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World Cup 2010: Dutch were pioneers of Total Football, but after exporting it to Spain must now stop opponents at their own game

JUST because it's orange doesn't make it brilliant. There seems to be an assumption that every time the Netherlands take to the field they are duty-bound to channel the spirit of the Total Footballing sides of the early Seventies and an accompanying disappointment when they fail to do so.

The feeling is testament to just how strongly the likes of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Rob Rensenbrink imposed themselves on the consciousness of the world, but the expectation is absurd.

No team should have to live up to a template laid down almost 40 years ago, and although there have been many attractive Dutch sides since, it may be that the Netherlands have been held back by the stylistic burden of the past. Just as the Dutch had laid it down, though, the mantle seems to have been seized by Spain.

Even the term Total Football is often misused, dragged out to describe any attacking football, particularly when produced by the Dutch. It was used of Marco van Basten's side at the Euros two years ago when the Netherlands hammered Italy and France in quick succession, but that was essentially a counter-attacking team. Total Football, in its purest form, was pro-active, not reactive, based on the interchange of position and hard pressing. The idea was that the pitch should be made as big as possible when in possession, and as small as possible when out of possession, squeezed by a high offside line.

The prefix "total", which came to be applied to voetbal after the 1974 World Cup, was current across a range of disciplines. The architectural theorist JB Bakema spoke of "Total Urbanisation", "Total Environment" and "Total Energy". "To understand things," he said in a lecture given in 1974, "you have to understand the relationship between things… Once the highest image of interrelationship in society was indicated by the word "God" and man was allowed to use earth and universal space under condition that he should care for what he used. But we have to actualise this kind of care and respect since man came by his awareness nearer the phenomenon of interrelationship called the relation of atoms. Man became aware of his being part of a total energy system."

Total Football was a structuralist mode of play, players deriving their meaning, their significance, from their interrelationship with other players. Nothing was fixed; everything was fluid, to be negotiated on the pitch.

The modern Netherlands, which essentially features six players who defend, three who attack, and Dirk Kuyt running about, in which Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong barely move from their holding midfield berths in front of the back four, could hardly be more different in ethos. The irony is that it is the Netherlands' opponents in the final who are the modern incarnations of the Total Football ideal.

Spain are fluent, they press high up the pitch, and they prioritise possession above all else. That is natural, for this Spain team is largely based around Barcelona - at one point against Paraguay in the quarter-final, they had seven Barcelona outfielders on the pitch, plus Cesc Fabregas who was brought up in the Barcelona academy and may join them later in the summer - and Barca is, essentially, a Dutch team with a Dutch philosophy.

Rinus Michels, the godfather of Total Football, coach of Ajax from 1965-1971 and of the Netherlands at the 1974 World Cup, went there from Amsterdam, and implanted there his ideals. They were nurtured by the arrival of Cruyff and Neeskens, and cultivated further in the Nineties, first by Cruyff, who won four league titles and a European Cup as coach, and then by Louis van Gaal. He had reinterpreted the Ajax method for the modern game, winning the Champions League in 1995 with a staggeringly young team, many of whom he then took with him when he became Barcelona coach in 1997. Pep Guardiola was a player under both Cruyff and Van Gaal, and their influence is clear in his coaching.

To say technique is king is too simplistic, for Barcelona's players are not merely highly skilful footballers, but players brought up from an early age to receive the ball and lay it off quickly. They also, as they demonstrated in that astonishing first 20 minutes against Arsenal at the Emirates in the Champions League quarter-final, press with immense energy and discipline.

At times, perhaps, both Barcelona and Spain seem almost to be mesmerised by their own passing, to relish the ball for its own sake, and there again they reflect the Ajax team who won three successive European Cups from 1971-73, when they almost goaded their opponents by spinning great skeins of passing. It was the same approach, having taken a first-minute lead in the World Cup final against West Germany, the same desire, as Cruyff admitted, to "humiliate" their opponents, that led to their downfall. They didn't press home their early advantage and, a controversial penalty and a smart Gerd Mller finish later, they were behind and unable to recover.

Largely, though, the Dutch method worked: attrition by passing, wearing the opponents down until they make a mistake, just as Spain have done in winning each of their knock-out games in this competition 1-0.

Two years ago in the final of Euro 2008, they were widely praised for controlling the game against Germany having taken a first-half lead; they were just as much in control in last week's semi-final, and the fact that the goal didn't arrive until 17 minutes from time doesn't change that. Patience is one of this Spain's side's key assets.

After Barcelona lost to Internazionale in the Champions League semi-final, there was criticism that they didn't have a Plan B. That, though, was a one-off, freakish game against supremely disciplined opponents. Perhaps, in that second leg at Camp Nou, Barca would have benefited from having a player who could shoot potently from long range. Spain even have that - as the Dutch in the Seventies had Ruud Krol and Arie Haan - in Xabi Alonso, and in the first few minutes after half-time in the semi-final there seemed almost to be a conscious policy to tee him up.

Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, of course, are magnificent players, capable of turning any game, but the Dutch system is based largely around keeping it tight getting the ball to them and hoping their individual ability can make something happen.

The Netherlands have spent years finding their pro activity thwarted by the defensive machinations of others; this time it is they who are reactive and looking to counter a side that has emerged as the heirs of the great Dutch sides of the Seventies.zz

 
 
 

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