Similarities unquestionably existed between Rinus Michels’ Ajax and Rinus Michels’ Holland (both in terms of tactics and personnel), however, according to Jonathan Wilson, the prefix ‘totaal’ wasn’t attached to football until after the Netherlands’ performances at the 1974 World Cup. “The architectural theorist JB Bakema…spoke of Total Urbanization, Total Environment, and Total Energy…’Totaal’ was used across a range of disciplines to express that relationship between individual and system,” wrote Wilson in The Guardian.
Speaking at a lecture in 1974, Bakema said ‘to understand things, you have to understand the relationship between things.’ For the Dutch under Michels, no one’s actions could exist in a vacuum. Everything had to be connected. If left-back Ruud Krol elected to bomb forward down the flank to join Holland’s attack (as he would want to do), then a teammate had to slide over to provide defensive cover…and then someone had to slide over to cover for the player covering for Krol.
In many ways, Michels was a contradiction. He was an unwavering disciplinarian who cultivated a playing style that even the authority-hating hippies of Amsterdam could embrace and call their own. His football required rigid commitment to complex manoeuvres, but an iconoclast like Johan Cruyff could thrive in it and not feel repressed. The relationship between individual and system in a Michels’ team was profoundly tight. But the individual components of Michels’ intricate machines never had their uniqueness completely subsumed.
A contest of eleven against eleven
“A cavalry charge of surgeons,” was how Scottish journalist Hugh McIlvanney described Holland’s play at 1974’s World Cup in West Germany. Bulgaria were sliced up 4-1, Argentina 4-0. And in an impossibly brutal match that essentially functioned as a semi-final (at the time, the World Cup featured two separate phases of group play and the winners of the two groups from the second phase would meet in the final), mighty Brazil were dispatched 2-0.
Reflecting on the match for the BBC in 2010, Tim Vickery wrote, ‘no sooner had [a Brazilian] playmaker received the ball than half of the Netherlands was charging towards him, anxious to win it back…It was the definitive moment when football stopped being a collection of man-against-man duels and became a constant contest of eleven against eleven.’
After defeating the defending World Cup champions, Holland entered the final against West Germany as clear favourites. Speaking in David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, West German midfielder Uli Hoeness said, ‘[the Dutch] were a better team. We planned to look them in the eye, to show we were as big as they were. The Dutch players had the feeling they were invincible. You could see it in their eyes. Their attitude to us was: ‘how many goals do you want to lose by today, boys?’ While we waited to go onto the pitch, I tried to look them in the eye, but I couldn’t do it. They made us feel small.”
During the match’s early stages, the Dutch looked superior. Ever the showmen, the Oranje began the match by calmly stringing together 17 consecutive passes, prompting the partisan crowd to roar in frustration. It was a bold, arrogant display that would have felt a bit uncouth even in a friendly. At a World Cup final, it bordered on obscene.
Eventually, the ball ended up at Cruyff’s feet. The Dutch captain slalomed and sliced his way through the West German defence with startling ease. Perhaps knowing of no other way to stop Holland’s exposition of skill and bravado, Hoeness tripped Cruyff in the penalty area. Moments later, Neeskens converted from the spot. The Netherlands were up 1-0.
Confidence is generally thought of as a positive human trait. Arrogance isn’t. The blurry line that separates confidence from arrogance is one of the trickier tightropes that the world’s best athletes are required to walk. To be able to face packed arenas, copious television cameras, and formidable, determined opponents on a regular basis, a certain degree of self-belief is required. But if that self-belief teeters into hubris and a loss of focus results, the consequences can be severe.
Did arrogance lead to the Netherlands unravelling? “It would have been much better if Germany had scored in the first minute,” Dutch winger Johnny Rep later speculated. After scoring the opening goal, Holland continued to taunt and torment West Germany with hypnotic passing patterns. “We wanted to make fun of the Germans. We didn’t think about it but we did it, passing the ball around and around. We forgot to score the second goal,” Rep said.
“I didn’t mind if we only won 1-0, as long as we humiliated them,” Holland’s Willem van Hanegem recalled. The Dutch, much to the detriment of the national psyche, wouldn’t win 1-0. Holland’s passing pageantry lasted a little more than 20 minutes before midfielder Wim Jansen fouled West German winger Bernd Holzenbein – making a rare foray forward – inside the Dutch 18-yard box.
