The Demise of Dutch Football

By Peter McVitie

After another embarrassing failure from the national team, Dutch football has plummeted to a new low that marks a spectacular fall from its golden days of club and international glory.

The 2-0 win over Sweden in their final qualifying game on Tuesday couldn't prevent Netherlands missing out on the 2018 World Cup, but the country had given up hope long before then.

After reaching the finals and semi-finals of the last two World Cups, Oranje find themselves the laughing stock of Europe and the latest slip leaves the country wondering once again where its national game is headed.

The nation that changed the sport with its revolutionary Total Football has crumbled, fallen far behind their European counterparts and is left to work out where it all went wrong.

With the famous style that blossomed at Ajax in the late 1960s under legendary coach Rinus Michels and a squad led by the iconic Johan Cruyff, the Dutch developed a philosophy that taught the world a new way of playing. Inspiring players and coaches for generations, their influence has been evident in some of the great foreign teams that have emerged since.

The Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV sides that won European, UEFA and Club World Cups in the 1970s propelled Netherlands from an afterthought on the world stage to a dominant force.

Stars like Cruyff, Johnny Rep, Johan Neeskens, Wim Jansen, Willem van Hanegem, and Ruud Krol led national teams that won the hearts of fans across the world as they reached the 1974 and 78 World Cup finals. They were so scintillating they remain celebrated as among the best the competition has ever seen, despite losing both times.

Known for producing excellent players to act out their style of high pressing, swapping of positions, neat passing in triangles and an attacking nature, they elevated football as an art form and spread the philosophy across the world.

As if building on from the 1970s Ajax team and the 1974 World Cup, Michels oversaw another crop of remarkable players as a side consisting of Ruud Gullit, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard won the only major trophy the esteemed country has to its name.

The combination of artistic beauty and sporting mastery that culminated in Marco van Basten’s goal against USSR in the 1988 European Championship goes down as the last truly wonderful moment for the national team.

However, none of that glorious style was evident in their dismal World Cup qualifying campaign this year.

The current team showed little resemblance to the past greats as they had no energetic pressing, smart passing or any sort of tactical plan or cohesion.

With the midfield being completely bypassed and opponents finding it easy to isolate them on the wings, they looked helpless all the way through, carrying on a dismal three-year spell since the third-place finish at the 2014 World Cup.

Needing wins and lots of goals in their last matches against Belarus and Sweden as they looked to overcome a three-point gap and a huge goal difference deficit to seal a playoff spot, Dick Advocaat’s side fell flat and showed that the competition in Russia will not be worse off without them.

After the horror of missing out on an expanded Euro 2016, another summer of inactivity awaits next year and the Dutch football association (KNVB) must work out the next step to fixing the many problems in the team before the issues continue.

Crucially, they must prepare for a change in generation within the squad.

With veterans such as Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar all being called upon throughout their qualifying campaign, the Dutch are still clinging to the team that made it to the final at the 2010 World Cup, but the switch in generation is inevitable.

"We are in a phase where we don't have top, top players,” Ronald de Boer told Goal when asked about the current problems.

"The top players are getting older and the young players are basically too young to fill in the gap. We have a lot of talent, but it is [young] talent, they have not arrived yet.

“If I see the qualities [of the young Dutch generation] I think they are incredible. But it is still only talent that fluctuates... it is going great then it goes down. But, for me, they are unbelievably talented and hopefully [in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar] they will be at the age of about 25."

The likes of Georginio Wijnaldum, Daley Blind, Kevin Strootman, Virgil van Dijk and Memphis Depay will develop further by then and suggest there will be a healthy bridge between age groups.

However, that they are missing a world-class star to succeed Robben as the hero of the team has fans dreading the day the 33-year-old brings an end to his career.

The way the talent of the current side has been handled through the latest catastrophe leaves little faith in the KNVB, given it is their long-term plan for getting through the two qualifying campaigns that led to it.

The governing body claimed to be defending Dutch football’s “attacking principles” with the appointment of Guus Hiddink as Louis van Gaal’s successor after the 2014 World Cup, also naming Danny Blind as the man to take over after Euro 2016 to get them to Russia next year.

The plan to make them a dominant, attacking team fell apart within the first year, however, as Hiddink left during the Euro 2016 qualifying round and Blind was let go halfway through the now-closed road to Russia.

Amid their awful performances, the need to build up through the wings, lack of movement and understanding between players, the only resemblance they had to the previous generations was the 4-3-3 formation.

To limit the Dutch style as merely the formation and desire to hold onto the ball for the sake of it is a wild misinterpretation of those attacking principles.

“We lost identity,” ex-Ajax and Tottenham boss Martin Jol said recently. “Our identity was always good organisation and an attacking style. Now, if we do that, we concede too many goals.

