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Helmut Groß

Marcelo Bielsa once famously says, "A man with new ideas is crazy, until his ideas triumph", even though; the Argentine has different defending approach than the pioneer of 'ball-oriented pressing' in Germany and the first to introduce zonal marking to Germany and the whole German-speaking area. The success and triumph of Helmut Groß can be seen through Ralf Rangnick, Roger Schmidt, Thomas Tuchel, Markus Gisdol, Alexander Zorniger, Adi Hutter and many others. Groß is highly unknown, barely some information on the internet engines, some photos and not even a little page on Wikipediain fact, he himself enjoys being out of sight "I like it in the background". The Baden-Württemberg-born who has coached in amateur level has never dreamt of a career in professional level "As a civil engineer, I had been involved in bridge building all these years and had a fulfilling career, so I was never interested in making a career in football. Football was always a passion, but it deosn't control me".

Groß spent most of his career working in the background for clubs like Stuttgart and Hoffenhiem. He was also member of Württemberg Football Association's staff for coach education in mid-eighties. Now he is the chef scout and coach-advisor at RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg, and also the right hand of his pupil Ralf Rangnick the sporting director of RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg.

"Roger [Schmidt], Markus [Gisdol] and I, are all shaped by Helmut Groß, a great coach from Württemberg, he had already played the ball-oriented spatial coverage and pressing game in mid-eighties". Ralf Rangnick tells SPIEGEL.  

The 70-year-old has had a huge impact on modern coaches in Germany, he found a football school in the south-west of Germany and inspired many with his methods. Groß has laid the foundation to the 'konzepttrainers' - a German term refers to coaches who believe in a defined game model and long-term process- mainly Groß' footballing philosophy.

"The collaboration with Ralf Rangnick and Helmut Groß has influenced me; they have a lot of experience in this type of football." Ranginck was already impressed by Paderborn's Schmidt, offered him to lead Red Bull Salzburg in 2012, Schmidt accepted immediately "we tried to build a young team with very special football: an aggressive football, and high pressing" Schmidt says.

Helmut Groß has also previously developed number of coaches at Stuttgart academy, amongst them Thomas Tuchel and Markus Gisdol, the latter played at SC Geislingen under Groß or as he dubbed him, "the German Arrigo Sacchi". Gisdol has ended his career early with a knee injury at 27, "He came to me, we discussed the content which was developed in coaching courses. He was very ambitious".

Rangnick: "The ball orientation is the central theme: we want to be where the ball is … Give me 16 middle distance runners, and they'll be able to play ball-oriented spatial coverage in four weeks".

As a strong believer of zonal defending, Groß began to study and follow teams from the standpoint of this approach. He was impressed by Netherlands' Ernst Happel, they were one of the very few teams practicing zonal marking at that time, "Happel was one of our role model. We have taken some of his game's elements, for example defending on offside trap with a back four ". From Happel to Valerie Lobanovskyi, the Ukrainian coach was among the coaches who has influenced Helmut Groß. The amateur coach was fortunate to eyewitness Lobanovskyi's training sessions during Dynamo Kiev mid-season camp took place in the south west of Germany in mid-eighties.

The most influential figure in Groß' football was Arrigo Sacchi, both have in common that they have never kick the ball professionally, he and Rangnick were deeply obsessed by the Italian coach. Despite the difficulties at that time, they were able to watch AC Milan's Sacchi thanks to Italian friends were providing video tapes for them. "I [Gross] bought an expensive video recorder back then, the newest on the market. But quickly broke down because we rewinded the tapes back and forth to see all the details of Sacchi's tactics and other top coaches".

"I have realized over the years how my ideas and what we have developed together have been implemented perfectly by Ralf".

