Interview: Lothar Matthäus – Part I

Open any German news paper, and at some point you’ll find an article about Lothar Matthäus. However, despite having coaching career that has lasted for 11 years now, being capped 150 times for the German national team, and having won numerous national and international titles as a player, Matthäus’s photo is most likely to appear on the society page of Bild.

The German tactics blog spielverlagerung.de managed to secure an interview with one of the most successful players in the history of German football, and talked about his coaching style.

Spielverlagerung: How are you following football these days, Mr. Matthäus?

Lothar Matthäus: I follow all the different leagues in Europe, even leagues that don’t get too much coverage in Germany. I worked a lot abroad in Eastern European and Israel, and I still know which teams top the tables in those countries. But mainly I watch the Bundesliga. That is a must. International matches are a must as well.

Spielverlagerung: How many matches do you roughly watch within a week?

Lothar Matthäus: If it fits my schedule, I watch as many live games as possible. I would say that I watch 4 to 8 matches in different stadiums every month. But I also watch a lot on television. Women are into fashion, and we men are into football.

Spielverlagerung: Is that the best possible way to stay up to date about developments in football?

Lothar Matthäus: There are, of course, always new things to discover, but some scenes from a match are immediately stored in the brain. You ask yourself, for instance, why is this coach going about it this way, or why is this team dropping so deep on a free kick, or why are they defending that deep? Often times you spot things and say to yourself ”That is actually a brilliant idea!”, or ”You could improve upon that!”. You have to store that, or write it down and then make use of it for yourself in your own work.

Spielverlagerung: That brings us rather nicely over to your coaching career. Most Germans don’t know a whole lot about it. What sort of philosophy does  Lothar Matthäus the coach stand for?

Lothar Matthäus: My teams should play successful and attractive football. I think, this is the standard phrase every coach uses. However, we as coaches are dependent upon the material we are given to work with. FC Barcelona is closest to my ideals, but 99% of all other coaches would say so as well. That is the way we want it: To play successful, and attractive football. But, that isn’t always possible, because there can only be one person coaching Barca. To give you an example: When working with poorly educated players, like I did in Bulgaria, you have to take a step aside from your own philosophy and make the best out of the material given to you.

Spielverlagerung: What’s included in that?

Lothar Matthäus: Well, we did try to play attacking football when I was in Bulgaria, but only against teams who offered us the possibility to do so. But, when you play against a far superior team, you have to step away from that philosophy. You don’t fight a tank with a pistol. In those matches you have to quickly change from defense to offense, whilst being compact and creating many link up possibilities for the player who is in possession. More generally speaking, I always want the players to be in motion, having a lot joy and passion, never giving up on a ball after it has been lost, trying to find back into the right formation straight away, not discussing it. Those are things you’ll have to keep in mind when it comes to football.

Spielverlagerung: Different coaches have different strategies. How do you see yourself? As a motivator, a teacher, or a tactician?

Lothar Matthäus: First of all, it is very important in which line of work you are. There is a difference between being a national coach and coaching a team, because you have a lot more influence over a whole host of areas when you are coaching a team. As a national coach the players will only be available to you for two or three days. Some players aren’t in their best condition, if you are playing a friendly the players arrive only 48 hours before kick off, how should you handle such a situation? Your expertise as a psychologist is very much-needed then. Those two or three training sessions with the players have to be spent motivating them, keeping up the mood and a meeting of the minds between players and coach. In regards of tactics, you can practice set pieces. As the coach of a club team you have entirely different possibilities, there are different organizational structures in place, and you can work with the entire team, or with certain parts of the team.

Spielverlagerung: You’ve already given us an insight into the life of a national team coach. But, if you were given the chance to develop something over a longer period of time at a club, would that entail your team playing to its own strengths? Or would you sort out your tactics depending on the opposition?

Lothar Matthäus: I want my teams to be dominant on the pitch. My team should be in charge of the game. That isn’t always possible, of course. You have to prepare for the opponents weaknesses and strengths. That is why you study them on video tapes, send your people to their matches, to find out what sort of tactics they employ during their home and away matches. You need to be informed, and then you have to try to get into the match and use the best of your abilities to stick to the game plan in order to defeat the opponent.

