Germany's U-20s a must-watch due to Frank Wormuth's tactical innovation
Last week, the most-often heard line in German football circles (especially among fans of Hamburg and 1860 Munich, with Stuttgart, Dortmund and St. Pauli supporters not far behind) was: "Thank God this season is finally over." But it isn't.
In fact, I can't recall a summer without a major men's competition that was so jam-packed with footballing action all over the planet. Two weeks ago, Kicker magazine spoke of a "tournament marathon" for German teams. It was no exaggeration.
Obviously, the Women's World Cup in Canada began on Saturday and Germany are, as usual, among the favourites. But another reason for the deluge of international games coming up this summer is that, for the first time in history, every German junior team has reached the finals of the European Championship or the World Cup.
The under-17s kicked off this chase for trophies around the globe when they came second at the Euros in Bulgaria back in late May. This means they will go to Chile in October and play in the World Cup for that age group.
Then there are the under-21s we looked at in March. In mid-June, a team starring a World Cup winner (Borussia Dortmund's Matthias Ginter) and a Champions League winner (Barcelona's Marc-Andre ter Stegen) will try to win the continental title in the Czech Republic.
In July, Germany's under-19 team travels to Greece to compete for their own European Championship. There are some interesting players in that team, too, such as Bayern Munich's Gianluca Gaudino and Schalke's Leroy Sane, both who have seen Champions League action this season.
Both are also the sons of former professionals: Maurizio Gaudino (five caps for Germany) and Souleymane Sane (55 caps for Senegal), respectively. Two other descendants of German football royalty are currently in New Zealand, preparing to play Nigeria on Thursday in the round of 16 at the Under-20 World Cup: Pascal Kopke and Levin Oztunali.
Kopke, who has appeared before in this column, is the son of former Germany goalkeeper Andreas Kopke. He hasn't yet played at the top level or in the second division, but this is about to change because he signed a contract with Bundesliga 2 side Karlsruhe a week ago.
In all likelihood, Kopke never expected to make the under-20 squad, but then the side lost both regular strikers. First Davie Selke announced he wanted to prepare for the new season with his new club, RB Leipzig, rather than travel to the other side of the world. Then centre-forward Tim Kleindienst, who came up through the ranks at Energie Cottbus and will now join Freiburg, tore a ligament in a training session in New Zealand just days before the tournament began.
Kopke was asked to stand in and said: "I'm incredibly happy to be playing the World Cup after all, that's going to be a very special highlight."
Oztunali is the son of a daughter of Uwe Seeler (West German Footballer of the Year 1960, 1964 and 1970). In contrast to Kopke, he belongs to a sizeable group of players who already have quite a few Bundesliga games under their belt. His Bayer Leverkusen teammate Julian Brandt, for instance, is a first-team regular who has seen action for Bayer in every league game since December.
This explains why the coach of the under-20s said before leaving for New Zealand: "I'm confident we can play a good role at this World Cup. There are six Bundesliga players in our squad, four from the second division, four from the third and seven from the fourth. This is a very good blend."
But the players are not why I'm so interested in this team. It's the coach I have quoted above. His name is Frank Wormuth. He's the reason I always watch a Germany under-20 game on the edge of my seat.
I'm waiting for the team to give the ball away. Intentionally.
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First, some background. Wormuth is 54 years old. He made a name for himself as Joachim Low's assistant at Fenerbahce back in 1998 and has coached Germany's under-20s since 2010. Most importantly, though, he became the head of the Hennes Weisweiler Academy, the place where coaching badges are earned, in 2008. Basically, this means that Wormuth coaches the people who want to coach professional teams in Germany.
This is a huge honour, bestowed upon only a handful of people so far. The academy can be traced back to the great Sepp Herberger. When Herberger became national coach, the equally legendary Hennes Weisweiler ran the academy, which is now named after him. In 1970, a man called Gero Bisanz became Weisweiler's successor. Not too many people outside of Germany know Bisanz, but he's a coaching legend, too, because he was the first-ever manager of Germany's women's team.
Since Wormuth is, technically speaking, the most influential coach in the country, I talked to him in the summer of 2013 about the renaissance of the German game. During the course of our conversation, he casually mentioned that not all innovations are as recent as they may seem. As an example, he cited the idea of the intentional stray pass, which he'd first heard about a long time ago.
If you've never heard about the intentional stray pass -- Wormuth prefers the term "planned stray pass" -- let's have a brief look at the idea behind it.
One thing that made the Spanish national team of roughly five years ago so fearsome was the tactic that seems to have become known, thanks to Jurgen Klopp, by an Anglo-German expression Gegenpressing, or counter-pressing. If you lose the ball far upfield, near the other team's penalty area, you don't drop back but instead move forward.
It means your opponents are under pressure the instant they have won possession. Since they cannot properly build from the back, they will either have to play a long ball, essentially conceding possession again, or try a square pass near their own box -- something most of us have been taught at an early age to avoid like the plague because it's very risky.
Now, if properly defending against counter-pressing is so difficult as the tiniest mistake might immediately lead to a good scoring opportunity, why not deliberately create such a situation? Put differently, what if -- under certain circumstances -- you give the ball away with full intention?
It runs counter to most players' (and, indeed, coaches') instincts to do something that seems detrimental on face value. However, it's no longer unusual. Back when Per Mertesacker was playing for Germany, some opposing teams -- Serbia were a particularly extreme case -- would actually move away from him when he had the ball at his feet and was trying to build from the back. It was as if the Red Sea was parting in front of him. Mertesacker was practically forced to move far upfield where, and this was the plan, he would run out of ideas what to do with the ball -- with a lot of open, unmarked space behind him.
Once you've understood the concept behind such tactical ideas, the planned stray pass doesn't sound quite so crazy anymore. Wormuth told me that "you can do it intentionally but you can also use it as an emergency solution, a controlled clearance. If you are under so much pressure that you can't play a proper pass anymore, you can hoof the ball upfield."
But not, and this is the point, just anywhere. "What we want is a ball above the heads of the defensive line," Wormuth explained, "into a half-space, close to the touchline." (Basically, half-spaces are the areas between the flanks and the centre of the pitch. Since they are neither, they are half-spaces.)
"Ideally, the ball will drop and then just lie there, like a golf ball," Wormuth added. "Now one of the defenders will have to turn around and move toward the ball to collect it. At this moment, when he's not facing us, we surge forward and press."
When the defender turns around, he's sudenly swarmed by attackers and has very few options. The reason the ball should drop down in a half-space and near the touchline is this is an area where the defender's most obvious way out of trouble -- a back-pass to his goalkeeper -- is very hazardous.
Just a few months after I talked to Wormuth, Lothar Matthaus was interviewed by Der Spiegel. When he was asked about the rumour that Barcelona had executed the intentional stray pass a few times under former manager Pep Guardiola, he replied that AC Milan had done something similar as early as the 1980s.
In derbies with Inter, Matthaus said Milan's game plan was: "Leave the full-backs unmarked. Let [Inter] give the ball to [Andreas] Brehme and then attack him." He added: "I practiced that with the Bulgarian national team. Playing the intentional stray pass in a way that the ball doesn't run into touch. Give your opponent very briefly the feeling that he is now in possession. Then pounce on him."
However, despite proponents as qualified as Wormuth and as prominent as Matthaus (and, perhaps, Guardiola), the intentional stray pass still has a long way to go, no pun intended, before becoming an accepted tool.
Wormuth says: "I've been explaining the idea for some time during the courses, but nobody's doing it. Now I'm introducing it to the under-20s. But the players don't like it." He added: "Yet."
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.