The Dutch Devolution

Written by  //  August 17, 2010  //  Sport  //  5 Comments

There is something utterly alluring about the Dutch and its football that has attracted me to it over the years. Maybe, it has to do with the fact that my initiation to the game coincided with the flowering of a ridiculously talented group of players trained at the Ajax academy (the class of Bergkamp, Kluivert, Seedorf, Davids and the De Boer twins). Or maybe, it’s the mythical resonance of ‘total football’ that had enraptured watchers of its time, leaving behind an indelible mark on the game. Or maybe, the reasons are more superficial; I vaguely remember answering, ‘orange’, when asked as a kid what my favourite colour was.

Being so, the World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain left me with a strong sense of disappointment, not so much a result of the outcome (Spain was unquestionably a worthy winner) but the roguish style that was employed by the Dutch. In adopting a tactic that was designed to thuggishly intimidate and destroy Spain’s football, the Dutch not only betrayed the stupendous talent at its disposal, but also desecrated some of the celebrated grandiose of its former teams.

The Dutch game over the years has been characterised by its unique perception of space and resultantly an ability to construct moves of artistic splendour. The beauty of its football has been a product of creative thinking and an ability to do things differently, as opposed to an adherence to the predominant tactics of the times.

In his book, ‘The Brilliant Orange’, David Winner draws intriguing links between Dutch architecture and art and its football and in doing so, conceptualises the role played by the understanding of ‘space’ in its football. He argues, that to understand the idea of Dutch football, it is necessary to look beyond the game as played on the pitch and to analyse the ethos of the Dutch people and its approach to other streams of life. Dutch space, he evocatively asserts is different. He says ‘other nations and football culture may have produced greater goal-scorers, more dazzling individual ball artists and more dependable and efficient tournament winning teams. But no one has ever imagined or structured their play as abstractly, as architecturally, in such a measured fashion as the Dutch.’

Of course, the Dutch game took its time to reach a level of tactical sophistication. In fact, professionalism in football wasn’t prevalent in the Netherlands until the mid nineteen-fifties, a time at which it was one of the most backward states in Europe. But flanking a socio-cultural rebellion that has seen the Netherlands become one of the most progressive nations in the world was a revolution on the pitch that ultimately placed its football on the highest of plinths.

Ajax, first under the coaching of Rinus Michels and then under Stefan Kovacs, completed a unique feat of winning the European Cup in three consecutive seasons from 1971-1973, by playing a system that is now renowned as ‘total football’. The style involved astonishing fluidity of movement with players rapidly interchanging their positions; defenders turning into attackers, central midfielders moving into full-back and so on. That they performed their tasks to perfection was no doubt an upshot of having played together for years, but at the heart of their artistry laid an innate understanding of space.

Michels, moved on to coach Barcelona, joined soon by Johan Cruyff, and established the foundation for a bright future, which has culminated in the club’s and Spain’s recent success. But I must add that although Spain’s and Barcelona’s style is built on the bedrock of fluidity in movement, it is vastly different from the methods employed by Ajax and the Netherlands in the late nineteen-sixties, and nineteen-seventies.

Sjaak Swart who won eight league championships with Ajax states in Winner’s book that position-switching developed naturally and that for all the artistry, its football was direct. “In four passes we would be in front of goal. Nowadays they take twenty passes – backwards, sideways, backwards. We didn’t play like that. We went for the goal. We could play sixty minutes of pressing… I’ve never seen any other club anywhere who could do that.”

Spain’s football on the other hand is built on an ability to maintain possession of the ball and thereby wearing the opponents to submission. I say this to merely remove any misconception that Spain’s football is akin to that of the great Dutch teams of the years gone by and not to demean its football, which has been wondrous in its own way.

The Dutch on the other hand, as I said have always had an ability to think innovatively, especially about space which can so often be the decisive factor in football games. At the core of the analysis on the Dutch game of the past lies a premise that its football has an orientation garnered towards creation and not destruction. Against Spain however, the team seemed more intent on spoiling rather than inventing, a tactic that ran entirely counter to the cultural pedigree of its football.

