Following Greece’s remarkable triumph at Euro 2004 under his stewardship, Otto Rehhagel has unfortunately come to be labelled as a master of “anti-football” and an exclusive proponent of negative tactics, an unfair assessment of a man who is arguably one of the finest tactical minds of the modern era.
Granted, during his nine-year spell with Greece from 2001 until their exit from the recently concluded 2010 World Cup, the Galanolefki were stylistically founded upon pragmatic principles of defensive solidity, but, as Rehhagel himself said, “We will play exciting football when we have Messi, Kaka, Iniesta and Xavi on the team”.
The veteran German coach was employed by the Hellenic Football Association to maximise the ability of the players at his disposal, something he emphatically succeeded in doing even if it did result in some observers getting hot under the collar.
But more on Rehhagel’s international exploits later. If we are to reach an understanding of just how the former Kaiserslautern defender was able to achieve such success with the Greek national side, then that particular period of his career must be placed into context and understood, as it was, as the pinnacle of an ideological approach that Rehhagel had been refining for the best part of thirty years.
After a frustrating series of brief and relatively unsuccessful stints in charge of Kickers Offenbach, Werder Bremen, Borussia Dortmund and Arminia Bielefeld throughout the 1970s, Rehhagel eventually began to build his excellent reputation at Fortuna Düsseldorf during the 1979/80 Bundesliga season. In his one and only campaign with the Rheinstadion-based outfit Rehhagel oversaw one of the most successful season in the club’s history, Fortuna winning the German Cup while also managing an eleventh place league finish despite the constraints of a relatively limited squad.
Built around the attacking talents of the gifted Allofs brothers, Klaus and Thomas, Rehhagel’s Fortuna side was, in contrast to some of the team’s he came to manage later in his career, a team constructed with a predominantly offensive ethos. Indeed, during the 79/80 domestic season Fortuna had the second worst defensive record in the Bundesliga, their goalscoring ability and attacking endeavour proving a saving grace.
However, Rehhagel, possibly frustrated with his team’s apparent defensive ineptitude, left Düsseldorf after the conclusion of the season and returned to Werder Bremen – who had just been relegated from the top flight – where he was to become recognised as one of the finest German coaches of his generation.
During his fourteen years with Bremen, Rehhagel transformed the club from a fallen giant into one of Europe’s strongest teams. After guiding his side back into the Bundesliga at the first time of asking, Rehhagel began to develop his philosophy of kontrollierte Offensive, a style of play that favours powerful physical attributes to flair, often featuring two or three centre-halves, a libero, wingers and at least one target man in attack.
It is certainly not an approach for purists or aesthetes, but Rehhagel has used it to make his teams play to a level above and beyond the sum of their parts for years.
No better was this ideology demonstrated than with Bremen, as Die Grün-Weißen marched to the league title in 1988 and 1993 and claimed the German Cup in 1991 and 1994 as well as winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1992. Combining stifling defence with attractive forward play, Werder, with a wise and experienced squad, had risen to become one of the pre-eminent sporting institutions in Germany and Rehhagel’s impact on German football, whether you deem it a positive or negative influence, was beyond doubt.
After some time managing both Bayern Munich and Kaiserslautern during the latter half of the 1990s, Rehhagel was appointed as the head coach of Greece in 2001 and the stage was set for kontrollierte Offensive’s greatest triumph. From the moment he took over the German implemented a strict man-marking system and greater levels of defensive organisation, seeing defence as the best form of attack if Greece were to become capable of matching “bigger” teams on the international stage.
Players such as Traianos Dellas, Michalis Kapsis and Theodoros Zagorakis were all groomed to take on weighty defensive responsibilities and, by the time Euro 2004 came around, the Greeks had a side that, although not as talented as many other European teams, was more than able to hold its own even when confronted with the most potent of attacks.
The Greece of 2004 may now be remembered as a stale and negative unit, but – as Zonal Marking points out – was initially praised for its sleek passing and intelligent movement, the now prevalent incredulity towards the team not being felt until it looked like Rehhagel’s men might actually do the unthinkable and win the tournament.
During Greece’s run to the title Rehhagel showed himself to be the brilliant tactical mind that we know him to be, outsmarting the likes of Luiz Felipe Scolari and Jacques Santini as he astutely altered his team’s defensive shape to deal with the various attacking threats posed by the opposition. It may have been reactive football, but it was extremely effective. Again, it wasn’t necessarily pretty to watch, but it was hard not to marvel at the Greek defensive discipline and their efficiency in converting the few attacking set-pieces that they won.
Rehhagel’s tactical legacy may not be universally admired, but the German has been one of the most influential men in European football for several decades and was, with Greece, the man behind what was arguably the game’s most incredible achievement. For his contribution to strategic thought and almost unparalleled ability to get the most out of any given group of players, Otto Rehhagel is more than deserving of his place amongst the greatest managers of the last 100 years.