MARCEL REIF, the best-known German football commentator in recent decades, published a book in 1996 in which he and other authors wrote down their impressions of the European Championship tournament that took place in the same year. One picture in that particular book always drew my attention as a young kid. On page 160, a photograph shows Berti Vogts lying on the turf with his knees against his chest and his arms around his legs. He looks like a human bowl. His eyes are closed.
Vogts is shown in a thinker posture. Above his head there are four rough sketches with tactical procedures, originally published by the German weekly Sport Bild. The composition wants to tell us Vogts was the tactical mastermind behind Germany’s success in 1996.
Reif wrote in an additional comment: “Berti Vogts is not only by far the most cosmopolitan national coach in the history of German football. He, moreover, completely proves the picture that floated around for a long time of him as a ‘small-format’ persona wrong. He even disproves the archetype of the German who organises football as well as his leisure time as some sort of ‘ground offensive’ that should be crowned with success.”
It is indeed odd to read these lines 20 years later, as Vogts is nowadays widely associated with some of the darkest hours of German football in recent history. After Germany’s victory at the World Cup in 1990, Franz Beckenbauer famously stated that his united country will be unbeatable in the foreseeable future, given the talented players from Eastern Germany who were supposed to strengthen the reigning world champs even more. In fact, the likes of Matthias Sammer, Ulf Kirsten and Steffen Freund did make an impact on the team that also featured Jürgen Kohler at the back, Thomas Häßler in midfield and the Rudi Völler-Jürgen Klinsmann pairing up front.
Yet Germany were far from achieving the anticipated success. They reached the final of the 1992 Euros but lost to Denmark, who had replaced Yugoslavia on short notice and had become popular for their consumption of fast food. Two years later Germany reached the quarter-finals of the 1994 World Cup, only to get beaten by a Bulgarian team that, according to legend, preferred to be lying by the swimming pool instead of sweating on the training pitch.
“We were eating at a McDonald’s in America as well, but it was not enough to get through to the semi-finals,” Vogts later said with a wink. However, he was in danger of becoming the face of Germany’s demise. Beckenbauer’s statement from 1990 had encouraged the public’s opinion of their national team being a devastating force. It surely did not make Vogts’ job easier by any means.
The former defender, whose nickname ‘Terrier’ characterised his undersized appearance and his intense playing style, displayed the appropriate attitude. Similar to other successful coaches, in his eyes a good performance ending up in a bad result was more desirable than a bad performance ending up in a good or rather lucky result, because that approach would help in the long-term.
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Hence Vogts might have been a terrier when playing on the pitch, but he turned out to be an aesthete once he put on suit and tie. The public perception of him remained unchanged over the years, though. Vogts was not able to sell his new image, which did not surprise in the slightest, considering his monotone way of speaking and lack of charisma. Only insiders could suspect the keen thinker – with a sense of social responsibility beyond the small world of football – behind his façade.
“[Berti Vogts] is the man who already knew all Italian restaurants around the Stadium in Manchester prior to the Euro. He is the man who already travelled to South Africa eight times before a match of the national team led him to the lion’s den of Johannesburg. He, first-hand, knows the political conditions, the slums and the white neighbourhoods. He was in Mexico and still supports an orphanage there. He saw the Bronx, was sitting in Chicago jazz bars until dawn, and he can describe what distinguishes music from here from the music of New Orleans.” (Roger Willemsen, Die Woche 24/1996)
With the Euro 1996 win, Vogts reached his peak popularity in Germany and, in retrospect, his greatest success as a coach. However, at the time, he raised concerns about issues in German youth football and demanded new concepts, which would lead to the introduction of now highly important regional academies. Vogts was not really involved in the process that formed the basis for today’s success, because after being eliminated in the quarter-finals in a 3-0 defeat to Croatia in the 1998 World Cup, Vogts stepped down and Erich Ribbeck replaced him.
How much of that success in 1996 was caused by Vogts’ tactical work? Assessing the quality of their squad, Germany belonged to the favourites to win the tournament. Vogts had plenty of options in all areas of the team. And he entirely exploited all the possibilities available throughout the tournament. That, interestingly, led to several changes between the matches. Players such as Thomas Häßler, Mehmet Scholl and Fredi Bobic never knew before a game whether they would be featured in the starting XI or watching the entire match from the bench.
For instance, Bobic played alongside Stefan Kuntz up front in Germany’s first match against the Czech Republic. Jürgen Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff were the striker pairing in the second match during the group stage. Later, Klinsmann and Bobic were Vogts’ preferred choice, yet Kuntz returned to the pitch at half-time during the quarter-final, while Klinsmann suffered a thigh injury during that match.
