Pep Guardiola isn’t a calm man. Certainly not when he’s managing a football match, anyway. Jittery, fidgety, and altogether restless, in any other context Guardiola’s behavior would prompt institutionalisation. His cardigan-flailing antics are pure box-office entertainment when the Sky Sports cameras are turned on, though.
But why on earth would football compel someone to such wild gesticulations? Look at it from Guardiola’s perspective. Every match he’s tasked with overseeing the actions of 11 individuals. These individuals have come to Guardiola from various parts of the world and have presumably brought with them varying ideas and concepts about how best to play the game. Guardiola has to transform the disparate thoughts and backgrounds of these players into a united collective. Eleven distinct parts have to coalesce into a cohesive, harmonious whole all whilst playing a fluid sport with minimal stoppages. Let’s allow the man to contort a bit.
Guardiola, like any football manager, is well versed in the fickleness of human beings and the havoc they can wreak on even the most meticulous of game plans. Take last November’s Premier League match between Guardiola’s Manchester City and Jurgen Klopp’s then-indefatigable Liverpool. For the match’s opening five minutes, City bullied and pressured Liverpool and could have been a goal up were it not for a contentious penalty non-call going against them (there’s nothing fickler than VAR). Guardiola’s decision to deploy Kevin De Bruyne as an attacking number 10 as opposed to a deeper-lying number 8 was working to perfection.
And then Liverpool’s Fabinho hit a screamer passed second-choice City keeper Claudio Bravo. In one improbable instant (Fabinho, an excellent holding midfielder, had only previously scored once in the Premier League), the entire dynamic of the match changed. Now with the lead, Liverpool could prioritize defending and maintaining shape and only had to concern themselves with attacking on the counter when quality opportunities arose.
There likely was no discussion of preventing Fabinho from taking long-range shots in Guardiola’s pre-match team talk. Why would there have been? Yet, a Fabinho long-range strike was pivotal to Liverpool ultimately emerging from the contest 3-1 winners.
Football is a team sport. Coordination is essential to every worthwhile side. But a team is still comprised of individuals, and no matter how well drilled they are, individuals are prone to unpredictable whims. Sometimes those whims work in a manger’s favor. Guardiola may have been exasperated over Fabinho’s shock strike, but the equally scrupulous Klopp was punching the air in triumph when the net rippled. To find control amidst randomness is a manger’s ultimate aim, but in an inherently scattershot sport, randomness always finds a way to intervene.
A Perfunctory Afterthought?
Individuals don’t come more ‘individual’ than Johan Cruyff. “It’s better to go down with your own vision than with someone else’s,” once said the shaggy-haired, revolutionist captain of the Netherlands’ 1974 World Cup team. One of the game’s greatest ever players and greatest ever managers, modern football would look significantly different were it not for Cruyff’s vision.
Cruyff’s attacking philosophy unquestionably had an impact on a young, impressionable Guardiola. If Guardiola’s formative footballing years hadn’t been spent as a midfielder in Cruyff’s effervescent Barcelona Dream Team, it’s unlikely the Spaniard’s efforts as a manager to compel his teams to play intricate, technical football would be quite so manic (assuming he’d have gone into management at all). “He has had the biggest influence on football out of anyone in the world, first as a player and then as a coach,” Guardiola said of Cruyff.
As iconic as Cruyff’s 1974 Clockwork Orange Dutch team were, they didn’t win the World Cup. A perfectly functional, if not nearly as charming West Germany did, beating the Oranje in the final. For a large chunk of its history Dutch football has been spectacular to watch, but it’s frequently fallen short at the final hurdle. Dutch fans have grown accustomed to a peculiar kind of easy-on-the-eyes heartbreak. Commendable failure and Dutch football have been begrudging bedfellows.
Except for Euro 1988. The 1988 European Championships were where the beautiful, bright orange kits of the Netherlands finally got to bob up and down in celebration of a trophy. Extra sweet for the Dutch was their semi-final victory over host nation West Germany. When the Dutch team returned to Amsterdam to celebrate winning their first (and to this point, only) major competition, manager Rinus Michels told the throng of people gathered, “We won the tournament, but we all know that the semi-final was the real final.”
