Part 1: Germany is on the threshold of greatness in European and international football.
Germany appears to have found the answer to Spain's tiki-taka style and is a country on the threshold of greatness in European and international football. In this first of a 2-part series we look at German football's masterplan to improve the fortunes of the national side by radically overhauling its footballing infrastructure and how the plan has assisted the recent success of Bundesliga clubs like Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.
German football is now reaping rich dividends from investment initiatives undertaken since 2000 to improve the quality of its coaches and young players. At that time, the German Football Association (Deutscher Fußball-Bund or DFB) began a programme of significant and sustained investment to radically improve its footballing infrastructure.
In typical German fashion, the DFB undertook painstakingly thorough research to discover ways to develop better players and coaches. They sought to produce a generation of great players and learned from the experiences of countries like Spain, Holland and France. The Germans were aware that the French rose to prominance by winning the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship in 2000 with a team from multi-cultural backgrounds. The DFB's plan was helped by a change in Germany's nationality law in January 2000 which enabled foreigners to become German citizens. In recent years, players of foreign origin, including Real Madrid's Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira, have become established in the national team.
A key part of the masterplan was the DFB's requirement that all Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 clubs build youth academies to develop young talent. The DFB, which regulated the quality of these academies, also built 121 national centres to help young players develop their technical skills. The Germans took full advantage of advances in sports science, particularly from America, to improve players' physical fitness parameters and employed psychological techniques to enhance on-field performance.
The setting-up of the Bundesliga youth academies and the DFB's district and regional training centres coincided with the collapse of Kirch Group, the broadcaster that had owned the Bundesliga TV rights. This, in addition to the effects of the Bosman ruling in 1995, acted as a financial wake-up call for Bundesliga teams, many of whom had traditionally signed expensive foreign players. After the youth academies became established it made sound economic and football sense for clubs to promote home-grown talent to the first-team.
At present, almost 60% of Bundesliga players are German, dramatically higher than the English Premier League where less than 40% of players are English. Many of the German players, whose average age is 24, are Bundesliga academy graduates.
Christian Seifert, the Bundesliga's chief executive, has emphasised the importance of the close relationship between clubs and the DFB in German football's recent renaissance and the benefit of the "50% plus one" rule introduced in 2001. The rule meant that clubs could not be more than 49% owned by a single entity. With the exception of VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, long-established works teams owned by Volkswagen and Bayer respectively, all German football clubs are required to have at least 51% member ownership. The significance of this is that the majority of votes on important decisions are cast by fans.
Seifert has pointed out that this is a far better position than having a foreign owner who has little interest in the fortunes of the national team. As Seifert explains, "The people who run the clubs very much have their roots here, and together with the DFB I guess we share one idea: that Germany should have world-class German players." Seifert also makes a very important point about the DFB and Bundesliga clubs working to their mutual benefit by saying, "Of course each club is focused on its team......nevertheless the shared vision of the clubs in Germany is that we have to have a strong national team, that helps football in the country."
Signs of Optimism
After Jürgen Klinsmann was appointed manager in 2004, Germany began to prepare meticulously to increase its chances of success. Klinsmann introduced sports science concepts he learned whilst living in California and devised individual programmes to monitor players' fitness. Germany were said to be the fittest team at the 2006 World Cup. The Germans attention to detail extended to the preparation of dossiers, often several hundreds of pages in length, about forthcoming opponents. Professor Buschmann at Team Cologne’s Sporthochschule said that during Euro 2012 he and his team analysed information about their opponents ranging from the amount of ball contact, to tactical and technical aspects of the game, and the strengths and weaknesses of individual players.
Germany was beaten by Spain in the final of Euro 2008, and reached the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 where, once again, they received plaudits for their exciting, dynamic football.
The future for German football looks wonderfully exciting. The quality of players emerging from academies in recent years suggests the masterplan has been a huge success. Borussia Dortmund manager Jürgen Klopp is aware of positive changes and has said, "Now we have an incredible amount of talented players. New promising players arise all the time. We have become braver by playing young kids of 17 years of age." German players like Dortmund's Marco Reus, Mario Götze (soon to move to Bayern) and Bayern's Thomas Müller, Toni Kroos, Manuel Neuer are considered by many football experts to be well on their way to become world stars.
