The Dutch have a star-studded team but the World Cup finalists' coach is hardly a household name - and that's the way he likes it. So who is Bert van Marwijk and how is he suddenly a potential World Cup-winning coach?
Van Marwijk may be about to add the World Cup to his CV
It's easy to look at the current Netherlands team and be dazzled by stars. Players like Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie immediately catch the eye. Their new team ethic and steady performances at this World Cup have also caught the attention. But only a passing glance or dismissive nod may have been offered to the silver-haired man on the sidelines, the man who has steered this Dutch team to their first World Cup final in 32 years.
So who is Bert van Marwijk, and how on earth did he suddenly get to become a potentially World Cup-winning coach?
The fact that van Marwijk generates questions like these is a testament to the man's approach to running this team. After following in the illustrious footsteps of trainers such as Rinus Michels, the father of Total Football, supreme tacticians like Louis van Gaal and Guus Hiddink, and legendary players-turned-managers Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten, van Marwijk was installed as Netherlands coach with barely any fanfare and more than a little skepticism.
While his predecessors could boast trophy cabinets groaning with glittering titles, heavyweight reputations gained both on and off the pitch and larger-than-life personalities (and egos to match), the unassuming van Marwijk came to the job with a solitary Europa League title and a Dutch Cup win to his name. A former winger who played only 45 minutes of international soccer in an injury-blighted career, the former Feyenoord and Borussia Dortmund coach was considered by many to lack the CV needed to lead Het Oranje.
As events since his installation have shown, however, all this has proved to be an advantage, not a hindrance.
The Dutch have long had a reputation for mid-tournament meltdowns and festering personal rivalries. Dissent has been as much part of World Cup training camps as kicking a ball and few tournaments have passed without some kind of civil war or other.
Coaches like van Gaal and Hiddink would crush these with an iron fist, an approach which often led to simmering resentment, rather than outright mutiny. Rijkaard and van Basten struggled to contain such uprisings, allowing feuds to boil over - and leading key players to refuse to ever play for them again.
Van Marwijk's considered approach is in stark contrast to the authoritarian style of previous coaches
Van Marwijk appears to be the first Netherlands coach in decades to realize that by removing ego from the equation - his own included - the team could find harmony and balance long before it is thrust into the pressure cooker atmosphere of the World Cup. By adopting a measured approach, he has removed one of the most inflammatory catalysts any volatile dressing room can have: the megalomaniac coach himself.
Reducing friction has been one of the key factors behind van Marwijk's success with this Dutch team off the pitch. Two examples of his man-management skills stand out.
Firstly, when faced with handling a squad featuring the potentially explosive personalities of Sneijder, Robben, van Persie and Rafael van der Vaart – a group of players christened "The Famous Four" by the Dutch media – van Marwijk is said to have held a private meeting with the quartet in which he told them that they were to put the team first. The result has been that the Dutch are more together than ever before. Even the van Persie-Sneijder feud, which had been simmering for two years since an altercation at Euro 2008, has failed to ignite.
The Dutch coach's focus on togetherness has brought the best out of his star-studded team
Secondly, by billeting the Dutch squad in the noisy heart of Johannesburg, close to Nelson Mandela Square, van Marwijk has shrewdly removed the isolation and boredom in which the poisonous cliques of the past could plot. The Dutch are free to roam among the locals and tourists in an area full of bars and restaurants, and live and breathe the party atmosphere of the World Cup around them. By being allowed this freedom to explore and the trust to do so responsibly, the players are more relaxed and in touch with the tournament than other teams which have been closeted away behind security fences and armed guards.
The results on the pitch reflect the harmonious atmosphere off it. Holland qualified for the World Cup with a 100 percent record in qualifying and once in South Africa, the Dutch retained that record without dropping a point in Group E before beating Slovakia, Brazil and Uruguay to reach the final.
Steel behind silk
Efficient, calm and sensible, van Marwijk has shown intelligence when deploying the talents he has at his disposal. He has not completely dispensed with Dutch flair to get results but he has shown that a more pragmatic approach can be just as devastatingly effective as the supple skill for which they have come to be known.
Preferring to eschew complex systems and formations, van Marwijk has the Dutch playing something approaching a 4-2-3-1 formation with Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong are charged to defend in front of a solid back four while a quartet of more attack-minded players (Robben, Snaeijder, van Persie, Dirk Kuyt) are free to roam.
The combination of solid defense and fluid attack allows Holland's creative stars to shine
Van Marwijk, in his own words, "does not believe in systems" and allows his front four to switch flanks, as well as between midfield and attack, depending on the changing state of play. It's a nod to the Total Football fluidity of past Holland sides, and acknowledges the Dutch footballing mentality, in which instinct and cooperation than positional rigidity plays the greater part in success.
While the Netherlands traditionally flatter to deceive at major tournaments, burning brightly but fading when it really matters, van Marwijk has added the physicality the team needed to continue to compete at the business end of this World Cup while his attackers appear to be growing in the confidence which comes from getting this far.
The unsung architect of this resurgent Holland team is one game away from winning the ultimate prize and bringing glory where more decorated and celebrated men have failed before him.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann