Huddled round a transistor radio in the highlands of Central Vietnam in 1974 listening to the FIFA world cup, I remember the Netherlands (or clockwork orange as we called them) opened the scoring via a John Neeskens penalty in the second minute, only for Paul Breitner to equalise with another penalty in the 25th minute before Gerd Müller scored the winning goal in the 43rd minute, claiming West Germany's second FIFA World Cup. The Dutch had their star Johan Cruyff, and their Total Football system which had dazzled the competition. At school I had many Dutch classmates whose parents migrated to NZ after the War and I felt close to the Dutch as a race. Hardworking and athletic, I admired them so I am backing the Netherlands to win this World Cup.
Why do I take this stance so early on in the series? Winning football world cups is about identifying breakthrough initiatives and rehearsing and practicing them until they become natural and instinctice.The Dutch team have a breakthrough strategy that will be revealed piece by piece, game by game.
The article in the Daily Telegraph on 15 June backs my theory on breakthrough initiatives
For as long as anyone can remember, Dutch teams have played 4-3-3. But Louis van Gaal, the man who helped to create both the modern Dutch blueprint and the modern Spanish blueprint, ripped them up and started afresh
Holland’s 5-1 win over Spain on Friday night – a shock with which the world of football is still struggling to come to terms – was held in many quarters as a return to classic Dutch values, after the organised thuggery of the 2010 World Cup final. On BBC television, Thierry Henry evoked Johan Cruyff, saying that he and coach Louis van Gaal (photo below) “brought Total Football to Barcelona and the Spanish squad; I think tonight, the Dutch got their style back”.
In one sense, this was true. Holland played with a verve, a swagger and a purpose that we have not seen from them since at least the late 1980s, when a team containing Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten swept to the European Championship under Rinus Michels, himself the architect of Total Football at Ajax in the late 1960s. The sight of blue shirts (not orange, unfortunately; thank the sages at Fifa for that) swarming all over the world champions was a sight to stir all football fans of a certain age. The Dutch were masters of their craft once more.
But if you study each of their five goals in turn, the picture becomes a little fuzzier. Three of the goals came from long diagonal balls over the Spanish defence. Another, Stefan de Vrij’s oh-god-I’m-about-to-crash-into-the-post header, came from a set-piece from the left. And one more came from the leaden boot of Iker Casillas, allowing the ball to squirm away so Robin van Persie could win it.
Then there are the statistics. (photo below)
In a resounding victory, Holland had just 43 per cent of possession, and committed 18 fouls to Spain’s five.
So was this the return of Total Football? Or have Holland and Louis van Gaal managed to create something completely new?
For as long as anyone can remember, Dutch teams have played 4-3-3. At Ajax, 4-3-3 is the formation they play from under-9 level all the way to the first team. It is not so much a philosophy as a religion. Under Cruyff, Barcelona adopted the same style, winning the European Cup for the first time in 1992 and setting a blueprint that all future managers – Van Gaal included – felt obligated to follow. The influence of Cruyff and Barcelona is evident in the Spain side of recent years: short and sharp passes, quick interchanges, fluidity in the final third, and ruthless pressing without the ball.
When Van Gaal took over the Holland job after the disaster of Euro 2012 and started planning for this tournament, 4-3-3 was the logical way to go. He had perhaps the world’s best winger in Arjen Robben, one of the world’s best strikers in Van Persie, and attacking midfielders in Wesley Sneijder and Kevin Strootman who could link defence and attack.
Strootman was the key to the system. A strong, quick runner with exceptional vision, Strootman’s ability to carry the ball out of midfield at speed and set defences on the back foot gave Holland a wealth of angles going forward. Just 24 years old and at Roma, he has invited comparisons with Roy Keane and Yaya Toure.
“Strootman is a player who brings a balance to the entire team,” Van Gaal said. “I will have players like Rafael van der Vaart and Sneijder, of course, but no one will be able to replace Kevin.”
Then, in April, Strootman got injured. The one player who made the system work was out of the World Cup. For Van Gaal, a man who admits he needs time to get teams playing in the system he wants, now had no system and no time.
As he mulled over his options, one – the nuclear option – presented itself. The full-backs Daryl Janmaat and Daley Blind often looked exposed when playing in a back four. Perhaps an extra central defender would give them more cover. Perhaps introducing a second defensive midfielder would create more space further up the field for Robben. All the evidence pointed to a three-man defence.
And yet. Van Gaal was the man who helped to create both the modern Dutch blueprint and the modern Spanish blueprint. Could he really bring himself to rip up both?
Robin van Persie outstretches to head in a brilliant goal.
Van Gaal and Cruyff do not get on. Van Gaal claims the feud goes back to 1989: the story goes that Van Gaal was having dinner at Cruyff’s house, left abruptly because he was informed that his sister had died, and Cruyff got offended. Cruyff, for his part, describes this as rubbish. “You wonder whether he has one or two screws loose,” Cruyff said of Van Gaal in 2009.
