When Alexander Zorniger was appointed head coach at Danish side Brøndby IF in May last year, no one really knew what to expect from the former RB Leipzieg boss. Predecessor Thomas Frank had resigned a few months earlier, after chairman and club owner Jan Bech Andersen, using a pseudonym, had criticized him heavily on an online forum. Last season Brøndby finished with youth coach Auri Skarbalius on the sideline as interim head coach.
To make things worse, club legends Daniel Agger and Johan Elmander both left the club and captain Thomas Kahlenberg suffered a long-term injury. Meanwhile, the club also had to cut its player budget significantly, taking expensive signing off the table.
Zorniger was hired after Brøndby had issued a new club strategy after more than a decade of slow, possession-based football, proclaiming they wanted to play aggressive and attacking football, a style which suited Zorniger perfectly.
“Alexander Zorniger fulfilled our wishes of creating an aggressive and captivating team effort, and his ability to create a team with possession and eagerness to move forward is crucial for our decision,” sports director after the official presentation of Zorniger.
From the beginning, Zorniger expressed ambition, and it was clear that he wasn’t anything like his predecessors. Zorniger made it very clear that he was the boss, challenging the unwritten Danish Jantelov, where nobody is allowed to think they are better or worth more than others, as well as the classic flat management style, where everybody can have their say and share his or her opinion.
“How can you be on the same level, if one has to tell the other that he doesn’t play on the weekend? That he isn’t in the squad? That he isn’t even good enough to get his contract extended?” Zorniger asked rhetorically in an in August. “I tell the players what’s going to happen. It is like the Autobahn. I make the white lines on each side, so they can move inside them.¨
From day one, the players experienced what the new boss meant. During the preseason, the players met at the club at 8.30 in the morning and didn’t leave until 6 in the evening. “I have never experienced a preseason this tough,” defender after only a few days. Media reported daily on how much the Brøndby players were suffering, and many pundits questioned if Zorniger was pushing the players too hard.
But the long days soon paid off. Brøndby had their best start to a season in eleven years, going unbeaten through the first eight Superliga games and demolishing rivals AGF 7-0 on the road, equalling the biggest victory in the history of the Superliga. Zorniger’s management style was the crucial change the club had needed.
“It is almost easier as a player, because there is someone who shows the direction,” captain in an interview with the Danish players association. “The more freedom you get as a player, the more responsibility it demands. That might have been what we had been missing: that someone took responsibility. I think so. Several of the players have blossomed because we have had someone to show how to do things.”
To make things even better, they exceeded all expectations in Europe as they reached the final playoff round before the group stage by beating Valur, Hibernians, and Hertha Berlin.
After losing 1-0 in Berlin, a Teemu Pukki hattrick secured a 3-1 victory at home, securing Brøndby’s best European result since they beat Schalke 04 on penalties in 2003.
Although Brøndby eventually lost to Panathinaikos, they can be very happy with their first half season under Zorniger. The Yellow-Blues currently sit second, ten points ahead of FC Midtjylland, and if they keep that position, it will be their best result since 2006.
One of the best examples of the change brought by Zorniger was 22-year-old Andrew Hjulsager. Arguably being one of the biggest talents of his generation, the technically gifted midfielder kept under-performing as fans grew more and more unhappy with his performances. Often placed on the wing, Hjulsager rarely showed his skill and looked somewhat frightened every time he received the ball, as if scared of making mistakes.
Zorniger trusted Hjulsager however. Instead of hiding him on the wing, he positioned him centrally on the pitch, where he gave him more responsibility. In this role, Hjulsager immediately grew. Instead of looking like a frightened boy, he became a fighter with an eye for goal. He went on to score seven goals in the autumn, including a cracker against arch-rival FC Copenhagen. He was sold to Celta Vigo in January in one of Brøndby’s biggest transfers in recent years.
Another example was 22-year-old former HSV midfielder Christian Nørgaard, who joined Brøndby with big expectations in 2013. Just like Hjulsager, Nørgaard was an obvious talent, but never lived up to his potential. Under Thomas Frank, he was moved around the pitch, never really fitting in anywhere despite boasting great passing skills and football intelligence. However, instead of trying to use him as a number ten or eight where he played before, Zorniger moved him back to the defensive midfield, where he now works as the brain on the team and controls the pace of the game.
In just six months, Hjulsager and Nørgaard both went from being underwhelming talents who seemed scared of failing to becoming leaders and goal-scorers with high profiles in the Superliga It seems now only a matter of time before they are promoted from the Danish U21 to the full national team.
Brøndby are still far behind FC Copenhagen, both on and off the pitch, but since Zorniger’s arrival, they have taken some huge steps forward. Although the budget is significantly smaller than earlier, they are now closer than ever to returning to the top of Danish football. Zorniger has brought a winning mentality back to the squad, something that has seriously lacked at the club for years. Although the German recognizes that he is in for a long-term project, he still demands a lot from the players on a daily basis, and defeats and lack of will are no longer acceptable in the western outskirts of Copenhagen.
On Sunday, Brøndby travels to face FCK, where they haven’t won since 2004, and although the hosts are huge favourites, there is a feeling that with Zorniger on the sideline, nothing is impossible for the Yellow-Blues.