Coming, Ready Or Not...
There’s nowhere to hide for Bert van Marwijk as he seeks World Cup redemption with the Socceroos at Russia 2018
new Socceroos coach Bert van Marwijk’s journey to being a football coach started in the 1950s as just a young lad on the banks of the river IJssel in the small industrial Dutch city of Deventer, approximately 100km east of Amsterdam. “As a boy I was only on the streets with my friends,” van Marwijk recalls. “The boys from one street would play against a team from another. Sometimes you would play three against eight, it all just depended on who was there.” Young Lambertus, born on 19 May 1952, was a bit different to the others though. As a youngster, he didn’t just play for fun, he thought deeply about the best way to win. “We would play in the street, a little square or on a bad pitch and you had to adapt in every situation,” he says. “And it was all about winning! It made you think about the game, so as a young boy I thought about tactics. “When I look at football now, I think this is lacking. Young boys don’t play in the streets anymore. They join a club and a coach usually tells them how to play.” Roughly 50 years later, that boy was the man in charge of his nation’s football team, leading the Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final only to lose by the narrowest of margins against Spain, going down 1-0 in extra-time. Eight years on, he’s got another challenge, leading a Socceroos side he barely knows to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, having taken the job at the last minute following Ange Postecoglou’s 11th hour resignation. But the Dutchman has been preparing for opportunities like this his whole life. Van Marwijk may have grown up in little-known Deventer but it was an ideal grounding for his football development. As a teenager, he joined local club Go Ahead Eagles who in the late 1960s were regularly in the top five in the Dutch Eredivisie. “They were the first team in Holland where they had a training centre for young players to live and train,” van Marwijk says. “A lot of good players from all over Holland came to this place to become a professional footballer.” Van Marwijk debuted for Go Ahead Eagles as a 17-year-old left winger. “In those days, your job was simple: dribble past the rightback on the outside and give the cross to the striker,” he says. “The cross had to be perfect. To be able to do my job well, it was important that my team had the ball often and also that they would give me the ball at the right time and place. “It would make my job very hard if they gave me the ball when the full-back was close to me so he could intercept it. My teammates would have to pass the ball if I made a sprint. When the other team was better it could happen that I’d not receive the ball for 20 minutes. In those days you had to stay on the outside, you weren’t really allowed to go inside and look for the ball. Different times, different kind of football. “But it also helped me develop my way of thinking about the game. Because of my position, I learned to understand how important it was to have possession and also how important the details were. They could make the difference in winning or losing.” And winning is everything for van Marwijk, who employs a pragmatic style but studies the game deeply, with a focus on possession and transition in the modern game. Van Marwijk matured in a footballing sense during a dominant era for Dutch football, with Feyenoord claiming the 1970 European Cup, before Johan Cruyff’s Ajax won an astonishing continental hat-trick of titles from 1971 to 1973. The Netherlands also reached the World Cup final for the first time in 1974. “Cruyff was a role model for me,” van Marwijk reveals. “During matches in which he played for the other team, I was just watching him. How he would ask for the ball, what he would do with it, the way he was directing the team like an orchestra. He was so impressive.” Van Marwijk’s playing career never reached any remarkable heights, earning one international cap while the 1978 Dutch Cup with AZ Alkmaar was his only major trophy. A niggling knee injury ultimately denied him the chance to fulfil his potential as a footballer, but that experience set him up to be a coach. “In my last years as a player, I was already thinking like a coach,”
he says. “I started as a winger who was only concerned about when and how he got the ball, but later on I became a midfielder and late in my playing career, I was a libero. In that position, I was coaching the whole team. That was necessary. My knee was terrible at that time, so I was busy with organising the team in a way that I would not get into trouble myself.” Van Marwijk may have spent his entire playing career in Holland but he came close to moving to England in the 1970s to join West Ham United. “In those younger days I had many offers,” he says. “I played a trial match and spent some days in London. I was there with my wife and I remember it was raining every day. When I got the offer, we looked at each other and decided not to do it! The things you do when you are young. If the weather would have been great, maybe we would have made another decision but I have no regrets.” While van Marwjik began thinking like a coach as a footballer, it wasn’t until his post-playing career that he fully committed himself to the