A Battle of Best Friends: Jurgen Klopp vs David Wagner

Anfield will witness a duel of two great friends on Saturday as Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool take on a Huddersfield Town side managed by David Wagner, the best man at his wedding.

Don’t be surprised though if you spot a former coach of both Klopp and Wagner’s at Anfield because Eckhard Krautzun is also due to be in attendance.

The 76-year-old coached Klopp at Mainz in the German second division before being replaced by the current Liverpool boss in February 2001.

Wind back a season further and Krautzun was 25 miles down the road at Darmstadt, just south of Frankfurt, coaching Wagner in the third tier of German football.

Wagner lived in Weinheim, a half-hour drive away from Darmstadt, where he also ended up completing a university degree in Sport Science and Biology.

Krautzun was in nearby Heppenheim and would sometimes give Wagner a lift to training.

The main topics of conversation were football and family, but Krautzun tells The Set Pieces: “He likes to joke a lot. I think he is much more relaxed than Kloppo.”

Krautzun recalls a conversation he had with Wagner just last month.

As Huddersfield prepared to take on Tottenham in the Premier League, the pair were chatting on the phone about German teams struggling in Europe this season.

All six German clubs in the Champions League and the Europa League had lost their second games in each competition’s respective group stages.

“Being an instructor abroad in foreign countries, it is very bad for us [that] German football is doing so badly,” explains Krautzun, who has worked in 12 different countries over the course of a coaching career that has spanned nearly 50 years.

Wagner suggested one reason why the German clubs had struggled, which Krautzun remembers with a smile. “He said: ‘Well, no wonder – the best German coaches are all working abroad!’”

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It might well have been a joke but the job that Wagner has done at Huddersfield means the German-American deserves to be in the conversation.

Beating Manchester United last weekend was another marker of Huddersfield’s rise and Wagner’s growing reputation – a result that Klopp wouldn’t have minded a week earlier at Anfield.

That Wagner, previously coach of Borussia Dortmund’s second team where he spent four years working alongside Klopp, came to England in the first place was not a surprise for Krautzun.

“When Kloppo went to England, then I was not surprised that David followed him.”

Wagner’s success in Yorkshire on the other hand did catch his former coach off-guard.

“I am amazed and personally astonished that he does so well because he’s a completely different person than Kloppo. David is more quiet.

“I personally was a little bit sceptical when he went there [to Huddersfield] because it was a big step going from the Dortmund second team…but when I see him now on the touchline, he has matured.”

Wagner scored six goals in 19 appearances for Darmstadt playing under Krautzun, who noted both his professionalism and how keen he was to look at things from the coach’s point of view.

“You could see that he was not packing his bags after training and going home. He liked to talk about football, about why we did this exercise in training. He’d say: ‘I like this, why did you do this?’ and so on.

“He was always very intelligent. When I discussed with him certain things when he was my player at Darmstadt, I knew already that he was thinking a lot about the game.”

That didn’t translate into spectacular results when Wagner first went into coaching at Hoffenheim. After two seasons in charge of the club’s academy teams, he left in 2009.

“He was not so successful that I thought he might become a top manager,” Krautzun recalls.

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Wagner then did 18 months of practical work experience at a high school as he considered becoming a teacher before Klopp helped to persuade him to head up Dortmund’s second team in the summer of 2011.

When he joined the club, the first team was basking in the glow of a first Bundesliga title in nine years, masterminded by Klopp.

There was initial success for Wagner as he took Dortmund II up to the German third division but, after winning promotion, they lingered around the foot of the table for the next two seasons.

“I thought they might fire him,” says Krautzun. “I believe if Kloppo hadn’t been the head coach…then maybe David would have already been fired in Dortmund because his team was always on the bottom but he liked to play with young players. Then, after a while he improved with this team again and again.”

Despite his challenges at Dortmund II, Wagner’s methods caught the attention of Huddersfield in late 2015 when they were looking for a replacement for Chris Powell. The Terriers were 18th in the Championship after a difficult start to the season. Two years later they are 11th in the Premier League.

According to Krautzun, Wagner “learned a lot from Kloppo” during the pair’s time at Dortmund. Krautzun was particularly interested in the team’s pressing and quick attacking transitions, which he often discussed with Wagner over coffee in the picturesque surroundings of Weinheim.

That will all seem far away by kick-off at Anfield on Saturday. Krautzun says he is very proud when he sees some of his former players, such as Klopp and Wagner, becoming top coaches.

Wagner still has some way to go in terms of attaining “top coach” status back in Germany, certainly if the newspaper headlines after Huddersfield’s win over Manchester United are anything to go by.

‘A German dupes Mourinho’, boasted broadsheet Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, while Die Welt spoke not of Wagner beating Manchester United, but of ‘a German coach’.

Victory over Liverpool at Anfield would help to change that. But his close friend Klopp could also do with a favour from his best man in the form of three points and a clean sheet.

“We want speed in our game, everything full throttle.” – Read our interview with David Wagner here.

“His favourite club would be Manchester United.” – Eckhard Krautzun on Jurgen Klopp’s early years in coaching.

A Battle of Best Friends: Jurgen Klopp vs David Wagner
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