In footballing linguistics, the superlative seems to be slowly losing its meaning. We use the word legend or icon so abundantly, that it has become no more than mere jargon.
But at certain times, any word in the dictionary feels little when describing someone’s contributions and achievements.
The superlative degree does not do them justice. In the footballing world, one such personality is Rinus Michels.
Very few managers deserve to be talked about in the same breath as the Dutchman and most modern footballing innovations you see were originated or popularized by him.
So let us try to learn more about the iconic figure and what made him so special and replicable for those after him.
Growing up in Amsterdam, Rinus Michels joined Ajax and played for them throughout his playing career.
Mostly playing as a striker, he scored 122 goals for the club before hanging his boots. The Dutchman also earned five international caps for his country.
As a player, he was not one known for his incredible talent. But what made him endearing to the fans was his exceptional work rate.
After a career-ending injury in 1958, Michels decided to move to management.
He started managing local Amsterdam based clubs and finally made his dream move to manage Ajax in 1965.
When he took over, Ajax were relegation fodder barely surviving in the Eredivisie.
In the six years that followed, Ajax won four league titles and three KNVB Cups. They also reached their first-ever European Cup final in 1969 only to lose to Milan.
The climax of his reign came in 1971 when he won the first of three European Cups won by Ajax.
After these resounding victories, he moved to Barcelona, as his predecessor Vic Buckingham did.
Johan Cruyff followed him soon and he won the Spanish league title in 1974 before moving to the Dutch national side.
Here he inspired them to their first ever World Cup final in 1974 and made his brand of Total football immortal.
So even if Netherlands lost the game to West Germany, they won the hearts of everyone that saw the exceptional Dutch side with Cruyff and Johan Neeskens.
After spells in America with the LA Aztecs and in Germany with Koln, Michels returned to the Dutch national side for his third reign in 1988.
This was to be the year when the Dutch fans finally were able to celebrate an international trophy.
After beating arch rivals West Germany in the semi finals of Euro 1988, Netherlands and Marco van Basten made history.
They won their first-ever international trophy with van Basten scoring the legendary volley against Soviet Union in the final.
This emphatic moment was perhaps the best moment ever for Dutch football supporters and came under the leadership of Rinus Michels.
Michels wrapped his managerial career with spells at Bayer Leverkusen and a fourth spell with the Dutch national side.
He won a total of 13 titles in his career which shows his exceptional managerial capabilities.
Rinus Michels is someone synonymous with the term ‘Total Football‘. In both of his managerial regimes at Ajax and Barcelona, he always focused on his teams wanting to play a possession-based system by overloading the midfield and wing positions.
His primary focus in his system was the intensity within the side. Every single player played a role in defence and attack. There were no passengers in Michels’ side.
Michels used to deploy a 4-3-3 formation. However, Michels’ shape is entirely different from what you see in current football systems.
The fullback slots used to be occupied by the wide midfielders as they created a diamond in the middle to nullify the opposition and keep possession of the ball.
Goalkeepers and Defenders
Apart from the saves, goalkeepers had to be able to spread the ball consistently. Coming to the defenders, Michels deployed two quick central defenders that were extremely comfortable on the ball.
Their quick speed meant that they also had the job to bring the ball out from the back.
Therefore, when both defenders were out of position, one central defender acted as the sweeper behind them.
To support the counter-press in midfield, Michels’ team played a very high-line at the back.
Even though the analysts considered it risky, Michels believed that their midfield press would disable the opposition to make quick and right decisions on the ball.
And even if they do make the through pass, the offside trap would come in handy rendering them offside.
The wide midfielders were able to support their wingers continuously. However, as they were not natural fullbacks, they had an excellent passing range to keep the attack progressing.
The midfield-pivot had a strong counter-press. Therefore, one of the midfielders used to have a useful tackling attribute. The other midfielder was then able to carry the ball effectively.
As Michels had four midfielders in this system playing in a straight-line effectively, he considered it necessary to have one good tackler out of the four. Otherwise, the team would be fragile on the counter-attacks.
Due to these different attributes, Michels’ teams always switched between 4-3-3, 3-4-3, and 3-1-3-3. The defensive midfielder stopped the attacks, and one of the central defenders joined the midfield to support the attacks.
As we can see now, the Barcelona footballing triangles’ traditions started via Michels’ tactical setup.
If the team functions to its finest, we have even seen diamonds created in this tactical setup.
The team creates the diamond when their striker comes deep to support the midfield, and the primary central defender acts as a defensive midfielder behind the midfield pivot.
With the wide midfielders in position, Michels’ teams produced breathtaking passing systems through this pattern.
According to Michels, he created a cage for the opponents, making them go back and launch the balls up top to their strikers.
As the opponents ran out of ideas, they could spring the ball within the channels, physically taking down the opponent midfield and breaking their defensive structure down.
The “cage” of Michels was not just down to the midfield pivot, and it also required the wingers to do the defensive dirty work when they did not have the ball.
Michels never compromised on the intensity of his footballing system. He stated that if his team doesn’t have the ball, the whole team must get the ball back instead of just the defensive-minded players.
He believed that the team pushing up for the defensive duties would not affect their attacking game.
Therefore, he deployed players who had an excellent passing range, covering 90% of their attacking instincts.
Michels told his wide midfielders to stay in their fullback positions always. Michels stated that usually, he found his fullbacks cutting in and looking for the cross.
However, he always focused on the interchanging of short passes. Therefore, he told his strikers to frequently come deep and allow the wingers to run behind them and score the goals.
The spine of Michels’ team was based on three focal points, i.e., Cruyff (attack), Blankenburg (defense), Neeskens (midfield).
Johan Cruyff’s emergence as a great attacking player came down because he was more than just a goalscorer in the team. He used to move wide and had the kind of freedom we associate these days with a no 10.
The role of a forward in Total Football is what we associate these days with Liverpool forwards.
They used to press like maniacs, attack with exceptional intensity, and had the awareness to link with players around them.
Essentially, they too had the attributes that represented Total Football. They were masters of their craft while fulfilling their responsibilities in other facets of the game too.
Influence on Modern Football
The thing with Rinus Michels is that he has not won the most trophies in his career compared to other managers, but his influence on the game is his real legacy.
Just look at some of the names who praise him. Arrigo Sacchi, the legendary Milan coach, thought that Michels’ reign at Ajax was the only great tactical revolution in football.
He also admitted about using his idea of making football more about the team compared to individual players. These ideas enabled him to create the celebrated Milan side of the 90s.
Other ideas like the Tiki Taka of Pep Guardiola or the Gegenpressing of Jurgen Klopp all seem to stem from the revolutionary ideas of Michels.
What is astonishing is how Michels inspired all ranges of managers. From attacking gurus like Pep Guardiola to defensive masterminds like Jose Mourinho, everyone seems to have taken a page from the book of Rinus Michels.
Whenever you see the exceptional youth system at Barca and the special style of play, the name you associate with it is Johan Cruyff.
But the manager who brought Cruyff to the Blaugrana and taught him the ways of Total Football has to be Michels. Cruyff himself admitted this when Michels passed away.
The emergence of the Ajax side in the 70s was a true footballing landmark. They changed football in a way that it became as attractive as it is now.
And while Rinus Michels did not win as many trophies as people after him, he had the greatest influence on the game.
Whenever a team presses from the forward line, or the wing backs come centrally and defenders are better passers than most midfielders, Rinus Michels must be smiling from the heavens above.