Those whose memories of the match are coloured with an orange hue may accuse Holzenbein of having dove, but regardless of whether he dove or not, to get into the dangerous position he had found himself in, Holzenbein had capitalised on slack Dutch defending.
Paul Breitner, a left-back with an impossible amount of hair and one of the more majestic moustaches football has ever seen, banged in the ensuing penalty. West Germany had equalised and the Dutch would never recover.
Attacking with newfound ferocity, the host nation drowned the Netherlands under waves of pressure. Holland’s rhythm had vanished. This was in part because West Germany’s right-back Berti Vogts, in an epic exhibition of man-marking, followed, harassed, and ultimately nullified the great Cruyff. Two minutes before half-time, West Germany made their dominance count with a Gerd Muller goal that Dutch keeper Jan Jangled couldn’t even lift a limb to try and stop. Muller’s strike gave West Germany a 2-1 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
At their best, Michels’ 1974 Dutch team played with a mechanised grace that featured just the right amount of individual, human expression. Against West Germany, the desire to embarrass their opponents perhaps made Holland too human. “They were trying to humiliate the Germans,” Dutch TV commentator Herman Kuiphof later reflected. “That’s stupid against the German national team in their own country…playing in the final, you cannot underestimate them. The Dutch did that.”
All life is a number
Eliminating the human element from football may not have explicitly been Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s aim as a manager, but the legendary (and legendarily gruff) Dynamo Kyiv and USSR boss seemed to enjoy numbers far more than he enjoyed people. “All life is a number,” he once opined, succinctly summarising his worldview.
Lobanovskyi was an irrefutably deep thinker, and his efforts to whittle sport down to binary code decades before Moneyball was even a book – let alone a movie and a buzzy catchphrase – were impressive. Ironically, though, as a player himself, Lobanovskyi had a fondness for the kinds of dribbles and tricks that he so often sought to eradicate from the teams he managed.
Don’t assume, however, that Lobanovskyi wasn’t an analytical player. In 1961, after helping Dynamo Kyiv win their first Soviet Top League championship (the first Soviet Top League championship to be won by a club outside of Moscow), Lobanovskyi and a pair of his teammates paid what was intended to be a jubilant visit to the Science and Research Institute of the Construction Industry.
“Yes, we have won the league,” Lobanovskyi said, speaking to Kyivan scientist and amateur football player, Volodymyr Sabaldyr. “But so what? Sometimes we played badly. We just got more points than other teams who played worse than us. I can’t accept your praise as there are no grounds for it.”
When Sabaldyr asked how it felt to have achieved something Kyivans had dreamed about for ages, Lobanovskyi replied, ‘a realised dream ceases to be a dream.’ If Albert Camus himself hadn’t spent time as a goalkeeper, Lobanovskyi may have had a claim at being football’s first existentialist.
“What is your dream as a scientist? Your degree? Your doctorate? Your post-doctoral thesis?” Lobanovskyi demanded of Sabaldyr, switching from interviewee to interviewer.
“Maybe,” Sabaldyr responded. “But a real scientist dreams about making a contribution to scientific development, about leaving his mark on it.
“And there you have your answer,” Lobanovskyi said.
A collection of believers
The quarrelsome side of Lobanovskyi’s personality was prevalent even in his playing days. Whist playing under the visionary Viktor Maslov (Maslov is credited as the inventor of the 4-4-2 formation) at Dynamo, Lobanovskyi would incessantly feud with his coach over tactics. The hostility between the two became so bad that Lobanovskyi would eventually depart the club he had known since the age of 18 in 1964.
After leaving Dynamo, Lobanovskyi briefly played for Chornomorets Odesa and Shakhtar Donetsk but was growing increasingly disillusioned with the sport. His mind and the football he was being asked to play were not in harmony.
“It is impossible to play as we do,” Lobanovskyi wrote of his time at Shakhtar in his autobiography, Endless Match. “It is impossible to rely on luck or accidents in modern football. It is necessary to create the ensemble, a collective of believers who subordinate themselves to the common playing idea.”
Aged just 29, Lobanovskyi decided to end his playing career. Briefly, he considered working in plumbing but wisely decided to take an offer to manage second-division side Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in 1969. By 1972, Lobanovskyi had Dnipro in the Soviet Top Flight where he would guide the club to a surprising sixth-place finish. This caught the eye of his former club, Dynamo. The collectivist footballing dream rattling around inside Lobanovskyi’s head was about to be made a reality through a trailblazing application of data.
