Kangaroo leather. Three stripes. All black. For those of us growing up in the 90s Copa Mundials were German football.
The iconic boot is a symbol German football. Copas aren’t flash. They aren’t seductive. But they hug the foot. They endure any pitch. They show up every day and win. It’s the German way.
German steadiness, however reliable, can be, boring. German football didn’t quicken my heart. The Bundesliga didn’t have Thierry Henry, the Nationalmannschaft didn’t wear bright yellow Nike shirts. Unlike the Premier League or La Liga, it would take a giant to open my mind to a football culture I had for so long discarded.
That giant was Raph Honigstein. Raph Honigstein is an expert. An expert on fashion, gastronomy and most important, German football (I can’t confirm his expertise on the first two, but he looks the part).
Often, football tales are stories of underdogs rising from humble beginnings to find glory. Raph however, flips this common trope. Das Reboot is the story of a football dynasty, who after a stroll in the wilderness of mediocrity takes on mankind’s greatest challenge – change.
Below are my favorite bits
Yes, even Germany suffered a talent shortage:
The shortage of skilled personnel wasn’t an entirely new problem, either. As early as 1997, there had been so few decent German strikers in the league that national manager Berti Vogts was forced to lobby the government to naturalise South African-born Sean Dundee of Karlsruher SC, a forward without any German background whatsoever.
No one swoons over pragmatic economics, but it drives youth development. A lack of wealth forced clubs to lean on their academies for talent:
In the German FA’s defense, they soon understood that the whole youth development set-up needed reform and a sizeable cash injection. By 2004, the first fruits of the changes at grass-roots level were becoming visible in the shape of youngsters like Schweinsteiger and Lahm. Bundesliga clubs hit by the 2002 bankruptcy of the Kirch media conglomerate, their broadcast partner, had also tentatively begun to give players from their own academies a chance. They were cheaper.
Jürgen Klinsmann was instrumental in implementing progressive change. Part bulldog, part traveling salesman, he rose above the close minded:
Klinsmann was aware that he was asking a lot of his countrymen. ‘I never took criticism personally. I know how tough it is to change when you feel that you’re doing okay. It was years before I understood the Italian way of thinking, which was completely results-based, for example. They wanted 1-0s, I wanted 4-3s. Then I went to France and England, and it was one culture shock after another for me. German football had it’s problems. But we were somebody. Did we really have to do things differently all of a sudden? The time Jogi, Oliver and me had spend abroad convinced us that the answer was yes. There had to be a new way if we wanted to beat the international competition.’
The Thomas Müller chapter – “The Man of Small Goals” is worth the hardcover price alone. Müller’s charm is in a playing style which makes us dream “That could be me out there”
Bastian Schweinsteiger called his team-mate’s technique ‘spectacular’, but he was not being entirely serious. Müller took his penalties in the same scruffy way he wore his playing kit: socks half-rolled down, white muscle shirt limply hanging out from beneath his kit. With his five-euro haircut and legs like beanpoles, the feeling was inescapable. He didn’t really look like a modern footballer at all.
Thomas Müller was a centerback? In his early days, yes:
His inelegant style saw him being played as a central defender at Bayern, but the hunger for goals proved much stronger than the positional discipline needed at the back. ‘He couldn’t help but push forward, so I put him into right midfield,’ recalled Teong-Kim Lim, Bayern’s U13 coach.
Matt Hummels is the modern German player, an Armani model with exemplary dribbling and passing technique. His skill set complemented Löw’s ideals of building from the back. But his penchant for “mistakes” may have kept him out of past German sides.
The Borussia Dortmund center-back perfectly epitomised all the promise and the problems of the Löw generation. His unhurried poise on the ball and finely crafted passes into the opposition half lent him an air of sophistication, even in his generation of academy taught,technically proficient kids. But Hummels also had the unfortunate habit of trying to make everything look extremely effortless all the time, to the point where he sometimes misjudged the seriousness off the situation. ‘Bruder LichtfuB’, brother lightfoot, they used to call players who took things a little too easy in Germany. These types tended not to go very far in a footballing culture that couldn’t abide mistakes.
