If the Netherlands teams of the 1970s were the 'Clockwork Oranje', then Rinus Michels was the genius watchmaker behind the machinery. A man of few words, this innovative thinker was the guiding hand behind the brilliance of Total Football's finest.
Born in 1928, Michels enjoyed a fine playing career, scoring 121 goals in 269 appearances for Ajax and appearing five times for the Dutch national team. It was after his subsequent step into coaching, however, that Michels truly made a name for himself - first on the European club scene with Ajax from 1965 to 1971 and then on the global stage with the Netherlands at the 1974 FIFA World Cup ™. Led on the pitch by the immaculate Johan Cruyff, the losing finalists were admired the world over for their style of play, which reflected Michels' belief in fostering both team coherence and individual imagination.
Though his coaching career also took him to the United States, Germany and most notably Spain, where he established a Dutch connection with Barcelona that still exists today, Michels is linked most closely to his hometown club Ajax and the Dutch national team. It was with those two that the 'total football' movement that he fostered would flourish in the late 1960s and early 70s.
When Michels was appointed Ajax coach on 22 January 1965, he took charge of a team embroiled in a battle against relegation. Within a few seasons he had turned them into European contenders and by 1971 they were crowned continental champions in what proved his last match at the helm. The team he built would go on to win two more consecutive European Cups but Michels - a bright and serious man, nicknamed 'The General' for his uncompromising manner - sought a new challenge in the heated world of Spanish football with Barcelona.
By that point Michels was well known for his emphasis on intelligent movement and versatility on the field. He won a league title with the forward-thinking Catalan club but, as the natural choice to lead the Netherlands at the FIFA World Cup in West Germany, it was with a different team that he made his definitive statement that same year.
The figure most closely associated with Michels' achievements is the magical Cruyff, the playmaker who put into effect his coach's ambitious game plan with his uncanny ability to read a match. Amid a kaleidoscopic shifting of players, switching in and out of defence and swarming about the ball, Cruyff was the on-field organiser who brought Michels' ideas to life. The pair worked together at Ajax and Barcelona, but it was with the Oranje, in Michels' first stint in charge at the age of 46, that Cruyff and a band of willing accomplices showed the world a new kind of football.
Ironically, not much was expected of the 1974 Netherlands team and Michels, appointed post-qualification, had only three friendly matches to prepare before the finals. However, a team comprised mostly of Ajax and Feyenoord players came together quickly under their new coach, who did a remarkable job building multifarious factions into a whole. They breezed through their opening group, beating Uruguay 2-0, drawing 0-0 with Sweden and then crushing Bulgaria 4-1. In the second group phase, the likes of Jonny Rep, Johan Neeskens and Rob Rensenbrink helped Cruyff demonstrate the gulf in class between Michels' side and rivals Argentina (4-0), East Germany (2-0) and even the holders Brazil (2-0).
Although the Netherlands fell 2-1 to hosts Germany in the final, they remain widely regarded one of the greatest teams never to have won a FIFA World Cup. If they had triumphed that famous day in Munich, that 1974 Dutch team would surely be uttered in the same breath as Brazil circa 1970.
Michels wrote later in his life about that fundamental task that he seemed to do so well: "It is an art in itself to compose a starting team, finding the balance between creative players and those with destructive powers, and between defence, construction and attack - never forgetting the quality of the opposition and the specific pressures of each match."
After the 1974 finals, Michels went back to his club career with Barcelona, though he never strayed too far from Ajax or the national team subsequently. Nor did he ever achieve as much elsewhere as he did with the Netherlands. In his four stints in charge, he coached the Dutch to 30 victories and 14 draws in 54 contests. Most remarkably he led an entirely new generation of players to European glory in 1988.
Michels gained a measure of revenge for 1974 when his side beat hosts West Germany 2-1 in the UEFA European Championship semi-final, en route to a 2-0 victory in the final over the Soviet Union. This new team featured a spine made up of the lethal Marco van Basten in attack, the magnificent Ruud Gullit in midfield and the composed duo of Frank Rijkaard and Ronald Koeman at the back.
Though he had mostly adapted his concept of 'Totaal Voetbal' to fit the times, Michels' team still featured skilled players all over the pitch and a commitment to playing creative attacking football. His decision to field Rijkaard and Koeman in the centre of defence was proof of that. A thankful world applauded appreciatively as the Dutch finally lifted their first major trophy under the watch of their 60-year-old coach.
Four years later, Michels almost repeated the trick, leading his team to the semi-final of the European Championship where they were only eliminated by tournament darlings Denmark in a penalty shootout. It was the final chapter of a compelling story.
Michels is best known for what are essentially the anti-tactics of Total Football, a strategy legendary for allowing players to adjust their positions and runs in order to exploit the space afforded them by the opposing team. His 1974 team ostensibly lined up in a 4-3-3 with Jonny Rep charging down the right flank and Rob Rensenbrink doing the same down the left. Charges from full-backs Wim Suurbier and Ruud Krol added further options in an attack that seemed to swell and recede at will, while Cruyff was given licence to roam the pitch looking for ways to unlock opposing teams. The key to Michels' concept was intelligent movement, understanding and fitness.