The story of Clockwork Oranje

The history of Dutch influence on modern day football.

11th July 2010, Johannesburg, South Africa. Netherlands were playing the match as if their life was on line. Each player was afraid to make any mistake, but they had faith in each other, for each of the players know the others well. Every touch, every space and every position, was mapped on every player’s mind almost like clockwork. Whose watchmaker, Rinus Michels, would surely have watched from the heaven and smiled at something he created and nurtured

Dutch are credited with pioneering the Total Football philosophy and, were widely regarded as a country that were ahead of the curve when the Bosman ruling came into the picture. At the forefront of this ruling were two dutchmen, the legendary Johan Cryuff and one of the most successful coaches of his era, Louis Van Gaal. Even though they were compatriots, Cryuff and Van Gaal weren’t really friends and throughout their time, you will find metaphorical shots fired at each other but the only thing that they both believed in was ‘Total Football’.

What is Total Football?

Total Football is a tactical system in football, in which any outfield player is capable of filling in multiple positions on the field in any given formation. In total football, a player who moves out of his position is replaced by another from his team, thus retaining the team’s intended organisational structure. In this system, no outfield player is fixed in a predetermined role and anyone can successively play as an attacker, midfielder or defender. The only requirement to make this system successful is the adaptability of footballers in the team to play in various positions depending upon the situation in a football match and hence, technically gifted, intelligent players thrive in this system and in return, make the system work. Pep Guardiola, a disciple of Johan Cryuff, firmly believed in this system and raised the popularity of the same at all the clubs he has managed.

Rinus Michels laid the foundation for modern “Dutch Footballism” and the philosophy was taken forward by the two acclaimed Dutch managers Johan Cruyff and Louis Van Gaal. Though both of them had the same principle, they held widely differing philosophies in their managerial career.

Michael Cox in his book ‘Zonal Marking’ explains how the word “Space” has been integral to the Dutch teams. A prominent example of probably the best space interpreter was Dennis Bergkamp, who in his initial years was an average number 9 for the club, but was fielded as a number 10, when Van Gaal recognised his ability to find space and exploit it. Rest as we all know is history as he scored more goals, had Ballon D’or podium finishes, was a top scorer in Eredivisie and earned numerous accolades with Arsenal.

Defense in Total Football

Defenders in Total Football, are placed at a high line to compress the opponent’s space of the pitch, while the goalkeeper is expected to sweep behind the defence line. A traditional shot-stopper may fail to excel in this system for they are expected to stay on the goal line, however, Edwin Van Der Sar was the first player to be recognised as a sweeper keeper. He recalls his inability to make extraordinary saves, all he did was prevent saveable shots from going in and making zero mistakes. That was the motto, and he succeeded in this role at Ajax. Premier League fans would not remember Van Der Sar sweeping up as he was asked not to by Alex Ferguson. But his influence has been very entrenched, De Gea, Neuer have lauded his impact on the role. 

How does it look today for the Dutch?

Even today, almost two decades after Johan Cryuff and Louis Van Gaal, the Dutch National team and top teams in the Eredivisie, still follow the concept of Total Football. Technical players like Depay, De Jong, Wijnaldum are a treat to watch when on their song. But now, all the top nations have caught up to them in terms of footballing quality. Even though Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord still boast considerable talent coming from their academy and excelling at the top level of football, Dutch have now taken a back seat when it comes to being Global Football Pioneers.

After reaching the FIFA World Cup Finals in 2010 and then finishing third in 2014, everyone expected great things from the Netherlands going into the World Cup 2018, but their failure to qualify for the tournament was a huge shock. 

Following the disaster of 2018, the Dutch hired Ronald Koeman to steady the ship and safe to say, they have been a mixed bag ever since. They competed in the finals of the UEFA Nations League and lost to Portugal by a narrow margin and in the following summer, they bowed out of Euro 2020 under the stewardship of Frank De Boer in the Round of 16, after topping their group. 

As a result, FdB stepped down as the Oranje Manager and guess who's back? Many names were called out to take on the Oranje job and deliver the silverware on the biggest stage. As speculation rose and articles were published for the coveted role of the Dutch National team, a familiar figure rose from the shadows again to finish the job once and for all, his name, Louis Van Gaal. The once iconic manager surely has the tools to lead the Dutch to promise land, but whether he will be successful or not, only time will tell.

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