On Tuesday we had Sir Dave Brailsford flogging his marginal gain philosophy to the footballers of newly oil rich Newcastle United – now it’s Jumbo-Visma’s turn for a quirky football-cycling crossover…
With the appointment of Erik ten Hag this summer, Manchester United fans are more optimistic for the season ahead than they have been in quite a long time.
(Don’t worry, I’ll get to the cycling in a minute…)
Following last season’s abject misery, the vibes-based gameplans of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during the previous few years (though I’ll argue with anyone who slanders the baby-faced assassin), and the ultra-negative anti-football of the Jose Mourinho era, former Ajax boss Ten Hag has arrived this summer with the reputation of a tactically shrewd manager in favour of fluid, attacking football.
Much like the United team of the past nine years, Jumbo-Visma had a plethora of big names and a fearsome reputation, but until this season little to show for all that star power at the Tour de France, at least where the battle for the yellow jersey was concerned.
At the 2020 Tour, Jumbo-Visma’s defensive, Mourinho-esque tactics failed spectacularly under the weight of Tadej Pogačar’s heavy metal cycling (that’s a Jurgen Klopp reference, in case you were wondering) on the Planche des Belle Filles.
So last winter, the Dutch team went back to the drawing board – which included calling upon the current top football manager in the Netherlands, oddly enough.
“Someone who has helped me a lot is Erik ten Hag,” Jumbo’s DS, Merijn Zeeman, told NOS this week.
“Someone from a completely different sport, but I wanted to understand from him: how do you come up with tactics? What is the essence of your sport for you?
“Before you make a game plan, what's behind that? I've had the opportunity to talk to him about that a number of times.”
A working group comprised of the team’s sports directors was formed – presumably thanks to Ten Hag’s sage guidance – to explore how best to deal with the Pogačar problem.
Zeeman added: “We also asked guys who collect the data in the background to think along.
“With central questions such as: what can we do better, what are we not doing well, what are our competitors doing? We held a lot of sessions. All in the winter.
“Because with great talents such as Wout van Aert, Primož Roglič, Jonas Vingegaard and Steven Kruijswijk in your team, you can also come up with different tactics.
“Just as good football coaches have good football players at their disposal with whom they can win matches, we can also make plans because you have good riders at your disposal.
“Then we really started preparing for the Tour. We had already done quite a lot of reconnaissance. We knew the course better and better. And we also knew what Pogačar was especially good at. But at the top of the agenda was always that one question: where are his weaknesses?
“We were still looking for that. What are his pitfalls, where is his weakness, what kind of team does he have, where can we hit them? And how do you translate that into our qualities in the course?”
After all this recon, analysis, data-harvesting and excruciating use of football metaphors (oh wait, that’s me), Jumbo-Visma’s work finally bore fruit on the Col du Galibier.
On that Alpine giant, the Dutch team – in a display of fluid, attacking cycling and physical and tactical supremacy – took the race to Pogačar, as Vingegaard and Roglič consistently attacked the Slovenian, until the Dane issued the final blow on the Col du Granon.
If Ten Hag can come up with something half as thrilling and unpredictable as that at Old Trafford, United fans will be very happy indeed.