BTLM is happy to welcome a guest contribution today from Lukas Tank, one of our German-based followers, who has written a tactical piece for us about just how vital a player Franz Beckenbauer was in swinging the 1974 World Cup Final in favour of West Germany.
Captaining the winning team; lifting football’s most prestigious trophy in his hometown of Munich; defeating a more favoured opponent: in many respects the 1974 World Cup was Franz Beckenbauer’s tournament and the undoubted pinnacle of his brilliant career.
From a footballing perspective the Kaiser was not the only player to make a notable mark on the 1974 competition in general, and the Final in particular. Johan Cruyff, who forced that famous first-minute penalty with a trademark run that left his marker Berti Vogts for dead, is often regarded as the most stellar of the tournament’s big performers. From a German perspective, the defining moment of that Final was Gerd Müller’s winning goal with the unorthodox first touch and almost mishit shot that nevertheless found its way into the net. Both players deserve their place in the collective tournament memory but re-watching that Final between West Germany and the Netherlands, I find Franz Beckenbauer’s contribution to be even more significant than most people remember. To explain this, I first need to talk about the Dutch side that ended up losing the game.
Pound for pound – or in this case: match for match – Rinus Michel’s Dutch team was the best international team of its era. For the entirety of the 1974 tournament apart from the Final (and parts of the match against Brazil) they were simply superb. Total football at it’s best. Without the ball they boldly refused to retreat into their own half, preferring to play a high pressing game. They hassled their opponents deep in their own half with the Dutch forwards hunting the ball and refusing to allow the opposition time and space to coordinate their build-up. This was even more marked immediately after the Dutch lost possession as they endeavoured to get the ball back as rapidly as possible.
This often resulted in a repetitive pattern of events: the Dutch attack, come close to the goal, lose the ball, regain it almost immediately, attack, come close to the goal, lose the ball, regain it, attack… you get the picture. In their best matches they laid siege to their opponents’ goal and scored through the sheer quantity of chances created, while simultaneously starving opponents of possession and chances of their own. It was an extremely dominant style of football and it seemed almost certain to win them the World Cup.
And Franz Beckenbauer: a brilliant defender, able to proactively read game situations like few of his peers and reactively win the ball back from even the best forwards when required. It’s his capabilities with the ball that made him so important in this Final. The West German captain was a very elegant player in possession boasting the technique of a playmaker and the kind of spatial awareness we see today in modern midfielders like Xavi, Pirlo or Busquets. Few players could match his instincts when it came to decision-making in vital match situations either and it meant he rarely lost possession, even in the dangerous and crowded areas of the pitch in which he operated.
This distinct skill set made Beckenbauer a player who was nearly impossible to press effectively. Of course opponents could run at him when he was in possession, but he would often turn that situation around by exploiting the space they had just vacated with his forward surges or astute passes.
And Beckenbauer’s special talent in this respect was a key factor in that 1974 World Cup Final. The Dutch tried and failed to press him effectively and ultimately gave up on their forlorn attempts to hinder his influence. Whether short or long, Beckenbauer repeatedly played the right pass under pressure and almost always found the pockets of space that enabled his teammates to get behind the first wave of Dutch pressing and build their own attacks.
So the Dutch were forced to give up on their own game plan in order to retreat and defend in a more conservative manner when he had possession of the ball. Their 1-0 lead at this point was a motivating factor too of course, but it was foremost a change to their preferred tactical approach that was forced upon them.
An example: In the 21st minute a long Dutch forward ball ended up in the arms of Sepp Maier. He rolled the ball to Paul Breitner and two Dutch attackers, Rep and Rensenbrink, positioned high up the pitch move to harass Breitner. But at the moment Breitner passes to the nearby Beckenbauer, both players retreat. After playing a one-two with Overath, Beckenbauer is allowed to approach the half-way line without any Dutch player challenging him. From there he plays a long ball to the right wing to find Uli Hoeneß in a position where he can start a run at the Dutch defence. By that time, the first line of Dutch pressing has long been redundant.
So the Dutch were forced to defend much deeper generally and, when the Kaiser was strolling through midfield with the ball at his feet, they retreated completely. Some might suggest that to sit deep when defending a lead makes sense anyway, but this is almost certainly not true with respect to this Dutch team. Their total football style is often marked as distinctly attack-orientated but from a tactical point of view this only tells half the story. That style with its high pressing, the hunger to regain every lost ball, the offside trap, the change of positions and the incisive use of pace was a holistic (or in other words: total) way of playing football. It worked both defensively and offensively. It created plenty of goals but it made the Dutch hard to score against too.
Of course this is guesswork in part, but chances are that sticking to their playing style would have ideally been the better way for the Dutch team to defend their lead. This was how they were used to defending and this was how they had defended extremely successfully during the tournament to that stage. In the second half the Dutch started again to press more aggressively and play in a manner more akin to their usual style. But by that stage they were trailing 2-1 rather than leading and now it was the West Germans sitting deeper and allowing the Dutch to come at them. Beckenbauer becomes less influential too. He has to defend a lot of high balls and quick Dutch interchanges and his play with the ball was now less important than his work without it.
If the Dutch had been capable of playing like they did in the second half for the full ninety minutes, there is a good chance they would have won the World Cup. The main reason they couldn’t was, of course, Franz Beckenbauer. His calmness on the ball, his outstanding game management and his fine passing prevented the Dutch from exerting much pressure on the West German goal.
As I said initially, Beckenbauer of course didn’t win this game on his own. Neither was he the only player to cope very well with the Dutch pressing game (honourable mentions go to Schwarzenbeck and Overath) but still his impact on the game was both profound and probably decisive. It really was a great day for the Kaiser.
About the author: My name is Lukas Tank and I am currently studying for an MA in Philosophy in Berlin. Football wise I’m interested in the great historic football sides, especially those with a tradition in total football. I’m not a supporter of a particular club but root for those playing dominant possession football with a lot of short passing. Among my favourite footballers are Hidegkuti, Cruyff, Zidane, Xavi, and Sergio Busquets. I love the Hungarian team of the early fifties, the Dutch team of 1974 and, especially, Guardiola’s Barcelona.