We talk to Ralph Hasenhuettl, the man from Austria who coached RB Leipzig to a second place finish in the Bundesliga in their debut season, and has set in motion a framework that will enrich German football for years to come.
Stadio San Paolo, situated in the western suburb of Fuorigrotta in Naples, became the third-largest stadium in Italy after undergoing extensive renovations for the 1990 World Cup. Almost as if the football gods knew that it would be the scene of one of that tournament’s most talked about games and not even because of the football.
This was when Diego Armando Maradona still plied his trade for SSC Napoli. By single-handedly leading them to their maiden Serie A title in 1986-87 and another just a month before the World Cup began, he had become the messiah for this underdeveloped region of southern Italy whose complicated relationship with the nation and especially with the more prosperous regions in the north (represented by Juventus and the two Milan clubs) needs no introduction.
On July 30, 1990, after the Argentine delegation landed in Naples following a victory against the former Yugoslavia, Maradona, fully aware of the sociocultural implications, and how the football culture and mentality of the locals breeds and worships their heroes, asked for the support of the Neopolitans against their own country, calling the semi-final his “home match”.
“For 364 days out of the year, you [Neopolitans] are considered to be foreigners in your own country: today you must do what they want by supporting the national team. Instead, I am a Neopolitan for 365 days out of the year.” (David Goldblatt, The Ball is Round)
Argentina, winners on penalties, became the first team to score against the hosts in that tournament – and though they lost to West Germany in the finals, July 3, 1990 is still remembered as the stadium’s most famous night, its circumstances transcending the pitch.
On February 15, 2018, Stadio San Paolo bore witness to a different kind of milestone, no less significant, if only at a personal level.
RB Leipzig, Bundesliga and European debutants, pulled off a 3-1 victory against home team, Napoli in the first leg of their Europa League Round of 32 match. In what was a thrilling game of football, Napoli’s Adam Ounas scored against the run of play, before Timo Werner found an equaliser, Bruma scored to put them ahead, and Werner rounded off the tie with his second.
When I speak to Ralph Hasenhuettl, then-Leipzig coach, on the phone, he names this as one of their best games ever. “At home in the second leg, we were a little bit lucky, but in Italy…I’m very proud of that result.” He went on to explain how they laid traps for Napoli and kept their defending very close and compact, but ensured that they could quickly shift into attack mode when with the ball. “I admire [Maurizio] Sarri’s style of [playing] football and watch him now quite often at Chelsea; he’s a very very good trainer.”
Though Leipzig eventually lost to Marseille in their quarter-final – “we were very new and young and made few too many mistakes” – their showing until then, especially their win in Italy against seasoned opponents and a veteran manager, was important for a young team’s confidence and important for them to show, under the bright lights of Europe, the kind of football they are capable of playing.
“Internationally, it was a very good, very promising season for us,” he adds.
For a club formed only in 2009, even if you credit some of its success to the financial backing of a big corporate entity like Red Bull, it has been a very impressive two seasons in the top flight of German league football – setting a new record for the longest undefeated streak of a promoted team in the Bundesliga, beating Bayern Munich, finishing second in their debut top-flight season. A good coach is a crucial part of the puzzle, and RB Leipzig, called RasenballSport Leipzig to bypass the Bundesliga’s laws about naming teams after companies, found a very good match in the soft-spoken Austrian from Graz. And not just because of his proven track record of helping his teams gain almost immediate promotion.
Born into a family of artists (he also plays the piano like his mother did), Ralph Hasenhuttl was interested in all sports. “In Austria we are born with skis on our feet. I love to ski even now. But in the summer it was football.” His career as a centre-forward took him from Austria to Belgium to Germany, where he finished with FC Bayern Munich II at the age of 37.
“My talent in [playing] football was not the highest, but I was very hard-working, interested to learn and get better, and this focus made me better and better.” He concedes that he is glad he played at a time when, as a centre-forward, you didn’t have to run as much. “It was perfect for me because I didn’t like to run,” he laughs. “It also helped me play until I was much older. I love football and as long as my body allowed me to, I played this fantastic sport. Who would do this who didn’t like the game?” he chuckles.
It’s a passion and love that meant the step into coaching was a natural one. At 37, he was one of the late ones, but as he was about to find out, he wasn’t alone in coming into the profession late. A certain German from Stuttgart, born only two months before him, was with him in Cologne to do the coaching license, the Fussball Lehrer badges.
