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Mark van Bommel – a brief reappraisal

16th May, 2011

Mark van Bommel is quite often the centre of attention

It was a curious turn of events at last year’s World Cup that saw the Netherlands’ reputation plummet in direct proportion to the success of the team. By the time of the final match Spain, whose commitment to creative, attacking football seemed more steadfast, were generally the neutral’s choice. The decision should have been much tougher, as the two teams represented nations with an intertwined footballing ideology. One was home to Amsterdam, Total Football’s holy city, and the other Barcelona, to where Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, two of Total Football’s founding fathers, had famously spread its doctrine.

The matter was not simple, however. Though the Spanish team, with Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández at its core, was considered to be cast in Barcelona’s mesmeric image, the same could not be said of the relationship between this Dutch team and its celebrated antecedents of the 70s, which had wholeheartedly adopted the Ajax philosophy.

The villains of the piece were generally held to be two in number: the coach, Bert van Marwijk, and his captain, Mark van Bommel. Van Bommel was widely held to be a hard-nosed and cynical player, whose target was more often his opponent than the football. Van Marwijk was a tactical coward who persisted with both Van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, a player of similarly unsentimental bent, instead of dropping one and allowing the more flamboyant talents of Rafael van der Vaart to be brought into the centre of the park from the wing, where they had been marooned. The result was that the Netherlands were widely held to be a team built on a platform of thuggery rather than skill.

Whether Van Marwijk’s insistence on the pairing of Van Bommel and De Jong did indeed represent a frailty of spirit is not a question for this post to answer. What is probably more certain is that had Van Marwijk chosen to leave one his midfield enforcers on the bench, it is almost certain that the one relegated would not have been Van Bommel.

You might snidely remark that this is largely because of the filial bond which connects them – Van Bommel is Van Marwijk’s son in law. You would almost certainly be wrong. Though Van Bommel has become typecast as a crafty dissembler who cultivates a rapport with the referee in order to compensate for modest amounts of skill and athleticism, he is in truth a very good footballer with an exceptional record.

By the time you read this post, the news that Mark van Bommel’s championships with PSV, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and AC Milan make him the first man to have won league titles in four different countries will doubtless have reached you. On his way to achieving that feat Van Bommel has also won eight of his last twelve domestic campaigns. In addition he won the Champions League during his time at Barcelona and was a runner-up in the same competition with Bayern Munich. But you’ll be aware of those facts too. In fact Van Bommel is possibly in the process of undergoing the same sort of late-career re-evaluation that saw Claude Makelele, in the wake of his departure from Real Madrid, go from being one of football’s least appreciated talents to one of its most. And indeed, as with Makelele, it has taken a long time for some of us, myself included, to understand that Van Bommel is a player of no small value.

If Van Bommel offends Dutch football purists (and I’m happy to hear from anyone who has evidence to the contrary), it most likely because he seems ill-suited to a system predicated on the positional flexibility of its players. Van Bommel protects his defence and little else, many would say; his brief is to win possession when it is lost, and to maintain it when regained. He lacks the skill and inclination to find his way into the penalty area after a mazy run or a series of intricate passes. He’s hardly going to be popping up at left wing. Fans of top-flight English football may detect in this argument echoes of the criticism levelled at Darren Bent, who is considered by some a limited forward because he does little other than score prodigious numbers of goals. While I do share some of the concerns of Bent’s detractors, I feel that both the English striker and the Dutch midfielder suffer perhaps from their ability to perform their role with such consummate efficiency that their contributions look suspiciously effortless.

Although often dismissed as a destructive force, his understanding of the importance of space is little different to that exhibited by his Total Football-playing forbears. Like the players of the great Ajax and Netherlands teams of the past, Van Bommel attempts to compress space when his team not in possession, and expand it when it is. Those who scoffingly brand him immobile will marvel at the ground he covers to provide an outlet to teammates under pressure. They will also appreciate a range of passing broad and accurate enough to occasionally spring attacks from within his own half and split the defence when Van Bommel does venture forward. Speaking of which, this little highlights reel does show that, while most effective at the base of a midfield formation, Van Bommel is capable of attacking to quite some effect:

Not bad for such a limited footballer.

Indeed, whatever your feelings about the approach of the Netherlands team that reached last year’s World Cup final, it would be harsh accuse Van Bommel, who has played in some very exciting teams, of acting as a vacuum for creativity. Well, perhaps he is, but only as far as the opposition are likely to be concerned! His presence hardly stifled a Barca side including Ronaldinho and Xavi, or a Bayern Munich side with Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry. Or, most recently, a Milan side with Zlatan Ibrahimović and Robinho.

Van Bommel has expressed his desire to sign a contract extension with Milan. Having recently celebrated his 34th birthday, he may be on the wrong end of the age scale for a club looking to invest in youth. With Tottenham’s 22-year-old Brazilian midfielder Sandro reportedly coveted by Milan after his impressive showing against them in the first knockout round of this year’s Champions League, Van Bommel might be forced to take his talents elsewhere. Still, given that Van Bommel’s arrival heralded a period of defensive solidity, in which Milan went from conceding 18 goals in 21 league games to 5 in 15, they may wish to keep the Dutchman on their books. Perhaps his wiles alone are worth another year. After all, how many other players would dream up such a cunning strategy for winning referees round to their side as Van Bommel’s cheap groceries gambit? Van Bommel may be every bit as dirty as his critics would have you believe, but he’s a damn good footballer to boot.

Any opinions from the blogosphere? Am I just jumping on the Van Bommel bandwagon because the Makelele one has long since left town? I’d love to know what people think.

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