Cruyff is widely considered to be one of the best football players ever. When assessed on his impact on football tactics as a coach and player, Cruyff might well be the Greatest Ever. For some, Willem van Hanegem was as important and as impressive as a player. His coaching career was a bit more tupsy turvy and Willem never won an international title with any of his teams, like JC.
Both impressed as players during the World Cup 1974. Cruyff was the face of the team, if you want. The talking point. The leader. The man with the spotlights on him. Behind him, Willem van Hanegem was the dreh-und-angelpunkt of the team. The time keeper. The game accelerator. The Sneijder/Zidane/Pirlo of the team. And according to some, Willem was even better than JC at that tournament.
Cruyff made quite an impression in Spain and the US as well. Willem never played for another European team outside of The Netherlands ( he played for AZ and FC Utrecht in the Eredivisie, apart from being a Feyenoord icon). Willem did play for Chicago Sting (with Dick Advocaat) in the US. Despite Willem’s limited exposure to other European countries, he has quite a reputation in South America and in England as a Dutch Master. The games Feyenoord played for the UEFA Cup III finals vs Spurs and the World Cup games Feyenoord played against South American opponents like Estudiantes made sure of this.
Cruyff and Van Hanegem are not the biggest mates off pitch. They were fierce rivals in their Ajax – Feyenoord active careers. And wonderful partners wearing the orange jersey. They have tremendous respect for one another. But JC was always too bossy and dominant for Willem’s liking and Willem was always too unpredictable and contrarian and untouchable for Johan’s liking.
So they never really kicked each other’s doors in with cake and coffee the way Wim Jansen and Cruyff were buddies, and the way Dick Advocaat and Willem van Hanegem were buddies.
But their football vision is scarily similar. I have had the prvilege of watching an interview with both ex-players in 1983. Holland was qualified (or so we thought) for the France 1984 Euro tournament. Spain only needed to play Malta and they needed eleven goals difference in order to beat Holland to it. The whole nation was convinced even Spain was not able to do so.
Not so, Willem and Johan. In an interview that got them to be ridiculed for a short span, they both declared that 1) Oranje would not go to the Euros as 2) Spain would find a way to score 11 times.
As we all know now: they were right. Whether the game was bribed or not, Spain scored enough goals to qualify. And both players who seemed cynical at the time of the interview appeared to be some sort of oracle.
Yesterday, both ex players were in the media again. And as if they rehearsed it: their message was quite clear.
Holland is struggling massively on the mental aspects of the game.
Willem van Hanegem was clearly disgusted with the lack of fight, passion and belief Twente started the game against Ajax. “If you have your last chance against the number one, and you come to work with this attitude, Ajax will butcher you.” He saw a couple of other games in the Eredivisie (Roda – RKC, a relegation match) and saw the same thing: players who appear to not being in the mood to play a game of football. Van Hanegem even made a point Tiju will like. Apparently Schaken is on his way out of De Kuip, hoping for bigger and better things. Willem believes Feyenoord schould immediately sign Romeo Castelen. The former Feyenoord and HSV Hamburg man impresses every weekend and at least demonstrates the will to battle and fight.
Van Hanegem also stressed that it is possible for coaches to take an existing team and raise their level. By working with focus and clear goals and a consistent vision. He praises Frank de Boer, but more so Pellegrini at Man City, Guardiola at Bayern and Simeone at Atletico. He – rightfully – claims that Guardiola took a team that was at its peak under Heynckes and made that team improve and perfect their game even more… So Willem basically challenged the Dutch coaches and asked them to analyse and consider the approach of these coaches and see if there is something there to learn from.
Cruyff went a step further, by saying we lack mental strength and shrewdness. Or “gogme” in good Amsterdam-yiddish speak. As soon as a club feels the pressure of “having to perform”, they succumb under the pressure. It happened to Feyenoord a number of times, PSV had it big time in the first season half. Vitesse and Twente have it now while Ajax even drew twice in a row after they saw their rivals switch off. There does not seem to be that killing mentality. Cruyff feels that whenever a club “would like to win” things are going alright but when that is changed into “having to win” the players show their weaknesses. “The players also lack a shrewdness. I call it the ability to read the game”, Cruyff lectures. “I saw a team playing an opponent with tall players. The opponent loves corner kicks. So you first try to do what you can to not give corners away. But if you do, make sure you keep 3 players up front, at least! This will put pressure on their defence and for sure, their coach will instruct to keep one or two big defenders at the back. Those are little tactical things players can do in order to outsmart the opponent.” In another example, Cruyff saw a goalie constantly using the long ball to connect with the tall center forward. “The defenders tracked back, every time the ball went to the goalie. Almost inviting him to kick the ball long! Wrong! What you need to do is go up field. Play higher. Make your defensive line around the mid way point. And play offside.” Cruyff believes logical thinking can only happen in an aware mind. Being sharp.
All this talk about our weaknesses…. happening after a weekend in which Ajax made their claim to the title pretty firmly. And it seems that Twente, Feyenoord and maybe PSV will battle for the second spot.
