Pitchside Europe

The secrets of Juergen Klopp’s success


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One of Juergen Klopp’s most memorable lines this season was his take on Borussia Dortmund’s rivals and fellow Champions League finalists Bayern Munich back in March. “Right now,” he said, “it’s a bit like what the Chinese do in economics or industry. Watch the others and plagiarise what they do. Take the same path, only with more money and other players. And for the moment, you will be better again.”

For some imitation is the highest form of flattery. But not for Klopp. Bayern, he felt, had copied Dortmund’s playing style, their 'gegenpressing'. How unoriginal. A month later, it would also emerge that they had taken one of his best players Mario Goetze by paying the 37 million euro buy-out clause in his contract. It’s expected that Robert Lewandowski will follow in the summer.

They were buying success. It was artificial, not authentic. And yet this is the reality of the world we live in. Klopp is aware of that. He’s an idealist but he isn’t holier than thou. After the Goetze news broke he had the good grace to admit that Dortmund had done exactly the same as Bayern a year earlier by luring Marco Reus away from Borussia Moenchengladbach in the same way.

We’re all influenced by someone or other. That much became clear after the second leg of Dortmund’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. Approached for a post-match interview by the Italian TV channel Mediaset, Klopp was presented with the opportunity to talk to one of his greatest influences, Arrigo Sacchi.

Told that his team were “simply a masterpiece,” Klopp returned the compliment. “I’ve never met him,” he said, “but I learned everything, everything that I am as a coach, [as did] my former coach Wolfgang Frank, and he took it off him and we knew if Arrigo Sacchi can do what he did with Maldini, Baresi, Albertini and all these guys, then we can do the same. Okay, maybe not so good but tactical discipline it’s no problem. If they can do it, we can do it. And so my team is 10 per cent of the team of Arrigo Sacchi.”

Klopp would later elaborate further on that in a discussion with La Gazzetta dello Sport. Asked to reveal who he models himself on, he once again name-checked Frank at Mainz and what an impact Sacchi’s ideas had made on them both. “With him,” he said, “we were one of the first teams in Germany, and [one that was] in the second division [at the time], to use Sacchi and Milan’s 4-4-2.

“The best things on zones and tactics, I took from Frank. Before you just had to run and chase the opponent until he was under the shower! With the zones I learned how to build play not only destroy it. Frank made us watch videos of Maldini and Baresi’s Milan 500,000 times… We were exhausted, it was so boring…”

Sessions became about controlling space and positioning yourself to influence the opposition when your team doesn’t have possession. Shadow play drills required concentration, coordination and timing. To Sacchi a football team is an orchestra and the coach the conductor. Every movement has to be synergistic and oriented towards a collective goal.

He can’t abide soloists. In Sacchi’s mind, they’re limiting because if a team is dependent on one player and you stop him, you stop the other 10 and it’s game over. They’re one-dimensional. This was his criticism of Inter and later Milan when they were based around Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They were too dependent on him, he claimed. That opinion led Ibrahimovic to lash out at him on TV, saying that Sacchi was jealous and talked too much.

A team has to win and also convince if they are to be remembered. Sacchi touched upon this again in an editorial in La Gazzetta dello Sport before Dortmund’s semi-final second leg against Real. He’d been blown away by their 4-1 win in the first leg a week earlier and what was clear is that he believed they were yet another affirmation of this credo.

“I don’t know if Klopp will manage to avoid la remuntada [Real Madrid’s comeback],” he wrote, “Ninety minutes at the Bernabeu can be very long, but I believe that the victory of Klopp’s men should make everyone understand that you can compete also with your accounts in order and with a team of kids or unknowns signed for little money, developed through ideas and that extraordinary multiplier which is the play.

“Dortmund spend less than our small clubs [in Italy]. They do not have well-known footballers [the famous top player], but they’ve got to the semi-finals playing a sumptuous, generous, collective, beautiful, entertaining and winning style of football. They’re a group that exalts itself through the interpretation of total football despite an individual technical quality that’s not so elevated.”

There are a few things worth picking up from that viewpoint. Sacchi laments how clubs in Italy are inclined to throw money at a problem rather than think creatively about it. The obsession with finding “the famous top player,” a term used by Juventus in their search for a striker capable of taking them to the next level as though buying one will solve everything is, in his opinion, flawed. “The famous top player” is not “the extraordinary multiplier,” rather that’s the play and the idea behind it with everyone buying into it.

“Unfortunately,” Sacchi goes on, “you can’t buy play. You create it first of all with ideas, work and commitment, then with players functional to the project. If they also have talent then even better. But this comes after.”

There’s a lot that’s right about Juventus, he argues. They just need to trust in their ideas more and bring in players conducive to them rather than one superstar. “Today they perhaps have only five or six capable of playing total football.” They should focus on finding them either from within their academy or through smart recruitment like the sort that brought Arturo Vidal to the club rather than get caught up in telling themselves all they’re missing is “the famous top player.”

A counterpoint here might be: well, Sacchi’s Milan did benefit from Silvio Berlusconi’s money and the signings of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. But that’s to forget, as Klopp alludes to, how they brought through and/or built on a core of local players like Maldini, Baresi and Albertini who gave a strong identity to the side.

As the coordinator of the FIGC’s youth sectors this is something Sacchi wants Italian clubs to get back to. Inspiration is taken from the reforms the German FA enacted in 2000, how they have led to an exciting generation of players coming through and that clubs in the Bundesliga give them opportunities, as demonstrated by the stat that more than 60 per cent of professionals in the German league are homegrown rather than foreign.

So, as that interview with Mediaset showed, Sacchi may have Klopp’s respect, but the Dortmund coach, his team and German football as a whole can count on Sacchi's too.

James Horncastle will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.

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