Speaking of injuries, a deep squad helped Vogts and his team to overcome several setbacks in terms of personnel. Captain Jürgen Kohler tore his medial collateral ligament 14 minutes into the tournament. Klinsmann, as mentioned, had to be substituted in the first half of the quarter-final. He played in the final – thanks to the medical staff – and later had the chance to raise the trophy in front of the Wembley crowd.
Steffen Freund was unavailable for said final due to a cruciate ligament injury he suffered the match before. Dieter Eilts, Germany’s never-tiring midfield enforcer, went down during the final. Andreas Möller, who had played against Croatia and England in the knockout stage, and even scored the deciding penalty in the shootout against the latter, was suspended because of a second yellow card, as was Stefan Reuter.
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Germany’s head coach clearly had a habit of making major tactical adjustments during a match in reference to the bench or between games in reference to the various options offered by his squad. He, however, was also forced to replace several key players due to injuries and suspension. Ultimately, Vogts managed to blend a team that overcame several obstacles, especially in the knockout stage.
As with the vast majority of national coaches, it was not his task to enhance talent. He did not have to teach Sammer the finer points of playmaking. He did not have to educate Klinsmann in attacking movement. Vogts was asked to put the pieces together, and he did it brilliantly. Public opinion, however, indicated otherwise.
Not only did German commentators on national television dismiss the style of football played by their national team, but many German football fans were convinced that the success of 1996 was based on luck, or that every coach would have succeeded with those talented players.
Without a doubt, a group of great footballers were at Vogts’ disposal. Matthias Sammer, for instance, was at his peak at the time. He was named UEFA Euro 1996 Best Player and also won the Ballon d’Or in the same year.
Featured in the libero role, he was the heart of that team. Partnering Thomas Helmer and Markus Babbel, he not only orchestrated the defence and helped his team-mates tremendously, but also instigated attacking plays frequently. An incisive passer and aggressive dribbler, Sammer was able to find gaps in any defence, preferring the diagonal ground pass as a weapon to find a striker up front.
Klinsmann’s and Kuntz’s movement patterns perfectly fit Sammer’s way of initiating attacks. Both centre-forwards did not just stand near the opposing centre-backs, but usually roamed around to either create confusion or link up with the rest of the team.
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Eilts, who on paper played in front of the back line, often protected the advancing Sammer. He was a runner was crucial in the 5-1-2-2 system, and he filled the gaps his team-mates left open when rushing forward and man-marked opposing number 10s when necessary. Eilts could solely focus on his defensive duties, as the likes of Scholl, Häßler and Möller would provide the offensive creativity in the higher spaces of the pitch.
However, by fielding two centre-forwards in all matches but the semi-final, and by using both attacking midfielders partly as wingers, Vogts’ system had a specific weakness – the hole between defensive midfield and the forward line. The Germans banked on their talent for improvisation as, in turns, an advancing full-back moved into the hole or one of the attacking players drifted towards the middle. Each player in midfield and attack tried to react to his team-mates’ runs, which caused shifts and switches. And it made it hard to identify the system.
Said tools were perfect against simple man-marking schemes. The first passes in build-up play sometimes went towards the sideline, from where a wing-back played a short lay-off pass into the centre. Even though the German offence was clearly outnumbered in the opponent’s half during the usual first phase of their build-up play, they maintained possession by utilising quick combination plays until the rest of the team moved forward.
Many tend to believe that the German team of 1996 and the German team of 2016 have little in common. Nowadays, Joachim Löw and his players are admired for fine technical skills and smooth transitions within their plays. In retrospect, Vogts’ side was not all that different. Sammer and his team-mates were most of time not able to physically overpower opponents, so they relied on ground passes and positional switches.
Although Germany’s tactical approach seemed to be defensive-minded at first view – and Sammer even admitted later that the German style was not always nice to look at – Vogts combined a customary formation, including a crowded defence, with fluid build-up patterns and an attacking strategy that emphasised the strengths of every player involved. Back then, German football was not known for ground-breaking tactical approaches, yet Vogts found a way to work effectively on the basis of a back-line that included a libero role and a midfield with two or more playmakers.
Admittedly, the last three matches of the tournament were very close, as Germany’s defenders could not handle aggressive pressing very well and were also vulnerable in defensive transition, when they could not close down open spaces quickly enough. In both the semi-final and the final, Germany came from behind. And given the fact that Vogts’ side beat England only after a penalty shootout, it was not the most convincing way to win a tournament. But considering the disappointments and conflicts within the team Vogts had experienced in the years prior to Euro 96, it is impressive how he handled his role and how he managed a group full of challenging characters.
Did all that change the perception of Vogts over the years? No. His stints as Scotland and Azerbaijan national coach did not really help. But two decades after Germany’s last Euro win, it is not too late to look behind the façade and finally give him some credit.
By Constantin Eckner @cc_eckner