Tactics: Were Holland 1974 the last true innovators?

“The only team I’ve seen that did things differently was Holland at the 1974 World Cup in Germany. Since then everything looks more or less the same to me…. Their ‘carousel’ style of play was amazing to watch and marvellous for the game.”

The words are those of Carlos Alberto, captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning team, and they come from an interview published in the 50th anniversary issue of World Soccer magazine. The former Santos right-back is one of a number of greats – including Pelé, Bobby Charlton, Franz Beckenbauer and Diego Maradona – to have granted interviews to the magazine about the changes in the game over the last 50 years and their answers repeatedly return to the same complaints: that in becoming faster and more athletic, football has lost some of the artistry that was once central to its raison d’être.

The case for Holland’s 1974 team being the last truly innovative international side is certainly a persuasive one. Rarely before and never since has a squad arrived at a World Cup and unleashed a completely fresh approach to the game upon the tournament. One need only look at the bewildered responses of the Uruguay players during Holland’s opening game – a 2-0 win in the group phase – to realise how bewildering their manipulation of space, exchanging of positions and magnificently aggressive offside trap must have seemed:

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But were Rinus Michels’s team the only pioneers of the last 40 years? It’s impossible to say. The 3-5-2 system that took Argentina to glory in Mexico in 1986 was certainly innovative and there have been plenty of influential tactical tweaks since, not least in the way France swept to victory in 1998 despite playing with a lone striker – Stéphane Guivarc’h – who famously failed to contribute even a single goal.

The accusation that football has lost some of its artistry is easier to accept. Footage of the languid way Brazil stroked the ball around on the way to their era-definining 1970 triumph suffices to illustrate that the game was once played with a greater degree of deliberation and wit. Spain’s success in South Africa this summer was a victory for elaborate, passing football but the quality of play in general was a crushing disappointment and the Netherlands’ brutal display in the final was a grotesque betrayal of their predecessors’ principles.

If anyone can lift the gloom it is surely Brazil. No other country defines itself so much by what it achieves in the World Cup and in 2014, on home soil, they will have the perfect opportunity to re-gild the sport that they have lifted to such heights in the past. Mano Manezes has made an encouraging start to his tenure at the helm of the Seleção, winning his first three friendly games and handing opportunities to burgeoning talents such as Milan’s Alexandre Pato, the Santos pairing of Neymar and Ganso and Internazionale’s 18-year-old attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho. Anyone who yearns for a return to the more characterful football of previous World Cups will hope that his courage does not desert either him or his supporters in the four years ahead.

13 Responses to “Tactics: Were Holland 1974 the last true innovators?”

  • Aguilera:

    Hello, Tom.

    I can’t agree with you when you point out that Bilardo’s Argentina invented the 3-5-2. Not even at a World Cup level. I think 1982 West Germany displayed that system, even in a more orthodox way if we take on account that Maradona was one of those two forwards.

    West Germany against France in the classic semifinal match: Schumacher; Stielike (sweeper), K-H Förster and B Förster (centre backs); Breitner and Dremmler (holding midfielders), Kaltz and Briegel (long full backs, carrileros), Magath (playmaker); Littbarski (second forward) and Fischer (striker).

    • Tom:

      Thanks for your comment Aguilera. I think you’re right that West Germany had already used a version of the 3-5-2 formation in 1982, but I didn’t say that Argentina had invented the system. What was innovative about the way Argentina played was not the mere fact they set themselves up in a 3-5-2 but the way they adapted the shape to give as much attacking freedom as possible to Maradona.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Daniel, Goal Control, Adam Fraser, Mohamed Moallim, Tom Williams and others. Tom Williams said: Blog – Tactics: Were the great Dutch side of 1974 football's last true innovators? http://bit.ly/c2u8sN [...]

  • Aguilera:

    If that was your point, then I have to agree with you. Though I think that’s only a “detail” compared to Rinus Michels’ “ouvre”.

    It’s rather difficult to be innovative in a World Cup, were coaches have no time to work and tend to be quite conservative. The latest tactical innovations are mostly seen at club level (eg: FC Barcelona).

    Congratulations for your website.

    @aguilera79

  • anon:

    man, uruguay was a dirty team even in the 1970s!

    • Kári Tulinius:

      It’s not just Uruguay who were reduced to foul play. Reigning champions Brazil were possibly even dirtier and more bewildered than Uruguay.

