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Rising Nations: Can the new Dutch generation emulate the golden teams of the past?

From ‘Total Football’ to ‘Total Failure’ and back again? A new generation of Dutch footballers look set to write a new chapter in the country’s illustrious football history.

Almost half a century since the Netherlands reached their first World Cup final back in the West German summer of 1974, a new dawn awaits a fresh crop of Dutch footballing hopefuls. This famous Oranje side of ‘74, inspirationally led by the tactical brilliance of Rinus Michels on the touchline and undoubtedly the nation’s greatest ever player in Johan Cruyff on the park, put the Netherlands firmly on the map as an international footballing superpower for the first time.

This era of Dutch footballing mastery during the 1970s, which also saw Feyenoord and Ajax win four European Cups between them in the space of four years, marked the beginning of a dynasty of elite level Dutch footballers shining on both a European and international stage. 

From Cruyff and co in the ‘70s right through to the Dutch class of the 2010 World Cup final including Robben, Van Persie and Sneijder, the Netherlands have consistently produced world-class footballers who have performed in the famous orange jersey with distinction.

It is this esteemed football heritage which made the country’s recent failures to qualify for both the Euros in 2016 and the 2018 World Cup particularly difficult to take and humiliating for Oranje supporters.

Off the back of perhaps the lowest point the national team has faced since before the days of Cruyff and Total Football, the Netherlands as an intensely passionate football nation craves a return to the top table of international football.

A new wave of elite Dutch footballers, plying their trade both at home in the Eredivisie and across the top leagues of Europe, have in the last couple of years helped to instil a shared belief throughout the country that better days for the Netherlands are only just around the corner.

Having already secured qualification for the delayed European Championships next summer, the question begs as to just how far this current generation could go.

Total Football

The concept of Total Football revolved around the fluid interchanging of players across different positions on the park. This footballing philosophy, enabling this technically proficient group of Dutch footballers to use their own initiative on the field in a dynamic manner, caught the eye of football fans all over the world.

Dutch football expert Michael Bell tells of how Total Football and the iconic Netherlands side of the 70s laid the foundations for future generations to be inspired to play the game with this same level of expression:

“The legacy of Cruyff is very much still a part of Dutch football and embedded into the way the national team plays and the philosophy at Ajax and always will be.”

It is this aptitude to play the ‘beautiful game’ in an attractive manner, focusing on technical prowess and controlled possession of the ball at both senior and youth levels, which perhaps embodies the greatest legacy of Cruyff and Total Football still felt within the Dutch game today.

‘Total Failure’

The recent demise of the Oranje is a source of shame and embarrassment for a nation that prides itself on its rich football history. 

Failure to qualify for both Euro 2016 and the World Cup in 2018 consigned the Netherlands into international football obscurity. This marked the first time since the early-1980s that the Dutch had failed to qualify for back-to-back major finals.

Finley Crebolder, a Dutch football enthusiast and writer who cites Euro 2004 as his first memory of watching the Oranje at a major finals, has spoken of the hurt caused by the Netherlands’ absence in the past two tournaments. “Those two summers were hard – Euro 2016 was bad, but the World Cup hurt even more.”

There appeared a distinct dichotomy to the arguments which followed the failure of the Dutch team to qualify for the World Cup in 2018. A lot of fingers were pointed towards the KNVB as the national football governing body, with criticism attached to both their managerial appointments and the overall long-term vision and structure of the national game that seemed to be falling drastically behind other nations in Europe.

Others, including former Oranje icons Ruud Gullit and Ronald De Boer, downplayed such talk of a crisis facing Dutch football. They attributed the struggles of the national team as simply reflecting a substandard ‘generational cycle’ of players that would pass, and that naturally a new wave of talent would make the nation rise again with time.

Steve Davies, a Dutch football freelance writer, outlines his belief that there are “no bad players but bad coaches.” He speaks of the KNVB’s ‘recycling of the same coaches over and over again’ as ‘stagnating the natural development of an entire generation of young Dutch footballers’ prior to Koeman taking the wheel in 2018.

Michael Bell believes that the demise of the Oranje post-2014 was caused by a ‘mixture’ of these two identified issues above. Michael posits that the KNVB got the managerial appointments of both Guus Hiddink and Danny Blind “badly wrong,” but that the national team were also plagued by a “bad cycle” of players with the “ageing” Robben, Sneijder and Van Persie failing to be replaced by younger talents.

A Dutch Renaissance

This ‘bad cycle’ and ‘generational gap’ hypothesis can be supported by both the outstanding development of a number of Dutch players on the continent and the emergence of a golden group of young players in the Eredivisie in recent seasons.

Step forward Virgil Van Dijk. A player that as recently as five years ago was plying his trade in Scottish football with Celtic – nobody in the Netherlands anticipated his meteoric rise which now sees him standing as a Champions League and Premier League winner as well as captain of the Oranje.

