Dutch stagnation is due to lack of new ideas, new managers at the top
You look at the Dutch team that achieved a pointless 2-0 victory over Sweden on Tuesday, while waving goodbye to qualification for next year's World Cup, and your first thought is: it's the B-team.
That would explain some of the underwhelming names on the team sheet: Lyon's Kenny Tete, Hertha Berlin's Karim Rekik and eternal journeyman Ryan Babel, who was once described by Gary Neville as always fighting with his own feet. But no: also in the team was Arjen Robben, the best Dutch player of this century. It really was Holland's first-choice XI. We don't have anything better, especially since Robben, 33, who scored both Holland's goals, retired from international soccer immediately after the game.
(I'm not Dutch, but I've supported them since spending my childhood there.)
The crisis in Dutch men's soccer (the women are European champions) recalls Johan Cruyff's complaint in ungrammatical English when he was playing for the Washington Diplomats in 1981: "Why should I gone back when everything they are doing with soccer in Holland is wrong now?" Cruyff, the father of modern Dutch soccer, died last year. But today's crisis is partly his fault. The Dutch game has fallen into the hands of an old boys' club of former players who don't even want to keep up with the best foreigners.
Traditional attacking Dutch "total football," as the world calls it (the Dutch say "Hollandse school"), stopped working long ago. Most of Holland's best moments of the last decade have come from packed defenses and rapid counterattacks, usually involving Robben. Think of the hammerings of Italy and France at Euro 2008, the second half against Brazil at the World Cup 2010 and 28 glorious minutes against Spain in the 5-1 win in Salvador, Brazil in 2014.
The Dutch soccer analyst Pieter Zwart has charted Holland's recent dependence on Robben: since 2014, they have averaged a goal a game more with him than without him but tellingly, Robben was never really a Dutch player. He grew up in an isolated northeastern village near the German border. He was the only local talent, and there were no professional coaches around, so he was left free to dribble.
Had Robben grown up in the west, the Ajax or Feyenoord academy would have snapped him up and banned him from dribbling; then he may have become yet another sideways-passing Dutch forward. Robben became Robben only because he escaped the Dutch system. "Arjen, thank you," the Amsterdam crowd chanted for minutes on end during the Sweden game.
Anyone wondering how Tottenham reject Vincent Janssen is Holland's starting striker should know that the Dutch have absolutely nobody else up front. Some more shocking facts from Zwart:
- The number of assists by Dutch forwards in the English, German, Spanish and Italian leagues this season: zero
- The number of Dutch forwards who have scored in these leagues: one. (Robben, obviously.)
By contrast, Zwart shows that the number of minutes played by Dutch defenders in these leagues (think Daley Blind at Manchester United, Virgil van Dijk at Southampton and Lazio's Stefan de Vrij) has never been higher. There is lots of young Dutch creative talent coming through but none of it is on the men's side. While the women's national team won Euro 2017 with six wins from six games with 13 goals scored, the men are approaching a low ebb.
For such a globalized country, the solution is obvious: look abroad. That's what the Germans did when their soccer hit rock-bottom in 2004. They went around Europe stealing the best ideas. At home, they refreshed their soccer thinking by looking beyond the usual suspects for coaches. Joachim Low, never a well-known player, was made coach of the national team. Men like Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann, who had barely or never played professionally, were appointed as coaches of big clubs. When the Germans become clever, nobody else has a chance and now they are world champions. Holland's other neighbors, Belgium, recruited the outsider Roberto Martinez as national team manager last year, after advertising the job online.
The only advantage the little Netherlands ever had in soccer was brainpower. As Cruyff said, "Soccer is a game you play with your head." But the men who run Dutch soccer seem fearful of clever foreigners bringing ideas.
This spring I put the country's soccer federation, the KNVB, in touch with Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentina-born coach of Sevilla, who had made little Chile into Copa America champions. He was keen to manage Holland. I'm only a journalist but I thought the KNVB would be pleased with a coach who had imbibed the "Hollandse school" style and then modernized it at the highest international level. Sampaoli's teams play a kind of "Total Football 3.0" but the KVNB then appointed Dick Advocaat (who turned 70 last month) for his third stint as Holland's manager. Sampaoli became coach of Argentina instead.
Decisions like that might hint at the nation's refusal to evolve as Germany did, partly because as a small country it sets the bar lower and partly because Dutch soccer is a tiny world -- a "gentleman's club," the Dutch writer Michiel de Hoog calls it -- in which everyone knows everyone, and often since adolescence. Three of Holland's last four managers (Advocaat, Danny Blind and Louis van Gaal) actually played together at Sparta Rotterdam in 1981. Old pals give each other jobs.
Ajax Amsterdam, the only Dutch club with enough money to perform a bit in Europe, is explicitly organized according to the old pals' principle. When Cruyff seized control there in a 2011 coup, he ordained that only Ajax's ex-players could run or coach the club. Marc Overmars, Edwin van der Sar and Dennis Bergkamp now form Ajax's "technical heart," while ex-player Marcel Keizer coaches the first team.
Ajax has done almost nothing in Europe for 20 years except last season under Peter Bosz, a coach who never played for Ajax. Bosz made the players super-fit and got them playing a pacy, German style of Total Football 3.0, which propelled them to the Europa League final. Now he coaches Borussia Dortmund, while Ajax under Keizer has reverted to the contemporary Dutch slow sideways game; they were eliminated from the Europa League before the group stage by Rosenborg of Norway.
The Dutch old boys' club doesn't worry much about defeats. After Holland's 4-0 thrashing by France, Advocaat revealed his ideal successor: his assistant, Ruud Gullit. "The Netherlands," he raved to a Dutch magazine, "forgets what a great figure Gullit is. After France, all the French players went up to Ruud first. If you have an ambassador like that, profit from it, I say." No matter that Gullit hardly has a history as an innovative winning soccer manager. No matter that he hasn't even coached a team in years, either. What counts is that Gullit is an "ambassador" -- and that he and Advocaat go back more than 30 years together.
I've subscribed to the same Dutch soccer magazine, Voetbal International, since the 1970s. I always used to devour it the moment it arrived. Now I can't bear to open it. The worst thing is that there's almost no prospect of Holland ever returning to the top again. We may forever look back on the 1974-2014 period as the lost Dutch golden age.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.