One of the biggest reasons so many people love Jürgen Klopp is his self-deprecating humour. In 2008, when he became manager of Borussia Dortmund, a newspaper asked him why he had never made it to the Bundesliga as a player. Klopp replied: "I had fourth-division talent and a first-division head. That resulted in the second division."
He grew so fond of his own witticism that he repeated the line four years later, after he'd led Dortmund to the league title, with a tiny but telling twist. He told a Berlin newspaper: "I had fourth-division feet and a first-division head."
That same year, when Mainz's business manager Christian Heidel was honoured for 20 years’ of service, Klopp remembered a match between Mainz and Homburg in said second division. At one point, a Homburg player was badly let down by his first touch. According to Klopp, Heidel quipped: "Look, they have a Kloppo, too!"
Klopp wasn't fishing for compliments, he was being honest. According to Raphael Honigstein's excellent new biography of the Liverpool manager, Bring the Noise, Klopp used to remind his Dortmund players that they were better footballers than he had ever been, telling them: "I have never played at your level, therefore I will never pretend to you that I know everything. But I will always try to help you."
Klopp made a club-record 325 appearances for Mainz in the lower leagues, something you can't achieve without at least some decent attributes in your locker. As Klopp has hinted, his head – meaning his attitude and his intelligence – was one of them. He also possessed the unusual combination of aerial prowess and pace, which explains why Klopp was most commonly deployed upfront until his late twenties, before drifting back in the latter years of his career.
Legend has it that a 19-year-old Klopp repeatedly left the rapid Thomas Berthold - a future World Cup winner - in his wake during a friendly between Klopp's provincial team and Eintracht Frankfurt in the summer of 1986. It earned him a move to the Bundesliga club, though he never moved beyond the reserves. \
Still, it's tempting to think his own experiences on a football pitch taught him that you can overcome many problems - and mask limitations - with pace. He's certainly fond of fleet-footed players. When a reporter asked him if his tactics had been "decoded" during his last season in Dortmund, he sarcastically replied: "Can you decode pace?"
Klopp's greatest day as a player was August 13 1991, when Mainz won 5-0 away at Erfurt. He scored four goals that day, another club record that wouldn't be equalled for more than twenty years. After this game, his coach Robert Jung predicted: "Next year, Klopp won't be here." The player himself felt the same, telling Kicker magazine that he was now hoping for a move to the Bundesliga. But it never happened. Klopp stayed at Mainz for the remainder of his career, often fighting relegation.
He was first remade into a midfielder, then moved into defence. In a way, he had come full circle because even as a striker, he had worn number four to honour his favourite player - Stuttgart centre back Karlheinz Förster. Klopp once explained his obsession with Förster by saying: "I have always been interested in attitude more than talent - his mentality was exceptional." These lines could describe Klopp’s own career, both as a player and as a coach.
Another thing Klopp learned as a player – and would put to great use as a manager – was the value of combining the right attitude with organisation and tactics. The man who taught him, and the club, this was Wolfgang Frank, who first became Mainz’s coach in 1995. Frank, a devotee of Arrigo Sacchi, examined the player's qualities and decided what he needed most was Klopp's "head", his quick thinking and organisational skills. He made Klopp the right back one of Germany's first functioning systems based on zonal marking, pressing and a flat-back four. In the homeland of the sweeper, Frank's 4-4-2 was revolutionary.
Using Frank's innovative approach, Mainz excelled. In early 2001, the club needed a new coach. Heidel was looking for someone who would carry on in Frank's tradition, who knew the system inside out. He found him at right back. Heidel asked Klopp to become player-manager. The rest, as they say, is history.
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