Another big talking point in The Netherlands is the Oranje selection. Van Gaal has told the media he is considering a Wild Card for a player who has not yet made an appearance in Oranje. Was Van Gaal taunting the media? Is he serious? Could it be Douglas? Or Virgil van Dijk? Or is it maybe Terence Kolongo, of Feyenoord? Or Zivkovic? The Groningen forward who recently signed for Ajax?
Who knows…. Only Van Gaal knows at this stage….
In the meantime, PSV coach Phillip Cocu has been treated for a benevolent tumor in his back. The debutant coach of PSV was suffering some back pain and scans pointed out there was a tumor. Frank de Boer will claim a lot of the headlines re: coaching in Holland. Clearly Advocaat, Erwin van der Looy, Peter Bosz and Marco van Basten can consider themselves to have performed well this season, while Lodeweges, Booij and Jans have done pretty good too with their smaller clubs. And Erwin Koeman might well be the best coach of them all, keeping RKC safe (for now, that is).
But Cocu also deserves a special mention. The former creative left winger turned into all round marathon man in midfield for PSV, Barca and Oranje has had a massive career as a player and was always seen as a potential top coach.
He did the PSV senior team for a spell and decided to go back to the youth system until he felt he was ready. This season was supposed to be his season. He did a lot of things right: he signed some pretty good players (Maher!) and he allowed some exciting youngsters to progress to the senior side. He made one big mistake – or two actually… He omitted to pick a more experienced and seasoned assistant coach ( like Rijkaard > Ten Cate and De Boer > Spijkerman) but instead gave his confidence to equally young and inexperienced Ernst Faber. Second mistake was that Ola Toivonen was allowed back into the squad. The Swede was a poisoned apple and was first banned from the dressing room but bad results forced Cocu (?) to take him back into the fold. That never works.
His start with PSV this season was quite extraordinary. The youngster played with two offensive midfielders ( Maher and Wijnaldum) and with Bakkali as winger on the right. PSV hit a drought however and this situation forced Cocu to abandon his Barca-vision for PSV. The two creative midfielders had to make way (Wijnaldum injured, Maher lost form) for more balanced options in midfield. And the midfield became Schaars, Park and Hiljemark. Park is still exceptional and Hiljemark will be a better Schaars for sure, but to play these three in midfield did bring some much needed consistency to the team but it also hurt the attractiveness of the game. Is this a needed step back for PSV? Or is this move away from Cocu’s vision basically a defeat and therefore a bad strategic decision?
Cocu was able to sign Ruiz – for a lot of money – in the winter break and with the Costa Rican, PSV has had a sensational series, bringing them back into the top 4 and most likely resulting in European football for PSV. A must, for sure.
But, there is another but… This move cost quite a lot of money and has blocked the development of a talent (Bakkali, Jozefzoon, Narsingh) by a player (Ruiz) who will not stay in Eindhoven this summer.
The former AZ and Vitesse winger did make a good decision in bringing back Hiddink to Eindhoven in a consultant role. A mentor. That was seen by a lot of people in Holland as a weak move by Cocu, but I think it was very strong of him to do so. It was probably Cocu admitting that he needed a more seasoned assistant coach to support him in his work. Hiddink is the ideal man of course as Guus and Phillip have a warm relationship and Cocu talked to Hiddink already before he was formally installed.
Ask Cocu what he would have changed in the first half of the season, looking back and he will answer with “not much”. He continues: “I wouldn’t have made other decisions or used another player. I made those decisison with reasons and these still stand. It’s more that I might try and change my approach. I do believe I have tried too much maybe. Tried to analyse too much, and fill the heads of the players with too much information. I might have overdone it at times.”
There is a lot of faith in Cocu, but did he ever lose sleep over losing his job? “No, never. I have lost sleep over the results, yes. That does work under your skin. But all that stuff about my job or about my future and all that… I can’t do a thing with that.”
How does Cocu explain the bad series in the first season’s half? “It’s like with anything. There are always multiple forces at work. We started really well. People started to call us title candidates! Ridiculous. We have such a young team. We also had to integrate a number of new lads. Then we lost Park, who is quite important for us, and Wijnaldum followed and we had key players dropping out at key moments. That never helps. And once the pressure is on and you end up in a losing streak, you know all can go against you. But we were never as bad as people tended to think. And now, in our winning ways, we are not even that good as people now claim… The learning curve was steep for most players and I am convinced all players will learn a lot from this particular period. And I think all in all, the supporters can be proud of their team. We have turned it around pretty good and I have seen certain players develop really well. Mind you, we have almost a totally new back four, goalie, midfield and half our attack is new. This is a new team that normally needs time to gel together. I am actually very proud of the lads.”
Hiddink will assume National Coach duties in July 2014. Cocu will have to find another mentor to support him. “We’ll see how we go with that. We don’t want to make hasty decisions. We want to finish this season in style. Securing European Football will be top priority.”
Cocu agreed with Cruyff and Van Hanegem and their criticism. “It’s funny, I was talking about that with Frank de Boer some time back… In 1998, we were close to winning the World Cup. We lost the semis. But we were already pleased to be in the semis. We didn’t really feel like we were supposed to win it… We were mentally not as strong as the 2010 squad. I can see this at PSV too. Some lads think – or thought – they had it made by simply reaching PSV 1. I have to make them see that it only starts now….”