Why the Dutch seem to have forgotten how to play soccer
The last foreigner to manage Holland was Austrian Ernst Happel. Once a teenage solder in Hitler's army on the Russian front, Happel landed in the Dutch league in the 1960s. He never learned much Dutch, which didn't matter as he rarely spoke, preferring to smoke instead. Famously, he would win his players' respect by placing a bottle on the crossbar during a training session, then knocking it off with one shot of the ball. Mostly, he just drank cognac and played cards.
In 1978, Happel coached Holland to the World Cup final. He died in 1992 -- of lung cancer, unsurprisingly -- but now the time may have come to reincarnate him. I've supported Holland for nearly 40 years, since moving to the country as a child, and have never seen the team at such a low ebb as it is today. It's not just that the Dutch will miss Euro 2016 after a string of humiliating defeats to mid-ranking nations. It's that, like Brazil, Holland seems not to know how to play soccer anymore. The country's traditional style no longer works. Once the world's most intelligent soccer nation, Holland needs to reinvent its game from scratch, probably under foreign direction.
The most obvious layer of the problem is individual quality. The great generation born in 1983 and 1984 is fading. Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie announced after Tuesday's 2-3 home defeat to the Czech Republic that they planned to keep playing for Holland, and Van Persie has gone even further. "I want to play for Oranje until I'm 38 or 40," he said recently. "The longest of everyone. That's one of my career goals."
But Van Persie's words suggest a weak grip on reality. Aged 32, he already alternates between scowling alone on Fenerbahce's bench and sitting on Holland's. In this week's double-header against Kazakhstan and the Czech Republic, he won his 100th and 101st caps as a sub, but distinguished himself chiefly through a childish squabble with Memphis Depay in training, and a hilarious headed own goal for the Czechs (though he did later notch a late non-consolation goal for Holland).
Arjen Robben, at 31 still easily the best Dutch player, now injured again, may have something to contribute in the future. His individual genius coupled with the defensive wall erected by Louis van Gaal took Holland to third place in last year's World Cup. But apart from Robben, Holland needs to build on a new generation.
Unfortunately, it isn't a good one. Ajax, the main source of Dutch talent since the 1970s, has produced at best one top-class Dutchman aged under 30, Daley Blind. (The next most prominent Dutch under-30 homegrown Ajax exports may be PSG's reserve Gregory van der Wiel, Ryan Babel of Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, and Siem de Jong and Vurnon Anita of Newcastle.)
Study Blind, and you come to Dutch soccer's broader problem. He is the best version of the modern Dutch player: clever, comfortable in several positions, a good passer, but neither fast nor strong nor a good tackler or header.
Dutch soccer has reduced the complex game to the pass -- and the short pass at that. As Dutch journalist Michiel de Hoog and data analyst Sander IJtsma diagnosed this week, the Dutch game has degenerated into harmless passing around one's own defense. It's the style that Arsene Wenger has called "sterile domination": you have the ball, but you don't threaten.
Johan Cruyff, father of Dutch soccer, complains: "Holland is world champion [of] passing sideways and back. The buildup is currently the weakest aspect of our game." Barcelona and Germany pass fast near the opposition's goal; Holland passes slowly near its own. The opposition watches the Dutch "knit" until the moment comes to intercept a pass and break.
Germany, Belgium and Spain -- Holland's role models as it starts to rebuild -- produce passers too. Almost every player in Germany's team, even goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, passes like a midfield playmaker. But in addition, their players have what the Dutch call "specific qualities." Bastian Schweinsteiger is a great tackler, Mesut Ozil a dribbler, Mats Hummels can head, Thomas Muller is an unmatched athlete, and so on.
Older Dutch players do have "specific qualities": Robben's dribble, Sneijder's shot, Ron Vlaar's muscles, Van Persie's nose for goal. But Holland's under-30s lack them. In this generation nobody put in the hours repetitively practising tackles or shots or long passes. Every Dutch player was raised as a short passer, because short passing was conceived of as the whole of soccer.
There used to be more to the Dutch game. For about 30 unbroken years until 2004, Holland's sweeper had arguably the best long pass in international soccer: first Ruud Krol, then Ronald Koeman and finally Frank de Boer. But they had no successor, and now Holland has no alternative to knitting its way out from the back. The Dutch buildup has become unsurprising.
Moreover, the Dutch have come to undervalue the art of man-marking. When Stefan de Vrij (now with Lazio Roma) was at Feyenoord, he realized that like all young Dutch defenders he had less muscle than his foreign counterparts. Shrewdly, he went to the gym to build himself up. When Feyenoord found out, it told him to stop. Huub Stevens, a Dutch coach recently released by Stuttgart (almost no Dutchmen still coach big foreign clubs), recently told the Dutch NRC Handelsblad newspaper: "Of course I am a believer in ball possession, but for that you have to have the ball. Holland lacks ball-winners."
Up front, it lacks individualists. Dutch strikers are raised first and foremost to pass, not dribble or shoot. Robben only became a dribbler because he grew up in an isolated northern village near the German border far from the main Dutch academies. There was nobody around to coach the dribble out of him. His potential successors in the younger generation, Memphis Depay and Ricardo Kishna, repeatedly clashed with Holland's leading clubs. PSV Eindhoven struggled for years to keep Memphis on board, and this summer Ajax sent Kishna to Lazio with a "good riddance." Any Dutch individualist is a system error. No wonder, remarks Dutch coach Fred Rutten, that today's players do best under a manager like Van Gaal who tells them exactly what to do, rather than a freewheeling coach like Guus Hiddink.
For now, the system that best suits Dutch players is a rapid counterattack from a packed defense. That's what Holland used in its last three good tournaments, Euro 2008 and the last two World Cups. Hiddink and his successor, Danny Blind (Daley's dad), went wrong in the Euro qualifiers by trying to reinstate the traditional Dutch 4-3-3 game with the new tradition of "sterile possession."
But in the long term, Holland needs to reinvent its soccer. It may have to swallow the ultimate humiliation: handing over its national team to a coach from today's most intelligent soccer country, archrival Germany.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.