Klopp knows what to expect from Saint Hasenhuttl
Bosses embrace same philosophy on road from Germany to England
It is almost 20 years since Jurgen Klopp and Ralph Hasenhuttl, in their early 30s, winding down their playing careers, preparing for the next phase, struck up a friendship on the same coaching course in Cologne.
Klopp had just taken temporary charge at FSV Mainz, the club he had played for for 11 years. He was a popular player there and so they turned to him in a crisis. Hasenhuttl was different, not German but Austrian, although he was still playing in the German second tier for Greuther Furth.
Their careers soon diverged but tonight, both aged 51, they meet again in Southampton, for one of the biggest games of their lives. Hasenhuttl is trying to keep Southampton in the Premier League, having inherited a sinking ship from Mark Hughes.
Meanwhile, Klopp, almost four years into his spell in England, is approaching the climax of his work. Win tonight, and Liverpool go back on top of the Premier League. Five more wins and Manchester City will have to be absolutely perfect in their harder, longer run-in to deny Liverpool the title.
Klopp has spent much of this season steamrolling past teams with different styles and approaches, but tonight he will face the closest stylistic equivalent to his own side. Southampton are nowhere near Liverpool's level but their energetic pressing style is like an own-brand version of how Klopp's side play.
And that should be no surprise, given their shared background. Last year Liverpool signed Naby Keita from RB Leipzig, where he had flourished under Hasenhuttl's management.
"We did our coaching badges together and we know each other very well," Hasenhuttl told bundesliga.com. "I think we appreciate a similar philosophy on football: we want to play a high-tempo game, we want our guys to sprint around, press well. These are elements which make the game livelier and varied and get people excited."
Klopp was asked the same thing yesterday, and he too pointed to those same shared attributes, tempo, running, pressing, that make the two so similar. "There are a few things you can see, we all love good organisation, pressing, counter-press, quick transition," Klopp said. "That's nothing new, and you can see that. But I never watched the game and thought, 'Oh, that's like a mirror!'"
While Klopp has had a smooth ride, from Mainz to Borussia Dortmund to Liverpool, it has been a longer journey for Hasenhuttl. He finished his playing career at Bayern Munich reserves from 2002 to 2004, when Klopp had already taken over at Mainz. Hasenhuttl had a reputation by then as a thoughtful charismatic type who would be perfect for coaching, and Bayern wanted to keep him. But Hasenhuttl wanted to make his own way in the game. So he went to be a youth coach at SpVgg Unterhaching, a small team in Bavaria. In 2007, he took over as boss and managed them for two-and-a-half years in the German third tier, while Klopp was still managing Mainz in the Bundesliga.
From there Hasenhuttl moved to another third-tier team, VfR Aalen, got them promoted, left them for Ingolstadt 04, and got them promoted too. When he took over at RB Leipzig, on their debut top-flight season, he shocked Germany, taking them to second place with his ferocious pressing football in a 4-4-2 that almost became a 4-2-4.
Even then Hasenhuttl was never a pressing ideologue, and at the end of his time at Leipzig he clashed with Red Bull football supremo Ralf Rangnick on this issue. Rangnick is zealot but Hasenhuttl - just like Klopp this year - favoured a more mixed approach.
Both men also have the charisma and oversized personalities that come with having to step into management at a lower level, off the back of a good but not great playing career. They had to bring all the players with them, and that is what they have continued to do. These similarities meant that Hasenhuttl was soon known as the "Klopp of the Alps", not a nickname he was especially fond of.
By the team Hasenhuttl got into the top flight with Ingolstadt, Klopp had resigned from Dortmund, meaning this is the first season they have competed in the same league as coaches.
"Ralph did it the hard way," Klopp said admiringly. "He started in the third division and was successful, then he went to the Championship in Germany, was successful, went on to Leipzig and was really successful, he built something then went to England. It's a proper career, and shows as a manager that your first job doesn't have to be AC Milan or something. It's possible that you start deeper and if you are busy and ambitious, things can happen for you."
And things are starting to happen at St Mary's. There is an obvious difference in how Saints play. They cover more ground, they win the ball higher up the pitch, and when they get it they attack faster. It has been enough to turn over Arsenal and Tottenham there but there is an even bigger prize on offer tonight. At least Klopp will know exactly what to expect. (© Independent News Service)