As a player, Jurgen Klopp wasn’t anything particularly special.
He spent most of his career as a striker in Germany’s lower divisions, turning out for Mainz for 11 years between 1990 and 2001 and firing home 56 goals in 340 appearances (some of which were spent as a defender). It wasn’t particularly mind-blowing, but it was still enough to make him Mainz’s record goalscorer.
February 2001 was a rough month for Klopp. Now an ageing defender, he found himself injured and forced to watch his team struggle from the sidelines. Manager Eckhard Krautzun was given the sack on 27 February, and given Klopp had nothing else to do, he was put in temporary charge of the team.
It was quite a surprising decision to see a player put in charge, but everyone at Mainz knew that Klopp had the mind for the job. Even he knew it.
“I never succeeded in bringing to the field what was going on in my brain,” he said (via Liverpool’s official website). “I had the talent for the fifth division, and the mind for the Bundesliga. The result was a career in the second division.”
He didn’t get a lot of time to prepare for his first taste of management. Just 24 hours later, on 28 February 2001, Klopp was leading his Mainz side out against Duisburg for his first ever game as a manager.
Klopp was tasked with replicating the tactical style of club great Wolfgang Frank – something that had overwhelmed two previous bosses. He needed to re-instate a 4-4-2 and do away with the idea of the old school sweeper defender, and he rose to the challenge.
He took his underdogs and managed to inspire them to a shock victory, relying largely on his ability to implement a tactical style which most could not comprehend at the time. The idea of playing a flat four-man defence was so alien that it had cost two Mainz bosses their jobs, but for Klopp, getting his head around it was light work.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Klopp felt there was a chance to prove his superior intellect. His arrogance was not misguided as everyone around him had faith in his abilities to shine.
After just a handful of training sessions, Klopp had the entire disillusioned squad on his side, and they played like the unit they were supposed to be as they picked up a surprising 1-0 victory which gave them a glimmer of hope in a relegation battle.
It was widely accepted that this Mainz side weren’t particularly good. After all, they had been locked in a relegation battle for a reason. However, what set them apart was their energy and tactical superiority.
Mainz secured five wins and a draw over the next six games, doing away with any manager who felt they could go toe-to-toe with Klopp and effectively sealing their survival in the second tier of German football.
The rest, as they say, is history.
While he may have entered management playing someone else’s football, Klopp soon took Frank’s 4-4-2 and turned it into his own 4-3-3. He was given the trust of both the Mainz squad and board, all of whom had already seen enough to know that this guy knew what he was talking about.
It was a brilliance which soon earned Mainz a spot in the German top tier, and as Klopp’s reputation grew, so did his trophy cabinet.
Two Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund weren’t too far away, and things went one step further when he managed to turn Liverpool into European champions in 2019. His pedigree is firmly established, and the signs of a bright future were clear to see in that 1-0 win over Duisburg.