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Dutch ideology watermarked on World Cup 1-2-3

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Passing triangles is football's new 'old' direction

TODAY’S World Cup final between Spain and Netherlands will see an eighth champion enter the pantheon of greats. And in that, either or both of the men, who have masterminded their team’s run to the final, will be hailed as great managers and toasted across their respective countries.

It is all fair and good, since Bert van Marwijk and Vicente del Bosque are both fantastic managers and deserve to be lauded. But both men and the imperious Joachim Loew, whose Germany side made it into the semi-finals, will secretly owe a huge debt of gratitude to a poker-faced man in a leafy suburb in Munich.

And somewhere out there, Louis van Gaal will surely be toasting his ideology with a glass of the finest available champagne.

Louis van Gaal is the real winner of the World Cup

The image of van Gaal and his burning ideology is stamped like a watermark upon these teams. His shadow hangs heavy over all three and all have managed to make it into the final four of the biggest show on earth.

So what is this ideology? What do the Dutch, the Spanish and the Germans have in common, in this World Cup of contrasts?

The answer is that all three teams have an undying devotion to a common philosophy: The need to develop a culture of passing.

Over the course of the last month, much has been made about the spirit, fight and mental bottle of the teams that made it thus far. What has been consistently missed is that all three have an infallible commitment to a passing game that was first developed by Johan Cryuff and more universally applied by Louis van Gaal.

Consider just the players in the final equation. Van Gaal currently coaches Bayern Munich, a club who provided the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Phillip Lahm and Thomas Mueller to the tournament. And that is just from the Germany side. The Netherlands have Arjen Robben and Mark van Bommel, who work with van Gaal at Bayern and both have been irrepressible in this team.

And there is more. The Spanish have Xavi and Iniesta and both men received their big breaks under Louis van Gaal in his tenure at Barcelona.

On face value, these are all different players in different positions. But what they all have in common, is the unique van Gaal trait; the ability to pass the ball. Under van Gaal, nothing is more important than this. You don’t have to be physically domineering, or prodigiously skilled. Lahm, Xavi and Iniesta are all under six foot. Mueller is hardly the most skilled player in the world.

Individual brilliance too is strictly optional; for all of Robben’s selfish forays, his ability to make swift, sharp passes is one his biggest strengths. Under van Gaal, the rule is simple. If you can pass the ball, at speed over distances, you make his team.

The van Gaal catechism is simple to learn, but hard to master. Do not pass into a team-mate’s feet, it stresses, but always ahead of him to keep the ball moving. When the first man passes to the second man, the third man must already be moving into space ready for the second man’s pass.

In short, football is about making swift passing triangles, over and over again.

Which is why kids at Ajax, Barcelona and now Bayern Munich are stuck in eternal games of four on four; two touches allowed.

It is a formula stereotypically identified as Dutch. And it is true that the Dutch pioneered it, but the Spanish perfected it and the Germans have just recently partaken it.

Van Gaal’s (and for that matter Johann Cryuff’s) influence over the biggest clubs in these countries is well documented. He oversaw the great explosion of Dutch talent from Ajax, perfected Johan Cryuff’s university of passing at Barcelona and at Bayern this season revolutionised their structure of play. On the way, he tweaked things here and there, but the basic remained the same.

And Ajax is where half of these Dutch players got their start, and Barcelona and Bayern contribute the largest quota of players to the top four teams.

The metamorphosis between the three is such that German, Dutch and Spanish football has crossbred to become almost indistinguishable. The Germans pass like Holland in disguise. The Dutch defend and counter-attack like Germans used to. Spain play like Holland circa 2000.

Once the tournament ends, most reviews will focus on the biggest stars. Instead they could do to  focus on passing cultures. The Messis, the Ronaldos and the Kakas are all on holiday. And the top three sides all adhere to the ideology of one stony-faced Amsterdammer.

Anyone else doubt that Van Gaal deserves that toast?

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