profession, although he didn’t take the usual path. “I started at amateur level,” he states. “That’s something I can recommend to any coach starting out. You see that many top players after their career start right away at the highest level as a coach. That’s difficult, because coaching has a lot to do with experience. It’s a learning process. “At amateur level you had to think about everything. About your materials, a bad pitch, a group that had some good players but also some players who were maybe not so good. How do you manage that? How do you get the best out of those players? How do you motivate players that have a 9am to 5pm job? How do you bring players that only train three times a week to a higher level? If you have that experience, it only gets easier – it helps you prepare in a big way. “As a coach I understood and experienced it’s all about vision. How do you get the best out your players? As a coach you have to know exactly what you want, what kind of football you want to play, what kind of football will get the best out of the players that you manage. Those two things have to match. If you have that perfect starting point then it is all about working with your team.” Van Marwijk needs to draw upon that given the last-minute nature of his appointment with the Socceroos, while the best style and approach for the side has long been debated in light of Postecoglou’s ambitious methods. The Dutchman, though, has plenty of experience, having earned his first professional coaching gig in 1998 with plucky Fortuna Sittard, his final club as a player. Fortuna finished seventh in the Eredivisie in his first full season in charge and reached the Dutch Cup final 12 months later, showcasing van Marwijk’s promise. Fresh from winning the league title in 1999, Dutch heavyweights Feyenoord nabbed van Marwijik with high expectations. In van Marwijk’s second season in charge at De Kuip, the Rotterdammers won the UEFA Cup, toppling Rangers, PSV Eindhoven, Inter and Borussia Dortmund on their way to continental glory, with Socceroo Brett Emerton and future Western Sydney Wanderers marquee Shinji Ono in his team. Over four seasons, Van Marwijk narrowly missed out on leading Feyenoord to Eredivisie glory, finishing runners-up in 2001, before three third-place finishes behind Ajax and PSV. He eventually left for German giants Borussia Dortmund in 2004, who were looking to restore their powerhouse status after just one Bundesliga title in eight years. He only managed two seventhplace finishes before exiting halfway through his third campaign. Six months later he returned to Feyenoord, who were still searching for their first Eredivisie crown since 1999. After just nine months in the job, the Dutch Football Association (KNVB) announced van Marwijk would succeed Marco van Basten as national team boss after the 2008 European Championships. During this period, van Marwijk arguably enjoyed his greatest success, guiding Oranje to 2010 World Cup qualification with a perfect record, before reaching the final in South Africa with six wins from six games, including knocking out Brazil in the quarter-finals as the Dutch chased their first world champions crown. In the final at Soccer City in Johannesburg, van Marwijk’s side came up against a dominant Spanish outfit, fresh from winning the 2008 European Championships with a wonderful tiki-taka style born out of the Barcelona midfield trio Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Xavi. Spain, though, hadn’t been at their fluid best in South Africa, scraping through all three knockout fixtures 1-0, and van Marwijk had a plan. “Spain dominated all their games in a big way with their tiki-taka style,” van Marwijk recalls. “They were able to keep possession and let you run for 90 minutes without touching the ball. That was what made them strong. “We knew it was important to get and keep the ball ourselves, to not give them the opportunity to let them play the game they wanted and we succeeded for many periods in the game. We could have won it. Arjen Robben had the chance to finish the game but Iker Casillas made an unbelievable save.” The decider went to extra-time, having finished goalless after 90 minutes. Dutch defender John Heitinga was sent off in the 109th minute but the contest appeared destined to be settled by penalties until Iniesta’s devastating 116th minute winner. “At the time it didn’t really sink in,” van Marwijk says. “Some months after the final, I had to go to Spain for a commercial engagement and talked to [Spain coach] Vicente Del Bosque. He told me, ‘We were so afraid of Holland. You were the last team we wanted to play against in the final and even during the game we thought we couldn’t win’. That was really the time it really sunk in and I got emotional about it. We were so close!” Short on top class defenders, van Marwijk employed a pragmatic, hard style throughout their World Cup campaign – contrasting with Dutch tradition and subsequently attracting some criticism - using their plethora of attacking options led by Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, Dirk Kuyt and Robben. One of the enduring moments of the 2010 final was midfield enforcer Nigel de Jong’s brutal karate-style kick to Xabi Alonso’s chest
“AS A COACH, YOU HAVE TO KNOW WHAT FOOTBALL YOU WANT TO PLAY AND WHAT’LL GET THE BEST OUT OF PLAYERS. THOSE TWO MUST MATCH.”