A group of progressive coaches began to lay the groundwork for a tactical renaissance. Klopp, Tuchel and Rangnick are now global names, but a little known structural engineer pioneered many of the ideas the three would adopt:
Rangnick was appointed coach of VfB Stuttgart amateurs in 1985. That year, he met a trained structural engineer who had taught himself football tactics and become the first coach to introduce ‘Ballorientierte Raumdeckung’, a system that combined zonal marking with aggressive pressing of the ball,
As a manager of sixth division SC Gislingen, a club situated in provincial Baden-Württemberg, Groß had employed this radical new method with great success. A few years later he was appointed to the regional football association’s staff for teaching coaches, a kind of think-tank for managers. Rangnick became a member and his favourite protege. ‘It was a laboratory for ideas and experiments. We would discuss tactics for hours and hours, sometimes throughout the night. I found a thousand reasons why his football wouldn’t work and Groß would reply that one could only control the game with a clear plan of working “against the ball”. He said, “I can understand your worries and fears, because it’s the way you’ve been educated as a player. But you have to overcome them and trust in the system.” After a while, he had convinced me that zonal marking all over the pitch and high pressing was not only possible, but the way forward.’
How many young coaches annihilated VCRs rewinding Sacchi videos? Groß and Rangnick were one of many:
“Groß and Rangnick began writing coaching manuals and developing their own practice sessions ‘There were no books, no exercises we could call upon,’ Rangnick says, ‘the vocabulary didn’t exist, either.’ They studied videos of Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan that friends were sending over from Italy. It took ages to pause, rewind, fast- forward, rewind the action on Groß ’s clunky recorder. The equipment frequently broke down from over-use.
Sacchi’s double European Cup winners with the Dutch trio of Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit set a new benchmark in terms of collective brilliance. But Sacchi, the former shoe salesman, was also a role model in a more personal sense. Rangnick: ‘He wasn’t a big name, he hadn’t had a glittering career as a player. He also looked like [French comedian] Luis de Funes. It was inconceivable at the time that a German club would have appointed such a man as their senior manager. Sacchi broke the mold.
Paul Breitner’s gall at the 1974 World Cup final is the stereotypical German football mentality.
Breitner suffered an out-of-body experience when he watched the game back on television at home the next day. ‘I was shouting at this guy, saying, “You’re crazy, why are you shooting? What are you doing? You must be mad!”
It’s difficult to imagine how complacent German football had become. Excellence was replaced with mediocrity. Philipp Lahm reveals:
It was worth recalling Lahm’s pretty damning appraisal of life in the national team under Rudi Völler to appreciate the difference. ‘The practice sessions are surprisingly relaxed,’ he wrote in his book. ‘It was like a bunch of friends going away on holiday to play a bit of football. We trained perhaps for an hour a day… We don’t practice anything specific at all, apart from crossing the ball, with someone shooting at goal unmarked. Good fun, but totally random…There were no tactical talks, no video analysis of the opponents, no analysis of our own mistakes.
In contrast to Jogi’s ability to consistently demand a high level from his players. Like a diligent parent, Thomas Hitlsperger explains Löw’s insistence on building from the back:
In pre-season, coaches would bark at you, but, after a while, bad habits would always creep back into the game, and eventually, they just got tired of correcting you and let it go. With Germany, though, the training games would be stopped every time someone played a long ball. Every single time. There were clear instructions to build from the back, through the two centre-backs and midfield, and then to move out as a team. Jogi didn’t stand for it if somebody didn’t follow that plan. That kind of rigour was new to me. I had never experienced it before. Eventually, playing that way becomes second nature to you.
For tactics dorks, new systems and theories of play are like cookies and milk to Santa. But everyone needs their brussel sprouts, or tactically speaking – set pieces. Assistant coach Hansi Flick persuaded Jogi Löw to see the value of rehearsing set pieces:
Flick disagreed with his coaches views. ‘We are not effective enough from “Standards”, that’s our problem,’ he said at Euro 2012. ‘My opinion differs from Jogi’s here. We have to train more, have to become dynamic. But Jogi looks at the big picture, his emphasis is a different one.’ Löw’s low opinion of dead balls – ‘you get the feeling he thinks they smell bad,’ Süddeutsche wrote, was in stark evidence during tournaments, when he used to bet Flick a couple of bottles of water or a dinner, that Germany wouldn’t score a ‘Standard’ goal. It was as if Löw considered these basic goals somewhat beneath him, as primitive tools employed by teams who couldn’t score goals any other way. Like German national teams in the not so distant past, for example.
Hansi Flick’s contribution reminds us it’s not always the headline grabbers who have a lasting impact:
It worked. Müller’s opener against Brazil had taken Germany’s dead-ball goal tally to five at the tournament; six if you included his penalty against Portugal. Four goals from thirty-two corners, one in eight, was a particularly remarkable haul. In elite competitions, the average success ratio tends to hover around the 1:50 mark. Germany had gone from dead-ball dopes to masters, at both ends. A switch from zonal marking in 2010 to a mixture of zonal and man-marking (Mertesacker: ‘The two or three best headers of the ball were marked individually, the rest of the team defended in the zone’) had helped them reach the final without conceding a single goal from ‘Standards’.