Van Dijk’s club teammate at Anfield Gini Wijnaldum, along with the mercurial talent that is Memphis Depay, represent another two Dutch players within this age bracket between 26 and 30 whose careers have taken a rapid upward trajectory in the past few years.

Wijnaldum has developed into an important cog in Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp’s celebrated high intensity ‘Gegenpressing’ system in the Premier League.

As for Memphis, as explored in First Time Finish, his career has turned around in eye-catching fashion with Lyon in Ligue 1 after a tough couple of seasons in the Premier League with Manchester United, to the extent that he has been strongly linked with a move to Barcelona this summer.

On top of this, with popular faith in the Netherlands’ famed reputation for developing elite young players beginning to waiver, the academies of the Eredivisie have duly delivered in recent seasons.

At Ajax, the outstanding trio of academy graduates Mathijs De Ligt, Frenkie De Jong and Donny Van De Beek were instrumental as the Amsterdam club sent shockwaves across Europe on their way to the Champions League semi-finals in 2018-19, knocking out both Juventus and Real Madrid along the way.

Bringing the late Johan Cruyff’s vision for youth development at the Amsterdam club beautifully into fruition once more, these three precocious young talents are now established internationals with the Netherlands.

Last year saw De Jong join up with Lionel Messi at Barcelona and De Ligt become a teammate of Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus, with Van De Beek this summer following a historical line of Dutch players to join Manchester United.

It is not only at Ajax where exciting young Dutch footballers have surfaced to stake a claim for international selection in recent times. Ajax’s closest challengers in the Eredivisie last season prior to the league’s suspension in March, AZ Alkmaar, can lay claim to host the most conspicuous hotbed of young footballing talent in the country at the moment.

In Calvin Stengs, Myron Boadu, Teun Koopmeiners and Owen Wijndal, AZ possess a quartet of homegrown stars with genuine international credentials looking towards the future.

At PSV, right-back Denzel Dumfries and forward Donyell Malen have both become regular fixtures of the Oranje squad, with 18-year old midfield prodigy Mohamed Ihatarren receiving his first senior international call-up for the matches against Poland and Italy earlier this month.

Coinciding with this upturn of quality in the national selection pool and the appointment of Ronald Koeman as manager in February 2018 has been a tangible improvement in the Oranje’s results.

During Koeman’s tenure as manager, which lasted just over two years prior to his move to Barcelona last month, the Netherlands lost only four of twenty internationals.

Finishing runners-up in the 2018-19 Nations League to Portugal having beaten Germany, England and world champions France on the way, the Oranje also secured automatic qualification to the Euros next summer by finishing second in their group behind Germany.

What this squad of players ultimately represents as a whole is a positive blend of battle-hardened experience and youthful enthusiasm; running right through the spine of this Dutch side.

In front of the ever-reliable Jasper Cillessen in goal the Netherlands, the duo of Virgil Van Dijk and Mathijs De Ligt undoubtedly represents one of the meanest looking centre-back partnerships in international football. This pairing, both robust in the air and comfortable with the ball at their feet, provide a tremendous platform for the Oranje to build attacks from.

In central midfield, the playmaking elegance of Frenkie De Jong, who Finley Crebolder describes as the Oranje’s “most important player,” has combined well with the energy and penetrating forward runs of the more advanced Gini Wjnaldum for the Dutch national team.

Under Koeman’s management, the creative influence of this pair was commonly freed up by the presence of Atalanta’s Marten De Roon in more of a ball-winning capacity. De Roon’s position in the side appears to be coming under increased threat, however, given Teun Koopmeiners’ form in the Eredivisie.

Finley highlights the AZ man as the ‘perfect fit’ alongside De Jong in midfield, citing him as better ‘on the ball’ than De Roon and superior ‘defensively’ to Van De Beek. Steve Davies is also a big fan of Koopmeiners, describing him as a ‘midfield fulcrum around which future Dutch national sides will be built’.

As for the central striking position for the Netherlands, this role is currently expertly filled by Memphis Depay. Within this typical ‘Cruyffian’ 4-3-3 formation implemented by Koeman, Depay has been adept at linking the play in between two fast and direct wingers in a similar manner to Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino at club level as an archetypal ‘false nine’.

A missing piece?

Despite the undeniable quality of the defenders and midfielders through the spine of this Dutch selection pool, question marks can be drawn as to whether the Netherlands currently possess the requisite firepower in attack to get the better of tougher opponents.

To this regard, this generation appears to lack the type of world-class talent in the final third synonymous with the Oranje in decades gone by.

Finley Crebolder underlines how in every distinguished Dutch side of the past there has been a forward player considered at the time to be amongst the ‘top 5 players in the world’, such as Cruyff, Van Basten and Robben, but that ‘for once’ this player at the moment happens to be a defender– Virgil Van Dijk.

