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Daniel Farke: A Phoenix from the Ashes

“A phoenix from the ashes” how the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB), the German Football Association, described the resurrection of SV Lippstadt 08 who currently reside in the fifth division of German football, in 2014.

Nearing the end of the 2008-2009, the club was flirting with relegation out of the sixth division of German football for the first time since the 1997-1998 season. Significant changes were required to avoid relegation that season, and the club had prepared to appoint a new head coach and sporting director before the start of the 2009-2010 season. Daniel Farke, a former player at Lippstadt, was the first appointee. 

Farke was hired on the basis that he would coach the first team for the remaining 10 games of the 08-09 season before shifting to the sporting director role, while the club would scour the land for a new head coach for the upcoming 2009-2010 season. This was negotiated by Farke, the man who would later reveal that he “never wanted to become a coach” in an interview with the Guardian in 2017.

What followed on was remarkable, Farke directed the side to nine victories and a draw from those last 10 games, achieving the seemingly impossible and in the process finding a love for coaching. Later on, Farke recalled that he did not intend to keep the dual position job – as head coach and sporting director. However, his players pleaded with him to stay, saying ‘we like playing for you’ which really spurred him on to keep the position as head coach, simultaneously thinking “this coaching is not too bad”.

At the time of his appointment at Lippstadt late in the 2008-09 season, Farke was already qualified to become the sporting director of the club and also the head coach. So, in a mutual decision with the club, Farke decided to continue in a combination of both roles and run the proceedings of the first team for the rest of his tenure at the club.

It was Farke’s determination for organised success throughout his playing years that led to the possibility of flexibility in his role, which has since reflected in his results as a manager. “I wanted to become a sporting director” Farke stated. Therefore, towards the twilight of his playing career, the German enrolled into an economics degree in order to “to learn about contracts, taxes and things like that”. In a move to fast-track his success and become a more competent sporting director, Farke completed his coaching course “to earn some knowledge about what it is like to be a coach because as a sporting director you have to appoint and work with coaches”.

For the next six years after his appointment, Farke and Lippstadt embarked on a largely successful journey that included two consecutive promotions and the completion of a brand new 4250 capacity stadia. Not only that, but during the 2013-2014 season, the then 37-year-old experienced significant personal success off the field as well. Farke completed the 10-month Fußball-Lehrer degree at the well-revered Hennes Weisweiler Akademie, an academy which “sets the standards in Europe” for coaches according to the German FA’s head of coaching education, Fran Wormouth.

Farke completed the 800-plus hour course, finishing third overall, which has an England-equivalent of only 202.5 hours set by the England FA. Meaning on top of his role at SV Lippstadt, he was enrolled in a course that required – at a minimum – an average of 2.67 hours per day dedicated to the course.

In an interview with the DfB, after his graduation, Farke recalled the workload of those previous 10 months saying “For me it was actually a triple burden. The training on the one hand. And my job as coach and sports director at SV Lippstadt on the other side. That was a very intense time.” Throughout which, the man born just a 20-minute drive from Lippstadt, missed just 13 out of 149 training sessions or match days as he was forced to take the two-hour drive from his home in Lippstadt to Hennef, the location of the academy, on many an occasion.

At the end of that same season, the 2013-2014 campaign, Farke’s Lippstadt experienced its first major setback as they were relegated from the fourth league of German football, the equal-highest regional league in West Germany, the Regionalliga West. The Regionalliga West is just below the ‘Liga’, the lowest nation-wide professional league in Germany and the third highest league in the country, which highlights the magnitude of their achievement as an amateur club.

In the same interview with the DfB in 2014, after Farke’s graduation, Daniel admitted that avoiding relegation would be “a sensation” (the interview was conducted before the end of the season). “We are one of only three clubs that do not work under professional conditions. In addition, we have the smallest budget in the league.” Farke went on to say, acknowledging the gravity of the task he had uptaken.

Farke stayed at the club and saw out Lippstadt’s next season in the fifth league of German football, the equal second highest regional division in West Germany, Oberliga Westfalen, which would happen to be his last year at a club of which he had been a servant for more than eight years.

The 12-months following his mutual exit from Lippstadt was meant to be a sabbatical for Farke; time to recuperate after six years managing a club in his first-ever stint. However, 3 months into his 12-month sabbatical, Farke was made an offer that he could not refuse. Borussia Dortmund II, a team which Lippstadt mingled within their sole year in the fourth division, offered Farke a job after his predecessor – whose name might sound familiar – David Wagner, vacated the role on his way to Huddersfield Town mid-way through the 2015-16 season.