Michels’ words summarize the prevailing view on Euro 1988: the Netherlands/West Germany semi-final was a great, historic clash between two bitter rivals, whilst Holland’s win over the Soviet Union in the final four days later was a perfunctory afterthought.
Established Maestros of the Game
In some respects, the Netherlands’ match with the Soviet Union is justifiably forgotten. Holland’s 2-0 victory wasn’t the most riveting spectacle for neutral observers (or, apparently, for the very not neutral Michels). But Euro 1988’s final did grace the football world with a truly exceptional managerial match-up and for that reason its status as a footnote is harsh. Both Michels and his adversary, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, entered the contest as established maestros of the game.
Architect of the exhilarating football the Netherlands captivated the world with in 1974, Michels oversaw a freewheeling, yet gloriously synchronized team. Position swapping was a common feature, and Cruyff was especially mobile. Nominally the team’s center forward, Cruyff would regularly drop into midfield and open up space for Holland’s wingers, the electrifying duo of Johnny Rep and Rob Rensenbrink, to burst into. Holland’s football was technical, complex, and it required eleven players to all function on the same wavelength. In 1974, and throughout his illustrious managerial career, Michels’ teams exhibited breathtaking uniformity.
Lobanovskyi was also renowned for the unity his teams displayed. Often referred to as ‘football’s scientist,’ Lobanovskyi pioneered the introduction of data and analytics to the sport. Particularly fruitful was Lobanovskyi’s collaboration with statistician Anatolyi Zelentsov whilst manager of Dynamo Kiev in the 1970s. “Dynamo’s players had to memorize set plays, as if they were American footballers, and had to run off the ball in set patterns,” wrote Simon Kuper in his book, Football Against the Enemy.
An ardent believer in the collective over the individual, Lobanovskyi’s approach to football management had as much in common with Karl Marx as it did with Herbert Chapman. “When we say we have an excellent player that comes from the following principal: one percent talent and 99 percent hard work,” Lobanovskyi said. Individual talent meant nothing to Lobanovskyi if a player wasn’t willing to commit completely to the team.
What happens when an individual transcends the collective, though? What happens when an individual does something so spectacular and so beyond the realm of what’s believed to possible that even the most fastidious manager never would have dreamed of preparing for it? Guardiola is twitching just thinking about a scenario like this. The two managers vying to win the Euro 1988 final were remarkably diligent, but neither of them could have envisioned the moment that defined the match. If the forgettable Euro 1988 final is remembered for anything, it’s for a burst of individual excellence. Two managers united by an unwavering dedication to collectivism oversaw an instant of strikingly singular beauty.
A Mischievous Movement
“There has been only one real tactical revolution and it happened when football shifted from an individual to a collective game. It happened with Ajax first and then the Holland national team at the beginning of the 1970s,” said former AC Milan managerial great Arrigo Sacchi, referring to the absurdly influential first chapter of Michels’ coaching career.
Sacchi and others are right to laud the collective organization Michels inspired, but it’s also important to remember that Michels’ Ajax and Holland teams were, in fact, loaded with superbly talented individuals. And in the 1960s and early 1970s, a certain style of recalcitrant independence was sweeping through Amsterdam.
Appointed manager of Ajax in 1965, Michels took over the Amsterdam club right as a counter-cultural awakening was emerging. Rebellion in Amsterdam was perhaps less riotous than it was in other parts of the world in the 1960s, but its significance in shaping the city’s culture as it exists today shouldn’t be underestimated.
A group known as the Provo’s best typified the Amsterdam brand of non-violent protest. David Winner’s outstanding book on Dutch football, Brilliant Orange, described the Provos as ‘Amsterdam’s archetypal 1960s anarchists, who mixed surreal anti-authoritarian pranks, anti-consumerism and loopy techno-optimism…The Provos were mainly out to have fun by provoking the bourgeois establishment.’
