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Aug 9, 2013

Greatest Managers, No. 2: Michels

Some managers etch their names into history because they change the game. These are the visionaries, the men whose legacy is written in more than silver and gold. It is because of them that we think about football in the way we do. They are the mavericks and the dreamers, the ones who see the sport in a different way, who force us to forget all we know about how 11 players should function on a pitch.

Rinus Michels did more than win trophies. He changed football as we know it.
Rinus Michels did more than win trophies. He changed football as we know it.

Others are recognized as legends because they perfect the game as it exists. These are the masters, the motivators, the men who can do what everyone else does but better. They are remorseless, relentless winners, soaring above their peers, their necks adorned with medals and a heap of trophies at their feet.

Jose Mourinho, perhaps, would provide the most apposite example of the latter. Helenio Herrera, mastermind behind il grande Inter, would be another; even Sir Alex Ferguson. Marcelo Bielsa, the hipsters' darling, would be in the vanguard of the former; maybe Arsene Wenger and Tele Santana, too.

Yet there are but a handful of men who have managed to do both. It is in this category, this elite band, that we must place Rinus Michels.

Michels' CV is nothing to be sniffed at. He lifted four league titles with Ajax and led them to the first of the three European Cups with which they started the 1970s, as well as saw them beaten in the final in 1969. He won La Liga with Barcelona, too, and the Copa del Rey a few years later. With Holland, he lifted the 1988 European Championships and also took them to the 1974 World Cup final, where they were beaten by their own sense of superiority as much as by West Germany.

But weighing precious metal and counting precious medals is not a fitting way to assess Michels' contribution to the game. It does not quite explain why he was declared Coach of the Century in 1999. It does not come close to measuring his impact on football.

His name, of course, is synonymous with Total Football, that peculiarly Dutch vision of how the game should be played. When he died, in 2005, Marco van Basten described him as "the father of Dutch football." That, too, is an inadequate epitaph. Michels, in many ways, is the father of all modern football.

Total Football is often characterised as the on-pitch manifestation of the hippie revolution that swept through Holland and the rest of Europe in the 1960s. Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Johnny Rep and the rest captivated the world with their free-flowing style, their manes of hair, their statement sideburns; this was free love in shin pads, Woodstock in studs. The popular vision of Total Football is that it did away with the tyranny of positions and with the shackles of static tactical formations, allowing players to interchange places at will so that everyone was an attacker and nobody a defender.

That is an inversion of the truth, even if the consequences were largely the same. Michels was a disciplinarian, a workaholic, who drove his players into the ground. Piet Keizer, the Ajax winger, remembered his training sessions as "the hardest I ever had; sometimes we did four a day." It was Michels who introduced the Dutch to the Italian concept of sequestering the team in a hotel before a game so that the players could be entirely focused on the task in front of them. Rinus Michels, a qualified gymnastics teacher, was not a hippie.

He was also not as cavalier as his reputation suggests. Yes, Total Football granted full backs like Ruud Krol the licence to raid forward, but it demanded that another player, an attacking player, possess the capability to slot in to cover his teammate's position. When Bill Shankly remarked that he had never seen a home team play so defensively -- this after watching his Liverpool side demolished 5-1 by Ajax in Amsterdam -- he was only partly being sardonic. He had recognised that Michels' Ajax, as would be true of his Barcelona and his Holland, protected their own goal first. Johan Cruyff, Michels' greatest protégé, played as a withdrawn forward, dropping deep into his own half to gain possession and dictate play. This system was not all attack and no defence, all light but no dark. It was a symbiosis of the two.

It was to this end that Michels worked his players so hard. His system was not new: Nandor Hidegkuti had shown how much damage a withdrawn forward could do for the great Hungary side of the 1950s, while Brazil had long enjoyed a tradition of attacking full backs. Michels was not even the first man to introduce the principles to Holland -- that honour falls to his mentor, Jack Reynolds, coach of Ajax in the 1950s -- but he was the first to recognise that it could work to its full potential only if the players were physically flawless. Michels realised you need to work for your freedom.

That is the on-pitch stuff. It was that theory, combined with the two greatest generations of footballers in Dutch history, which brought him all those league titles, the move to Barcelona, the place in the World Cup final and, once Cruyff, Neeskens and Rep had been replaced by van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, his crowning glory, the 1988 European Championships.

But there is more. It was Michels who first established the principle of schooling young players in the Ajax way, to make sure that each successive generation played in the same way; this way, his legacy was protected. It was that idea, imbued in Cruyff, which led to the foundation of La Masia at Barcelona; it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that many of the youth development principles now so common across Europe were seeded by Michels.

And it was Michels who, as van Basten hinted, ultimately defined the Netherlands' footballing identity. Those brilliant men in orange are still expected to play in his way, with his style, with his panache. Perhaps only Brazil have a more defined role in world football's firmament.

"He put the Netherlands on the map in such a way that everybody still benefits from it," said Cruyff after Michels' death. "With him, results came first, but quality of soccer was No. 1. I will miss Rinus Michels."

Him, and all of us.

ESPN FC's Top 20 Greatest Managers was determined by a polling process of more than 20 regular columnists, contributors and editors at ESPN FC.

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