Hiddink brings back memories of Kiev, not Cruyff
Sunday 22 June 2008
Simply wearing orange doesn't make you brilliant. They may wear the same colour shirts, but that is where the similarity between Marco van Basten's Holland and the Dutch team of the early Seventies ends. Not only was this never a team that played Total Football, but their exit came against a side who are far closer to the Rinus Michels ideal than they ever were.
As they played the Dutch into submission, Russia produced a performance that will echo through posterity. They were brilliant in beating Sweden but it was only Sweden. This was a superb performance, buzzing with character, flair and technical excellence against a team that had beaten the two World Cup finalists in the group stages. It was, simply, stunning.
It was mightily impressive too how they recovered from the blow of conceding to Ruud van Nistelrooy four minutes from time. Other sides might have folded, but Russia – for all their reputation for mental weakness – simply came again. Where a wobble might be expected, they produced 30 minutes more of their scintillating interplay: 3-1 barely did them justice.
This was fluency, and all the claims that had been made for the Dutch were exposed. The switch to 4-2-3-1, made in the autumn, left Holland playing with what the Italians would call a "broken team", with the two holding midfielders, Orlando Engelaar and Nigel de Jong, sitting in front of the back four, and the front four left to forage on their own. There is little movement between defensive and attacking zones.
Russia are rather truer to that great attacking tradition, but the association is not entirely comfortable. For one thing, Total Football was very much of its time. It was as devastating as it was not merely because of the technical qualities of the players involved, but because Michels's sides were among the first in the world to press the opposition in possession. They made a conscious effort to manipulate space in a way that was almost unique.
Not entirely unique, though, for pressing was pioneered under the Muscovite Viktor Maslov at Dynamo Kiev in the Sixties. That tradition was then developed by Valeriy Lobanovsky, and his way of doing things soon became the Soviet style. It is that school, as much as the Dutch one, of which the present Russians are the modern incarnations.
It may be that Guus Hiddink, having grown up in a similar tradition, is more attuned to Russian football than other foreigners would be – and it is probably no coincidence that another Dutchman, Dick Advocaat, has been successful with Zenit St Petersburg – but he has not implanted the Dutch model on the steppe.
One of the greatest fallacies of football history is the idea that Dutch football of the early Seventies was all about self-expression while Lobanovsky's Dynamo Kiev were some kind of mechanistic monster.
Lobanovsky, admittedly, imposed a style upon his squad, while Michels was the overseer of the organic development of hugely talented players who had played together for so long they came to have an almost preternatural understanding of one another's game, but the principles of both were the same. Dynamo and Ajax both played a high offside line, both pressed the opposition in possession and thrived on rapid passing and interchange of positions. Fundamentally, both were about the performance of individuals within the system.
Russia were not quite as impressively fluent as they had been on Wednesday, but then Holland are a rather better side than the dull, muscular Swedes. Still, though, there were flurries of the sort of breathtaking fluidity that had Russian commentators comparing their movement of the ball to the "clap, clap" rhythm of the great Soviet ice-hockey teams.
Yuri Zhirkov and Alexander Anyukov overlapped constantly from full-back, while at the centre of it all, coaxing and cajoling, was the playmaker, Andrei Arshavin. It is hard to believe any individual since Michel Platini 20 years ago has had such an influence over a game at this level.
Inevitably, when the breakthrough Russia had threatened for most of the first half arrived, Arshavin was the instigator. His ball to Sergei Semak, making a charge down the left, was perfectly weighted, but what made it special was the slight delay, the pause that ensured the holding midfielder had only to look up and square for Roman Pavlyuchenko to score.
It was Zenit's Arshavin who then dragged Russia forward again in extra-time, his runs spreading confidence through the white shirts as they spread panic through the orange. It was inevitable that it would be his cross which laid on the second for Dmitry Torbinsky, and then merely fitting that he should fire the goal that sealed it.
In the midst of the movement and all the passing, he was the central intelligence, cajoling, coaxing, directing. As Norman Mailer wrote of Muhammad Ali's genius, it is not the big punch that knocks opponents out but rapid and accurate combinations. Lobanovsky would have approved.
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