Gegenpressing: The Antidote to Tiki-Taka?
Let us now consider what has been happening at club level in German football and the impact that the DFB's masterplan has had on the quality of players, teams and tactics.
This season's Champions League has once again served up a feast of outstanding fare for football fans. A major talking point has been how Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have successfully dominated and controlled games using a high-tempo, high pressing game, a tactic referred to as 'gegenpressing'.
Gegenpressing, popularised by Jürgen Klopp's Dortmund side in recent seasons, involves highly-organised pressing, both with and without the ball, and lightening-quick counter-attacks to penetrate and punish the opposition.
Bayern Munich's brilliant Champions League semi-final demolition of Barcelona was a footballing masterclass. An absolute tactical triumph. Without their star player Lionel Messi in the second leg at the Nou Camp, Barcelona were outplayed by a powerful Bayern side whose pre-match preparation was so thorough they seemed to go into the game knowing the answer to every question the Catalan side could pose.
Bayern made Barcelona's tiki-taka style look tired. Over both legs of the tie we saw a contest between Barça's one trick pony and Bayern's many trick pony. The Catalans' over-reliance on Messi's genius over the past few years and an obvious lack of top quality cover in key positions increased their vulnerability. Now, many have begun to predict the death of tiki-taka and the dominance at club and international level of highly-organised, co-ordinated defensive and attacking units.
Barcelona's great success over much of the past decade has been due to tiki-taka, a possession-based style of football characterised by short passing and intelligent, co-ordinated movement undertaken by technically gifted players. The Barça side under manager Pep Guardiola, who ironically is about to manage Bayern Munich, were formidable. Barcelona typically dominate possession in matches. Generally, against teams who pack the defence and midfield, Barcelona continue to pass the ball patiently until an opening is created or the opposition defence makes a mistake. We came to accept that Barça and Spain's tiki-taka would eventually outwit even the most defiant defences.
Earlier this year in an article entitled "Tiki-Taka Versus Intelligent Parking the Bus", I wrote about how, especially in the Champions League, Barcelona's tiki-taka style had been countered by some highly-organised, technically sophisticated teams employing a combination of ultra-defence and explosive counter-attacking. These teams, including Inter Milan, Chelsea and AC Milan continuously pressed and harried Barça instead of seeking to dominate possession of the ball.
There is little doubt that the performances of these teams and also of Real Madrid in La Liga demonstrate that, without sufficient space to manoeuvre and thread intricate, incisive passes, tiki-taka can be ineffective. When pressed in a highly organised way with defenders, midfielders and forwards all working tirelessly in a co-ordinated manner, the space for the Barça players Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Iniesta and Messi to pass and move can be so restricted that they end up passing the ball sideways and to little effect.
In the Champions League this season, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and also Juventus in Italy, have demonstrated a tirelessly energetic, co-ordinated approach to pressing teams. This has helped them to regain possession as well as restricting space for their opponents to pass and move. Watching these teams defend and attack so cohesively can resemble a series of choreographed dance rountines. And, as demonstrated so brilliantly by Bayern in their Champions League semi-final victory over Barcelona, pressing and tightly closing down as a unit also enabled them to anticipate and intercept some of Barça's passing.
A Win-Win Situation
On the basis of what we have seen in the performances of the German football team and those of clubs like Bayern and Dortmund, the future for German football looks exceedingly bright. The clubs have clearly benefited from the DFB putting into place a system of youth development which may become the future model for every country in the world. The Bundesliga clubs now have established youth academies, their stadia are generally modern, entrance prices are affordable and fans have a say in the running of the clubs. In German football there is a win-win situation where the DFB and the clubs work in harmony to produce a successful national team. Sadly, this is something which has long since been acknowledged to be missing in English football.
The second and final part of this series will explore further the success of the Bundesliga clubs Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.