Euro retrospective: West Germany 1972

Given the prickly history of the country, it’s not exactly surprising that the German national team have been given a somewhat militarised reputation. The ice-cool, brutal effectiveness associated with the nation’s footballers may not be as menacing as its combatant equivalent – in fact, there’s little in the way of real negatives to take from the stereotypes beyond the issue of stereotyping itself – but the white-shirted machine gives the German team an unjust air of evil. The attractive football of the youthful 2010 side went some way to shifting the reputation, yet the multicultural make-up of the team simply prompted discussions about social change in Germany – which is a nice little narrative but only really seems to solidify the original stereotype of the German team.

The prime example of this is their 1974 World Cup win, where they defeated the Johan Cruyff-led Dutch side that had won the hearts of neutrals. A goal from Gerd Muller may have stolen the trophy for the duller team that day, however, just two years before, West Germany had been playing football entertaining enough to rival the more famous Dutch side.

Coming out of the 1970 World Cup, the three favourites for the European Championship were West Germany, England and Italy. England had been knocked out at the quarter final stage by the West Germans and they had been knocked out in the “game of the century” by Italy, who went on to lose to Brazil in the final. Without Brazil to worry about, the trophy was all but guaranteed to head to one of that trio – each of them waltzing undefeated through the group stages of qualifying.

The now outdated fixture set-up meant what was essentially the quarter-finals was the last stage of qualifying, a two-legged play-off taking place about a month before the official tournament. For the second time in just under two years, rivals England and West Germany were drawn together – the first major test for Helmut Schoen’s men.

Despite the much-discussed contrasts of the side two years later, the 1972 West German team were remarkably similar to the Dutch Total Football team: lined up in a 1-3-3-3 formation, playing a passing game with elements of universality. They didn’t mimic the pressing game of the Dutch, but then no one really has matched it in the 40 years since they caught the attentions of football fans the world over. Like most teams of the time, they sat back, opting to only close down on an individual basis sporadically.

Ahead of legendary goalkeeper Sepp Maier was Franz Beckenbauer at sweeper. In their previous clashes with England, Beckenbauer had been played in midfield but the retirement of Willi Schulz meant he dropped back into the defence. Schulz had been a conservative sweeper – a very good defender who was neat yet unspectacular with the ball. Beckenbauer was not. Regularly pointed out as one of, if not the, best liberi of all time, Beckenbauer was world class as a midfielder, so his elegance and attacking ability was unmatched by any other defender at the time.

He was positioned alongside Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, his defensive partner at Bayern Munich. What Schwarzenbeck lacked in Beckenbauer’s elegance, he made up for with his physical man-marking and tough tackling. As he said himself, “Franz reminds me of my old teacher in the printing office. He handled printing ink all day long but still his hands always were clean. I, however, only had to look at the printing machine and I already would get dirty!” Nevertheless Schwarzenback was a very good defender in his own right and his eleven-year partnership with Beckenbauer allowed them to develop a perfect understanding, complementing each other excellently.

At full-back were Paul Breitner and Horst-Dieter Hoettges – Breitner’s reputation precedes him, but Hoettges was also very comfortable going forward as well as being a tough defender. The two were also happy to switch sides at will, although Breitner was nominally the left-back and Hoettges the right-back. Having them alongside Beckenbauer meant West Germany had three defenders able to carry or pass the ball out from the back, making it easier for them to build attacks and outnumber the opposition.

In midfield, Herbert Wimmer did most of the defensive legwork on the left side of the trio. Starting out as a winger, “Iron Lung” became a more defensive player as his career progressed. Despite his strong running and pinpoint passing, he essentially just did the donkey work for Borussia Monchengladbach teammate Gunter Netzer, the undoubted star of the West German team. Beckenbauer’s name may resonate more today, but it was Netzer who pulled the strings for that side – his outright refusal to do any defensive work gifting him the ability to drift around the pitch, finding the space to link play. It was said his large feet gave him extra control over the ball, enabling his long raking passes and bursting dribbles.

On the right of the midfield was the surprisingly attacking choice of Uli Hoeness. Typically more of an attacker, the youngster was moved into a deeper role, but it was barely noticeable. Along with left winger Siegfried Held, Hoeness roamed all across the field, popping up anywhere there was space. Jurgen Grabowski played more rigidly, spending most of his time wide on the right, while Muller led the line. Even he, goalscorer extraordinaire, would frequently look to drop between the opposition defence and midfield though.

Seemingly their own progression from the Mighty Magyar Hungarian side of the 1950s, West Germany had the same slick movement and passing carousel of the Dutch side. As everyone did, they headed to Wembley as underdogs, but nevertheless looking a stern test for England.

Alf Ramsey set up his team in a 4-3-3 formation – a possible reaction to the retirement of Bobby Charlton or the repositioning of Beckenbauer. In their previous meetings, Charlton had been the one to keep Beckenbauer busy – his substitution the point where England lost their footing in the 1970 quarter final – but with him now retired someone else had to do it. With Beckenbauer now moved into defence, his direct opponent would have to be a forward, resulting in the 4-3-3 and also replacing Charlton’s missing goal threat. The removal of an extra midfielder, particularly one as good as Charlton, called for the midfield trio to be more creative. Although it could have simply been Ramsey underestimating West Germany, the midfield of Alan Ball, Colin Bell and Martin Peters looked good for England’s own chance creation, yet lacked the Nobby Stiles figure that could help stop the Germans from creating chances of their own.

The result was that West Germany were able to manipulate space to the point were England could barely compete. They could confront the West German defenders, but their comfort on the ball meant they could simply roll it out to the midfield. The midfield, with Netzer as its fulcrum, would slowly probe, hitting it wide then pulling it back into the centre; forwards would come deep, giving a short option only to lay it off again; eventually, enough space would be found and the killer pass would slip through. It was good even by today’s standards, so imagine its impression at a time when the idea of movement was still quite fresh.

It took West Germany 27 minutes to break the deadlock, Hoeness finishing off some neat interplay after the English defence sloppily gave the ball away, but they could have had quite a few more before England got some control of the game, managing to equalise through Francis Lee. The constant stretching the West Germans forced them to endure had left the English tired though, so it was little surprise when, with little over five minutes to go, the aging Bobby Moore tripped up Held to concede a penalty. Netzer slotted it away and Muller made sure of the victory a few minutes later with one of his trademark spins.

England could not reply over the course of the return leg in Berlin, so West Germany were the ones to head to Belgium, drawn against the hosts in the semi-finals. Against the odds, Belgium had defeated the other favourite, Italy, with a set-piece and some back to the walls defending. West Germany, with their flexible attacking, found it easier to break them down – Muller getting a brace to send them through to the final. The Soviet Union seemed resigned to their fate, probably pleased to have gotten that far, as the West Germans tore them apart in their 3-0 win.

West Germany had conquered Europe in style and two years later they would conquer the world on home soil, while those who had been their main competition for the European Championship would collapse: England not even qualifying and Italy exiting at the group stages. The World Cup win was notably less stylish however – the maverick Netzer replaced by the excellent but more conservative Wolfgang Overath. The Germans became more pragmatic, gaining a reputation for efficiency instead of beauty, although had they continued along the path they unveiled at Euro 72, they could today be seen more akin to the Dutch.

This post was first seen on Betting Expert, as an entry for their Euro 2012 blog correspondent competition.

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