Spielverlagerung: Does dominance also mean a lot of possession?

Lothar Matthäus: Absolutely. A lot possession doesn’t mean that a team is dominant though. Think back to the van Gaal days. Bayern had between 60-70% of the ball, and most of the time they were playing the ball in their own half. That is not what we want to see. The opponent can regain their balance. It’s therefor important to have intelligent players who can realize what to do: When is the right time to quickly transform defense into attack? And when do we have to keep hold of the ball? A player needs to have this ability to know all this. As a coach you can work with those things from day-to-day, trying to make the players aware about: When are we keeping hold of the ball, or when to quickly change gears and look for a gap in the opponents defense. But, to realize that on the pitch is ultimately up to the intelligence of a player.

Spielverlagerung: Can a coach lift the intelligence of a player, or are the players born with a certain level of intelligence?

Lothar Matthäus: I think that a coach can have a certain influence on that during practice matches. We don’t play those practice matches during our training sessions simply to let the players play, but because they give us the opportunity to stop the play, and tell the players what they could have done differently and what they should do the next time. It’s important to me to be very clear about these things, because it gives the players a chance to understand what I want from them. So, you can influence these sort of things, but it is much easier for me as a coach if a player already has the intelligence to begin with.

Spielverlagerung: That would mean that you prefer players who have high level of footballing intelligence, rather than players who rely on other attributes like physical strength?

Lothar Matthäus: Every position requires a different type of player. To give you an example: I had chat with Arsene Wenger a while ago. He has a system in place, and he knows what kinds of players all the different positions require. And a club like Arsenal has the resources to go out and find all those different types of players. If coaches are constantly interchanged at a club, the football philosophy will constantly change. Personally, I also need strong, physical players in certain positions, in central defense for instance. I need quick, strong dribblers for the positions out on the wings. But, you can’t say:”It’ll only work with these type of players.” You are forming a team, and sometimes that includes taller players. Those tall players come in handy when set pieces are taken. Otto Rehhagel won the Euros with 6-7 players who were 1.88 meters, or taller. We all remember, the semi final was decided after a corner kick, and the final was also decided in the same way. That was Otto’s tactic, and it won him the Euros in 2004.

Spielverlagerung: You’ve already mentioned Arsene Wenger and Otto Rehhagel. Who are the coaches back from your playing days who’ve had the biggest impact on you?

Lothar Matthäus: It wouldn’t be fair to say that one coach was better than the other. Every coach has his strengths and his weaknesses. Heynckes, for instance, included the ball in most of his training sessions already in the 80s. Today I include the ball in every training exercise, even during the fitness sessions. Only running, without a ball, we were never fond of it, and today’s players aren’t either. You, as a psychologist, have to keep up the good mood amongst your players. However, Jupp Heynckes had very little communication with his players during his early days as a coach. Ottmar Hitzfeld went about that aspect differently. He knew how to control a team. Even when he made tough decisions, nobody seemed to be angry. He really knew how to handle players.

Spielverlagerung: You worked for a very long time under Trappatoni…

Lothar Matthäus: Trappatoni was a master tactician. ”You can’t concede at the back!” I was the player furthest up the pitch in the Uefa-Cup final in 1991 (Editors note: With Inter Milan against AS Roma). We had won the first leg at home by 2-0, and the opponents were leading 1-0 when we were playing away. I chose to bring in a defender for a striker, and I was the only one who was left up there. He valued tactical discipline immensely.

Udo Lattek was an entirely different character. A motivator, using stick and carrot. He went out drinking with his players on one evening, and the next morning he gave them a kick in the ass. But, that is also part of it. You have to build trust between you and your players, and to achieve that you must have many conversations with your players. You need to know what type of personality you are dealing with. What sort of childhood did he have? What sort of education does the person in front of you have? What is his private life like? I do not interfere in these matters, but I have told my players very often that they can talk to me about everything. I’m not just the coach, but also their friend. I have more experience than them, not only on the pitch, but also off the pitch. If a player had to stay up all night because of his child being sick, I want to know that, because than I can evaluate him fairly during the training sessions. I expect my players to be open with me, because that allows me to treat them fairly.

Part 2 of the interview will be published next week.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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