Farke snapped up the opportunity with the side languishing one place above the relegation zone in 15th nearing the halfway point of the season. What ensued was another Farke-conjured miracle. The manager now at his second club, waved his wand transformed the one dire-looking fortunes of the club between his appointment and the end of the season. The before and after comparison of the side’s performances shows a remarkable discrepancy.

Farke more than doubled the team’s goals per game average in the remaining 22 games of the season (2 goals per game) compared to the initial 14 games of the season (just 0.93 goals per game). He also shored up the defence, slicing more than a third off of their average goals against per game, from 1.29 to just 0.81 goals against per game. By the end of the season, the club had found itself in 4th place – out of 18 – averaging 2.07 points per game in this new era under Farke, a whopping 1.03 points per game more than the pre-Farke era that season.

Maintaining such form for a whole season is near-impossible and requires a club stability only matched by the elite in Europe, but the Farke-led Dortmund II side went as close as possible to replicating their form of the previous season. For the 2016-2017 season, the second side of one of the most recognised clubs in Europe were near unstoppable.

Donning the famous yellow and black strip, Dortmund II went on to average 1.87 points per game for the season on the back of a well-disciplined defence that even bettered last season’s effort, conceding just 0.73 goals per game – a record inferior to just four teams in the top nine leagues in Germany (includes five regional leagues in Germany which are all equally-ranked as the fourth tier in Germany and all four feed into the Liga – the lowest national professional league in the country).

The side finished second, courtesy of a three-game stretch in which they lost three consecutive games – their only losses for the season, which left them just short of qualification to a play-off position (as the winners of the five regional leagues in Germany and the best runner up all vie for two promotion places to the Liga).

A simple philosophy of playing each player to their strength and not making them do more than necessary for their allotted role, had carried Farke up the ranks so far in his managerial career. Farke’s good work again did not go unnoticed, and for the second time in his short – but so far, sweet – managerial career he was offered a job he simply could not refuse. Norwich City came calling and offered him an opportunity that would see him leave the country he had resided in since birth for the beginning of the 2017-2018 season in the Championship.

The quality of football and competition in the Championship is an entirely different concept compared to the lower leagues of Germany. Each team – funded by business tycoons, betting agencies and sport and management agencies – consists of multiple ranks of hierarchy formed to please up to hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide, with none of them worth anything less than seven figures on market value alone. Therefore, it would take Farke’s magic a little longer to weave its way around the club.

In the midst of a rollercoaster-like up-and-down 2016-2017 season which saw Norwich sitting in eighth on the table after just 7 wins from their last 24 league games coming into matchday 37, left them 9 points outside of the top 6, the playoff positions. This is when club owners – Delia Smith and husband Michael Wynne Jones – decided a new direction for the club was necessary to achieve success. Alex Neil was sacked as manager and Alan Irvine took on the role as the interim manager while the club went to search for a sporting director and a head coach, revamping the structure of the club, removing the individual manager and chief executive positions.

The sporting director was to oversee the proceedings and management of player contracts – buying, selling and extending all players’ contracts. This meant that the head coach would not have to deal with many of the formalities of a generic managerial position except for scheduled media conferences, instead focussing solely on the performance of the team on the pitch. This combination of roles directly contradicts the role of a manager whose role is similar to Farke’s position at Lippstadt. A manager is permitted to control everything from on-field tactics to player negotiations, all the proceedings and dealings of the first-team go through the manager.

Stuart Webber was snatched away from Huddersfield in April of 2017 and by the next month, Webber got his man Farke from Borussia Dortmund II, the same team he had poached David Wagner from for the Terriers’ job. It was a bold move to ask Farke to take the step from the fourth tier of German football to the second tier of English football, but it wasn’t a decision that was taken lightly. Webber had taken note of Farke’s work as Wager’s successor at Dortmund II saying that Wagner spoke very highly of his German compatriot when Webber asked the now ex-Huddersfield manager when the pair were at Huddersfield together.

Farke was “always the standout candidate” for Webber at Norwich who respectfully “waited until his [Farke’s] season had finished [at Dortmund II]” before making his move for the first non-British head coach in Norwich’s 114-year history. Upon Farke’s appointment, Webber was full of optimism for the future saying “We [Farke and Webber] share a very similar idea… we’ve got similar sort of views of what it’s going to look like at the end.”