Ralf Rangnick has been considered the father of the modern German football; however, he was the reflection of Helmut Groß in Bundesliga. Rangnick has developed Groß' game even further, he is a true student of the game. Admiring Sacchi to the extent that he almost watched every single game of his AC Milan side. Spoke to Lobanovskiy himself to get an insight into his ideas, “I was coaching at Backnang in 1984 when we played a friendly match against Lobanovsky’s Dynamo Kiev. They had a winter training camp for a fortnight every year, based nearby, and we were the opponents on this occasion. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing... Their mobility and energy, and the way they’d been arranged to play was amazing".

Rangnick spent a holiday in Südtirol watching Zdeněk Zeman's Foggia training sessions every afternoon in their pre-season in the early nineties, "Zeman was also a pioneer of pressing and complete space coverage across the pitch".

The friendship between Groß and Rangnick goes way back when Rangnick joined the coach education staff of the Wuerttemberg Football Association thirty-years ago, since then they didn't separate, "Groß was ahead of his time, I was 25 when I got to know him, and I realized immediately that he was completely different. We watched a video of AC Milan's Arrigo Sacchi next day, here in Germany no one had played that way". Rangnick was an enthusiastic advocate and the first to be convinced by Groß' ideas, the 58-years-old has 'adopted' Groß' methods as his own, "Rangnick quickly thrilled by the ball-oriented spatial coverage". Says Groß. Afterwards, they developed a teaching system at the coach education staff for young coaches specifically the ball-oriented zonal marking, they even made the teaching material themselves to pass their idea onto youth and amateur clubs coaches in the region.

Later the duo reunited again at VfB Stuttgart youth academy when Groß was serving as youth coordinator of VfB. Groß has chosen Rangnick as coach "He was the perfect man to demonstrate to the team what kind of game system should be followed". Moreover, every youth team had to follow the perfect game that Groß and Rangnick believe in. "It can be compared with Ajax school, when Ralf Rangnick and Helmut Groß installed a new game system in Stuttgart at the end of the eighties and early 1990s, it was a model for the entire region". Thomas Tuchel reveals, "I was inspired". The same path was behind the success of Hoffenheim and their rise in German football and now with RB Leipzig.

The project of RB Leipzig is not solely based on the power of money, Rangick and Groß put their vision, and the way of playing ahead of everything, bringing players and talents who suits the game idea above all. In addition, interestingly, as well as being involved in observing and scouting talents, Groß is also developing coaches at RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg, Groß is primarily responsible for "coach education and continued development of our game philosophy".

Ralf Rangnick explaining zonal marking and 'back four' at Sportstudio in 1998. After his appearance he was called, ironically, the 'Fußball Professor', later, the nickname stuck. It was difficult for Germany to cope with this new football, at that time there was only two or three teams playing with back four and defend zonally. There was reluctance and refusal of tactical innovations "At that time, there was real resistance". Groß says

However, in early eighties Groß decided to try something new when he was at the helm of SC Geislingen a sixth division team from small town in Baden-Württemberg. The ball-oriented zonal marking, back four in line and the ball as a main reference for the defence, in a time where man-marking and sweeper role was the trend. Eventually, the idea saw the light in higher levels years later with Rangnick.

His idea was more radical when out of possession. That is, his pressing game is not merely preventing the opponent from scoring but also hunting for the ball aggressively and rush towards the ball-carrier aiming to reduce time and space, and force the opponent to make mistakes and steal the ball higher up the pitch and closer to the goal. "My idea was that you should win the ball as fast as possible, this is how the idea of ball-oriented spatial coverage arose", Groß explain

At first glance it might appear chaotic, but actually it has an underlying organization and mechanisms "Through clever positioning one can force the opponent to play short or long misspasses". In other words, it is to lure the opponent into little tricky space and then start the pressing waves and force turnovers, that is called 'pressing traps'.

"People always think that long ball possession leads to more scoring chances. This correlation cannot be demonstrated analytically". Apparently, Groß is an antagonist of possession dominance, he thinks you do not need as much possession to progress the ball and create scoring chances, Groß has imputed France elimination of Germany in the Euro 2016 last summer saying, "Germany had too much ball possession. When you play ball possession, you automatically take the tempo out of the game; you play too much in the width". Nevertheless, he believe that if long ball possession done well "can lead to mental fatigue to the opponent". But insists no way RB Leipzig fell into this trap "In Leipzig we do not get tired mentally when the opponent has the ball. We are looking forward that the opponent carry the tempo. Then we have greater chances to win the ball ourselves".