“In Netherlands our philosophy was to be different. Now we want to be like everybody else — and they are bigger and better than us.”

If the national team is far off the level expected, the domestic game is in as much of a crisis.

The 1970s was a glorious decade for Dutch club football after Feyenoord started an impeccable decade for the country with a 1970 European Cup win over Celtic. Each of Dutch football’s big three won international trophies in the next 10 years: Ajax were crowned continental champions in each of the next three seasons, while Feyenoord and PSV both claimed the UEFA Cup.

Even though between them they would each win just one European trophy over the next three decades, they continued to be held in high regard with the quality they had in the squad.

After Ronald Koeman, Wim Kieft and Willy van de Kerkhof led PSV to European Cup success in 1988, the Dutch style had one last sensational run thanks to Van Gaal’s young 1995 Champions League winning team that featured the De Boers, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars and Clarence Seedorf.

Now, it has since become normal for Dutch sides to crash out of Europe before they enter the knockout rounds.

With teams unable to compete financially, they cannot stop their most promising players from leaving at an early age. Ajax and Feyenoord consistently see their youth products snapped up by teams across Europe, while other talents move on after just a couple of seasons in the first-team.

The issue has plagued them for years and is a huge one for De Boer.

"I think the problem is that a lot of young players are leaving Holland at a young age to go to different leagues,” he said.

"Then you have the big leagues, who [in addition to signing the top players] are signing all the decent players too. Before we could attract decent players as well, towards places like Amsterdam.

"These players are not coming anymore. So now we are stuck with players [in the Eredivisie] who, in my eyes, are not good enough.”

The perpetual downgrading of their squads puts the Eredivisie teams in a dangerous spiral. As the league itself declines, teams find themselves unable to rise to the challenge against more tactically adept European opponents.

As De Boer put it, the gulf in quality between playing against Dutch sides and the European powerhouses is like going from playing against your mother to facing a legendary defender.

"If you want to develop yourself, you have to play against the best, or at least those good enough that you think ‘Oh, I still have to reach this kind of level'.

"I think they are not tested. I always make the example: If I play against my mother, I win easily. So, I am not tested and I think that is good enough. But suddenly, I then play against Marcel Desailly and it is a different ball game. If I lose, I then think that next time I need to step up.

"But the players don't know when to step up as they are never tested. Then suddenly they are tested in Europe, but we only have Vitesse playing in the Europa League and Feyenoord because they are champions and automatically qualified for the Champions League. They lost 4-0 to Manchester City, they were destroyed. Then they lost easy to Napoli, 3-1.

"We are so far away now because we are not tested. We have to change, how we do it is difficult, though. We have an interesting league, it is nice, it is entertaining, but it is not good."

If player development continues to suffer, Eredivisie teams will find it even harder to hold onto their best players.

If they cannot prepare their most promising players to play in different systems and adapt to a change in speed, there will be less reason for them to stay if the education at home is not good enough.

But the risk of drifting into football obscurity if a move to England, Germany, Italy or Spain does not go well means young Dutch players are always at risk.

"If you look at Belgium. All the boys – Jan Vertonghen, Toby Aldeweireld, Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini - all those players left Belgium early and look at their generation now.

"I think now because you are not tested in Holland, you will be tested with the good players at a better level at Chelsea, Arsenal or Man Utd wherever and you get to a better level.

"But it is a gamble because football now is a business. If you are not performing as a young boy, they will just buy someone who will fit in straight away. So, it’s not easy to take your chance. In Holland, at least you have your chance.”

Players need the right coaches to push them on and develop them tactically, too and, unfortunately, Netherlands can hardly offer many forward-thinking trainers.

Eredivisie teams generally line up in a 4-3-3 and play a similar way. There is no longer a strong drive for new and exciting tactical ideas as they try to protect the same facets of Dutch football that the national team sticks by.

Foreign coaches are a rarity in the Eredivisie too as the nation has become a too inward-looking and sceptical to adopting another playing style. As the presence of Dutch football’s influence is currently spread out across Germany, England and Spain as opposed to its own country, they may have to change that idea.

With the latest failure of the national team, the KNVB may look beyond the Dutch borders for the next figure to lead the national team.

The current philosophy in the country is just too rudimentary for the rest of the world, who have moved on technically and tactically from the Dutch.

The concerns over the players they are producing, their identity, issues with the league, coaching and general bad management from the KNVB, the Dutch are looking inept in all aspects that saw them rise to the top of world football and stay there for decades.

Falling to a new depth with their latest World Cup catastrophe, it has become clear they have strayed far from the Total Football philosophy that made them great in the first place.

As a delicate period nears, the KNVB must look for a way to get the entire national game back on track. It may not be another revolution the Dutch need, but instead just a re-revolution.