On a very limited budget, Webber and Farke have done an impressive job of holding true to their ideas on their mission to a successful promotion. As of May this year, Norwich had the third-highest net profit (£29.69 million) from transfers out of last season’s 24 Championship clubs based off the last five season’s of spending due to several significant departures over this period, namely James Maddison amongst others. Meaning their outgoings had been considerably more than their incomings.

The limited spending has been a result of multiple factors, but in a rare occurrence it is not due to the refusal of the club owners to ‘loosen their purse strings’. Instead, the owners in fact do not have sufficient ‘purse strings’ to ‘loosen’. Delia Smith and Michael Wynne Jones, the majority shareholders of the club, are willing to sell their shares on to the right investors. When asked if they would stand in the way of potential new investors, Smith responded emphatically “We [Smith and Wynne Jones] would never.”, going onto say that “We love our football club too much to stand in the way. If somebody came along who wanted to buy our football club – who would make it better. We just want to assure our fans that we care for the football club too deeply. We don’t see anything in it for ourselves, we just want the football club to be successful.”

Success for club owners with the lowest combined net worth in the Premier League for the upcoming 2019-2020 season is not easy to come by. Smith, the main public voice of the majority shareholders, aspires for Norwich to become a self-funding club, to enhance the club’s chances of success. How Smith puts it, is she aspires to have “one player capable of playing regular first-team football each season come out of the academy.” This they have been mildly successful in doing so in recent seasons. Their pair of highly-rated and youthful first-team full-backs, Maximillian Aarons (19 years old) and Jamal Lewis (21), set to join Angus Gunn, Josh Murphy and Jacob Murphy as Norwich City youth products from the past eight years to have played in the Premier League since the beginning of the 2018-2019 season.

This model is not sustainable on a small budget without smart recruitment in the player and coaching department. But as the age-old saying goes, ‘you’ve got to risk it for the biscuit’ and indeed this is what Norwich did.

Throughout these past five years they have sold 6 players for an individual fee of more than £10 million since the summer transfer window of the 2016-2017 season, but no incoming player has exceeded that same value. In fact, of their most frequent starting XI players from their table-topping 2018-2019 campaign where they were crowned Championship champions by almost two clear games, only one of the XI, then 27-year-old centre back Timm Klose, was bought for an initial price of more than £3 million in the English summer of 2016. To add to this, their total market value of the current 28 players in their squad is the second-lowest in the Premier League (at the time of writing), sitting at £80.91 million (according to transfermarkt.co.uk).

These sorts of figures make it clear as to why Norwich, with Daniel Farke at the helm, has been such a revelation, but it was not all easy going. In Farke’s initial season the Canaries actually produced 10 less points, scoring a drastic 36 less goals in the process compared to the season prior to Farke’s appointment. However, it was a simple case of needing to take one step back to go two steps forward as the 2018-2019 season produced unimaginable improvement. Using his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation in 45 out 46 Championship games, he guided the Norfolk-based side to its equal-lowest amount of losses in a league season in its history on their way to promotion. All this, despite losing their top two goal contributors from the season prior, James Maddison (14 goals and 8 assists) and Josh Murphy (7 goals and 3 assists) before the season even began.

After two seasons at the club, Farke’s win percentage currently sits as the third best (46.2%) of any Norwich manager. His “dominance through possession” philosophy encourages his team to “be the protagonist… To decide whether we win or lose.” In a similar approach to world class managers Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel, Farke follows the approach that “the idea is to exhaust the opponents, not yourselves.”

But above all else Farke values “possession, passing and chances” as the critical factors behind his play, believing dominance in these areas on the pitch will provide the greatest foundation to success. With games against Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City in the first five weeks of Norwich’s return to the Premier League, winning these three statistical measures will – putting it lightly – be one of the more difficult tasks for the Canaries this season. With a combined record of 5 draws and 10 losses from the past 15 attempts at dismantling the aforementioned trio of teams, it might not take long for fans of the newly-promoted side to relive nightmares of futures past.

Farke will be hoping his title-winning side will put in performances in these fixtures, that can provide them with a platform to build from for the rest of the season. It does remain to be seen whether or not the self-funding nature of the club can produce sustained success in the world’s most competitive division, but with Farke’s – so far – successful history it will be hard to write them off.

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