“I’ve felt respect for several Holland managers. But for one of them, there’s love.” The opening lines of Bert van Marwijk’s biography, just out, are surprisingly lyrical.
What follows is more prosaic, more in keeping perhaps with the Holland manager’s down-to-earth character and with his no-nonsense approach to the game. An approach which has led to such unprecedented successes for the national team.
Van Marwijk is indisputably the most successful coach in Dutch football history. Of the 46 matches played under his stewardship, only four ended in defeat. It was Van Marwijk who steered Holland to the 2010 World Cup finals. After a staggering string of 17 successive wins in international qualifiers, Holland found itself at the top spot of FIFA’s world rankings last summer.
Undoubtedly, Van Marwijk’s no-frills approach has paid off. And the country has come to respect and perhaps even love a manager who’s always kept his feet firmly on the ground. His message and his method are pretty straightforward, says Edwin Schoon, author of the biography’s most sizeable chapter, which analyses Van Marwijk’s football philosophy.
"He’ll never beat around the bush and that’s what he exudes to his players and his staff. They say, ‘After a while you know very well how far you can go and what you should never do. You’re fine as long as you stick to his rules. When you cross the line, though, you’re in trouble.’”
Schoon admits that he hadn’t expected Van Marwijk to be so methodical.
"He’s always trying very consciously to win support for his approach. He has this very simple mantra – "there is always a next game" – and he’s repeated it so many times now that it’s been internalised by his entire staff. Player, cook or physiotherapist – all have taken his philosophy on board. By constantly repeating his ideas, players and staff have come to radiate what he has in mind. And that ultimately produces the desired effect.”
Fast-paced collective attacking play, forward defending, optimal use of the spaces between the opponent’s defensive and midfielder lines, a rapid switch from attack to defence after losing possession - these are the key elements of modern Dutch football, Van Marwijk-style. It is not always beautiful, but often extremely effective.
"I think some people were quite disappointed by Holland’s performance at the 2010 World Cup," says Schoon. "The Dutch were famed for their elegant and adventurous football style. It’s our tradition and our philosophy."
But Van Marwijk always refers to the lesson of Euro 2008, when Holland thrashed world champions Italy and vice-world champions France in the group stage with an impressive display of skill and will.
"Everyone was euphoric, but then came the knock-out round and we were sent packing because we were not entirely with it. From day one, Van Marwijk has said, ‘I don’t want that again. I want our team to win even on a bad day.’ So he put winning before attractive play, and he’s hammered it home to his players, step by step, and incorporated it in his tactics by shoring up the defence."
Van Marwijk himself maintains he’s a big fan of attacking football. “When the game doesn’t sparkle, he blames the opponents who dig in to stop Holland in their tracks.”
Schoon hastens to add that football has changed markedly over the years. In today’s world, pure attacking play is no longer viable.
"Taking Barcelona as an example, Van Marwijk praises the defensive effort, the organised way of defence – an element he’s added to Holland’s style of play – and the coordination between the attackers when the opposing side have possession. Reacting quickly to losing the ball is essential too. These are all details that the general public may not notice, but they make all the difference. And, says Van Marwijk, I think eventually everyone will be happy if we win. "
Edwin Schoon expresses optimism about the upcoming European Championships in Poland and Ukraine:
"I am quite positive. Of course, I also regard Spain and Germany as top favourites, but so is Holland. I agree with Van Marwijk and his staff when they say that the number of injuries that the Dutch team may yet sustain could be decisive. But if everyone is fit, I sincerely believe that we can win this year’s European title."
Published by Voetbal International