However, defensive aspects are the foremost in Groß' pressing-focus football, nevertheless, in possession the idea is the verticality, fluid attacking movement and efficient combination plays, aiming to attack with pace and break the opponent's shape with less number of passes. Therefore, no need for 10 or 15 passes to be prepared in the case of loss of possession. The narrow shape specifically utilized for this kind of football is an advantage in the case, the ball area is always surrounded by good number of players allows them to react immediately in the defensive transition.

"Guardiola's teams never need more than five seconds to win the ball back". Helmut Groß

The term Gegenpressing or counterpressing has been associated largely with German football lately, it means that a team put immediate pressure when losing the ball. What makes this transitional moment (from attacking to defending) distinctive is that instead of recover to defensive shape players take steps forward and put immediate pressure collectively in an aggressive and wild way. "When three players chase in a swarm after a ball that's just been lost, it can look sometimes chaotic, but this is of a chaos controlled and highly creative kind". Groß describing counterpressing.

Counterpressing is not a new concept, however, it has evolved over the years starting with Happel and Rinus Michels in 70s, and through Sacchi's teams, up until reaching new extremes with the likes of Schmidt and Klopp, and became a key element of the German modern game pioneered by Groß and Rangnick.

  • "Many fast changing game situations. We must be prepared". Alexander Zorniger

Rangnick: "We train things very dynamically and always from a tactical situation. We do small-sided games, which only take between 30 and 60 seconds. But at a tempo that is often not achieved in the game. All physical accelerations are monitored and evaluated using GPS system".

In the past recent years, the game has changed and evolved at high pace and high intensity, Groß' football is demanding and apart from technical abilities and physical attributes, it requires mental effort in order to be well-concentrated to deal with many fast game changing situations. Thus, Groß and Rangnick use highly innovative training methodologies, they put emphasize on mental aspects as well as technical, physical and tactical aspects in training. "The biggest growth rates are in the brain training" Groß says, "The player must perceive, anticipate, analyze and decide quickly, then acting as quickly as possible. The potential in the brain is enormous we cannot even estimate".

There are researchers who develop special computer games for footballers to advance these thinking skills. All these things are very important to us at RB. We have, among other things, close relationships with universities, of which we learn, but these also from us".

Younger coaches like Klopp, Streich and Tuchel have shown that football is mainly a team sport and that, as in Spain, it is possible to do a lot in a group. Maybe the English have to learn, expensive paid star can hardly move anything. The Italians are traditionally the land of tacticians and intelligent teamwork".

"Tactics are way to win", Groß in an interview with SPOX replying to Hoeneß who claims that better players win you games not tactics ".. But what would happen to equal teams? What would happen if you have weaker players on the paper? Should one give up immediately? Tactics is just a facet of football, but a very important one".

"German coaches never known as great tactical strategists". Rangnick proclaims, "The won world cups are based on the fighting power and individual skills of the players". Although Sepp Herberger and Ottmar Hitzfeld known as great tacticians, German football was lacking a recognizable identity when it comes to tactics. German known for the strong mentality, and the winning mentality, but in the early 2000s German football began to change. Inevitably, albeit in an indirect way Helmut Groß and Ralf Rangnick have tangible contribution in the modern German and German-speaking area's football. Establishing a tactical culture and a new way of thinking in football, having emphasize that the teamwork comes first.

"I just wanted to know: How far is our football going to go?"  Groß wondering in an interview earlier. In their first year at Bundesliga, RB Leipzig are heading for the Champions League for the next season thanks above all to the great minds working behind the scene the unknown Helmut Groß and the underrated Ralf Rangnick.

"Winning is an important thing, but to have your own style, to have people copy you, to admire you, that is the greatest gift".  Johan Cruyff