Success can bathe a coaching career in so much dazzling golden light that it can obscure long, arduous and mentally demanding routes to the peak of the profession. This applies to a professional player – an Under-21 international – whose interest in the technical aspects of the game ushered him into youth coaching while his playing boots were still getting muddy. He made the transition into full-time coaching as assistant at VfB Stuttgart and, stepping up to the role of head coach, won the German cup in 1997 and led the club into the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup a year later. Sandwiched between two spells in Turkey, he then led Karlsruher SC before moving to Austria to take charge of FC Tirol and FK Austria Wien. In the meantime, he had found affinities with Jürgen Klinsmann at a coaching course and when the latter took the helm of the German national team in 2004, he was invited to jump on board as assistant. When Klinsmann departed after the FIFA World Cup on home soil in 2006, he stepped up to No. 1 spot with firm views on pathways towards a modern, attack-minded playing philosophy. The rest, as they say, is history. At the age of 54, he took centre stage at the FIFA-UEFA conference for national coaches and technical directors to receive acclaim from his coaching colleagues and, in an interview with UEFA’s chief technical officer, Ioan Lupescu, to discuss Germany’s ultimate success at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. He is, of course…
The obvious opening question is what qualities a coach needs to become world champion?
Well, from my point of view it is not the coach who becomes world champion, but it is a team. Not just the players who actually played, but the whole squad, and also the team behind the team. Because if you want to achieve success, the whole team has to work perfectly, like a machine, and all the pieces of the puzzle need to fit together into one picture. I think the core job of a coach is to select the right players for a tournament. You need players who are mentally and physically fit, who are able to deal with difficult moments. I think the characters of the players plays an important role. A coach needs to be a psychologist, because during a tournament The interview you’re looking after a team of players which is being watched closely and put under a lot of pressure. A coach needs, as well as specific abilities, a philosophy and a pathway that he tries to implement and communicate to the players. That is something I have learned: today’s players want explanations and to understand criticism by the coach. So you need to be able to make yourself understood. So I think the psychological aspect and good communication are, as well as football-specific abilities, fundamental for a coach.
Do the same principles apply for your ‘team behind the team’?
It’s important nowadays that a coach works with people who are specialists in their domains. You shouldn’t be scared of putting a team together made up of experts who are better than the coach in some aspects. It’s an important requirement. The coach is an educator, a leader, a psychologist, a communicator. He is representing the federation, so the coach must continuously communicate with the media. Coaches cannot do all of that perfectly. So, for me personally, it was important to have people in my environment who discuss things with me, who give me their opinions, but who are loyal to me and who are reliable. They are experts in their domains, and I trust their opinion. Secondly, I am convinced that the different characters must add up. Especially in a tournament like this. It’s not just about football skills but also about interpersonal relationships. How tolerant are the players? What is their tolerance to frustration? How disciplined is a player if he doesn’t play? How does he blend into the team? How much respect does he show the others? These are important aspects. Characters and values are important to achieve such a success.
Ten years with the national team, including the two as assistant to Jürgen Klinsmann. Has your coaching style changed during this time?
You certainly learn and gain experience through all those years. That is obvious and important for a coach, as it makes you develop further. But I don’t think I have changed my style much over the last few years. I’ve remained faithful to myself, representing and teaching certain values to the players. Today all players are very mature and know how to take on responsibilities. That’s why it is important for a coach to set certain rules and to implement them continuously, as you need discipline in the group. But I don’t think I have changed my style of coaching.
Was there a moment in Brazil when you thought Germany could go all the way to the title?
Honestly, there wasn’t a moment to think ‘now we will win the World Cup’. You shouldn’t forget that at that level, every opponent is unpredictable. And the smallest mistakes are immediately punished by your opponent. So you don’t really have that feeling that you will win the title. You have to focus match by match. But what gave us the last kick was the 7-1 against Brazil. Beating the hosts, of course, gave us more confidence for the final. And I watched the reactions in the dressing room from the coach’s perspective. And I realised that
You mean there was no euphoria?
There was no euphoria. Everybody was able to evaluate that match the right way. The Brazilian team was in shock after we scored the second and third goals; you could really feel that on the pitch. But my players were all very focused the next day and very calm. A good sign for me, especially after losing the final in 2008 and the semi-final in 2010, that maybe this time we had the right mentality and the boundless ambition to win the tournament and to reach the end of the path we had taken. The example was Bastian Schweinsteiger, who wasn’t really 100% but what he showed in the final, especially the mental strength, and what he gave to the team… he and the others showed that they didn’t want to miss that chance again.
You mention those previous results – and there was also the 2012 semi-final against Italy. Did they add up to a lot of pressure on the coach?
Well, it is normal that the pressure is high for the big nations. If Germany go to play a tournament then everybody, the country and all football fans, just expect the team to win it. But I have learned to deal with the media and to ignore criticism. Most coaches know this anyway, but it’s important to focus on your job as coach and not on what is happening around you. You need to go your way. We do the same among the coaching staff. We reflect on things and discuss among ourselves. You manage to accept whatever comes from outside, but you have to be convinced about your path and follow it despite any criticism.
Were there moments when you didn’t think you were good enough to win the title?