An example of the Provos having fun: Ahead of the royal wedding between Princess Beatrix and Claus von Amsberg (to the outrage of many in Holland, von Amsberg was a former member of the Hitler Youth), the Provos spread rumors they were preparing to dump LSD into Amsterdam’s water supply, prompting authorities to request 25,000 troops to guard the ceremony’s parade route.
At the parade, the Provos set off white sugar nitrate smoke bombs, which didn’t cause any direct harm, but did incite a violent response from the gathered police officers. Amidst the smoke bomb-induced confusion, police violence wasn’t exclusively directed at the Provos, as officers couldn’t discern who exactly the perpetrators were. Subsequently, Amsterdam’s police were widely criticized for their actions. The incident illustrates the Provos’ aim of baiting establishment figures into smashing their own veneer of decorum.
And just what exactly did members of this mischievous movement have in common with the era’s footballers? According to Ajax’s impressively bearded central defender Barry Hulshoff: nothing. Except, interestingly, a shared fondness for progressive music.
“The only connection was the music. The boys doing those other things? I didn’t care about them. I didn’t think about them. I was playing football and I did everything for football. You couldn’t do something else,” Hulshoff said.
Others, however, did see a synergy between the roguishness transpiring in the streets of Amsterdam and the radical action taking place inside Holland’s football stadiums. “The connection is a new liberal attitude towards authority. They were revolutionary players, these guys, extremely charismatic… Rinus Michels was obviously an authoritarian figure but even he could not really control them,” said Maarten Hajer, professor of public policy at Amsterdam University.
An Uncompromisingly Strict General
Provo philosophy may or may not have actually infiltrated football in the Netherlands, but anti-authoritarianism was undeniably percolating in the Dutch air. During this period of cultural transition, Michels’ greatest challenge as Ajax, then Holland manager may have been simply to command clout among gifted yet highly self-assured athletes.
Michels’ teams were suave, impeccably fashionable, and they carried themselves like they knew how suave and impeccably fashionable they were. There were more sideburns present at late 1960s Ajax matches than there were on the set of Rebel Without a Cause.
Obsessively hard working, with a reputation for possessing a domineering streak, Michels didn’t have sideburns. Michels was nicknamed “The General” and very much looked like a man whose nickname would be “The General.” True to his moniker, Michels was known to drill his players relentlessly. Former Ajax winger Piet Keizer called Michels’ training sessions ‘the hardest I’ve ever had…we would start work in the morning and carry on until the evening…he was very strict with the players and there were lots of arguments about discipline.’ When Michels departed Ajax for Barcelona in 1971, Keizer was allegedly so thrilled to hear the news that he danced on a table.
All of which makes the football associated with Michels’ name so surprising. The uncompromisingly strict General’s teams made the game look joyous. It wasn’t as though technical, aesthetically pleasing football had never been seen at Ajax before. Throughout three separate managerial spells, the first of which began in 1915 and the last of which ended in 1947 with Michels himself as one of his players, Englishman Jack Reynolds made short passing and possession retention a priority at Ajax. “For me, the attack is and remains the best defense,” Reynolds said. And post-Reynolds, another Englishman, the profanity-wielding Vic Buckingham, ensured Ajax continued to play in a proactive manner.
But Michels – quite literally – raised standards to another level. In 1965, football was still predominantly an amateur game in the Netherlands. For the Dutch to keep up with their professional European counterparts, Michels knew this had to change. Unfortunately, he had a more immediate problem to contend with when he first took over at Ajax: The club were in the middle of a relegation fight.
Not discouraged by the unenviable situation he inherited, Michels quickly made an impression on his players with demanding training sessions that placed an emphasis on skillful play (Michels clearly took influence from his former his former boss, Reynolds). Ajax improved and avoided going down. One year later they were crowned Eredivisie champions. More crucially though, thanks to Michels incessant persuading of club chairman Jaap van Praag, every player on the team was a full time professional.
