For a country whose backbone is in developing young players, there is irony in in former national team manager Danny Blind indirectly losing his job by giving 17-year-old Ajax centerback Matthijs de Ligt his international debut in a 2-0 loss against Belgium last week. De Ligt made two mistakes that led directly to both goals, and Blind was out as manager a day later. The bravery of throwing de Ligt into the deep end of qualification would have been applauded in another time, but the move only reinforced Blind’s tactical naivety and perhaps showed a political favoritism towards Ajax players. Instead, asking a teenager to fortify a Dutch side that kept just one clean sheet in 16 matches under the former manager seemed reckless at best. The focus now is for de Ligt to mentally recover from that initial failure.
Netherlands are now in fourth place in Group A, sitting six points behind first place France. But beyond the loss, in relying on the physicality of two strikers in the second half, they looked distinctly un-Dutch. To pin this recent fairly squarely on Blind would be blind to the underlying symptoms. The cracks were apparent starting with qualifiers for the 2016 European Championships, the first time the side failed to qualify for an international tournament since the 2002 World Cup. They gave up three goals in losing to the Czech Republic in the playoff match. Their accomplishments were reduced to Twitter memes.
That was a clear indication that the Golden Era of Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben had passed at the international level. But the lack of reinforcements outside of Memphis Depay and Gini Wijnaldum meant the side continue to rely on the old guard while awkwardly insisting on a 4-3-3 possession system regardless of player fit. In a 1-1 draw against Sweden in September, Blind shoehorned Wesley Sneijder on the wing in order to keep the formation that defined the country’s football over the past 40 years. Instead, the lack of seamless movement from the three midfielders was a far cry from the positionless ideals that influenced countless managers across the world. As Pieter Zwart noted, Dutch soccer ideals are still alive, but they exist more in other countries than they do domestically.
The recycling of managers from Guus Hiddink to Blind also showed a lack of vision from upper management and perhaps even deeper, a shallow pool of Dutch managers to call on. Former Ajax manager Frank de Boer’s struggles in replicating his success with Inter and Serie A mirrored the issue of adapting a classic possession style in modern Europe. He surely never received enough time to build a successful side in Milan, but with Stefan Pioli’s success, de Boer never played to their strengths either. There was a sense of possession malaise that crept into de Boer’s final season at Ajax. Were his tactics this good, or was the possession style flattered by having better players than his opponents?
There’s been seven Dutch managers in the Premier League, with Ronald Koeman the most successful with Southampton and Everton. There was a sense in 2015, with Koeman, Louis van Gaal at United, and Dick Advocaat at Sunderland, of a Dutch golden age of managers in England. In addition to their tactical knowledge, the pragmatic implications of rebuilding with a new side every season with transfers leaving the club signaled an ability to think on their feet. Yet Advocaat lasted less than a season; van Gaal was gone after two. And with van Gaal rumored to take over as technical director, there is a sense that it would only be treating the symptoms.
On the domestic side, Phillip Cocu and Peter Bosz currently lead PSV and Ajax respectively. With the bigger name and international playing pedigree, Cocu is next in line to manage outside the country. Using a counter attack style in a predominantly 4-5-1 formation, his sides featured passive defending to draw in opponents and quick outlets to wingers in breaking out on counters. The 1 on 1 ability of Memphis Depay on the wing was essential to make the system tick, and the lack of pressing in the opposition half goes against modern trends. But he displayed tactical flexibility in moving back and forth between a three, four, and five defender backline depending on the opponent. Playing this antithesis to Ajax’s possession style resulted in two titles for PSV under Cocu.
With a resume spanning teams in the second division of Dutch football and a spell at Maccabi Tel Aviv, current Ajax manager Peter Bosz’s resume evokes that of fellow traveler managers Quique Setien, and Maurizio Sarri. In the traditional Dutch mold, his Vitesse side used a 4-3-3 formation to lead the Eredivisie with 56% possession per match. What elevates the Bosz into modernity is his in using the counter pressing that goes hand in hand with positional play. While Ajax were unable to break down the Russian side’s compact 4-4-2 formation in the Champions League qualification stage, the side used their spacing to recover the ball from Rostov defenders after losing possession. There is a formula for having it all - both the beautiful possession while not giving up goals in return. Not every defensive play has to depend on a 17-year-old tracking down crosses.
One could question the role of the national side is in determining the style of the domestic league. Germany provided a framework in how to modernize an entire country’s soccer program in one generation, with Belgium providing its own model. There were many in Dutch football who could see the need to rebuild coming years ago, seeking input from Arsene Wenger to Arrigo Sacchi in examining where the game is headed. Although the Dutch present a unique case in that youth development is already emphasized. The question then becomes for what era are they building?
In their first match post Blind, under caretaker manager Fred Grim, Netherlands lost 2-1 in a friendly against Italy. They took an early lead before their defensive frailty showed again. Chief executive of the Dutch federation Bert van Oostveen admitted that the overall goal is to compete in the 2022 World Cup and beyond. As for the next five years, no one said that an entire generational rebuild wouldn’t have its growing pains. A group of Dutch supporters adopted Belgium to support in the 2016 European Championships, and may have to do so again in Russia. But at the very least, their side has a pathway to once again be at the forefront of modern soccer, in whatever form of pressing, possession, or counterattacking it takes.