However it started, the tension between the two is very real. In 2011, the Ajax board tried to hire Van Gaal as a technical director. Cruyff, a fellow board member, went berserk when he learned of the appointment, taking Ajax to court in an attempt to block it on the grounds that he had not been consulted. Cruyff won, and the appointment was overturned.
Cruyff and Van Gaal were both steeped in Ajax tradition and share many of the same ideas of football, not least a steadfast belief in 4-3-3 and quick passing. But there is one fundamental difference between them.
Robin van Persie right showing his class throughout the Spain vs Netherlands match.
Cruyff won pretty much everything there was to win at club level, played in a World Cup final, charmed an entire generation. Van Gaal, an enterprising and cerebral midfielder six years his junior, joined Ajax in 1972 with hopes of emulating him. He left after a year without making a single first-team appearance. Despite spending almost a decade at Sparta Rotterdam, his playing career was unremarkable. By his own lofty standards, it was a failure.
Perhaps that shaped their differing views of football. Cruyff played Total Football in its purest form, with 10 outfield players all theoretically interchangeable in their roles. It required outrageous talents, thrilling individuality and pure instinct. To play the Cruyff way, you had to pack the team with gifted individuals and allow them to ‘feel’ their way through the game.
For Van Gaal, stars were of secondary importance. The system was king. If a player didn’t fit into the system, or didn’t want to fit into the system, he was out. This is why Van Gaal is such a fiercely divisive character amongst players: like Jose Mourinho, he decides very quickly whether he wants you or not. If you’re his guy, great. If not, it might be worth a quick call to your agent.
At Barcelona in 1999, he insisted on playing Rivaldo on the left. Naturally, Rivaldo wanted to play in the centre. Rivaldo was temporarily dropped, but despite losing the battle he won the war: Van Gaal was sacked at the end of the season.
Two years later, Van Gaal was back. Within three weeks, and before a ball had even been kicked, Rivaldo saw what was coming, and left. “Van Gaal is the main cause of my departure,” he said. “I don't like Van Gaal, and I am sure that he doesn’t like me, either.”
At Bayern Munich, he fell out with Luca Toni and Lucio, the latter testifying that “Van Gaal hurt me more than anyone else in football”. But for those he identified as having potential, the rewards could be lucrative. Under Van Gaal’s tutelage, Bastian Schweinsteiger was transformed from a winger into one of the world’s best midfielders. David Alaba was turned from a midfielder into a marauding left-back.
“You have to play as a team and not as individuals,” Van Gaal said earlier this year. “That's why I’m always going back to the vision, then the team, and then which players fit in my system, a 1-4-3-3, because I’m always playing that.”
Except now, even that was being questioned.
The Ajax and Holland sides of the 1970s sometimes played what could be classed as a 3-4-3. Ruud Krol would play as a sweeper, occasionally mopping up behind the defence, occasionally stepping into midfield to form the base of an attack. It was an attacking system, based on possession and smooth transitions.
The 3-4-3 that Van Gaal played on Friday night was essentially a reactive formation designed to combat Spain’s dominant midfield. The wing-backs did not venture too far forward, and with midfielders Nigel De Jong and Jonathan de Guzman essentially screening the back three, Holland reverted to a 5-2-3, or even a 7-3, without the ball. And seeing as this was Spain, they were quite often without the ball.
There was a crudeness to them, too. From the very start, Holland were physical in the challenge and spicy in the tackle. The first foul, by Ron Vlaar on Diego Costa, came after just 20 seconds. The second, by Janmaat on Xabi Alonso, came after less than five minutes. Both looked so blatant they might almost have been premeditated to knock Spain off their stride. It may not have been 2010 exactly, but 18 fouls to five tells its own story.
Then, when Holland got the ball, they would move it not with short passes and intricate triangles, but with long diagonal balls, unleashing the pace of Robben and the movement of Van Persie, exposing Spain’s high line and creaky defence.
Was it classically Dutch? Van Gaal argued that it was.
“For five weeks in a row we’ve been focusing on this system, because 4-3-3 is what we played in the qualification matches,” he said after the game. “This is really the Dutch school with wingers. But it’s more than that. The Dutch doctrine is exercising pressure playing in a compact way, but also switching positions.”
But was it the return of Total Football? It’s a hard case to make.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all was that Spain, as ever, were playing a very similar style of 4-3-3 to the one that Cruyff and later Van Gaal had pioneered at Barcelona. Van Gaal’s fingerprints are all over Spain’s recent successes: he gave Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes their Barcelona debuts, oversaw the progress of Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas at La Masia (although famously, he shoved a 14-year-old Pique to the ground the first time they met).
It was Bayern Munich who offered the blueprint for overcoming tiki-taka, when they demolished Barcelona 7-0 in the Champions League semi-final last year. Van Gaal’s protégés Schweinsteiger, Alaba and Robben were all in that side.
Now, with Holland, he has done it again, and in so doing may well have struck another nail in the coffin of modern possession football, a doctrine he helped to create. If that sounds fanciful, then at the very least he has played a leading role in its two greatest catastrophes.
Like Rembrandt, perhaps Van Gaal has finally managed to kill the very thing he created.