The Dutch national side of the 1974 World Cup will forever go down as the most glorified and celebrated tournament bridesmaids the beautiful game has ever seen. From possession play tactics and strict off-ball pressing, to the rockstar inspired hair styles and the equally questionable sideburns – the famous ‘Clockwork Orange’ of the 1970’s simply had it all, except for that elusive international trophy of course.
Rinus Michels’ proud outfit were nonetheless stocked full with a series of steadfast and remarkable talents, including each of Ruud Krol, Rob Rensenbrink and Johnny Rep to name but a few. Yet the most illustrious and highly coveted name of them all would obviously have to arrive in the form of the unparalleled and unprecedented – Johan Cruyff.
The modern game as we know it would have arguably paled in significance without Cruyff’s almost otherworldly influence, thanks to his spellbinding skill all across the field, as well as his crucial role among the ongoing implementation of the famous ‘Total Football’ system – a profound regime forever emulated and replicated since its initial inception in the mid-1970s.
But behind every great pioneer with the ball at his feet, every great artist with the paintbrush in his hand, and every great architect with dreams of transforming their landscape into something truly new and original – there is always someone working their magic alongside in the shadows. Watching, waiting. Allowing their grand masters to go about their craft with as little distraction as possible, creating the ideal set of circumstances for unyielding beauty to blossom in full bloom.
Step into the light: Johan Neeskens – the ‘Other Johan’ who helped make the ‘Clockwork Orange’ tick oh so effectively. Whilst Cruyff was all about sheer composure and his supernatural sense of vision among every aspect of the pitch itself, Neeskens was slightly different.
The spirited long-haired midfielder came through the ranks at Ajax after being plucked from the clutches of Racing Club Heemstede as a raw, untested youngster. Despite eventually going on to win two Eredivisie league titles and three European Cups in Amsterdam as a classic centre-midfielder, Neeskens was initially deployed as something of a versatile full-back – with all the required energy to burst up and down those flanks without batting an eyelid.
‘Johan the Second’ – as he has since been labelled in comparison with the great Cruyff himself – eventually joined his fellow namesake at the Camp Nou with Barcelona in 1974, where the marauding presence would soon showcase his talents as one of the standout midfielders across the entire European scene.
The 1974 World Cup followed that year – and although Rinus Michels’ Netherlands would famously come crashing down at the hands of arch-rivals, West Germany – Johan Neeskens went on to win the Silver Boot for all his goalscoring efforts, which involved eclipsing Cruyff from his traditional central-midfield role. Neeskens and co. also reached the 1978 World Cup final of course, where the Dutch masters would fall at the last hurdle once again, this time at the hands of a Mario Kempes inspired Argentina outfit.
“In midfield, Neeskens could play for two. He was worth two men in midfield.”
But whilst the tall, wiry figure of Johan Neeskens may not arrive as the most decorated footballer of all time, thanks to Holland’s inexplicable tendency to fall desperately short when it seems to matter most, this was a guy who arguably helped shape the role of the modern-day midfielder more than any other player in his category. Without exaggeration, the combative Dutchman swiftly developed into the first true box-to-box midfielder of his generation.
Neeskens was hardworking and pressurising with a keen eye for goal, often putting his rockstar-like body on the line with little care towards his own personal safety. His ability to terrorise opponents into giving away possession helped lead the way for modern pressing tactics and hard-fought harassment within the opponent’s half of the pitch.
Although he was seemingly deployed as a centre-midfielder first and foremost, Johan the Second could often be found chasing down defenders as the highest playing runner among Rinus Michels’ star-studded side. The perfect embodiment of both technique and tenacity for the infamous ‘Clockwork Orange’.
— Football Memories (@footballmemorys) June 1, 2017
For everything Cruyff brought about via his artistry and new wave vision for just how the beautiful game should be best carried out, Neeskens was there to fill in on the dirty work – creating all the necessary space for playmakers like Cruyff to go about their business with as much freedom as possible.
He was more than just a no nonsense box-to-box midfielder however. Neeskens was a mainstay component among the glorious ‘Total Football’ system, an all-rounded total footballer with everything in his locker. Without such characters to keep the clock ticking, there would be no silky playmakers to wow their respective supporters in the space issued to them by their fellow midfield counterparts.
In line with such an approach, Johan Neeskens’ contribution among the beautiful game cannot be understated – for without the gifted midfield combatant, we would have arguably never of had our immortal god-like image of the legendary Johan Cruyff. Not in the way we currently understand today.