It's too early to tell whether Jürgen Klopp can follow in the footsteps of Bayern manager Louis van Gaal and win the Bundesliga championship this season. But the 43-year-old Klopp is certainly on course to have a similarly positive impact as the Dutchman had on the German national team.
Van Gaal helped Jogi Löw's cause by realizing the full central midfield potential of Bastian Schweinsteiger as well as nurturing the talents of Holger Badstuber and Thomas Müller. Klopp's great work at Bundesliga leader Dortmund has now ushered in the next wave of young internationals. Center back Mats Hummels, 21; left back Marcel Schmelzer, 22; and midfielders Kevin Großkreutz, 22, and Mario Götze, 18, have all been called up for Germany's friendly game against Sweden next week.
"It's a great testament to the development of each one of them, but also to that of Borussia Dortmund as a whole," sporting director Michael Zorc said.
Zorc might have thrown Klopp's name in with the accolades, too. Then again, it wasn't really necessary. Everybody acknowledges that Borussia owes its re-emergence to the man with the floppy haircut. Player by player, Dortmund is good, but it shouldn't be quite good enough to lead the table with nine victories in 11 games. Its bespectacled, all-action sideline blusterer ("I'm shocked sometimes, looking at myself on television," he said) clearly makes the difference.
When you see him on the touchline in his black tracksuit, all wired up, punching the air and jumping around like a hyperactive 6-year-old on a sugar rush in Disneyland, it's easy to think of him as purely a "motivational coach," a kind of cross between Martin O'Neill and Jürgen Klinsmann. The reality, however, is much more flattering. Klopp not only can read a mean game -- he gave TV punditry a good name from 2005 to 2008, bringing tactical analysis to the masses -- but also write one. He established little Mainz 05 in the top flight with "concept football" (thoroughly drilled, collective movement at high tempo) and is now reaping greater rewards, thanks to Borussia's superior squad.
Against his former club 10 days ago, Klopp employed an unusual 4-3-2-1 formation that he said the team had practiced for only 45 minutes. His players, though, were tactically sophisticated enough to deal with the change and, as he put it, "greedy" enough to fight Mainz's pacey pressing game with even more pacey pressing. Dortmund won 2-0 to regain the top spot.
Klopp's also put "Life-Kinetik" on the curriculum, exercises in coordination and movement. "It doesn't look like it has anything to do with football," he explained, "but it teaches you the connection between awareness and motion sequences, between brain and body. You can train these things."
If the relationship between manager and his young team (average age: just over 23) is a little reminiscent of that of very driven, ambitious teacher and his eager pupils, that's probably no coincidence. Klopp was brought up by an ultracompetitive father who taught the young boy to ski and play tennis and football -- the hard way.
"He would outrun me on the football pitch or simply ski down the hill even though I was a novice," Klopp told the German newspaper
Like many modern coaches of a similar ilk, Klopp never scaled real heights as a player. He was only a better-than-average pro at Mainz, in the second division. He obviously shares the "greed" he keeps referring to with his charges; few Bundesliga coaches have looked more determined in recent years. Winning might be everything to him, but Klopp is clearly someone who thinks beyond the 90 minutes, too. Asked about the taboo subject of homosexual footballers, Klopp said he would welcome them in his team.
"If they're good, they will play. If not, they won't," he said. "It's as simple as that. There might be some daft comments in the showers and jokes in the changing room, but it would soon become normal and accepted by the players. It will be like four at the back in Germany. At first, people didn't want it and made silly comments, but now it has become the norm."
His sense of humor can verge on the vulgar but he doesn't take himself too seriously. In the wake of Dortmund's 4-0 win at Hannover on Sunday, Klopp was happy to answer a series of satirical questions about "Dortmund's crisis" on German television.
"Neck to neck with teams like Mainz and Eintracht Frankfurt after 11 games -- that's not what we want," he deadpanned. "We have problems, so many problems. I'm not sure I'm still the right manager. The team seems to play to get rid of me."
The opposite is true. In fact, Dortmund will have to continue to play extremely well if it is to keep him around in the coming years: There are persistent rumors that "Kloppo" might one day follow van Gaal in yet another way -- onto the Bayern Munich bench.