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Hammersmith, London, United Kingdom
I'm a director of Maidenhead United Football Club. For ten seasons one of my roles at the club was to produce the match programme. The aim of this blog was to write football related articles for publication in the match programme. In particular I like to write about the representation of football in popular culture, specifically music, film/TV and literature. I also write about matches I attend which generally feature Maidenhead United.

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Men Who Made Modern Football #19 - Rinus Michels

At the risk of hagiography this week I will continue to look at the development of the Dutch game and its wider impact. However following pieces on Reynolds, Buckingham and Happel, I will this time focus on a Dutch native. Rinus Michels was the man who not only exploited some of the greatest footballing talents the Netherlands has ever produced but also led them to their greatest triumphs.
Michels had a long playing career with Ajax in the post war years, playing 15 years as a striker noted for his strength rather than his flair.  During a period which saw the Dutch game make the transition to professional status he won the title and five caps.
His coaching career began in the amateur ranks before returning to Ajax as Vic Buckingham's (TMWMMF #17) replacement in 1965. In six years he transformed a struggling team into one that would win four titles, three cups (including two doubles) and finally a European Cup, a period which saw the word Ajax become a byword for intelligence and modernity.
The success and critical acclaim was due to his system of Totaalvoetbal (Total Football). This was a culmination of the pioneering ideas of the Austro-Hungarian school and the influence of Jack Reynolds and Vic Buckingham to create a 'carousel' style of play summed by defender Wim Rijsbergen as "The defenders went forward, the forwards came back. We played football. He even used the goalkeeper as a libero, playing outside the area."
However although Michels was anti-catenaccio he was very much an architect who painstakingly planned then trained his players relentlessly, borrowing from Herrera the idea of the 'retiro' training camp to embed his ideas. His players had to be able to switch to any role in the team at any time depending on the situation of the game, and thus had to be technically and physically supreme. This led to his nickname of the 'General' a label reinforced by his comment: "Professional football is something like war. Whoever behaves too properly, is lost."
This was reflected by winger Sjaak Swart who said: "We did everything with the ball. At the beginning of the season we had one week of very hard training: five training sessions a day. It was like a military camp."
Central to his philsophy was the creation and utility of space. Applying the Dutch concept of maakbaarheid, of shaping and controlling your environment, he prioritised tactics such as overlapping full backs and strikers dropping deep to retrieve the ball, to live up to his maxim that “space is important in football, but Dutch space is different.
His relationship with his best player Johann Cruyff was intrinsic to his success. Cruyff was just 18 when Michels took over at Ajax and their careers progressed hand in hand for the next decade.  Notionally a centre forward, Cruyff would roam wherever he saw the best opportunity to exploit his opponents’ weakness. This required his team mates to mould their game around him, taking up the position he was leaving. Cruyff was Michel's voice on the pitch defender Barry Hulshoff explained that he: "always talked about where people should run and where they should stand, and when they should not move. It was about making space, coming into space, and organizing space-like architecture on the football pitch".

The system was not perfected overnight. It required evolution through collaboration. Thrashing Bill Shankly's Liverpool 5-1 in the second round first leg of the 1966/67 European Cup revealed its attacking potential but a 4-1 defeat in the 1969 final to AC Milan showed its defensive shortcomings. 

This led to the signing of box to box midfielder Johan Neeskens in 1970 and a year later Michels had led Ajax to their first European Cup victory. 

He then elected to again follow in Vic Buckingham’s footsteps by taking over at Barcelona leaving Romanian coach Stefan Kovacs to build on his foundations in Amsterdam and lead de godenzonen to become the second club to win three consecutive European Cups.

Cruyff arrived at Camp Nou in 1973 and now reunited with his star player, Michels led Barcelona to their first Spanish title first since 1960. He then spent the summer with the Dutch national team at the World Cup in West Germany. 

With Cruyff in the ascendant, Holland stunned the world with their revolutionary style of play, defeating Argentina and holders Brazil to reach the final with five wins and one draw, conceding just the one goal.

It appeared that Michels’ team had reached perfection when they took the lead against the hosts after just eighty seconds of the final without a single German player touching the ball. However Cruyff's influence was progressively stifled by the man marking of Berti Vogts, allowing a midfield led by Franz Beckenbauer to gradually  dominate, overturning the early Dutch lead to win 2-1.

Michels spent the rest of the 70s with second spells in charge at Ajax and Barcelona and a brief stay in the US with Cruyff at LA Aztecs. In the early 80s he moved to West Germany to manage FC Koln before returning to the helm of the Dutch national team in time for the 1988 European Championships.

Again leading his nation to a finals hosted by the Germans, his squad featured the prodigious talent of Ruud Gullitt, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. In the semi-final Michels took his revenge for 1974 by beating West Germany, a win laden with wider national symbolism. They then went on to win the Netherlands only trophy to date by beating the USSR 2-0 in the final with unforgettable goals from Gullitt and Van Basten.

Michels finished his club career at Bayer Leverkusen in 1989 then had one last stint with the Dutch national team at Euro 92 which ended in semi-final defeat to eventual winners Denmark.
Named FIFA's coach of the 20th century he was the master of total football which would go on to be moulded by his protégé Cruyff into the tiki-taka style that would win Barcelona and Spain garlands galore.

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