Dutch football seems increasingly to exist on flawed assumptions

Words by Richard Jolly
November 9, 2017

Scotland against Holland. For those of a certain generation, it will conjure memories of Archie Gemmill’s slaloming solo run in the 1978 World Cup. For those two decades younger, it may bring Trainspotting to mind. Scotland were already getting nostalgic 20 years ago, but it was Holland who reached the Argentina World Cup final, not to mention its equivalent in South Africa seven years ago and the semi-finals in Brazil.

Now Scotland versus Holland, a match of teams who will not play a competitive international for 10 months and have not qualified for the World Cup, serves as emblem of decline. Scotland’s is more enduring, Holland’s more dramatic.

Reasons abound, from poor management in the last three years to a generation gap, with the cyclical nature of talent in a comparatively small country meaning Holland have few premier players at the peak of their powers.

Yet two recent books contained observations that highlight wider issues. Tony Adams, in Sober, wrote: “A lot of Dutch down the years have lived on Johan Cruyff’s reputation.” Andrei Kanchelskis, in Russian Winters, wrote of Dick Advocaat, one of his Rangers managers: “I thought his favouritism towards the Dutch players at Ibrox was blatant.”

Adams’ approach can be unconventional but he is no Little Englander. He coached at Feyenoord and Utrecht and found Dutch thinking eye-opening. His observation was prompted by the struggles of Gus Uhlenbeek, the full-back who was one of his charges at Wycombe, to execute one of his training drills but it has a greater truth. Cruyff has become a shorthand for Dutch football. Mentions of Total Football proliferate, sometimes regardless of their accuracy. There is an assumption of attacking, adventurous football purveyed by technically excellent footballers with the skillset to operate everywhere on the pitch. Too often that is not the case.

Yet the failing also lies with outsiders who assume Cruyff’s ideas are invariably implemented by his compatriots. Managers, like players, lived on Cruyff’s reputation. It helped them get jobs, particularly at clubs who do not do their due diligence.

Priorities can be blurred by Cruyff’s legacy. One criticism of some Dutch defenders is that they cannot defend. Adams attributed Uhlenbeek’s poor touch to moving to England too soon. Some of those who stayed in Holland may be technically proficient but defensively deficient.

Yet the failing also lies with outsiders who assume Cruyff’s ideas are invariably implemented by his compatriots. Managers, like players, lived on Cruyff’s reputation. It helped them get jobs, particularly at clubs who do not do their due diligence. The warped version of Dutch football played by Louis van Gaal and Frank de Boer bears little resemblance to Cruyff’s Barcelona teams; sometimes appointments are made on incorrect expectations related to the identity of Dutch football.

And Cruyff gave birth to the notion of Dutch superiority. It feels misplaced now. It did not always in the past but, as Kanchelskis noted, there were times when their compatriots exported the idea and imported Dutchmen unnecessarily. Advocaat had eight at Ibrox; “far too many,” said Kanchelskis, who thought they created a clique. It was a point when Holland had reached the semi-finals of the previous World Cup; even that, however, is not an adequate explanation of why Van Gaal thought Barcelona needed Boudewijn Zenden and Winston Bogarde.

Fast forward the best part of two decades and two Dutch managers signed their countrymen for Premier League clubs this summer. De Boer bought Jairo Riedewald, the sort of defender who, had he emerged in England, probably would not have been a centre-back at all. The £7.9 million addition began one league game before De Boer’s dismissal, the 3-0 defeat to Huddersfield, which, after the signing of another left-footed centre-back, Mamadou Sakho, and the appointment of Roy Hodgson, will almost certainly remain his lone Premier League start as a central defender.

Ronald Koeman, meanwhile, spent £23.6 million on Davy Klaassen, scorer of 20 goals for Ajax last season but one of a certain type of slow Dutch players who struggle to acclimatise to the greater pace of football elsewhere. The 24-year-old has been the victim of confused thinking, ranking third among the three No. 10s Everton signed in swift succession, but he has only made three league starts and failed to even make the bench for three of David Unsworth’s four games in charge.

Riedewald and Klaassen became indictments of De Boer and Koeman respectively. The signings suffered by association with sacked managers. Favouritism, or the perception of it, has backfired. The idea that Dutch is best was epitomised when Van Gaal frequently described Memphis Depay as the greatest talent of his generation. Jose Mourinho decided he ranked about sixth among Manchester United’s attacking midfielders and omitted and then sold him. Like Klaassen, Depay is in the Holland squad this week. But with its national team floundering, its managers sacked abroad, its premier players in decline and some of its lesser lights struggling to even get in club teams in the major leagues, the Dutch could be forgiven for getting as nostalgic as the Scots. And not just because they actually won the game immortalised by Gemmill’s goal 3-2.

Ajax Johan Cruyff
What are you looking for?