Christian Ziege: the elite left-back that never was

Sean Lunt

Ask who the Premier League’s best left-back was in 2001 and not many would have an answer. Put it to Glenn Hoddle and he might say Christian Ziege.

The then-Tottenham boss was more than effusive when discussing his latest capture back in the summer of 2001:

“We’re delighted to have a player of Christian’s quality on board. I’m looking for him to repeat the kind of form that made him one of the best wing-backs in the world,”

Hoddle speaking to Sky Sports

Few would have seen what Hoddle was going on about. Following an acrimonious arrival from Middlesbrough Ziege had been nothing short of a disaster at Anfield, managing just 16 appearances in the Premier League.

Those that watched him on Merseyside would agree that there was talent there but they didn’t get to see it often enough; the problem was Gerard Houllier.

First, he simply didn’t fancy his new signing, with Ziege claiming his boss often ignored him, for no particular reason. Even when he did play him, it was out of position. Played in a flat back four, his attacking talent was stifled and Liverpool were happy to ship him off to London as a result.

Sadly, White Hart Lane was no happier a hunting ground than Anfield had proven to be. He managed 33 appearances in his first season but an injury picked up late in that campaign effectively ended his career. It had come close to ending his life at one stage.

He returned to Germany, played 14 games at Borussia Monchengladbach then called it a day. Injuries and Gerard Houllier stopped it being a different tale. Before Tottenham and Liverpool, Ziege could comfortably claim he was among the best in the world.

Starting his career with Bayern Munich, he was a stalwart in their defence, racking up close to 200 appearances between 1990 and 1997 as they won two Bundesliga titles and the UEFA Cup.

While a regular at Munich, he was also a permanent fixture of a very strong Germany team, including the team that enjoyed success at Euro 96.

Ziege was one of the unheralded success stories of that achievement, among the bigger tales of Klinsmann and Sammer. While the latter two took the headlines, he and the likes of Markus Babbel played a key role.

A move to AC Milan in the summer of ’97 followed another strong year at Bayern but success would not come quite as easily as it had before.

A Serie A title did arrive in 1998/99 but his overall unhappiness in the country saw his form drop off drastically. That was when Middlesbrough came calling in 2000.

Bryan Robson was busy building the Teessiders into something of a force and Ziege fitted in superbly. In a wing back position, he demonstrated his powers for all to see on a regular basis.

Surging powerfully down the left wing, picking out passes and regularly showing off his crossing ability, the German was a revelation. With him in the team, Boro finished comfortably midtable, 23 points away from relegation – they were only six short of a top six finish.

His departure may have burned his bridges, but quietly, the German is remembered fondly by the club’s fans. That is where it should have ended, even Ziege has said as much. A further stay in the North East may have seen he, and Boro, go on to greater things.

Instead, the history books will show him as something of a failure. And that is how these things tend to go, earlier success is often overlooked for later struggles.

Ask Middlesbrough and Bayern Munich fans, though, and they may tell you something different. If injuries and the will of a Frenchman hadn’t gotten in the way, Ziege may have been regarded among the best in the world.