Named Dynamo manager in October 1973, Lobanovskyi immediately outlined clear roles for his staff. Essentially, a four-pronged approach was established. The actual day-to-day coaching on the training ground was to be handled by Lobanovskyi’s former teammate from his Dynamo playing days, Oleg Bazylevych. “Informational support” – basically, the role of collecting data – was to be overseen by Mykhaylo Oshemkov. Data collection is commonplace throughout the world’s elite clubs today but was an extraordinarily novel concept in the early 1970s (and – despite the success, Lobanovskyi would enjoy – would remain a novel concept for quite a while). Meanwhile, Anatoliy Zelentsov was placed in charge of fitness and Lobanovskyi himself would focus on crafting the team’s tactics.
Energy conservation was an obsession at Dynamo. Zelentsov developed a system where a computer would analyse each area of the pitch, which allowed for the speed of individual players to be tracked and provided insight as to how much time players were spending in specific areas. In addition to letting Lobanovskyi see how well his players were adhering to his tactics, the information was vital in assessing their fitness levels.
Lobanovskyi understood that it’s impossible for players to exert maximum energy across an entire campaign. Dynamo regularly lost late-season matches when they’d already had the title clinched. Why waste energy when the prize has already been won? They were also notorious for drab away performances where they would only seek a draw – saving their best performances (and energy) for their home matches. Lobanovskyi knew it was far more costly to drop points at home than it was to drop them away.
Matches were analysed in previously unseen detail. For example: passes were broken down into categories. There were short, medium, and long passes, as well as forwards, sideways, and backwards passes. Tackles, interceptions, and runs with the ball were also tracked. Eventually, Lobanovskyi would set pre-match targets for specific actions based on Dynamo’s opponents.
Force the opponent to make a mistake
As malleable as Dynamo were, there were certain recurring progressive characteristics to their play. Sure, Lobanovskyi’s team could sit deep and take the excitement out of a match, but Dynamo could also press up high in the opposition’s half and wreaking havoc in a way not dissimilar to what was taking place at Ajax. Like Michels, Lobanovskyi wanted his players to make the pitch as wide as possible whilst in possession, and shrink the space available to the opposition when the ball was lost.
“You have to go forward in such a way and with such a range of attacking options that it will force the opponent to make a mistake,” Lobanovskyi said. “In other words, it’s necessary to force the opponent into the condition you want them to be in. One of the most important means of doing that is to vary the size of the playing area.”
Forcing mistakes from the opposition, attacking with a range of options, varying the size of the playing area – Lobanovskyi’s words wouldn’t sound out of place in a speech from Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola. Despite his cold, clinical reputation, modern football’s most vibrant attacking sides owe a great deal to Lobanovskyi.
Domestic dominance came quickly for Lobanovskyi and Dynamo, as the Soviet Top League was won in 1974 and 1975. Success in Europe also didn’t take long to arrive. Dynamo triumphed 3-0 in the 1975 Cup Winners Cup final against Hungarian-side Ferencvaros, which set up a showdown with Bayern Munich in the 1975 European Super Cup.
Featuring key contributors from West Germany’s 1974 World Cup-winning team, Bayern were stout opposition. Across the Super Cup’s two legs, however, Lobanovskyi’s team proved superior. Dynamo won the first leg 1-0 in Munich and then, in front of a crowd of 100,000, won the second leg 2-0 in Kyiv. Oleg Blokhin, the all-time leading goal scorer for both Dynamo and the Soviet Union, scored all three goals.
Dynamo and Bayern met again in the quarterfinals of 1977’s European Cup. In their book, The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models, Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov outlined their strategy against the Germans.
“The play,” the duo explained, “was constructed on attacking actions, with the obligatory neutralization of the opponent’s players, the intention being to deprive him playing space and to defend against the attacks from wide at which Bayern were so strong. The objective was a draw, but we ended up losing 1-0. In the match in Kyiv, we chose a playing model based on squeezing the play and fighting for the ball in our opponents’ half of the pitch, trying to create a numerical advantage in various areas. Eventually, we won 2-0.”
