Word! The Language Column
Asymmetric technical jargon

Illustration: A person points to a presentation with diagrams; the background of the presentation looks like a football field
Double sixes, false nines, the asymmetric left defenders or wide midfielders – the language of football has become a technical language | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

The development of football is progressing rapidly, and its language is changing at the same rate. Not everyone likes that. But there’s no stopping it now.

By Stephan Reich

Whenever I watch football, it always makes me think of Robert Klauß. I don’t actually have particular – or indeed any – links with 1. FC Nürnberg, where Klauß was most recently a long-term manager. And even less so with sixth-tier team SSV Markranstädt, where the 37-year-old started playing for fun after his recent departure from Nürnberg. But when I watch a football fixture on TV and hear certain words, I’m reminded of Klauß and smile to myself.

Breaking into 3-1-5

The reason is that Klauß was involved in a really hilarious situation in 2021. After losing against St. Pauli, the coach sat there in the press conference, visibly fed up. Then they had the cheek to ask him why they hadn’t been able to identify his match plan. A cutting question. Klauß took a deep breath and proceeded to humiliate the journalist: “I did identify the match plan,” he said. “We started off with a 4-2-2-2 formation focused on the first pressing line. Once we took possession, we wanted to switch tactics and bring the midfielder into play, breaking into a three-man formation as soon as we had the ball, with an asymmetric left back and a wide left midfielder allowing us to break into a 3-4-3 or 3-1-5 formation.”

Following so far? No? Well you’re not alone – it was the same for lots of people, including absolute die-hard footie fans. A video clip of the interview went viral at the time, social media platforms were quick to mock Klauß – followed by a wide range of conventional media. The “Bild” newspaper for instance asked: “Do you still understand this football manager German?”. And this is where it gets interesting. Because what was Klauß actually doing with his comments? He was answering the question sarcastically, of course, but more than that his response was also appropriate. He outlined his match plan in short, concise sentences – and he used the language football demands in 2021.

Some may regret this (as an impassioned football romantic I for instance do so in an almost professional capacity), but the days of the match plan being deemed a fixed itinerary mainly involving kicking the hell out of the opposition; the days of each and every player seemingly being called Bodo and pursuing the esteemed career of centre half; the days when breaking out meant something the team would do with beer at the post-match social – these days are long gone. And the language has disappeared along with them.

Putting complexity into words

A period – by this we mean 20 or 30 years – during which football developed at an incredible speed. Midfield defenders and man-to-man markers became extinct, just like the centre halves and wingers before them. They have been replaced by all sorts of new species: double sixes, false nines, yes even the asymmetric left defenders or wide midfielders that Klauß seems to like in his set-up. The game has become so dynamic and complex within a relatively short time that the roles on the field have fundamentally changed, diversified, exponentiated. Simply marking a player is no longer enough, especially if the man being marked suddenly breaks out or uses a wide play tactic.

This is complicated further by a drastic rise in the importance of data and analysis. It’s as if the game and its players are made of glass, which has resulted in the use of technical terminology in the language of football. But that’s how it goes: just as football has developed from a popular sport into a multi-million-dollar entertainment industry, its language has also become specialist.

Using a laptop

That’s bound to cause conflict, because rapid developments split the people exposed to them into two camps: those who go along with them and those wary of something new. After all the asymmetric break-out hasn’t been around long, a new statistic like expected goals used to be good old “goal conversion rate” just a few years ago – and the fact that the “packing rate” refers to the number of opponents outplayed by a pass could be more simply expressed just by saying that a certain number of opponents have been outplayed. And that’s why there are always people who keep kicking up a fuss about these new developments and their terminology. Mehmet Scholl for instance mocked the new generation of coaches (to which Klauß belongs), calling them laptop managers, and indeed maybe a laptop would have helped Scholl’s career in the regional league – which met a fairly unglamorous end back in the day. And TV veteran Bela Rethy joked in 2014: “I always look out for break-away sixes or other tactical strategies, but I don’t usually spot them.” Which is of course an astonishingly open admission for someone who makes a living commentating on football matches for a wide television audience.

So as we see, even committed fans sometimes find football language too much to handle. That includes me, incidentally. I understood the fundamentals of Klauß’s match plan: attack early, shift the game emphasis once you have possession. Something like that. But if I’m honest I don’t know exactly what a wide midfielder is either. If ever I’m facing Klauß in a press conference, maybe I’ll ask him about it. Wait, maybe I won’t.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.