Interview: FC Augsburg head coach Jess Thorup

Image Credit (Bundesliga Content Hub Images)

Today is exactly half a year that you have been in charge of FC Augsburg. How would you sum up the time so far?

“First of all, I’m very proud to be here. I used a little bit of time off for the first time in my career to think about where to go, and what is my next assignment, and when I got this opportunity to come to Augsburg, I got a very good feeling from the first talks that I had with the club, with the CEO, the sporting director and those guys around. They gave me a very good feeling. I was never in doubt that this was a project where I could see myself. So far, the first six months have gone pretty quickly, but also very well. I think we are on a good path. We have got into some stability. We have created a foundation for the team, and we have also shown on the pitch that we play some good football, and the most important thing in football is always the results, and they are there, at the moment. So, I think everybody’s happy.”

When you started, what was your idea of the football you wanted to implement; how do you want to see your team play?

“The first thing I said to the team in the dressing room was that I need to build a team. I know there are around 30 individuals, but building a team is very important for me. The second thing for me was an offensive mindset, not only with the ball, just scoring goals but also not dropping off without the ball. We want to defend from the front, all those kinds of things. I tried to give them some ideas in terms of how I see and how I want football to be played, and then I started working on their mindset on the pitch from the first session, building their confidence, because I know the most important in football is players with confidence, and they didn’t have that at that moment. I think we pretty quickly got some confidence into the players, though, and from then we started building on the style of play.”

Sporting-wise, you are having an exceptional second part of the season. Augsburg are the 5th best team in 2024, even better than Bayern. What are the reasons for that?

“Oh yeah, that’s a very good question. We have momentum, we are in a good flow, we have a lot of belief in our way of doing things. We have a strong team, which means everybody knows exactly what to do. We have created a style of play with a lot of relationships on the pitch where we try to make not only the individual better, but also the connection between the players better, and for the moment we are not only playing well, but we probably also have the luck that you need sometimes. Overall, I think everybody knows exactly what to do and we have this belief that every time we go on the pitch, we feel we can win this game no matter who we’re playing against. This is something you cannot buy in a corner shop, you need to build that over time and I think the players have got that over the last few months.”

You always say you never look at the table. I can tell you, you are 7th and have a good chance of qualifying for European football next season. What do you think about that? Is that realistic?

“When I first started in Augsburg, the most important thing was that we need to stay in the league, it’s so important for the city, for everybody and that was clear. If you look at the last seven or eight years, I think they have been between 12th and 15th, they always managed it in the last couple of rounds, so that was important. My aim was of course to make sure we stay in the league, but see if we can take some steps even higher in the ranking, maybe not in the first year but over the coming years. For it to go this fast, that we are already now above the middle, I don’t know if that surprised me but of course that shows me that we are capable of playing with even the best in the league, and, to be honest, I am still looking at the next game and that is my focus. I’m not so focused on where we are in the middle of May, but of course, if everything is going to be so perfect that we achieve something special, then we’re prepared for it. Somebody will probably say that’s usually something that happens over a year, where you plan and do things, but sometimes things happen, and for the moment we are on the right path, and we are heading in the right direction. Let’s see what happens, and we will do everything we can over the next five games, with 15 points to play for, to see how many points we get, and let us see where we are at the end.”

The club said that their long-term target is to be constantly in the top ten. You got them there in the short term. How realistic is it to achieve that in the long- -term?

“100%. I’m here with a lot of ambitions, I know my job first of all is to stabilise the team and build a foundation, but it is also to try to bring this club and the team to maybe even a higher position. Our CEO was also out a couple of months ago and said that over the years, we need to see if we can get into the top ten, and I think that’s a target where I also see myself. I have come from a lot of clubs that play European football, and that could even be a dream for Augsburg, being there. They have been there once, I think, and that could be a dream for everybody to be there in the future. That is not something you do overnight, though, that’s something that will take time. So then we probably need to build stone by stone, and then hopefully over the years we’ll have the opportunity to get closer to that target.”

When you had time off between joining FC Augsburg and leaving Copenhagen, which was approximately a year, you travelled a lot and gained inspiration at other clubs in Germany and England, including at Brentford. What did you learn from that time?

“The most important thing for me was, first of all, I think it was the first time in 35 years that I had time off as a player or as a coach, and I think that was very useful for me and my family to think a little bit about where is it that we want to go. What is the next step in our life in terms of projects and stuff like that, we had a lot of opportunities, but we waited for the right moment, the right feeling, where we felt ‘OK, we could see ourselves there, me and my family, over the next few years’. Of course, I used a little bit of the time off to get out and get some new inspiration, because when you end a job you are there 24/7. It’s always the next day, the next game, and you have no time to talk to colleagues or get inspiration. So, I travelled around Europe, not only to visit colleagues, but also to see what is happening in other clubs and other leagues, to get inspiration for when I hopefully will be part of it, and now I’m part of the Bundesliga and I’m of course very proud of that.”