      Though, to the larger point, yes, this past decade has been fairly boring tactically. I wonder if it’s because managers don’t stay with the same group of players for very long. Aimé Jacquet worked for the national team from 1991, taking over as manager in 1994. The French team that won in 1998 was a group that Jacquet had worked with for years at that point. I don’t think it’s possible to exhibit the kind of tactical mastery Jacquet did without that kind of complete knowledge of your players and how they work together. Michels had the same advantage in 1974, having practically raised most of the Dutch team when he was the head coach at Ajax from 1965-71. Nowadays, with short-term managerial appointments and national teams being drawn from a much more geographically dispersed pool of players, I don’t know if that’s possible. I think that Spain this year is a casualty of that. Vicente del Bosque took over Aragonés’ team, and clearly didn’t know them as well as Aragonés had, which I think goes some way towards explaining why they were so much less exciting at the World Cup than they were at Euro 2008.

      • Tom:

        Spain were less impressive than at Euro 2008, yes, but they were just as effective, and I think that has to go down to the presence of so many Barcelona players in the team. What enabled Spain to win the World Cup without ever really setting the competition on fire was the fact they had so many players versed in ‘the Barcelona way’ – just like Holland with their Ajax contingent in 1974.

        If you look at the 14 players who played for Spain in the World Cup final, six were current Barcelona players, Cesc Fabregas came through the Barcelona youth system and David Villa had already agreed to join them. They may not have all played together for years and years, but their familiarity with a certain style of play enabled Vicente del Bosque to successfully oversee a smooth transition from the Luis Aragones era in a relatively short period of time.

  • [...] “The words are those of Carlos Alberto, captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning team, and they come from an interview published in the 50th anniversary issue of World Soccer magazine. The former Santos right-back is one of a number of greats – including Pelé, Bobby Charlton, Franz Beckenbauer and Diego Maradona – to have granted interviews to the magazine about the changes in the game over the last 50 years and their answers repeatedly return to the same complaints: that in becoming faster and more athletic, football has lost some of the artistry that was once central to its raison d’être.” (Football Further) [...]

  • Seybold:

    Six players caught offside? Multiple times? Unbelievable.

  • eriol11:

    The video is of the offensive chances, but I want to see the defence in practice. It looks more like rugby with far more than five players running forward in unison. Thanks for this, especially as a fan who has grown up with two banks of four or the partnership of the two centre-halfs + the double pivot, so I found this refreshing.

    As for the world champions, I didn’t care much for them, but this might have just been a reaction to the silliness surrounding Cesc, but possession football (to me) is at it’s most successful when it’s done with a sense of adventure like Arsenal at their best or Russia in the Euros. Germany and Chile (so that’s a second to Aregin’s comment) were more pleasing in this way. As for Holland vs. Spain–it was simply a match made in some sick heaven–a team that fouled freely vs one that one that went down easily.

  • John:

    I think Holland were not just a different “style” of team, they were also extensively physically fitter than most other teams at that time. Their naivety and casual “we can stroll this” attitude in the 74′ final was their undoing; they had 74′ in their hands before the opening ceremony and all the other teams (including Germany) knew it.

    Players in the Holland national team in’74 moved better than their opponents because they were involved behind the scenes, in advanced training and endurance, Rinus was a master of endurance and application.

    It’s one thing to play and look good on the pitch, but for every minute of “time” on the ball, there has undoubtedly been a huge devotion to overall fitness, no team would dare play like that if they knew tactically they could be undone. To do what Holland did in 74′ is unthinkable in 2011, even in club football. However, they proved you can still revolutionise football in the modern game.

    The only way football, or soccer, could be ruined or invalidated (based on the history of skill and devotion from all footballers), is if they changed the rules…….

  • danny:

    I agree with you view. I was 18 and playing active football when Holland played in the 1974 WC e we all though we had seen the messiah. I believe that they have been the best team ever. Compare them for a moment with today’s Spain. For all their technique and passing ability, Messi never drops back as a playmaker, or even a defender, marshalling the game from deep and ending in the goal box to finish the move like Cruyiff used to do. More so, no team has ever, or since, let their defenders create attacking moves anywere on the field, like Surbieer, Krol, Van Haneghen, Rjisbergen, who were often seen playing as right, left or central strikers at will simultaneously, while attackers would drop for cover as deep as their own penalty area. I am tempted to think that the 1974 Holland team have been a one-off outfit never to be replicated again. Just think that we are commenting a performance of more than 40 years ago!! That was football made in heaven. What’s more, unlke Spain, they were never boring.

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