Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dutch Devolution

(Also posted at http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/the-dutch-devolution)

There is something utterly alluring about the Dutch and its football that has attracted me to it over the years. Maybe, it has to do with the fact that my initiation to the game coincided with the flowering of a ridiculously talented group of players trained at the Ajax academy (the class of Bergkamp, Kluivert, Seedorf, Davids and the De Boer twins). Or maybe, it’s the mythical resonance of ‘total football’ that had enraptured watchers of its time, leaving behind an indelible mark on the game. Or maybe, the reasons are more superficial; I vaguely remember answering, ‘orange’, when asked as a kid what my favourite colour was.

Being so, the World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain left me with a strong sense of disappointment, not so much a result of the outcome (Spain was unquestionably a worthy winner) but the roguish style that was employed by the Dutch. In adopting a tactic that was designed to thuggishly intimidate and destroy Spain’s football, the Dutch not only betrayed the stupendous talent at its disposal, but also desecrated some of the celebrated grandiose of its former teams.

The Dutch game over the years has been characterised by its unique perception of space and resultantly an ability to construct moves of artistic splendour. The beauty of its football has been a product of creative thinking and an ability to do things differently, as opposed to an adherence to the predominant tactics of the times.

In his book, ‘The Brilliant Orange’, David Winner draws intriguing links between Dutch architecture and art and its football and in doing so, conceptualises the role played by the understanding of ‘space’ in its football. He argues, that to understand the idea of Dutch football, it is necessary to look beyond the game as played on the pitch and to analyse the ethos of the Dutch people and its approach to other streams of life. Dutch space, he evocatively asserts is different. He says ‘other nations and football culture may have produced greater goal-scorers, more dazzling individual ball artists and more dependable and efficient tournament winning teams. But no one has ever imagined or structured their play as abstractly, as architecturally, in such a measured fashion as the Dutch.’

Of course, the Dutch game took its time to reach a level of tactical sophistication. In fact, professionalism in football wasn’t prevalent in the Netherlands until the mid nineteen-fifties, a time at which it was one of the most backward states in Europe. But flanking a socio-cultural rebellion that has seen the Netherlands become one of the most progressive nations in the world was a revolution on the pitch that ultimately placed its football on the highest of plinths.

Ajax, first under the coaching of Rinus Michels and then under Stefan Kovacs, completed a unique feat of winning the European Cup in three consecutive seasons from 1971-1973, by playing a system that is now renowned as ‘total football’. The style involved astonishing fluidity of movement with players rapidly interchanging their positions; defenders turning into attackers, central midfielders moving into full-back and so on. That they performed their tasks to perfection was no doubt an upshot of having played together for years, but at the heart of their artistry laid an innate understanding of space.

Michels, moved on to coach Barcelona, joined soon by Johan Cruyff, and established the foundation for a bright future, which has culminated in the club’s and Spain’s recent success. But I must add that although Spain’s and Barcelona’s style is built on the bedrock of fluidity in movement, it is vastly different from the methods employed by Ajax and the Netherlands in the late nineteen-sixties, and nineteen-seventies.

Sjaak Swart who won eight league championships with Ajax states in Winner’s book that position-switching developed naturally and that for all the artistry, its football was direct. “In four passes we would be in front of goal. Nowadays they take twenty passes – backwards, sideways, backwards. We didn’t play like that. We went for the goal. We could play sixty minutes of pressing… I’ve never seen any other club anywhere who could do that.”

Spain’s football on the other hand is built on an ability to maintain possession of the ball and thereby wearing the opponents to submission. I say this to merely remove any misconception that Spain’s football is akin to that of the great Dutch teams of the years gone by and not to demean its football, which has been wondrous in its own way.

The Dutch on the other hand, as I said have always had an ability to think innovatively, especially about space which can so often be the decisive factor in football games. At the core of the analysis on the Dutch game of the past lies a premise that its football has an orientation garnered towards creation and not destruction. Against Spain however, the team seemed more intent on spoiling rather than inventing, a tactic that ran entirely counter to the cultural pedigree of its football.

It is no doubt unrealistic to expect a team to adhere to a system that was gloriously, if not entirely successfully, employed three-four decades ago as Rafael Honigstein points out. Tactics have evolved over a course of time and a side can ill-afford to compromise on defensive responsibilities for the sake of pure attacking beauty. Theoretically, Honigstein’s stance is sound, but the suggestion that this Dutch team was no more defensive than its predecessors is fallacious. Yes, the article was written before the final, at a time when the Dutch style hadn’t regressed as much as it had by the time they played Spain, but to imply that its football failed to thrill because the opposition was defensive is wholly off beam.

Perhaps in the years gone by, teams were tactically more na├»ve and weren’t astute enough to counter the attacking brilliance of the Dutch. But it wasn’t quite as easy as it’s sometimes made to seem. The beauty of the Dutch was not merely a consequence of the opposition allowing it space to operate, but on the contrary was founded on its own ability to manufacture and construct space.

In addition to Honigstein’s view, it must also be said that that total-football, as is understood in some circles, was not an entirely attacking strategy. The system was about controlling space; compressing it when without the ball and expanding it when in possession of the ball. Consequently, it worked wonderfully from a holistically strategic standpoint and not purely from an attacking perspective. The swift interchanging of positions by the players and a multifarious approach to the game was never a compromise on defensive duties, so to understand the tactic as simply an offensive ploy is erroneous.

My intention is not to deny the necessity for pragmatism. In a brief piece that I had earlier, I had argued that good football and beautiful football do not necessarily correlate and I am not loath to adding that the former is mostly a product of ‘pragmatism’, a word which, especially in footballing parlance, is grossly misunderstood. To be pragmatic is to be practical and regardless of its lack of aesthetic appeal, I believe, the tactics employed by the Dutch in the final were predominantly unworkable. No doubt, its decision to tackle with vigour helped stifle Spain for large parts of the game, but eventually it was bound to cost it dear.

It would have certainly been imprudent for the Dutch to attack unbothered by Spain’s reputation, but greater thoughtfulness was required to counter the opposition than merely following a herd of teams that have tried defying such a brand of football with vicious tackling. In recent times, any analysis concerning Barcelona or Spain sees a reference to Internazionale’s victory over the Catalan club in the Champions League semi-final. It must, though, be borne in mind that the second leg performance of the Italians, hailed as one of the greatest defensive performances of recent times, saw it play for the majority of the game with ten men. Undoubtedly following the sending off, Inter maintained shape immaculately and defended with aplomb, but it is important to note that this was achieved without resorting to excessively robust or brutal means.

One may also point to the fact that Spain’s goal came late in extra-time and that the fact that if not for its profligacy in front of goal, the Dutch may well have emerged successful. However, it’s significant to note that with a different referee, it may well have been a man-down minutes into the game. Some argue that the Dutch were entitled in endeavouring to win ugly, considering the failures of the past, which off-set some of its brilliant artistry. But to see the Dutch reduced to measures that are the norm for lesser teams was both impractical and a perfidy of its magnificent footballing history. With no sign of Bert van Marvijk, the present coach of the Netherlands, being replaced, it’s difficult to imagine a radical amendment in the existing system, which is not only tragic but also grossly obtuse.

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