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What we hated this Premier League season

Premier League
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 By Simon Kuper

As top stars like Depay and Janssen flop, why is Dutch football in crisis?

Two years ago, Memphis Depay was the great Dutch attacking talent. Having scored for fun in the Eredivisie with PSV Eindhoven, he joined Manchester United at the age of 21. But in last month's transfer window, United dumped him on Olympique Lyon, who may yet come to regret the purchase.

Last summer, Vincent Janssen was the great Dutch attacking talent. Having scored for fun in the Eredivisie with AZ Alkmaar, he joined Spurs at the age of 22. So far, the only goals he has scored for Tottenham have been four penalties.

The next time a "great Dutch attacking talent" emerges, foreign clubs probably won't bother.

Something has gone horribly wrong in Dutch talent production. Fifteen years ago, the country's players staffed many of the world's biggest clubs. Now it's Belgian players filling those roles while Dutchmen are flooding back home after flopping abroad. Holland's failure even to qualify for Euro 2016 doesn't look like a one-off. As the Dutch try to work out how to change, they have only one thing going for them: they're next door to the most innovative country in modern soccer, Germany.

For much of the period between 1970 and 2010, the Dutch were themselves the most innovative country in soccer. They grasped before almost anyone else that the most important thing in soccer was passing geometry. Their youth system was so good that its best products could graduate almost directly to top foreign clubs: think Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Wesley Sneijder or Arjen Robben.

But the problem with leading the field is that you tend to get lazy. The Dutch stopped thinking.

Johan Cruyff, who had invented Dutch soccer with Rinus Michels, resisted any attempts to update it. He insisted, for instance, that you should always field a right-footed outside-right and left-footed outside-left, both of them glued to the touchline, waiting for the pass. If anyone pointed out that other countries had improved their physical training, Cruyff didn't want to hear it. Like an Abba tribute band, Dutch soccer endlessly relived the 1970s. The Dutch game, to use a Dutch phrase, "missed the boat."

When Stefan de Vrij broke into Holland's team a few years ago, he realized that his partner in central defense, Ron Vlaar, then of Aston Villa, looked as if he belonged to a different species.

While Vlaar was made of muscle; De Vrij was still practically a child. Any striker could push him away. His club, Feyenoord, didn't do much physical training and so De Vrij began doing more in his spare time. But when Feyenoord found out, it stripped him of the captaincy and made him stop.

Memphis Depay is attempting to revitalise his career at Lyon after disappointing at Manchester United.

And so young players could star in the Eredivisie, sign big contracts abroad and then discover they were entirely unprepared for "big soccer." Rory Campbell, head of technical analysis at West Ham, says that a player's performances in the Eredivisie reveal hardly anything about how he will do in the Premier League. Even the Belgian league has better predictive value, Campbell told Dutch journalist Michiel de Hoog.

Campbell thinks that's because the Dutch league is so slow: players get lots of time on the ball and so, for someone like Memphis, the Premier League comes as a shock. Memphis and Janssen are only the latest in a long line of Eredivisie goal-getters who have flopped abroad, the modern-day equivalents of Alfonso Alves, Alfred Finnbogason and Mateja Kezman.

Moving abroad is hardest for strikers over other positions because they typically command large transfer fees and are expected to perform at once. However, Dutch players in all positions have been returning to the Eredivisie after warming foreign benches.

Just this season, the league welcomed back Marco van Ginkel (Chelsea), Siem de Jong and Tim Krul (Newcastle), Alexander Buttner (Dynamo Moscow), Ricky van Wolfswinkel (Norwich), Steven Berghuis (Watford), Kevin Diks (Fiorentina), Oussama Assaidi (once bought by Liverpool but eventually ditched even by Al-Ahli in Dubai), Ouasim Bouy (Palermo) and various others.

Nor are Dutch coaches in demand internationally anymore. The only Dutchman managing in any of Europe's five biggest leagues is Ronald Koeman at Everton: he's already 53, having acquired much of his soccer wisdom in Spain.

It is true that a select few Dutch players are still succeeding abroad and a glance at their career paths suggests the way forward.

It's not all bad for Dutch players, however. Georginio Wijnaldum is thriving in England having taken his time to get there.

Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool), Virgil van Dijk (Southampton) and Marten de Roon (Middlesbrough) all moved to the Premier League only after taking time to build experience. Wijnaldum spent eight years in the Eredivisie, getting used to high-level soccer playing for Holland before joining Newcastle in 2015. Meanwhile Van Dijk (Celtic) and De Roon (Atalanta Bergamo) both took an intermediate career step before coming to England.

De Roon told Dutch magazine Voetbal International that the pace in the Premier League "is 10 times higher than in Holland. And only three times higher than in Italy, so that step between was ideal." On the field, he adjusted fast. The main thing that confused him in England, he added, was his salary: "It isn't right. I won't ever be able to tell even my best friends how much I earn."

If experience is the secret, then Ajax's captain Davy Klaassen (nearly 24, and physically powerful by Dutch standards) will probably fare better abroad next season than Feyenoord and Holland's talented new right-back, Ricky Karsdorp, who turns 22 this week. But it will be hard for Karsdorp to say no if a deluded English club offers him 10 times his current salary.

The Dutch now need to catch up. A decade ago, when Belgium soccer hit rock-bottom, they looked abroad. They had the luck of geography, bordering three of the leading soccer nations of the time: France, Germany and Holland. They copied from each. That's the advantage of being in western Europe.

Today the Dutch need to look especially at Germany, the country where next-generation soccer is being invented. The journalist De Hoog has described how Germany now reserves spots on its top coaching courses for people who never played professionally as they often turn out to be the most interesting new thinkers.

And Germans, adds De Hoog, are asking questions nobody else is. For instance: why should Germany or Bayern Munich field a goalkeeper when they typically only face a couple of shots on target a match? Wouldn't it be smarter to line the guy up in central defense and only send him back into goal in the rare moments when the other team threatens? Then you'd effectively be playing 11 against 10 for most of the match.

And since goals tend to come from winning possession in the other team's half rather than from laboriously constructed moves, why not deliberately give the ball to the other team and then win it back? The Germans themselves cannot yet answer these questions, but they are asking them. They know that the soccer that made them world champions in 2014 is already going out of date.

The Dutch need this kind of constant revolution. But even if they achieve it, they will probably never recapture their former status at the top of soccer. Once the Germans start thinking hard, small countries haven't got a chance.

Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.

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