Sami K never gets any love. But Khedira’s vigor brought balance to a technical, languid midfield:
The former Stuttgart player brought some vertical, plain old drive to a team who had learned to let the ball do most of the running, but he wasn’t one of these players who strutted all over the pitch to get as many touches as possible. His movement followed fixed, meticulous patterns of ‘active ball-winning’, as Löw called it, an aggressive, high pressing game that he learned under VfB Stuttgart youth coach Thomas Tuchel, a disciple of tactical innovator Ralf Rangnick.
Freezing up doesn’t only happen in Sunday league finals. Even the great Germany has been found wanting:
‘I can understand the criticism of the Sweden game – you can’t draw 4-4 when you’re 4-0 up. But we were sensational in the first half. The problem later on wasn’t us playing too pretty or trying to find nice technical solutions in the middle of a storm. The problem was half the team going into hiding when it was 4-1 and then 4-2. Nobody wanted the ball any more. We were hoofing long balls forward, they came straight back. It wasn’t about being too technical. We weren’t technical enough because everyone had started shitting themselves.
And this line, because it’s dope:
But in football, as in life, the most powerful lies are always the ones you tell yourselves.
Centerbacks transforming into goal scoring legends, a Californian taking on the German establishment, a structural engineer dreams up a tactical revolution, Das Reboot has it all.
Grab your copy here.
Bathroom readability: 3
1- ”Be right out”
2- ”Honey are you ok in there?”
3 – ”Umm… I can’t feel my legs.
When Pep Confidential first appeared on my radar via Amazon’s suggestion algorithm self published e-book based on an amateur’s observations of the Bayern Munich youtube channel came to mind. However, the title proved irresistible and Henry Winter’s referral further guided my mouse to the add to cart button.
The author, Martí Perarnau, was a mystery. He wasn’t orbiting my Raph Honigstein, Sid Lowe football author’s universe. But I quickly wiped the crusties of humble pie from the corners of my smile when I discovered not only is Martí a top journalist who made his way into Pep’s inner circle, but also a former Olympian.
Pep’s appetite for learning from other disciplines saw him open to Martí, giving him unfettered access, but with one stipulation:
‘You can write about everything you see and be as critical as you like in the book but during the season please don’t talk to the outside world about what you witness inside.’
Below are a few of my favorite bits:
The tactical revelation of Pep’s first year was shifting Philipp Lahm, football’s finest left back into center midfield. But to my surprise Pep wasn’t the first coach to play Philipp in the center of the park. His coach-turned-agent Roman Grill played him there in his youth team days:
Roman Grill played for Bayern II as a pivote and coached at youth level. ‘Obviously I have the advantage of having coached Philipp when he was a kid. I used him in the midfield then. His strongest qualities are his football intelligence and his ability to read a game tactically. That’s why he should be in the center. Philipp contributes a lot to the defensive organization but also to the fluidity of the game. As a fullback he had this ability to spot a team-mate and make exactly the right pass which, in turn, helped the whole group. And in the midfield he has even more opportunity to use that skill. ‘
Pep spoke of the world’s outstanding left back as if he’d been an organizing midfielder for years. One could switch out the name Lahm with Busquets and the adjectives would still ring true:
‘Do you see Lahm’s potential? Have you seen how well he anticipates the next pass? Have you seen how he turns and protects the ball? He can play on the wing or in the middle of the field.’ It is clear that he has just made one of the season’s biggest discoveries.
Despite the abundance of world-class players at Bayern, role players such as Rafiniah were vital:
One of the technical team comments: ‘Rafinha is just about the most important member of the team right now. If he got injured we’d have to really conjure up a solution.’
That’s how it is. Rafinha allows Lahm to play as organising midfielder, something which has been vital to the teams performance.
The detailed explanation of tactics makes Pep Confidential a page turner:
Playing out with three men from the back is very useful because it conditions the response of your rival. Even if they press you, it’ll be with the center-forward and second striker, obliging them to move into a 4-4-2 shape and you can therefore over-run them by achieving superiority.
The tactical evolution which I’d envisaged at that time with consisted of using the left-back to step forward and play as a second pivote. We already knew that the full-backs could move up as high as the pivote while he was bringing the ball out from the back, but without overlapping him until he’d already played the ball forward. The idea was to then leave the left-back paired with the pivote so that, if necessary, we could defend with a double pivote system in midfield – even though the team didn’t line up that way.
Despite being viewed as an idealist with a penchant for center midfielders Pep possesses a pragmatic edge:
‘Who are our unstoppable guys? The wide guys – Ribery and Robben. We have to use that weapon. We have to be superior down the middle of midfield, but open up the width with diagonal passes. That means we have to push the whole team up field in order to release Robben and Ribery, because they can’t be dropping deep to start the play.’ He will explain this over and over again.