“Jurgen [Klopp] was a very important and influential trainer for me and my development. Because I’m Austrian, my nickname became “Alpen Kloppen” (Klopp from the Alps). Maybe we look a little similar though I don’t have his hair or his glasses. So far only for reading!” He agrees that their styles of approaching the game are similar, with their preference for quick passing and turnover, the preference for playing against the ball. But, as someone who believes in constant growth and improvement, he respects and tries to learn from everyone who is and has been successful in the game.
It is this attitude, combined with intuition and attention to detail that has taken him from the 3. Bundesliga to the Champions League. Whether at Unterhaching or Aalen or Ingolstadt, he has been able to fairly successfully adapt to the situation, the players available, and the resultant requirements. “As a trainer, I think it’s the best way to develop. When you go through and take every step, you know what your players can withstand, and you have to put your formation or your tactics sometimes aside.” When he coached in the third league, it was more important to keep it simple but effective because it was crucial first that they made less mistakes. But as he moved up, “I can do more pressing, I can attack earlier, have more solutions of what to do with the ball, try to develop my own game more.” He also never gave up a chance to be in the stands, to try and observe the play of the opponents and learn from that.
“So, it was a very big development for me as a trainer; I think it’s very necessary for every trainer to take these steps, and I’m very glad I got the chance to. It was very important for me. The learning never stops.”
With state-of-the-art facilities, a highly ranked academy and a youth-focused, home-grown policy, and, of course, players like Naby Keita and Timo Werner at his disposal at Leipzig, the Austrian finally had the opportunity to fully express his vision, to hone his style and tactics. It’s fitting that it happened at a club where the director of sports is the father of the counter-press and a trainer that changed the face of German football. Ralf Rangnick, inspired by Valeriy Lobanovskyi, and later, Arrigo Sacchi, has not only provided a blueprint to the likes of Klopp, Tuchel, Hasenhuettl, Nagelsmann which they have then been able to adapt and refine according to their vision, but he’s also been instrumental to the process that transformed youth football post the country’s Euro 2000 debacle and eventually led the Germans to a World Cup title in 2014.
There’s obvious affection and pride when Ralph Hasenhuettl talks about some of the “nearly perfect breaks” executed by his young team over his two seasons in charge. “The centre of our goal is always to play against the ball.” But, what is important to understand is that they haven’t become one of the strongest proponents of the gegenpress in Europe overnight. A lot of preparation and careful attention to detail has gone into the training.
He breaks down the main aims of his training while at RB Leipzig; the four aspects to their game that they always wanted to get better at – pressing, ball possession, positioning, and what to do when you lose the ball. “Every opposition needs to be played in a different way and the formation depends on the opposition’s strengths. But we trained [mostly] with 4-2-2-2, 4-4-3 and 3-4-3 because we could adapt that for most games.”
“Leipzig playing against the ball is famous because of the perfect symmetry in their rows. It is a very intensive way to defend because we have a very high number of players to attack the ball, and [when they win the ball from the opposition] the whole team has to be prepared in where they have to be and how to attack. The team has to be perfectly aligned. The distance between the single players should create triangles and all across the pitch they have the option to pick and choose from these three angles to maybe force the opponent to lose the ball, “ he says. “To learn this takes a lot of automatism and [this] requires the most amount of time in training.”
The trademark of his Leipzig, apart from their pace, was their dynamism and the resultant unpredictability. His players were well-drilled in playing between the lines and in the half-spaces between opposition players.
“We created different levels when we had the ball, showing the players how and where to position themselves and how the lines need to be. We had a few principles: maximum height, minimum width; over-playing opponents; deep runs to get the ball behind the last line; as little contact, few touches as possible, try for no more than two.
“The aim was to capture the ball, switch and quickly advance, in not more than 10 seconds. Of course, it depends on where on the pitch we win the ball. Lots of possibilities. We scored a lot of goals in this manner in their first season. Lots of early and intense pressing.” Then came the second season where more was expected from them because opponents knew how to play against them. “[In the second season] we often got the ball in the middle third or the last third. We needed new strategies. One of the biggest developments was us keeping possession for longer.”
In time, they added a fifth aspect to their training programme. Dead balls. He points at the World Cup over the summer and talks about how it showed the relevance of having players adept in dead-ball situations, especially when both teams are evenly matched. “We have small players and sometimes we struggled.” All of this information went into a guidebook prepared by him and his team of trainers. It was updated with new information after every game. Careful, meticulous, intensive; just like Ralph Hasenhuettl.