Finley summarises such concerns surrounding a possible lack of attacking vigour in this Oranje side: “De Jong and Van Dijk can have unbelievable games, but if we don’t have that player in the final third who can create something out of nothing we could struggle.”

This is not a slight on the ability of Memphis Depay as the national team’s leading striker. Memphis is clearly best utilised as a facilitating forward, with a style of play which makes him predisposed to finding ways to unlock defences and supply others with chances as opposed to purely focusing on ways of finding the net himself.

Finley points to the need for a replacement for Arjen Robben within this team’s current setup – a left-footed right-winger with the ability to play off Depay and cut inside to contribute with goals. “With Robben we could be playing horribly and then out of nowhere he could bang one in with his left foot to make everything alright.”

All hope is not lost on this front, however, having already alluded to a number of exciting young Dutch attacking prospects. Michael Bell has identified AZ’s Stengs and PSV’s Ihattaren as the two young players he is most excited about for the future.

Both skilful left-footed attacking midfielders that like to play either just behind a main striker or on the right flank, these two players have the potential to explode into big players for the national team and fill this supposed vacuum of elite attacking options in the selection pool in the years to come.

Managerial void

Perhaps the most pressing concern for Oranje supporters at the moment relates to the vacant manager position following the departure of Ronald Koeman to Barcelona last month. Koeman’s role in the revival of the Netherlands over the past two years ought not to be downplayed, with the KNVB left hard tasked to find a fitting replacement to keep the national team moving in the right direction.

Koeman was able to find stability in his national selections and foster a strong collective team spirit, something which is crucial at international level.

Michael Bell acknowledges the man management skills of Koeman as being highlighted off the back of a number of impressive comeback victories for the Netherlands during his administration, including an inspired 4-2 victory away to Germany in Hamburg in a Euros qualifier last September.

After weeks of constant speculation regarding the potential identity of the new Netherlands manager, the latest media reports indicate that Frank De Boer is the man set to be offered the job. This news has been met with mostly derision from Oranje supporters on social media in light of the 53-year-old’s sketchy recent managerial record, with the KNVB’s appointment of De Boer looking likely to divide opinion in the Netherlands.  

Michael Bell and Finley Crebolder both view De Boer as the ‘easy option’ for the KNVB. Michael states that it reflects the governing body’s priority to “keep the status quo” and “not rock the boat”, with Finley likening the appointment to the unsuccessful Danny Blind.

Steve Davies offers a more positive account of De Boer’s credentials, however, highlighting him as a “logical choice” who “demonstrated his ability to nurture and develop young talents at the highest level” whilst manager of Ajax.

What is without question is that De Boer, who collected a mammoth 113 caps for the Netherlands as a player, deserves to be given the full backing of Dutch football fans if he is to be appointed and afforded the chance to prove he is the right man for the job.

Besides, it is not Frank De Boer or any other potential manager who will hold the key to the success of the Oranje in the upcoming years. The fate of the national team will ultimately be dependent on the efforts and performances of the eleven Dutch representatives on the field at any given time.

Given the quality of personnel available for selection within the Dutch squad at the moment, the hopes of the nation appear to be in good hands. 

History in the making?

With the Netherlands just under eight months away from a return to the height of international football at the rescheduled European Championships, a tournament in which Amsterdam will play host to four matches, there is much reason for optimism for Oranje supporters.

In what will mark seven years since the Dutch national team last competed at a major finals, the Netherlands look well equipped to perform well at the Euros. With reference again to the core of this Dutch side – from Van Dijk and De Ligt at the back, De Jong and Wijnaldum in the middle and Memphis Depay up top, it goes without saying that it will take a very good team to dispatch of the Dutch at next summer’s competition.  

Having said this, the World Cup in 2022 may represent an even more optimal opportunity for success for this group of Dutch players. This is certainly the opinion of Michael Bell, who feels the Oranje will be “even stronger” in 2022 with a “bigger pool of players to pick from.”

As the nation with the record number of World Cup final defeats in history, falling short in 1974, 1978 and 2010, it is success in this tournament that is craved most by the people of the Netherlands.

There is certainly a growing sense of hope in the country that, come 2022, this Dutch generation could be ready to lodge a strong bid to obtain this one prize that has evaded all those before them – namely Cruyff, Van Basten, Bergkamp and Robben – that of the FIFA World Cup trophy itself.

Special thanks to Michael Bell, Finley Crebolder & Steve Davies for their brilliant insights regarding the Dutch national team. Take a look at their content on Twitter:

Michael Bell – @MichaelJBell92 & @FootballOranje_

Finley Crebolder – @FinCrebolder & @ClockworkOranje

Steve Davies – @daviessteven44 & @TotalDutchFB

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