Long ball is bad. Long ball is bad. Ok, but has anyone ever explained why? Pep does:
‘They lob the ball over the top of Thiago or Kroos and, if we aren’t in position, we’re lost. That’s why we can’t launch the ball and look to go up and support it, because that will leave Thiago and Kroos running up and down the pitch the whole time. We need to go step by step, all of us in unison. Lose the ball and – pam! – we win it back quickly because our positional play has us all tightly linked.’
Part of assembling the tactical framework includes improving a player’s individual technique:
Fitness coach Lorenzo Buenaventura explains:
‘There are aspects of your game you can improve at any age and one of them is basic technique. Paco Seirul.lo and I have talked about this a lot. When players come to Barça for the first time, they often struggle to adapt to that way of working. I remember David Villa’s early training sessions. He’s a quick, high-octane kind of guy, who already knew eight or nine player from the Spain team, yet he still battled to understand the dynamics of that particular group.’
“Pep deals with new concepts by introducing them from the warm-up, the simplest passing exercises onwards. Today he’ll share a few details and then give some more tomorrow. The day after that he’ll talk about how to choose what angle the body is at to receive a pass, then, next time, how to take the ball on the move, followed by how to practice passing off your weaker foot. Little by little the players start to understand and assimilate and very soon it’s coming easily and they’re putting it all together at speed.”
It’s easy to believe that the now famous rondos are a fun warm up game of monkey in the middle, but with Pep everything has a purpose:
After that they do the rondos, an absolute imperative for Guardiola. There won’t be a single session this year when they miss them out. ‘Once the warm-up is finished the rondos are next. Apart from once per week – either the day before a game or the morning training session before the game – when we are a bit less demanding. The rondos normally put emphasis on one aspect or another: one day on who should play in the middle of the circle, then on how to win the ball back, another on how to support the man with the ball, or on how to find the third-man movement.
There’s no homesickness at all. Pep’s kids are the most important factor for him. He’s obsessed with the importance of them studying abroad and learning lots of languages. He always insists that the best thing he can do for them is give them a good education and lots of language learning.
Maria and Marius are his teachers. Pep always tells them every detail of his matches and his kids love it. They are both fanatically interested in tactics and, what’s more, never hold back if they think he is wrong.
Yes. Pep Guardiola has weaknesses:
Guardiola’s Achilles’ Heel is his anxiety. He carries with him a deep fear of coming under attack, which was probably born during his playing career. He was physically fragile and lacked athleticism – rather on the puny side. Working alone to cover an enormous section of the pitch, he was an easy and exposed target for the opposition. If they tackled Pep and succeeded in neutralising him, the whole structure of Barça’s game would collapse. He carried this fear throughout his whole playing career, but was also smart enough to develop the ideal antidote. Pep found that he could cope with his fear by playing with a touch of audacity.
A quote from Diego Simeone because well, it’s Diego Simeone:
Buenaventura, too, believes that passion is fundamental to victory in football. ‘If you talk to Diego Simeone he’ll tell you something which pretty much stands out: “I’m the footballer who got the most out of the least resources. You know why? Because I have passion! How the hell was I going to get 100 games for Argentina? As a player I was a bit of a lump, but everything I achieved was down to my passion.”
Get down from that tree son, I see you up there! In Germany you can put the binoculars away. Scouting, in particular, sharing match videos between clubs is commonplace:
It is absolutely vital to record matches in situ in panoramic format so that the action can be studied from a tactical point of view. ‘In Germany, scouting is considered a part of the job and not some form of espionage. The clubs themselves even pass footage to each other. It’s normal practice here,’ Planchart explains.
Champions League regrets against Real Madrid:
Pep had been more than clear. ‘We dominate the play when all the good players are together in the middle. And if I end up losing it won’t matter. I’ll go home happy to have done it my way.’ And yet, on this, the most important day of the season so far, he has betrayed his own belief system. He has failed to play the football he believes in and has not even attempted to build the kind of game he considers vital to attack and win. It’s true that he was perhaps missing the men best qualified to deliver his style of high risk football, a game that must be executed with the utmost precision. Even so, it is evident that Pep’s own decision was the catalyst for this catastrophe. Today, Pep betrayed his own principles.
‘I spend the whole season refusing to use a 4-2-4. The whole season. And I decide to do it tonight, the most important night of the year. A complete fuck-up’
We’ll close on a complete fuck-up.
Pep Confidential is not a typical footballer biography, but rather a journey of the tactical reinvention of one of the most dominate Bayern sides ever. A tale of relentless self-improvement by one of the great coaches of our times. And that in itself makes it a worthy read.