The kings of football blown from their throne by long haired men playing a revolutionary brand of football. That’s how the clash between Brazil and Holland in the 1974 World Cup is often portrayed. But Holland’s famous victory left a legacy greater than any pretty metaphor can capture.
It proved, decisively, that cohesive, collective movement in both attack and defense is an essential part of modern football. Brazil 1970 may have triumphed thanks to their ridiculous talent alone, they would be the last side to ever do so.
That’s not to say that this match was a triumph of tactics over talent. Holland had a superbly talented generation in 1974. Beyond the iconic Cruyff, Holland harboured genuine world class players in Rensenbrink, Van Hanegem, Neeskens and Krol.
Brazil, meanwhile, lacked their 1970 brilliance now that Pelé, Tostao and Gerson had retired. But coach Mario Zagallo was back, so were Jairzinho, Rivelino and his mustache. And Paulo Cesar Lima ‘Caju’ and Dirceu were excellent attacking additions to the starting line-up.
Both sides were packed with talent. There was just one problem. The clash between Total Football and The Beautiful Game somehow resulted in brutal violence. Any attempt at a dribble was immediately cut off with a nasty tackle from behind. By today’s standards, there would’ve been at least eight red cards.
But the West-German referee allowed it all. Given that the winner of the match would meet West-Germany in the final four days later, perhaps he hoped players would end up injuring each other. Whatever his motivation, individual plays were out of the question. Collective play would be the key.
That benefited Holland the most. Brazil have always relied on their unmatched pool of individual talent. A few moments of genius by one of their stars and a game was won. That’s exactly how Brazil had beaten East-Germany earlier in the tournament:
Holland’s tactics were aimed at making life as hard as possible for Brazil. Marinho Peres, Brazil’s Captain and later team mate of Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, stated: “Cruyff told me that Holland would lose to the more skilful Brazilians on a huge pitch. So their aim was to make the pitch as small as possible.”
The way Holland did this was by pressing forward as a team. The attackers would be the first to press, and the midfielders and defenders were close behind. This required defenders to push up high and leave a large gap behind the defense. Holland prevented Brazil from profiting from that space by making excellent use of the offside trap and have the goalie act as an emergency sweeper. It worked brilliantly.
“Defenders in Brazil would never be able to push up like that”, Marinho stated. “The offside trap was known as the donkey’s line in Brazil. The idea was that if you dribbled past one defender in the line, you had dribbled past all of them. Or you could chip the ball over the line and somebody would run from behind and beat the off-side trap. But the reality is that it doesn’t work that way, because you don’t get enough time”.
A fact that became clear as Holland regularly pushed up in numbers and Brazil fell victim to the offside trap again and again. Combined with the intense pressure and hard tackling, Brazil’s talents were unable to leave their mark on the game. Caju was subbed after 60 minutes, Jairzinho, the Tornado from 1970, was completely anonymous and Rivelino achieved absolutely nothing.
As the game progressed, Brazil became increasingly frustrated. Whereas Holland’s violent play mainly consisted of hard tackles aimed at stealing the ball – a rational, goal oriented tactic – Brazil started dealing out kicks, punches, elbows out of sheer impotence.
Holland’s collective movement would also prove crucial in attack. On paper, Johan Cruyff played as striker. In reality he played wherever he saw space. The gaps he left were filled by other players, initiating a carousel of movement that was hard to stop. Right back Suurbier popping up on the left wing to finish an attack typifies the sytem. It were forward runs by defender Krol and midfielder Neeskens that proved crucial during both goals.
As Holland comfortably held on to their lead, the world was learning a lesson. Football had entered a new phase. Cohesion in attack and defense would become the defining feature of all the great sides. From Sacchi’s Milan to Guardiola’s Barcelona.