Klaus Augenthaler’s career with Bayern Munich can be summed up in one particular moment of sheer brilliance.
It was back in 1989 during a first-round away game of the DFB-Pokal against Eintracht Frankfurt. Just before the first-half whistle, a moment arrived where he carried the ball forward from defence, drove up the field beyond the half-way line and found an opportunity to test goalkeeper Uli Stein from long distance.
The defender struck the ball with such power, precision and timing that it left the keeper with no chance and ended in the back of the net. That year, Augenthaler’s wonder strike earned him the Goal of the Season and Goal of the Decade accolades.
Back in his playing days he was better known as Auge, a nickname that stemmed from his surname but more so in German it meant “the eye” – relating to his all-round ability to marshall the defence and also bomb forward to attack. Succeeding the legendary Franz Beckenbauer, he captained the side for seven seasons from 1984 to 1991, switching to a sweeper-defender (libero) during the twilight stages of his career.
One of the most decorated players who featured in 404 appearances for The Bavarians, Augenthaler won seven Bundesliga titles, three DFB-Pokal crowns and was part of the West Germany squad that lifted the 1990 Fifa World Cup apart from reaching the finals of the European Cup twice.
The former Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg coach spoke to Scroll.in on his managerial career, the modern art of defending, filling Beckenbauer’s shoes and more.
At Bayern, you served as an assistant under legendary managers like Beckenbauer and Giovanni Trappatoni. How big of an influence were they on your coaching style?
As a young player, I always looked up to them and learned a lot. When I joined as an assistant [at Bayern], they helped a lot in shaping my career. One of the biggest things I learnt was that even if you are top of the league and one of the best players, keep your feet down to the ground. It is easy to get lost with the success around you but its a challenge to stay down to earth. You should never forget where you come from.
How difficult was it for you serving as a successor to someone like Beckenbauer?
At that time, Beckenbauer was one of the greatest sweepers in the history of football. When he retired, no one in the team wanted to take that number five [shirt] because there was a lot of responsibility. In the beginning, it was just important for me to stay on the pitch. After some time, the responsibility of leading the defence came naturally to me.
According to you, how much has defending evolved today from the time you played?
The game has changed. A lot of teams press high and try to attack the defenders very early. You need quick players for that. It wasn’t the same earlier. As a defender, you have to be smart, think ahead of the opponent, avoid making fouls because it can always lead to a goal. It depends on what style you have and whether you play in the wing or the middle.
As a central defender, a key attribute a player needs is to see how you can open the game next. Do I open it through the wing or the middle? A wing player needs to think about how he can go front and support the attack or play a good defence-splitting pass in the middle. In the end, the defence is still very paramount. As you may have heard, attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.
What is lacking in modern-day defending?
Training has changed a lot today. During my time, we trained a lot for one-on-one situations a lot. So defenders were more prepared during those situations and were more confident in handling that. Today, there are a lot of fouls, defenders give the ball away easily because they can’t handle a striker running at them at full speed. If you are not trained for that it becomes harder to win the ball. That is missing in today’s times. Now training is based more on ball-playing.
Defenders are often the unsung heroes of the team. Do you feel they still don’t get enough credit as compared to attackers?
The focus today from the side of the fans and media is all for the attackers. It always entertaining when someone takes a shot, scores a goal or makes a great move in the offence but we miss the good actions defenders take. Preventing the opponent from scoring, stealing the ball, doing the right things. So it is even harder to notice those details.
That is why Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been winning the Ballon d’Or for years. I was nominated for the German player of the year thrice in my career but on all occasions, the first place was always taken by the striker or midfielder.
If you had to pick one defender, who would you rate as the best today?
It would be [Virgil] Van Dijk. Probably, when he signed for Liverpool everyone wondered why Liverpool was paying so much for him but you can see he’s a great defender and leader at the back. He does a great job of handling the defence by his own. One advantage is his physicality. He’s very strong from corners, possess a good header and can contribute many goals.
How bad has Bayern’s dominance been for the Bundesliga and the success of German teams in Europe?
It was a big issue but now we have four of five teams competing for the title, that wasn’t the case before where we only had Borussia Dortmund or Bayern. This needs to continue for long so that the level of competition is intense and will help German teams progress further in the Champions League. Its the same in the other leagues, look at Serie A. There’s only Juventus now, teams like Inter and AC Milan are way behind.