His Netherlands side has been proficient in reaching the semi-finals, but that is not enough for some. Comparisons are made with the team that reached the final in 1974, when Total Football received global recognition.
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Misunderstandings have gathered around Rinus Michels’ philosophy. Idealists lay claim to his tactics, beginning at Ajax, then Barcelona and Netherlands 36 years ago, as though they were some kind of Utopian vision. Instead, his principles developed as a method to best exploit the space available when his team was attacking, and to maximise its defensive capability. The motivation was wholly pragmatic.
Michels devised a strategy based upon pressing high up the field, with the wingers instructed to close down the full-backs, and employing an aggressive offside trap. The notion was to regain possession as quickly as possible, then overwhelm opponents on the counter by stretching the play wide. They defended from the front and attacked from the back in a 4-3-3. The system was paramount.
Two influences brought another dimension: the haughty panache of Johan Cruyff and the players’ comfort with a tactical plan that became second nature. The switching of positions is considered the intention of Michels’ tactics, but instead arose organically, from what the Dutch call habit football.
The individualism developed within Michels’ framework. He was no fantasist, and the ideal was to win rather than express artistry. “It comes from playing a long time together,” said Barry Hulshoff, the Ajax sweeper. “We grew into it.”
Cruyff was at the heart of this evolution, as he roamed around from a starting position at centre-forward. When the Netherlands lost the 1974 World Cup final to West Germany, it was Cruyff who attempted to proclaim a moral victory, as though beauty and finesse were worth more than the outcome. Subsequent generations have become enchanted by this notion of flawed brilliance; it is a form of sanctuary.
When Van Marwijk declared before the quarter-final victory over Brazil that, “Total Football was 1974, that’s a long time ago now,” it was this notion of glorious failure, of flair being a virtue even in defeat, that he was spurning. Among his coaching staff are Frank de Boer and Phillip Cocu, who experienced the pain of an acclaimed side falling short to Brazil in the 1998 World Cup semi-final.
“In 1998, we were a nice team, a good team,” said De Boer. “From day one, I told these players, ‘You have to believe second place isn’t enough, only first place counts’. This team is very mature.”
Van Marwijk’s side cannot rely upon the individual virtuosity of the 1974 team, but the foundations are the same. When Michels first implemented his ideas at Ajax, he began building from the back: defensive solidity was crucial, and playing aggressively by closing the opposition down was imposed.
Van Marwijk demands that his players press opponents, defend from the front and use the full width of the pitch when attacking. Discipline, structure and teamwork are foremost. There is, of course, no comparable figure to Cruyff, the full-backs do not overlap and there is less emphasis on attack, but the contrast with Michels’ 1974 team should not be considered demeaning. Both managers sought order, even if Michels’ players were capable of then adopting a more extreme expression of it.
The Netherlands won all eight qualifying games, five out of five matches in South Africa so far, and are now unbeaten in 24. The charge that Van Marwijk’s team are uninspiring is misguided. They are no less attack-minded than Spain and of the four remaining teams, only Germany have outscored them.
The Total Football concept is prized for its reflection of Amsterdam’s liberal culture and intellectual freedom, but Van Marwijk’s approach is no less sophisticated. By emphasising results and a diligent gameplan, he is maximising the potential of his players. There is finesse in the playmaking of Wesley Sneijder and incisive, creative dribbling from Arjen Robben, but the team is less mercurial than its recent predecessors.
He occasionally has to justify his approach but he has brought a sense of purpose to a team that might otherwise have been misled by its aesthetic values. The Netherlands have not been unfaithful to their heritage. The team is still capable of verve, but the fickleness of previous sides has been discarded. Results already vindicate Van Marwijk.