It is no doubt unrealistic to expect a team to adhere to a system that was gloriously, if not entirely successfully, employed three-four decades ago as Rafael Honigstein points out. Tactics have evolved over a course of time and a side can ill-afford to compromise on defensive responsibilities for the sake of pure attacking beauty. Theoretically, Honigstein’s stance is sound, but the suggestion that this Dutch team was no more defensive than its predecessors is fallacious. Yes, the article was written before the final, at a time when the Dutch style hadn’t regressed as much as it had by the time they played Spain, but to imply that its football failed to thrill because the opposition was defensive is wholly off beam.

Perhaps in the years gone by, teams were tactically more naïve and weren’t astute enough to counter the attacking brilliance of the Dutch. But it wasn’t quite as easy as it’s sometimes made to seem. The beauty of the Dutch was not merely a consequence of the opposition allowing it space to operate, but on the contrary was founded on its own ability to manufacture and construct space.

In addition to Honigstein’s view, it must also be said that that total-football, as is understood in some circles, was not an entirely attacking strategy. The system was about controlling space; compressing it when without the ball and expanding it when in possession of the ball. Consequently, it worked wonderfully from a holistically strategic standpoint and not purely from an attacking perspective. The swift interchanging of positions by the players and a multifarious approach to the game was never a compromise on defensive duties, so to understand the tactic as simply an offensive ploy is erroneous.

My intention is not to deny the necessity for pragmatism. In a brief piece that I had written on my blog, I had argued that good football and beautiful football do not necessarily correlate and I am not loath to adding that the former is mostly a product of ‘pragmatism’, a word which, especially in footballing parlance, is grossly misunderstood. To be pragmatic is to be practical and regardless of its lack of aesthetic appeal, I believe, the tactics employed by the Dutch in the final were predominantly unworkable. No doubt, its decision to tackle with vigour helped stifle Spain for large parts of the game, but eventually it was bound to cost it dear.

It would have certainly been imprudent for the Dutch to attack unbothered by Spain’s reputation, but greater thoughtfulness was required to counter the opposition than merely following a herd of teams that have tried defying such a brand of football with vicious tackling. In recent times, any analysis concerning Barcelona or Spain sees a reference to Internazionale’s victory over the Catalan club in the Champions League semi-final. It must, though, be borne in mind that the second leg performance of the Italians, hailed as one of the greatest defensive performances of recent times, saw it play for the majority of the game with ten men. Undoubtedly following the sending off, Inter maintained shape immaculately and defended with aplomb, but it is important to note that this was achieved without resorting to excessively robust or brutal means.

One may also point to the fact that Spain’s goal came late in extra-time and that the fact that if not for its profligacy in front of goal, the Dutch may well have emerged successful. However, it’s significant to note that with a different referee, it may well have been a man-down minutes into the game. Some argue that the Dutch were entitled in endeavouring to win ugly, considering the failures of the past, which off-set some of its brilliant artistry. But to see the Dutch reduced to measures that are the norm for lesser teams was both impractical and a perfidy of its magnificent footballing history. With no sign of Bert van Marvijk, the present coach of the Netherlands, being replaced, it’s difficult to imagine a radical amendment in the existing system, which is not only tragic but also grossly obtuse.

5 Comments on "The Dutch Devolution"

  1. Satyajit August 17, 2010 at 4:22 pm ·

    On facts, I’d say that of the five most artful touches of the final, three came from Van Persie.

    A lot of Spanish tippy – tappy frankly bored me to tears. First touch passing is almost cowardly when 90% of your passes are sideways and back. Incisive passing was sorely lacking from Spain’s performance at WC 2010.

    Somehow, I’m not convinced that the Dutch were all dire and defensive, viz. Gregory van der Wiel’s runs down the flank.

    Also, don’t get me started on Sergio Busquets.

