Success has followed Oliver Glasner throughout his career as a defender in Austria and now as a coach, famously leading Eintracht Frankfurt to UEFA Europe League glory in 2022. Yet it hasn’t always been easy for someone who very nearly didn’t make it to his 37th birthday.
Glasner’s playing career can best be described as distinguished without being eye-catching – probably the words many centre-backs would have on their gravestone. The Salzburg native enjoyed a playing career spanning nearly two decades that started and ended at SV Ried.
He first joined the club in 1992 in the Austrian second division, earning promotion in 1995 and winning the Austrian Cup in 1998. His 11-year stint there ended in 2003 when Ried were relegated, joining LASK but only for a single year before returning ‘home’. Glasner enjoyed promotion again in his first year back, came fifth in the vote for Austria’s Footballer of the Year in 2008 (although he never represented his country at senior level), and would again lift the cup in 2010/11.
It was a huge time for the town of less than 12,000 people as they earned a place in the Europa League third qualifying round. Ried survived a 4-2 loss at Danish side Brondby to progress on away goals in August 2011, but Glasner knew nothing about the result.
He had been rushed to hospital in Copenhagen after feeling unwell following training and underwent immediate surgery after the discovery of a subdural haematoma in his brain. It was the result of a clash of heads with Rapid Vienna’s Mario Sonnleitner a few days earlier, where Glasner had suffered a gash and concussion. He remembers nothing of the hours following that training session before the Brondby game.
“It was the first injury where I didn’t feel that burning desire to have to come back,” he later told Austrian outlet Die Presse of his decision – based on the advice of doctors – to retire on 23 August 2011, five days before his 37th birthday, after 571 competitive appearances for Ried. He was named an honorary captain of the club.
A few months later he was brought in by Red Bull Salzburg managing director – and Ried’s honorary president – Peter Vogl to be his assistant and sporting coordinator. Shortly after, he was named first team boss Roger Schmidt’s assistant before returning once again to Ried as head coach for the 2014/15 campaign.
After a year he was appointed coach and sporting director at his other former club, LASK, leading them to promotion in 2017 and fourth place on their top-flight return. The Linz side missed out on a place in the Europa League play-offs on away goals against Besiktas but Glasner still guided the team to second place behind Salzburg in 2018/19.
A move to Germany with Wolfsburg came for the following season. Glasner took the Wolves from strength to strength, first finishing seventh to qualify for the Europa League and then fourth to make the Champions League with what was the club’s third-best points haul in history.
His personal average of 1.87 points per game from 87 fixtures in charge at Wolfsburg is bettered only by Uwe Erkenbrecher (1.68), Dieter Hecking (1.75) and Felix Magath (1.86) among those to have overseen at least 50 matches. The latter pair are the only coaches to have lifted major silverware at the Volkswagen Arena.
Glasner demonstrated his tactical nous and flexibility while at Wolfsburg, switching between a back three and four while also getting the very best out of the likes of striker Wout Weghorst, who scored 45 times in 84 games under the Austrian.
Watch: Analysing Glasner’s Wolfsburg
The more intense media spotlight of the Bundesliga also allowed greater insight into Glasner’s coaching methods. Talking to Isabella Müller-Reinhardt for her book about what football coaches are like as people, Mensch Trainer, the then Wolves boss explained why honesty is of utmost importance for him in his job.
“The most important thing is to be authentic. Players have fine antennae and would immediately be able to sense if I was trying to portray myself as something I’m not. What I say to the players, I mean”, Glasner explained of his thought process ahead of greeting his Wolfsburg squad for the first time.
“It means the players know they can trust me. I also reciprocate that trust with the players and don’t want to control everything. That’s new and unusual for a lot of people in the team,” he added.
The now 48-year-old granted his players a lot of freedom. For example, when the team stayed in a hotel ahead of games, he wouldn’t have people go around banging on doors to wake the squad up in the morning. He trusted them as grown-ups to know when they had to be up and in the right place when needed.
Glasner also explained that he would always take time out for himself, switching off his phone every night. “What problem needs to be fixed at 10pm that can’t wait till 8am the next morning?” he said when explaining his rationale.
That balance of coaching and man management clearly bore fruits in his results at Wolfsburg and saw Frankfurt come calling after just two years to replace Borussia Mönchengladbach-bound compatriot Adi Hütter.
At first, it appeared a strange decision. The Wolves would be competing in the Champions League in 2021/22 and went on to make a flying start to that season under Mark van Bommel. Eintracht, meanwhile, would be in the Europa League and got knocked out of the DFB Cup by lower-league Waldhof Mannheim in their first fixture under Glasner, who actually failed to win any of his eight matches in charge.