Professionalism was absolutely essential for Michels to achieve his ultimate ambitions. No longer having to work as tobacconists (like Keizer) or assist with printing for Sport World (like Cruyff) for regular income, Ajax players were now free to spend their days training (much to Michels’ delight). Previously, training sessions had to be held in the evenings to accommodate the “regular” jobs of players.
Fitness was a top priority at Ajax. The brilliance Michels’ teams displayed with the ball was clearly important to their success, but equally integral was what they did when out of possession. When the ball was lost, Michels had his players swarm and harass the opposition in a maniacal effort to win it back. Understandably, this required his players to be in peak physical condition – and his players couldn’t have possibly been in peak physical condition without the extra training time professionalism afforded.
What turbo-charged Ajax were engaging in was an early form of pressing. Whilst there were other teams experimenting with pressing around this time (notably, Viktor Maslov’s Dynamo Kiev and Ernst Happel’s Feyenoord), it could be well argued that Michels and Ajax were the strategy’s most successful practitioners. Ajax’s four Eredivisie titles between 1966 and 1970 make a convincing case.
Strutting Symbols of Counter-Culture Cool
The European Cup was proving elusive, however. Ajax reached 1969’s final but fell 4-1 to catenaccio-king Nereo Rocco’s AC Milan. Crucially, in 1970, Michels decided to switch from his then-preferred 4-2-4 formation to the 4-3-3 for which he and Dutch football are now known.
When in possession, the 4-3-3 gave Ajax maximum width to stretch the opposition. And on occasions when possession was lost, it allowed them to quickly contract and form an impenetrable flock of red and white kits. Tada! Suddenly the space available to their opponents would vanish. This was the key to Ajax’s football: space manipulation. As anyone who has seen a staircase in Holland can attest, the Dutch are experts in taking advantage of space.
Playing swirling, space-contorting football, Ajax were able to reach the European Cup final again in 1971. Their opponents for the occasion raised a few eyebrows. Greece wasn’t known for producing relevant football sides, but Panathinaikos had surprisingly traversed a difficult path to the final that included victories over English champions Everton and Serbian champions Red Star Belgrade. And at least one member of Panathinaikos had some extra incentive heading into the final. Provocative Greek actress Zeta Apostolou had promised goalkeeper Takis Ikonomopoulos (hero of Panathinaikos’ quarterfinal win over Everton) ‘a week with me in Crete’ if he could keep a clean-sheet against Ajax.
Ikonomopoulos’ week-in-Crete’ dreams took just five minutes to get crushed. Ajax-striker Dick van Dijk put his name on the score sheet early by getting his well-coiffed head on the end of nice Keizer cross. Substitute Arie Haan added a second goal off a deflection late, and Ajax ended the match 2-0 winners and European champions.
Writing in The Blizzard, David Winner and Simon Kuper suggested that Ajax had played the same role in the Netherlands that the Beatles had played in England. Michel’s, the George Martin to Cruyff’s John Lennon, may not have had the haircut or the fashion sense to influence society in the same manner as his players (or the Beatles), but the luminaries at Ajax never would have become strutting symbols of counter-culture cool without him.
And Michels wasn’t content with just revolutionizing Ajax. After triumphing in the European Cup, he traded the canals of Amsterdam for the Modernisme architecture of Catalonia to take over a Barcelona side mired in a La Liga title drought that was extending into its second decade.
Michels (with the help of his ex-Ajax stars, Cruyff and Johan Neeskens) would end Blaugrana suffering in 1974 as the club won La Liga for the first time since 1960. But more important than any one piece of silverware was Michels chiseling his playing ethos into the club’s core. The Michels Way would have a profound impact on several iconic iterations of Barcelona (specifically the iterations managed by his pupil, Cruyff and Cruyff’s pupil, Guardiola).
Michels had proven his managerial intellect was a valuable export, but his home country had a problem. Holland’s national team had endured an arduous (but still ultimately successful) qualifying campaign for 1974’s World Cup. An anxious Royal Dutch Football Association deemed a coaching change was necessary. Ways were parted with Czech boss Frantisek Fadrhonc, and Michels was named as his replacement. The world was about to be introduced to Total Football.