Brilliant Orange is a beautiful book written in 2001 by David Winner. It describes the rise of Dutch football from the obscurity of the 1950s to world standard in tactics, technique and vision.
Winner suggests an intriguing thesis: Dutch innovation in creating and using space – a result of living in such an over-populated piece of land – has given them a unique geometrical understanding which they apply to the game. Those old and lucky enough to have seen Johan Cruyff play, can relate to this. “Pythagoras in Boots” they called him in his heyday.
We have seen this unique geometrical vision in other great Dutchmen. Bergkamp for one. Ruud van Nistelrooy’s intuitive understanding of offside lines was a different example. But the latest heir of this Dutch genius is doing it at a rather strange position – Edwin Van der Sar in goal for Manchester United. He once kept 14 straight clean sheets while averaging only one save a game. Watching Van der Sar operate is the most under-appreciated joy in supporting United. Placement, angles and geometry defeating power and speed.
In these final days of his brilliant career he has brought this mastery to what seems to be an even higher level. He has outrageously become an important offensive weapon, setting up four Premier League goals with his accurate kicking and ability to read field positions. Including a vital equalizer at Blackpool and the opening goal of the Manchester Derby. United may hope to replace him defensively, but his contribution to outfield play may become a last art. This is no mere “use of the legs”. This is a chess-like positional grasp of all 22 men on the field.
Van der Sar’s two first half saves on Saturday were Dutch minimalism at it’s best. These were not panther like pounces. Just simple Geometry. Cut the angle, reduce the distance, expand the body. Suddenly not much is left of the original 192 square feet of the goal.
Pythagoras in Gloves.