and his first two trophies to boot, Hütter’s Salzburg were in a league of their own that season and all of their opponents just so happened to be playing in it; his home country was conquered once and for all both on the pitch and in the dugout. Twenty-six years on from his debut, the time for a new challenge elsewhere had come.
Following foreseen success at a Salzburg side that have since gone onto win the Austrian Bundesliga every year since his departure (equally as predictable given their unrivalled quality, the extent of Hütter’s managerial capability was unclear and thus remained out of the depth of Europe’s top five leagues for a while longer.
The Austrian was out of a job for three months during the summer of 2015, and after Swiss club BSC Young Boys were knocked out of the Champions League in qualification in late August, manager Uli Forte was on his way more than two months before the domestic season kicked off, some much-needed relief presented itself in fitting form.
Young Boys were heading into the 2015/16 campaign in pursuit of Switzerland’s supreme, FC Basel, who had recently secured their sixth successive league title on top of beating Liverpool to the knockout stages of the Champions League before falling at the hands of Porto.
Hütter had his work cut out in a situation that was all too fresh in his memory, only this time, the roles had reversed and he was attempting to bridge a seemingly insurmountable chasm between Basel and the rest of the league. But if we have learned one thing from the Austrian’s career in management, it is the extraordinary non-existence of insurmountability.
Despite the deficit between Basel and Young Boys in the 2014/15 season, significant in quality and consistency (and twelve in points), the latter began the new season with a new sense of promise and instilled confidence in the form of one man. Not Adi Hütter, not yet anyway. But Frenchman Guillaume Hoarau, a forward who instantly found a home in Bern upon fleeing his home country following a substandard season at Bordeaux.
The 30-year-old became an instant hero in his opening season, netting 17 times and assisting five in 28 appearances, and as Soriano had so spectacularly served Hütter at Salzburg, the Austrian had the spearhead to his attack awaiting his arrival once more.
With Hoarau in the midst of an abundance of talent at Young Boys, they were always hot on Basel’s brush, but even with their target man contributing to 50 goals (36 goals, 14 assists) in 43 league matches in Hütter’s first two years in charge, they never managed to get near their superiors, but the Austrian never, not even for a second, doubted the group of players at his disposal and his ability to cross the chasm.
During his three years in Switzerland, Hütter signed just six players, all of whom have played more than 65 times for Young Boys with five of the six playing 27 or more games in the 2017/18 season. By this season, the Austrian’s third at the helm, he knew what he needed and he went out and got it.
Basel were as imperious as ever on the back of an eighth consecutive league title which came with six games to spare, and with the odds stacked against him once more, Hütter’s men didn’t just overtake Basel as the dominant force in Swiss football, they did it in cruise control, with the roof down, shades on and feet on the dashboard.
Heading into the season starved of a trophy for over 30 years, Young Boys looked like seasoned silverware collectors from start to finish. A crucial, hard-fought opening day victory at home to Basel set the tone for the rest of a season in which they retained top spot in all but three of their games, taking full command after the winter break where they gained 38 points from a possible 42 with 12 wins and two draws from 14 games.
After eight league titles in a row for Basel, there was simply nothing they could muster to match Hütter’s men, who left the Swiss giants 15 points in their wake, overturning 32 points in one season. Austria and Switzerland had experienced first hand what the rest of Europe had in store and what better place than the European stage to showcase his credentials?
After a second successive DFB Pokal final, the second of which brought a first major trophy for 30 years, two seasons on from a relegation play-off, Croatian Niko Kovač had rightfully earned himself a place in Frankfurt folklore and with that a move to Bayern Munich.
Consequently, next up for Frankfurt was likely a hangover from the honeymoon, especially given their somewhat average league positions with the prior focus being on the cup. With little known about Hütter upon his arrival in Frankfurt, it was easy to mistake a quintessential stepping stone in Hütter’s career as a pressured, panic appointment; and after his start to life in Germany, fans had every right to believe that.
