The broad smile stretching across the face of Borussia Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp has become a permanent fixture of the Bundesliga this season, and with die Borussen racking up victory after victory in the German top flight, the 43-year-old has every reason to be happy.
The sports science graduate has watched with pride as his young team have swept aside all-comers to top the standings heading into the European winter break. Even Klopp himself admits he is surprised by the recent run of success of the club from the football-mad north-west of Germany.
Sentimentalist and respected pro
A powerful striker turned defender who clocked up over 300 second division appearances during an 15-year playing career, Klopp's tactical competence, openness, modernity and the right balance of confidence and charm have seen the former Mainz stalwart become one of the most highly regarded coaches in German football.
"It was news to me that no other Bundesliga side has ever won eight away matches on the trot. I've never had anything to do with titles in my career," said Klopp in typically modest style. His players love him for his honesty just as much as the fans do. In fact, there are very few Bundesliga followers who would not admit to having a soft spot for the affable tactician.
Currently 11 points clear of second-placed Bayer Leverkusen with 43 points from 16 games, BVB are all of 17 points ahead of reigning champions Bayern Munich, themselves a lowly sixth. Had the season been played from January to December 2010, the 1997 UEFA Champions League winners would have amassed 70 points, seven more than 2009/10 winners Bayern.
"Borussia play attractive football and their team has a lot of potential," said Germany coach Joachim Low in a recent interview on German television. Although the six-time German champions suffered a premature exit in the UEFA Europa League against Sevilla on Wednesday evening, something Klopp puts down to inexperience, Dortmund have left all domestic challengers in the shadows with some ruthless displays in the league.
A clear philosophy
Central to the clubs' success this term has been committed defensive work, rapid counterattacking, simple and precise passing and clinical finishing. "In the past a lot of teams have ended up bottling it towards the end," said Klopp, whose team accordingly refuse to talk about their title chances just yet. "We're not banking on anything, we're just working hard."
It took a while for the easy-going coach with the unmistakeable spectacles to establish himself among Germany's managerial elite. After beginning as a relative unknown with Mainz in 2001, Klopp led the unfashionable club into the Bundesliga for the first time in 2004, winning over the fans and experts alike. Subsequently touted as a future Germany coach, he took over at Dortmund in 2008 and began his process of polishing up a crop of rough diamonds with burgeoning potential.
Leading a new generation
A cursory look at the table-topping squad reveals the importance Klopp places on youth. The Serbian Neven Subotic, his German central-defensive partner Mats Hummels, Turkish midfield strategist Nuri Sahin and home-grown winger Kevin Grosskreutz are all in their early 20s. The same is true of whirlwind Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa, currently the club's joint-top scorer this season along with Paraguay’s Lucas Barrios on eight goals, while Mario Gotze, who is considered one of Germany's brightest young stars, is only 18.
"We want happy cows on our field," said Klopp when asked about his recipe for success. The right blend of authority and compassion has helped the BVB coach mould a group of talented but callow youngsters into a collective capable of winning the club's first championship in nine years. Described by the media as the "guy from next door", Klopp's tactics mirror his outgoing personality and have made him the poster boy of a new generation of German coaches including Thomas Tuchel of Mainz and Freiburg's Robin Dutt.
Creative, attacking, attractive - sound familiar? The Germany national team finished in third place at the recent 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa with their own brand of youthful exuberance. Now Borussia Dortmund are hoping their exciting young team can usher in a new era of dominance not seen at the club since the mid-‘90s.