  2. Suhrith August 18, 2010 at 1:23 am ·

    I don’t deny that the Spanish style doesn’t appeal to all. In fact, I’ve pointed out the lack of directness in its style somewhere in the article. That apart, I felt that the Dutch were consistently poor throughout the tournament. It had the singular brilliance of Wesley Sneijder (who himself wasn’t at his best), along with the rare exhibits of class from Robben to thank for its showing. I thought its passing was dreary at the best of times. Most pertinently, I believe it was the team’s lack of belief in its own talents which ended up costing it dear. Its tactics in the final was not only a betrayal of its heritage, but also impractical.

  3. Arghya August 18, 2010 at 4:43 am ·

    I feel compelled to pitch in with my little two-bit after reading this wonderful post. Suhrith, where, if anywhere, can there be a line between pragmatism in football and playing foul? I feel that line is incredibly hard to draw and Marwik’s pragmatism may be FIFA and the world media’s playing foul. Of course I’d be interested to hear further on why, as you suggest, in the end, you think it itself was impractical. This lack of distinction certainly doesn’t disentitle anyone from claiming that the Dutch played an aesthetically unattractive brand of football, but to call it bad football or foul play I think is harsh and prompted perhaps only by the fact that the Dutch lost the game. Many commentators, I suspect, may have hailed this as a great pragmatic display had the result been otherwise and Marwik would have been the new, ultra-ruthless Mourinho.

    And I may be in a hopeless minority on this one (I certainly was when the World Cup was on) but I found Spain’s football unattractive, boring and sleep-inducing. The Dutch certainly betrayed their attacking talents in the final, but Spain was deathly dull throughout the tournament. It reminded me of George Graham’s “1-0 to the Arsenal” days and as frustrating as Wenger’s football may be, give me Wenger any day.

  4. Niranjan August 18, 2010 at 7:12 am ·

    I agree. I’ve always been in something of a quandry on this one, because I find Barcelona’s passing game phenomenal, and also think that an Internazionale defence with ten-men at the Nou Camp is as, if not more, gripping. And I think the trouble arises because the Internazionale sort of play at the Nou Camp is easily confused with what, for example, Stoke City do in the Premier League – kick, launch long balls, maintain a high line, and essentially bully players off the pitch. One may recall Gary Neville’s disgusting kicks at Reyes in a game at Old Trafford (I think it was Pizzagate, might be wrong). And the Dutch approach in the final is a tough question, because it veered more towards Stoke than towards Internazionale. And, while we are on this, I wonder if van Marwijk anticipated the adverse headlines in withdrawing de Jong for van der Vaart. I think that cost him the World Cup. Says a lot about the influence of the “beautiful football” theory on managers.

  5. Suhrith August 18, 2010 at 10:35 am ·

    I tend to agree with Niranjan. The Dutch adopted not merely a defensive system, but a cruelly cynical one. It was, perhaps, not as one-dimensional as Stoke’s , but it certainly amounted to a betrayal of its talents. As I’ve pointed out in the post, Inter’s performance in the second leg of its semi-final against Barcelona may have been defensive, but it was certainly not overly brutal. The victory was achieved by its ability to adhere immaculately to a given shape. In fact there was a conscious effort on its part to ensure that it didn’t give away needless fouls.

    The Dutch, on the other hand, as was evinced by De Jong’s early tackle, were more intent on spoiling rather than creating anything of substance. I think, had it concentrated on its own strengths a little more, and tried to keep more concerted possession of the ball, it would have had a better chance against Spain.

    I thought the Dutch were quite mediocre throughout the tournament. Apart from moments of individual brilliance, it hardly produced performances of overall excellence. Of course, it may be fair to say that it had a very good tournament, going by its appearance in the final. But I thought it was fortunate to get past Brazil in the quarterfinal. The Brazilians were superb in the first half of that game and if not for the profligacy of its forwards, it should have comfortably sailed into the semifinals. And Melo’s petulance didn’t help either.

    As for the aspect of the Dutch methods being impractical on its own, I think it was quite inevitable that the sheer amount of illegal tackles flying about was going to ultimately cost it dear. It doesn’t necessarily take harsh tackling to counter the Spaniards, as was shown by the Swiss. Had, the Netherlands concentrated more on maintaining shape and being practical with their tackling, it may well have been able to come up trumps.

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