The season began with a 5-0 Super Cup defeat to who else but Kovač’s Bayern, and after so much dependence on the DFB Cup in recent times, amateur fourth-tier side SSV Ulm put an abrupt end to that romance in a 2-1 giant-killing which saw Frankfurt become the first reigning champions to be knocked out at the first hurdle in 22 years.
Calls for Hütter’s head came soon after four points from the opening five games of Bundesliga season, and with plenty of ammunition at his disposal, the Austrian and his troops were consistently firing wide of the mark.
A 3-1 defeat against Borussia Mönchengladbach sank Frankfurt into 15th place, five games into the season and something significant needed to change. Frenchman Sébastien Haller was scoring goals but remained isolated up top, and with 17 goals conceded in eight in all competitions, the transition from a 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-1-2 reconnected the cogs right throughout the pitch.
Eleven matches later and the Eagles were soaring through their Europa League group with five wins from five and also sitting in third place in the league. This remarkable change of fortunes is a testament to yet another example of Hutter’s man-management, adaptability and his ability to succeed and instill togetherness without any reliance on transfers or other external changes.
As if by a click of the fingers, pairing Jović with Haller in attack brought out a new, ruthless side to a previously desolate attacking force, and with a combined 21 goals in the 11 games that followed, a lethal partnership was born.
As the winter break approached, Frankfurt became increasingly integrated into a collective individual from a collective of individuals as they hovered dangerously outside the Champions League spots in fifth place.
But as European-level teams know all too well, particularly those with a mid-season month off, the second half of the season might as well be a new season in its own. The balancing act between competitions works fine in the first half, but the second half is like stepping onto a tightrope with two poles in your arms. Eventually, Frankfurt reduced their league ambitions and chose to focus on Europe.
During their spectacular Europa League run, Frankfurt lost just once in normal time: 4-2 away to Benfica in a match they spent 70 minutes with 10 men. After cruising through their group with maximum points, Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan, Benfica all pulled results out in their first leg encounters (2-2, 0-0 and the aforementioned 4-2 respectively), but by the second leg, Hütter had found his opponents out, discovered the key to keeping them at bay and breaking them down and the slight changes in personnel were so blatantly ingenious.
In their three knock-out deciders, Frankfurt scored seven and conceded only once, beating Shakhtar 4-1, Inter 1-0, and Benfica 2-0 as they progressed to their first semi-final in 39 years. Bearing in mind this was also Hütter’s second-ever experience of the European knock-outs with his first being a round of 32 defeat to Villarreal, as well as Frankfurt’s first European appearance since 2014, the dismantling of a handful of European powerhouses came naturally to a side oozing with confidence and cohesion.
The Hütter effect was in full swing for a Frankfurt unrecognisable of those long-forgotten early-season struggles, and only Chelsea were standing in the way of a European final.
The semi-finals played host to two intense, top-quality chess encounters between two teams who probably still wouldn’t have been separated if not for penalties. Frankfurt were happy to give away a lot of possession and territory but remained equal, at the very least, in attacking threat and defensive solidity.
Losing, especially on such even terms, to the eventual winners always provides gentle relief, and having arguably been the best team throughout the tournament, gentle relief was the least Hütter’s men deserved following a historic campaign for both club and manager.
Ever since his arrival in the dugout at Red Bull Salzburg, the smooth transition into management has provided Hütter with a hereditary sense of belonging and understanding within any club and its players that have served him magnificently during his managerial tenure.
Nevertheless, another entrancing chapter in the Austrian’s career continues for one more season at least, and with another shot at European success, you wouldn’t put it past Frankfurt going one step further.
Even with the phenomenal front pairing of Jović and Haller having unsurprisingly made way, Hütter’s transfer window activity remains tactically astute as he aims to avoid straying away from what fits his philosophy; something that far too many modern-day managers find it impossible to avoid with money at their disposal.
Whenever Hütter is around, you can almost guarantee that success, be it in the form of trophies or not, will remain. And whether he leaves Frankfurt with a trophy or not, at 49-years-old, there isn’t a chance that he could happily venture out of Germany without silverware to his name. Where he travels to next and where he ends up provides infinite uncertainty in the form of infinite possibilities, but one thing will always be certain: Adi Hutter will exceed expectations.