in the first half which, for many, summed up that ruthless approach. Van Marwijk swiftly changes the subject when it’s brought up. “I know that everyone remembers the tackle and that is okay,” he says. “But nobody remembers anymore how we played that tournament. When anybody talks about that tournament and Holland, it’s all about that moment. I have read comments that we played negative and it was not the kind of football they expected from Netherlands. It’s just like everybody forgot how we got to the final. When we started the tournament, we weren’t a favourite. It was all about our defence that had no top players, we would never be able to compete with the better teams according to the specialists. “We got to the final in a dominant style. Look at the statistics. We had the most possession, the most attacks, the most passes, only Spain did better! But after that final, that seems to be forgotten.” Van Marwijk extended his contract with the KNVB after the World Cup until 2014 but he didn’t see out his tenure, resigning after their disastrous 2012 European Championships campaign, where they failed to claim a point. He took some time away from the game, despite being linked with several jobs including the Southampton post, before returning with Hamburg SV for an unproductive spell in Germany in 2013 where he only lasted 143 days in the job. Van Marwijk had gone from the heights of reaching a World Cup final to a challenging period where he ultimately failed twice, at the 2012 Euros and with Hamburg. In this context, the Dutchman took more time away from the game before deciding on a fresh task, linking up with Saudi Arabia in 2015, as the Green Falcons chased a World Cup berth for the first time since 2006. He succeeded, subsequently denying Australia automatic qualification for the first time ever since the Socceroos joined the Asian Football Confederation. Van Marwijk first came across the Socceroos when they were pitted against Saudi Arabia in Group B of third round qualifying. On matchday three in October 2016, the two sides drew 2-2 in Jeddah, while Australia claimed an essential three points later in the qualification phase in Adelaide, triumphing 3-2. “We analysed them and could see they have a young talented team,” he recalls. “We couldn’t beat them but for Australia it went wrong in other games against Iraq and Thailand. Saudi Arabia didn’t make mistakes in those games but Australia showed great character by qualifying. The play-offs against Syria and Honduras were hard but I am sure it was also a road that made Australia a better team. “When you ask people in Europe about Australian football, nine out of 10 will say they’re strong, very athletic and they play a very physical game,” van Marwijk says. “Most of them aren’t aware about the changes. They play a passing game, they want to keep the ball and play possession football. That’s a good choice. If Australia can combine this kind of football with their great culture, then they will have the best of both worlds.” Barely a week after World Cup qualification though, van Marwijk fell out with Saudi’s football federation and quit. “The main reason was that I was not able to go to the World Cup on my terms,” he says. “As a coach you need to be able to make your own programme, to decide who you need in the staff and to be able to select the players you want. That’s the way every coach works. And that was the way I worked for two years in Saudi Arabia and that was the way we managed to qualify. But after the game against Japan (a 1-0 win which secured qualification) they sacked the team manager and the Minister of Sport brought in a new supervisor and team manager. This new supervisor told the press they were going to select new players because the team that secured qualification wasn’t good enough. “As you can imagine the first thing I asked during the negotiations was, ‘Where is my team manager? I don’t want that new supervisor.’ I didn’t get an answer, so the negotiations were over pretty fast. If I can’t work the way I want, then my decision is simple. Two months later the Federation president called again. They had changed the team completely, lost some games and asked if I wanted to come
back. I told them I’d only come back on my terms. That meant the new management out and my Saudi assistant coach, Saudi goalkeeper coach and team manager back in. It took three days for them to answer and in the end they told me they could not restore the old situation. So that was that until Australia called.” Football Federation Australia swooped and got their man, announcing his appointment in late January on a short-term deal. With less than six months to prepare for the World Cup, time was of the essence for van Marwijk, and the Australian public can only guess what approach he’ll take with the side. March’s friendlies against Norway and Colombia offered a brief insight, although for him, the games were more of an introduction to his players than an opportunity to showcase his blueprint. He offers further insight when talking modern football. “I was raised with the idea that you can only influence a game when you have the ball,” he explains. “But it’s also possible when you don’t have the ball. It’s a matter of defending the space and not the opponent. Sounds easy, but it requires a lot of training before players know what they have to do. It is vital that the whole team knows what to do and how to react.” Sadly, time for that kind of training is a luxury van Marwijk does not have with the Socceroos. Van Marwijk took a key lesson from the 2013 UEFA Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. “Bayern played with Thomas Muller as a 10,” he says. “Dortmund had a midfield with two holding midfielders Ilkay Gundogan and Lars Bender. Muller is a great number 10 but he hardly got the ball that game. To my surprise Gundogan and Bender hardly looked at Muller but were always in front of him. They were so close to each other that the pass simply couldn’t be given and the few times that Bayern managed to reach Muller, the central defenders from Dortmund put pressure right away so Muller could do nothing. That was new to me. “With Saudi Arabia we started by teaching those holding midfielders to defend the space. The next move was to make the central defenders react in time when the number 10 got the ball. ‘The space is too big’, they answered. Then you have to make the space smaller, play closer to the holding midfielders! Make sure you are in time! And it worked. The central defenders really got focused on defending aggressively forward. After that, we expanded it so that the entire team played the same way. That is what you want. If you manage that, it doesn’t matter what system the other team plays. “And when you win the ball yourself, you have an incredible amount of space in transition.” Van Marwijk points to the example of the Premier League champions, who dominate possession but score most of their goals in transition. “It is all about a quick transition,” he says. “Manchester City has found a great way to play the possession game and combine this with finding the right moments to hurt the other team in transition. I think that’s new.” He’s come a long way from those early days being outnumbered on dodgy pitches on the streets of Deventer, but van Marwijk has never mulled over football more intently than now. Australia and the Socceroos will be hoping he’s got the answers.
“IT IS VIT AL THAT THE WHOLE TEAM KNOWS WHAT TO DO AND HOW TO REACT – SOUNDS EASY, BUT IT REQUIRES A LOT OF TRAINING...”
Right CHAMPIONS! BvM lifts the big Euro vase as Feyenoord boss in 2002
Below His legacy is still tainted by the 2010 World Cup final between Netherlands and Spain
Above The celebrations ended quickly in Saudi when BvM quit in a row over his coaching staff