For such a preparation-heavy style of coaching and training, playing at the highest-level with its dense fixtures schedule posed a challenge. “Our training is based very much on new ideas, a lot of preparation. That was maybe why the last year was so intense with a new match every three days or so during crunch periods. Not enough time to train and the players and are not able to go onto the pitch because they are tired and because you need to keep them fresh for the matches.” Enter modern technology, especially videos. “Last year, it was a lot of mind work, and working on mental strength and visualisation.”
Videos also came in handy for another more unique challenge faced by him and his trainers. “We had a lot of French players and sometimes there were issues of communication. So it was very important for us to show them videos and to find a way to prepare them for matches coming as quickly as in certain parts of the season.” He stops. “Sometimes it [training through videos] works very well, but sometimes it is very hard.”
As he talks me through his coaching journey, it is also evident that he’s not beyond looking out for the interests of his club even if it means moving on – and he’s honest about it. “At Aalen, I had reached the top of what was possible for us together, and the club needed someone new.” Of course, at the same time, a new challenge is what was needed for him, as a trainer, if he wanted to continue growing. He faced a similar situation with Leipzig earlier this summer.
“It was a pity we missed out on the Champions League [qualification] by two points, but after two seasons, I had pressed everything what I would out of this team, and even though I had one more year left on my contract, I spoke to Ralf [Rangnick]. This team needs a new impact or a new trainer.” He pauses. “There are two possibilities – one is that there is a new trainer with new ideas or you change the team. But this is a very good young team and that’s not possible. So we end these two successful years on a good note and I go on a little break and then look for new opportunities.”
At this point, we talk a little about the mental and emotional exertions of two seasons managing a club at the highest level, and he admits that it was very intense, especially the second year. “It was really not easy. And at this high level, it is necessary to come up with new ways, and to think of new ideas. And this requires time. Time which it is not possible to have when you play a match every three days.” Time is something he has a little more of now, that he’s not coaching for the first time in 12 years and he’s spent a large part of it with his co-trainers, assessing their past performances and tactics.
“At the moment, it doesn’t feel too bad. Now is the time for reflection. Looking back is very important to know what we did and how it worked or didn’t. We can now also look towards the future and see what we can do better. And of course, it’s a good time to get back your energy.”
When asked about some of his favourite moments with the club, apart from the Napoli win, he calls the entire experience fantastic. “To earn as many points as we did and to finish as vice-champions in their first season in the Bundesliga, with a [predominantly] young, second-league team plus Naby Keita and Timo Werner. This was amazing.”
So, what’s next?
“I’m very familiar with the Bundesliga. I know how to play here, what it needs to be successful here. So maybe it’s time for the next challenge. There are a few German trainers in the Premier League and some players I’ve coached before. Pascal Gross from Brighton (whom he’s regularly in touch with) was telling me about how they play there, how they work there and he thinks I would enjoy it there, be a good fit. He pauses. “Of course, to be a trainer in the top 6, you have to show championships or cup you have won. Klopp [when he went to Liverpool] is bigger than I am now.”
This is where the conversation veers into more personal territory. His philosophy of life beyond the football. “I have an interesting way of playing football, I believe, and I’m a good motivator, but my biggest strength is that I’m open-minded and empathetic. I’m always trying to find a good and close relationship with everyone in the club, players, trainers, staff. That’s important to me, the human side. I continue to be on positive terms with former players and clubs and it’s not just because the results were, at many times, good.” I ask him about journalists, how he handles the pressures of the modern-day media. “I always believe in being respectful to everyone, even the journalist in the last row who is asking the worst kind of questions. They [journalists] liked me, I think,” he laughs, almost shyly. “Although, I don’t know if you know about RB, Redbull, but they are a little bit hated in Germany and the first year was very difficult…when we came to Cologne or Dortmund, it was not so easy for us to stand this atmosphere, especially for such a young and new squad.”
Throughout the interview, it’s obvious that his strong work ethic, desire to learn as much as possible, and his tenacity through whatever life throws at him have continued to stand him in good stead. He recalls something his wife said to him when he first set out. “She said that ‘you always had your limits as a player, but I don’t see limits for you as a trainer.’ And there’s some truth in that, because already, my success as a coach is much higher than as a player.” When I say that, if his career so far is any indication, there’s much more to come, Ralph Hasenhuettl laughs, “I hope so!”