A couple of years ago the German language, with uncharacteristic carelessness, lost its longest word. This happened when the European Union ceased to officially recognise a law called Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (‘the law for the delegation of monitoring beef labeling’, of course).

Compound nouns such as that beefy treat are trusty ammo in the argument that German is overly precise and complex. The truth is, though, that this same precision, structure and complexity allows it to be a remarkably expressive language. It’s not always simple, but German can capture a range of nuance and emotion in a few words, or in subtle shifts of tense, that English can’t match.

Take a look, for example, at the kind of abstract ideas that German sums up in one word:

  • Erklärungsnot (n.): the state of having to quickly explain yourself
  • Torschlusspanik (n.): the fear, usually as one gets older, that time is running out and important opportunities are slipping away
  • Weltschmerz (n.): mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state

Parallels with football

So these industrial, utliitarian compound words are able to capture innovative ideas. And here we can draw a parallel with football: it’s easy to reach for the stereotype of the functional, efficient German teams of the past, but that same functional, efficient attitude has also been the foundation for its football to innovate in recent years.

Take the 2014 World Cup: the system which produced the highly watchable Ozil, Gotze and co couldn’t have existed without the planning and practical minds needed to rebuild the entire structure of German football following its failures at the beginning of the century. Meanwhile, on the pitch, German football has seen numerous tactical developments, made possible in no small part thanks to a willingness to think deeply about structure.

Tactical developments in German football

With that in mind, let’s look at a few tactical developments – past and present – in German football, and the complex, resourceful language that gave them form.

  • Mitspielender Torwart (‘lit. ‘joining in goalkeeper’, fig. ‘outfield keeper’)
  • Torlibero (‘libero keeper’)
  • Antizipationskeeper (‘anticipation keeper’)

Our Germanic cousins haven’t settled on one term for the sweeper keeper, despite its long tradition in both Germany and Holland.  Popularised in the 60s and 70s and practised by, among others, Sepp Maier, Jan Jongbloed and Frans Hoek, today, Manuel Neuer has made it his own. Whichever term is used for sweeper keeper, compound nouns abound, with the Mitspielender a particularly lovely example of German literalness.

  • Dreierkette (lit. ‘chain of three’, fig. ‘back three’)

The Dreierkette was for a long while the norm in Germany. Its decline began when Ralf Rangnick – manager of second division SSV Ulm – appeared on German television in 1998 armed with a magnetic tactics board to explain the merits of the defensive back four. Rangnick was initially mocked, but this move to the Viererkette and zonal marking was a key moment in German tactical development, when the traditional virtues of strength and leadership gave way to a pressing game based on speed. The effects are still being felt today.

The term is a good example of German compound nouns, using the connecting element –er to make it sound nice. Note the use of chain to describe a defensive line, like the Italian catenaccio and verrou in French..

  • Gegenpressing (lit. ‘pressing against’, fig. ‘counter-pressing’)

English is often the international language of football, but it is rarer that it is the language of innovation in football. The word ‘pressing’ has also been adopted by other languages (French, Italian, Polish among others), and is joined here by the word gegen (‘against’). Gegenpressing is a loanword, adopted into English without translation, which is just as well as there is some debate over what we’d have called it otherwise.

  • Geplanten Fehlpass (lit. ‘planned foul pass’, fig. ‘deliberately misplaced pass’)

For those who believe possession is king, the Geplanten Fehlpass is not going to appeal.

Currently vaunted by German under-20 coach Frank Wormuth, the Geplanten Fehlpass works on the unusual principle of giving the ball away intentionally, to draw defenders out of position with the ball and create an optimal situation for Gegenpressing. It’s a tricky concept to explain, but one that is neatly summarised in two words in German. How’s that for efficiency?