What does it take to revolutionise football? Noise? It turns out character and convictions matter much more than noise. Wolfgang was one such character who resolutely walked his way and thus profoundly has changed German football. Mara Pfeiffer has written his biography.
Wolfgang Frank was a German football coach who is not very well known with many football fans but who was known for his way of handling his players and who quietly has revolutionised German football. Not only did he introduce the zonal marking and the 4-4-2 to the Bundesliga. He also changed the treatment of players and the approach to the game. He introduced video analysis sessions which were entirely new to his players and maybe to many of his colleagues, too.
He was often confronted with a club in danger of relegation or without a licence (Rot-Weiss Essen) and turned fortunes around relatively quick. Yet, his impatience and his desire or demand rather, to build squads to his liking, to have the team train twice a day, to sit through hours of video analysis, for the players to adapt their daily diet was often met with astonishment and once results did not go his team’s way, he was met with resistance from the players initially, followed by the non-playing staff at the different clubs he has worked at.
It was his fate that his intransigence, one is inclined to say, his stubbornness, was non-negotiable and inevitably it led to misunderstandings with his players and made matters complicated. It was tragic for characters like Frank as they were ahead of their contemporaries while they possessed an immense knowledge of (and passion for) football but could not convince their peers to go the path into this largely uncharted territory together.
Even as a player, he was beset by impatience but also by his attitude and as he himself stated somewhat self-critically:
“Gerd (Müller) never gives up, not even after the sixth chance wasted. As for me, I often stopped bothering after I had three shots off target.”
It may indicate why he has not become one of the best strikers in Germany during the 1970s.
It was as a coach that he succeeded most and has had an impact on his players – most profoundly on Jürgen Klopp, the current Liverpool manager.
An obsessed Revolutionary
The sub-title “The Football Revolutionary” is slightly misleading. In most cases Revolution is associated with the violent and abrupt overthrow of an established anciene regime. This was not in the interest of Frank, rather was he inclined to work according to his principles and not intent on altering German football. However, he did just that by introducing zonal marking and the 4-4-2 as well as a number of changes with regard to the daily routine of the players. This proved to be disruptive and in hindsight to be good. The revolution initiated by him was a quiet one but one that was profound and long lasting; above all it was necessary.
Frank was obsessed with football and spent a thought too much about the game, stated his colleague Ramon Berndroth adding that he loved talking with him about tactics and the different systems. (p.73) He adored the exchange with colleagues and was an avid diarist. His notes in themselves are worthy a research.
However, oftentimes he was confronted with club directors who saw no need for his methods and approach – he needed ehave his back secured and once he felt there was no longer any support from the club, he left; sometimes a bit too early and too hastily and sometimes about other things that were in acceptable for him, like the board talking to the team without his knowledge. His influences were Arrigo Sacchi and his former coach and mentor Branco Zebec, who has trained him at VfB Stuttgart and Eintracht Braunschweig. Maybe more of these influences and how he adopted these would have been interesting. It would have altered the rhythm of the book and the narrative: Frank comes to a club, works, faces problems and leaves, shakes off the dust and starts anew. However, this should not diminish the pleasure of reading this book.
He asked a lot from his players such as total dedication to their profession even if they were only playing in the third division, which until 2008 was only a semi-professional league, or even lower. He introduced them to video analysis which then was carried out by forwarding the VHS tape to the relevant scenes. These sessions took very long, often up to two hours and during which players often fell asleep.
His ideas often meant a total disruption for the players in their daily routine and some couldn’t follow and fell off the waggon. On the contrary some who followed have become pretty well known in football. The biggest name of the players who were trained by Wolfgang Frank is surely Jürgen Klopp who was a player at Mainz 05 with Wolfgang Frank and later became their coach before coaching Borussia Dortmund where he became legend by winning back-to-back league titles 2011 and 2012 as well as the double in 2012 and has reached the Champions League final 2013. He is has become the first manager for Liverpool winning the Premier League in 2019 – ending a 30 year wait. Another of his former players who turned coach is Sandro Wagner who is working at Hertha BSC as well as Uwe Stöver who is sporting director at Holstein Kiel.
That he has been – one is tempted to say – kept away from the limelight may have worked in his favour since at bigger clubs he may have been burnt out by the relentless scrutiny of board members and the media. His status as a silent revolutionary is proving once more that the greatest of players hardly make equally great coaches who can have a lasting impact on the game. He thus finds himself in the company of names like Béla Guttmann, Ernö Erbstein on the international stage and Ralf Rangnick and Joachim Löw on the German side. These men were never the greatest of players but turned out to be successful coaches and managers, whose impact is undoubted.
Throughout the book Pfeifer portrays a man who was ahead of his times and how his attempts to find success were hampered by the circumstances and his impatience. She does so by quoting at length what former team mates, players and colleagues said about him. The two most prominent are Jürgen Klopp and the former German national coach Joachim Löw. While the former was a devout disciple, the latter confronted Frank once over a decision which terminated Wolfgang Frank’s spell at Winterthur. Löw later admitted that he was wrong and he described himself as fortunate to have had the chance to apologise for it later when he was a coach himself.
It is these quotes which make the book an absolute pleasure to read as they enliven the story of a life dictated by the run of the football season.
Wolfgang Frank’s life was cut short by illness and he passed away in September 2013.Good writing does not come by chance, so consider a little tip: