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The statistic says it all: Germany have won 56 per cent of their tackles, more than any other team at the World Cup, writes Simon Kuper. Top of the rankings is a 21-year-old centre-back from Hanover named Per Mertesacker, triumphant in 83.3 per cent of his tackles.
What sets Germany apart is fitness. Too much has been made of their team spirit. Of course it’s good. That’s what happens when you win all your matches. But they won thanks to physical training imported from California. It may be the only footballing innovation of this World Cup.
Jürgen Klinsmann, Germany’s coach, has created a squad in his own image: “23 Klinsmänner”, says one German newspaper. As a player Klinsmann always realised that the training he got at his clubs was backward, insufficient. He had turned pro with physical gifts, but handicaps too. “He ran comically, lost pace at the start of sprints,” recalls Berti Vogts, his manager in German youth teams and later in the full national side. “We advised him to hire his own sprint trainer.” Klinsmann did. As a young striker at Stuttgart, he refused vitamin injections and compulsory naps, saying: “Trainers have difficulty preparing 22 players individually.”
He prepared himself, particularly for major tournaments. Klinsmann timed his training to peak at the tournament. After a poor club season he might look the fittest, fastest player at the World Cup. Then, late in his career at AS Monaco, he encountered football’s master of individual improvement: Arsène Wenger. Young flawed players then at Monaco, Lilian Thuram, Emmanuel Petit and Youri Djorkaeff, would become world champions thanks partly to their then coach. Klinsmann told his biographer Jens Mende: “What I learned from Arsène Wenger: view the player’s development in the long term.”
In football, an adult player’s qualities are usually treated as givens. He is quick or slow, wins tackles or not – there is little a coach can do. But when Klinsmann began coaching Germany in 2004, he thought he could improve even veteran internationals. Time being too short to clone new players, he ordained: “Everyone must improve and orient himself against the global top. We define our playing style as risk going forward based on good fitness.”
Klinsmann had diagnosed in Germany’s players a “lack of speed”. The country had traditionally led the sport in physical qualities, but when Italian clubs acquired medicine cabinets the size of small hospitals, and English players stopped living on beer, foreigners caught up. Klinsmann has restored Germany’s lead using techniques from his home, California.
American sports probably have the best physical methods, but hardly anyone in soccer knows that. The average European football coach is a middle-aged bloke who has never physically been inside a university. If he wants players to run faster, he gives them the exercises he did as a player 25 years before. But an American sports coach – even at a high school – chairs a battery of specialists. If he wants his players to run faster, a university department provides the latest research on sprint training.
Klinsmann hired American fitness coaches. They proceeded on two principles: each player needs a different programme, and all must do homework. Mark Verstegen, Klinsmann’s chief fitness coach, not only made players waddle like ducks, jump over tyres, and wash with cold water after games. He also wrote an individual homework programme for every player, down to an individualised athletics drink. Everyone had to do ten minutes of heavy exercises a day for two years, and document that they had done it. Some players had never done homework in their lives, so Klinsmann brought in Olympic and world champions from other sports to describe how hard they worked. Jens Lehmann, Germany’s keeper, says: “The work with the American specialists has taken me forward.”
This month the Germans have showed us their homework. They are the only team to have played better than anyone imagined. Only they and Spain have displayed what Klinsmann calls “tempofussball”, an attacking game in the opponent’s half that eats energy in the heat. Germany’s midfielders defend forward, not through pressing but zonal marking. This should be exhausting. Yet they have barely had injuries or tired players. Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, the team’s doctor, reports one veteran player saying, after a long season, “I could pull up trees.” The Germans saved their only two close games so far, against Poland and Argentina, with goals in the final minutes.
Müller-Wohlfahrt says he will recommend Klinsmann’s methods to his club, Bayern Munich. Fitness will improve in Germany’s Bundesliga and even beyond. Perhaps at the next World Cup England’s manager won’t need to whinge about the heat.