You worked in Midtjylland for five years, for a club which is very data-based, just like they are under Thomas Frank at Brentford. Gaining data in training sessions and matches is also an essential part of your work. Why is that so important for you?

“I think it’s part of football, I will not say it’s the most important thing for me, because I’m still a coach who likes to be on the pitch working with players, talking to players, learning a little bit, not only about the players but also the person behind the players. In the end though, instead of just looking at the scoreboard and seeing if it’s a win or a draw, I use data, in terms of getting a step deeper and seeing what this shows us. I have set a lot of KPIs where I can use data to see if we are going in the right direction: how we develop our way of playing, whether it makes any sense, we work on it weekly, so do we see it on the pitch? Data therefore helps me in terms of what I feel: Sometimes data will give me the same feeling, or tell me I have to be aware something is going off in a different direction than what I want. That will then give me maybe another way of seeing football. I work a lot with that, also in terms of scouting players, but at the moment, I’m using it more for the style of play, developing this club and the individual players.”

Where do you draw the line or how do you draw the line between a data-based approach to a player and a human approach? You also emphasise that the human being comes first, and then the footballer?

“I always go with my feeling, I always follow my gut feeling, in the first place, this will be the decision. I then use the data, though, as more of an evaluation after the game, or after five games, to see where we are going, what direction we are going in, whether we were lucky, or unlucky, things are going as we want, that’s where I use the data more.”

You are well known for developing youth players, not only since you were a coach for Denmark’s under-20s and under-21s. When we look at the current Augsburg starting 11, except for Gouweleeuw, the whole team is not older than 26. Why is working with younger players more attractive for you than with older players?

“Of course, in the under 21s national team it was clear to me it was about what exactly the young players need to get to the highest level, they were at the stage just before the first team, so it was about what skills do they need to take those steps. I was a player myself, and a way of giving something back to football, which gave me so much, is giving back to those young players. What do they need to get to their highest possible level? That’s why I like working with players. For me, it’s not only about young players, it’s about working with human beings, and about how I can help the individual. It’s 30 players, but it’s 30 different people that I’m working with, so it’s about how I can develop the individual. For me, having this feeling working with a young guy from wherever he comes from, and suddenly you see he makes his debut and takes the next step, it’s, of course, something special, but it could also be a 33-year-old where I think they are still not finished, there are still improvements to be made, so I will never stand still or stop developing players as long as I see there is some potential.”

Playing in Germany and living in Krefeld at that time, did that make it easier for you to settle down here in Germany?

“I don’t know, but it was a dream for me and my wife, she was with me in Germany when I was a player, and our son was born in Germany, so after that, I think we had a dream of coming back to Germany, and now we’re here. Of course, it helps us in terms of the language, the culture, we still have some friends from that time. I think it helped us a little bit, but now we are focussed on Augsburg and we’re learning a little bit about the south of Germany, what that means, and what kind of culture is there. I think we’re pretty good at adapting to where we live.”

How do you like Augsburg the city and its people so far?

“I’m very impressed, in terms of the city, I like it. It’s not too big, not too small, it’s a very pretty city, a city which likes football. I think we have sold out more or less in 15 out of 17 home matches, so it means football is a very important part of Augsburg. Of course, now I live in the city, I meet a lot of people on the streets, I see a lot of supporters, it gives me a good feeling that football is such an important thing in Germany, and I like that, the passion about supporting the team, the club. That gives me a good feeling that I can do something for those people.”

What impression have you got from the Bundesliga so far, being in the mix and having played against all the teams at least once?

“It’s a strong league, a league with a lot of intensity, there are full stadiums everywhere, always. Of course, a lot of focus from the media and supporters, and a lot of intensity on the pitch. Games that are always more or less equal, you can’t predict any games, because every team has a chance of doing something. It’s a great league to be part of, to be participating in one of the top five leagues in Europe, and I think it’s a league that a lot of people around Europe follow because they play a lot of nice football here too.”

Your next match is on Friday in Frankfurt. If you beat them, you’ll leapfrog them and climb into sixth. How does that sound for an ambitious coach like you?

“There’s nothing too ambitious. We will always go onto the pitch with one target, and that is to win the game, no matter who we play against. For the moment we have a lot of confidence, and belief in ourselves, and we will try to bring this into our game against Frankfurt. For me it’s not important where they are in the league, it’s about winning the game and taking three points. We will do whatever we can, we know it will be another very difficult game, but we believe in ourselves, and that is the best thing to do in football because if you do that, you are closer to winning.”

How would you describe Leverkusen’s achievement?

“They are doing a great job. I had an opportunity during my travelling to visit them, they are doing great. Over the last year or two, they have been planning, and working on this major job done by the club. The coach has done a great job, with the way they play football, I must say they play some of the best football I have seen for a long time. That they are already champions, they deserve it so much. Congratulations to Bayer Leverkusen.”

If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

“I’m an honest person, a person who is social, I can talk, I can be around most people, and ambitious.”