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Perfect art of football science

Simon O'Hagan analyses the reasons for Holland's thrilling victory over the Republic
TO THOSE of us privileged to watch the Dutch and Irish teams train on the night before their European Championship play-off last week, there was never much doubt as to what the outcome of the match would be.

This is not to denigrate the methods of the Irish, who long ago worked out what their strengths were and have played to them with a single-mindedness that one can only admire. And as Tony Cascarino will tell you, they were not far away from equalising against the Dutch. But the respective ways in which the two teams chose to use their allotted hour at Anfield on Tuesday evening was instructive to say the least.

The Dutch had first use of a pitch which one might have thought they would have more need to familiarise themselves with than their opponents. In fact, they remained for most of their session within an area comprising roughly an eighth of the playing surface - from the goal-line to the half- way line lengthwise, and from the touchline to the near edge of the penalty area across.

Within this space an eight-a-side match unfolded of bewildering speed and intricacy. Passing, movement, ball control - all had to be, and were, effected with the utmost precision. This was not a football pitch but a laboratory.

When the Irish turned up later their approach was rather different. They, too, played a match among themselves, but used the entire pitch to do so. Energetic, apparently unfocused, they may have succeeded in getting a feel for the ground but they never remotely suggested that the sport they were playing had much relation to the one the Dutch players had been engaged in.

As an awestruck football world well knows now, the sophisticated ideas that lie behind the best Dutch football are instilled at an early age. At Ajax, European champions and the club from which Holland drew eight of their men against the Republic of Ireland last Wednesday, teams of nine-year-olds are brought up - on full-size pitches - to adhere to the same principles as the adult first XI.

"Every boy knows what is being asked of him," Danny Blind, the 34-year- old Ajax and Holland captain, said last week. "I think a lot of credit must go to the coaches of these youngsters. Of course the boy must have qualities to begin with, but once he is with you he can be made better."

Given the tactical and technical superiority of the Dutch, it was ironic to hear Jack Charlton talk of the Irish team's failure to "press" their opponents in the apparent belief that this was a concept his team had invented. In fact, "pressing", one of the tactical cornerstones of the Dutch team of the 1970s, has always been the Ajax way, and was one of the few areas of contention between the Ajax-dominated Dutch team and the national manager, Guus Hiddink, when he took over earlier this year.

"When the opposition has the ball it's usual for the other team to go backwards," Blind explained. "The system of Ajax is more to put pressure on even when we don't have the ball. That was a problem because most coaches don't think like that. If you play like we do with a lot of space behind our defence it can be risky, but not if everybody is doing their job properly."

In many ways the Dutch manager is on, you might say, a Hiddink to nothing. If he is successful, much of the credit will go to Louis van Gaal, the Ajax coach. If he is not, he stands to carry the can alone. But, Blind says, Hiddink is very relaxed and recognises that the Ajax players in particular come ready-made and is happy to give them responsibility. He knows, too, that a team so young is unlikely to create the sort of internal strife that has been the downfall of the Dutch in the past.

"It's amazing what a 19-year-old like Patrick Kluivert can do," Blind said. " Of course you can have a lot of influence on young players. But don't get the wrong idea. They may be young but they have great personalities." Science, it would appear, is only half the story.