Of course there are difficult moments. The whole tournament is difficult – and not just adapting to the climate or early kick-off times. You had to be aware of the flexibility of your opponents. You could see that there were many different systems and playing styles. I don’t think there are any small nations any more. Just look at Costa Rica, who managed to play at a high level. We certainly had to overcome difficult moments, especially against Algeria, where we had problems in defence at times. We were just set up wrongly at the back when we were attacking. We weren’t well positioned. Algeria had nothing to lose and were hoping to be successful with their quick counterattacks. So that was certainly a difficult match, also because it went into extra time. But it was maybe also thanks to us for wearing our opponent down with our performance in the second half and in extra time. We managed to put pressure on our opponent until the end. But I have to say that Algeria played very well in defence too.
Did you see the victory in Brazil as a reward for work done over many years – building up high-performance centres, for example?
That is also a success, that’s for sure. Being eliminated in the group stages at the EUROs in 2000 and 2004 put the German national team a bit on the floor. But new structures were introduced, along with academies, specific school cooperation projects and, importantly, training content. Before, there was a huge focus on physical fitness and a physical style of play. But the focus moved on to technical aspects, on to coordination, and now, after 10 or 15 years, you can reap the benefits. In 2006, we still had a lot of difficulty finding centre-backs with strong footballing skills. And in midfield or on the wings, much the same. But now we have players of 19, 20, 21 or 22 who have great technical skills. That is also the result of the work being done at the clubs and of the structures which were changed and of course, thanks to great coaching education, because the coaches are educated and work very well. So all that helps you become a world champion.
How did you translate all this into success for the national team?
Firstly, it was definitely about better youth development. That was an important aspect. Jürgen Klinsmann arrived in 2004 and managed to implant a new structure within the federation. We added a sports psychologist; we added a fitness coach; we had Oliver Bierhoff who dealt with everything on the sporting side and who gave us some breathing space. In 2006, we lived on our emotions during the World Cup, because the team was not as strong as today in terms of technical aspects. After 2008, I had the impression that we needed to change certain things, even though we had reached the final. We couldn’t compete with Spain in terms of football. Spain were and are models for us in terms of player development as well. The integrated philosophy from the bottom up within their federation, the fact that all teams follow the same philosophy… that wasn’t the case in Germany, where the youth teams sometimes played differently than at A level. So it was important to integrate the same philosophy in all categories. I think that at the World Cup in 2010, we developed further in our football and it was an important step. Of course you need physical requirements and you need other things. But nowadays, if you are not playing good football, you will not be able to become world champions or win a major title
How important is experience? You had 10 or 11 players who had played World Cups or EUROs or Champions League finals and even the younger ones had been successful in Germany’s youth teams…
Experience is certainly very important, especially at tournaments like these, having players on board who can handle and find solutions to difficult situations and know what to expect. Neuer, Hummels, Boateng, Höwedes, Özil... six or seven players had been European Under-21 champions in Sweden in 2009 and it was very important for players at that age for their development, to experience a success and to gain confidence in their ability to win a tournament like that. But I think the quality of the players is the decisive factor. We had a lot of young players, like Schürrle, Kroos and Götze. They all have great quality. I think that was important. Then I guess another factor in Brazil was physical fitness. There were many matches played at high tempo. I didn’t really expect that beforehand – to see the players perform so well especially at such a high temperature. We played three matches in the group stage at over 30 degrees and with high humidity and we played right in the heat of midday. Many teams really tried to invest a lot, especially in attack, so physical fitness played an important role.
What trends did you see among the other teams in Brazil? What can you see coming up in the future?
Well, at this World Cup there was definitely one noticeable trend and that was the variety you saw. In the past, most teams played a 4-2- 3-1 system, but that has changed a bit. Some nations played with three at the back or even with five. That is nothing new. It is something we already saw in the past. But today you face opponents who are a lot more flexible with their tactical possibilities. Teams are able to change the basic structure in the team like, for example, Chile who do it very well. They can play with lots of varieties. They can play with two attackers or only one, and then they play with a numerical advantage in midfield and can use the players in attack or in defence. Then, secondly, the physical fitness has maybe improved a bit compared with 2010. When I saw that pace in such conditions… it was just enormous. And in terms of development in general, I think there can be changes and modifications so that you can improve and further develop the individual quality of the players, especially in the youth teams. I think that team tactics are well trained and well taught, but there can be work to do regarding individual job descriptions, looking at, for example, how a centre-back plays, what a wing-back needs to be able to do, what to expect from an attacker today, or from a midfielder. We need to promote that individual development because we have problems in certain positions in Germany, also in the youth sector. We only have a few wing-backs and, of course, Philipp Lahm has now retired from the national team. We also don’t have such a large number of strikers now that Miroslav Klose has left, so we need to look for forwards who can perform well in the penalty box. We have room to improve in individual positions.
How difficult was it to re-motivate your team when it came to getting back into qualifying games for UEFA EURO 2016?
Well, despite all the happiness that a tournament like that brings, it also brings a lot of issues and problems in the aftermath. You can and should enjoy the success for a couple of weeks, but then when it all starts again you can see that there are issues. It is not very easy for the players, after having been together for eight extra weeks after the league had finished, continuing to play at such a high level at such a big tournament. It is not easy to focus on new tasks. And we had to cope with the departures of three major players like Lahm, Klose and Mertesacker, plus four or five players who were injured. The other players had only a short time to recover before the domestic league started again and over years this is a problem for the players. So, when we started, the players who had been at the World Cup weren’t really fully there physically and mentally. So we didn’t have the pace, the dynamics or the security that we had had a few weeks earlier
UEFA Technician, November 2014
Original available on uefa.org. Uploaded here to prevent loss if removed from that site.