Game plans as intricate as the ones Lobanovskyi and his team of data crunchers were concocting required total dedication from players. Lobanovskyi wouldn’t tolerate anything less than complete sublimation to his system, and strove for what he referenced as ‘universality.’ This meant defenders had to attack and attackers had to defend. Players would regularly swap positions. Sound familiar? Lobanovskyi had developed his own brand of total football. Whether a player was ostensibly designated as an attacker or defender didn’t matter. Possession was what was important. If Dynamo had the ball, their players attacked; if not, they defended.
Until the end of Lobanovskyi’s first spell with the club in 1982, Dynamo were relentless. The Soviet Top League was again won in 1977, 1980, and 1981. Considering his success and the synergy his collectivist ideals had with socialist philosophy, it’s not surprising that Lobanovskyi was eventually given the reins to the Soviet national team.
I do the thinking for you
Between 1975 and 1990, Lobanovskyi would take charge of the Soviet Union’s national team on three separate occasions (during the first and third of these spells, Lobanovskyi balanced national team duties with his Dynamo commitments).
Despite claiming the bronze medal at the 1976 Olympics, Lobanovskyi’s first stint as Soviet manager was deemed a disappointment because, in the words of Zelentsov (who joined Lobanovskyi’s national team staff), ‘we were applying scientific methods to players who were semi-amateurs, and that led to conflict.’ Lobanovskyi and his staff left the national team after the tournament.
Brought back to oversee the Soviet Union’s efforts to qualify for Euro 1984, Lobanovskyi and his team would become the victims of an unfortunate refereeing decision. The Soviet Union were leading their qualification group heading into the final match against Portugal, in Lisbon. Heartbreak ensued, however, when Portugal were incorrectly awarded a penalty for a foul that took place outside the penalty area. Rui Jordao converted from the spot for the match’s only goal, which meant Portugal qualified for the Euros, and Lobanovskyi was out again as Soviet manager.
Prior to appointing Lobanovskyi for the third time, the Soviet Union assigned Dinamo Minsk boss, Eduard Malofeev, national team coaching duties in 1984. Malofeev and Lobanovskyi couldn’t have viewed football more differently.
Winners of the Soviet Top League in 1982 (narrowly edging Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo by a single point), Malofeev’s Dinamo Minsk were practitioners of what Malofeev called “sincere football.” Malofeev’s assistant, Gennadiy Abramovich, described sincere football in Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid as, ‘honest football…no causing injuries, no bumping, no barging: just kicking the ball…attacking, pure football. Football of the heart, not of the head.’
Lobanovskyi wasn’t a fan. “In my life, I have seen many things, but never sincere football,” Abramovich recalled Lobanovskyi saying of Malofeev’s approach.
Malofeev was deeply concerned with what was going on in his players’ minds. Goalkeeper Mikhail Vergeenko remembered him looking into players’ eyes before matches, ‘searching to discover something.’ Lobanovskyi, on the other hand, didn’t exactly encourage players to challenge themselves cognitively. “If [Lobanovskyi] gave an instruction, and the player said: ‘But I think…’ Lobanovskyi would look at him and scream: “Don’t think! I do the thinking for you,” former Dynamo player, Oleksandr Khapsalys, said.
Ultimately, Malofeev produced mixed results for the Soviet national team. A tumultuous qualifying campaign for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico saw the Soviet Union only win one of their first five qualification matches. The team rebounded to win the final three matches of qualification and secure a place in Mexico, but on the eve of the tournament, a decision was made to replace Malofeev – with Lobanovskyi.
Sincerity made way for science. The Soviets topped their group at Mexico 1986 but were defeated in extra time by Belgium in the round of 16. Lobanovskyi impressed enough, though, to be retained as Soviet manager through the next major tournament: Euro 1988.
Greek philosopher Epicurus, noted for celebrating the joys of modest living, once said ‘be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance.’ Perhaps that’s the key to success in football: striking a balance between the conflicting styles of Malofeev and Lobanovskyi – a little bit of the heart and a little bit of the head. You know, moderation? Embrace moderation and the joys of football will be yours.
That’s a nice thought, but football has no blueprint. There’s no magic formula that yields a 100 per cent success rate. If there was, Lobanovskyi and Michels – in all of their meticulousness – would have certainly found it. Football is beguiling but beautiful. In fact, it’s beautiful because it’s beguiling. Lobanovskyi, Michels and the Euro 1988 final are proof.