Fortunes would eventually reverse over the season. The Austrian got his first Bundesliga victory at the helm away at, of all places, Bayern Munich. However, defeat at home to Hertha Berlin in the very next game set for tone for a middling Bundesliga campaign that ended in 11th – their worst finish since 2016/17 under Niko Kovac.
Watch: Glasner got his first Bundesliga win in charge of Frankfurt in Munich
Yet 2021/22 still went down as one of the greatest seasons in Eintracht’s history thanks to their European campaign under Glasner. Die Adler remained unbeaten in all 13 Europa League fixtures, including two-legged knockout victories over Real Betis, Barcelona and West Ham United.
Indeed, Frankfurt came in for high praise from Barcelona coach, and former midfield general, Xavi Hernandez, during their run to the title. Eintracht put in memorable displays in both legs of the quarter-finals against the Catalan giants, but it was at the Camp Nou - where the visitors led 3-0, before eventually running out 3-2 winners - that Europe stood up and took note of the Eagles' aims of winning the tournament.
"Eintracht played to their strengths really well; they were tough, physical and very good in their own penalty box," Xavi explained after Barca were KO’d.
"They play on the counter-attack and counter-press in a way I’ve only seen from a few teams in my career. We didn’t defend either well and were unable to stop them. Congratulations to Eintracht, they deserve to progress," the four-time Champions League winner concluded.
Further regaling came in from Kovac - one of Glasner’s predecessors at Eintracht and the last person to lead them to a trophy with the 2018 DFB Cup - ahead of the final against Scottish giants Rangers.
“He’s very structured, very well organised, meticulous, observes the opposition very closely and prepares the team very well for them,” the former Bayern and current Wolfsburg boss told the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung.
“He doesn’t just let Eintracht run their boots off. He adjusts tactics, tries to simulate the opponent during the week in training. Oliver has transferred his ideas of football well to his team because he works methodically, because there’s no chopping and changing.”
Watch: Analysing full-throttle Frankfurt in 2021/22
Glasner is indeed not one to chop and change once he’s found the formula that works best for him. During the monster 2021/22 campaign, he had a core of 10 players who all played over 2,500 minutes. The next most was Makoto Hasebe at 1,750.
He had a reliable goalkeeper in Kevin Trapp; Filip Kostic would get up and down the left flank and cross all game; Daichi Kamada was providing goals and assists; while Rafael Borre was the main man up top and ultimately the hero with the equaliser and decisive penalty in the shootout victory over Rangers to win the Europa League.
The coach – only the third Austrian to lead a team to a European title after legends Bela Guttmann and Ernst Happel - got every decision right as Eintracht brought home continental silverware for the first time in over 40 years and qualified for the Champions League for the first time in their history. They would even face Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup. All the ups and downs of the Bundesliga campaign were immediately forgotten.
Watch: Eintracht’s Europa League celebrations
Back at Europe’s top table, Glasner again guided Frankfurt though a group campaign, finishing second behind Tottenham Hotspur in Group D. Even with a squad which had lost key players in Kostic and defensive leader Martin Hinteregger, Glasner and Eintracht stuck to their way of doing things.
“Our approach is clear,” the coach explained. “We want to cause problems for defences. Our strategy is to get forward and constantly keep them busy; it must involve causing problems to the opposition defence.”
Defeat in the last 16 to Italian high-flyers Napoli was obviously disappointing for all involved, but Glasner made a strong case for his methods when he said: “If this is the first time in 21 months that you get knocked out of Europe, then you’ve done a lot right.”
Yes, he adapts his team somewhat to the opposition, but his core principles have remained clear and unwavering.
In this Bundesliga season up to the March international break, they lead the division for contested challenges (213 per game). Randal Kolo Muani – an unknown ahead of the campaign and now a World Cup runner-up thanks to just a few months in Glasner’s tutelage – is the player who’s contested the most in the division (725), while he’s also the Bundesliga’s most prolific player with 11 goals and 10 assists.
Only two teams have covered more ground per game or had more intensive runs or sprints than this Frankfurt team. They are not about pumping it up the field, in fact playing the fewest long balls in the league, but still get it forward as quickly as possible and press high, as proven by their 11 goals following a turnover of possession (second to Bayern, 13). They want to get the ball into the box and have the best ratio of goals per number of crosses (one every 25), having scored eight times (after Cologne, nine).
When that clicks, they are up there with the best. It's all part of the Glasner blueprint – which players are willing to buy into – where he’s able to make a team greater than the sum of its parts and push them on to previously unseen heights.
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