Bas Dost – the minimalist misfit of Dutch Football

Is it right to ostracise someone simply because they don’t fit a preconceived mould? Does it make them any less successful? Bas Dost is one of Europe’s most prolific goal scorers, has announced retirement from international football at age 28.
Art by Onkar Shirsekar.

He is praised as one of Sporting Clube de Portugal’s most prolific scorers in recent memory. His actions on the pitch have won countless plaudits across Europe. The striker’s movement – always in sync with his teammates – allows him to seamlessly break free from distraught defenders before deftly finishing the ball past a hapless ‘keeper. I’m not here to write about the magisterial Cristiano Ronaldo, though. While they do share many similar attributes, a tall Dutchman has emerged in recent years as one of the most high-volume scorers in the world.

His name is Bas Dost, and at 28 years old he has retired from international football.

Jon Townsend’s feature in a magazine gives us a crucial insight into what a Dutch footballer is. “Dutch football is fluid,” Townsend writes. “It is formulaic…Dutch football is artistry.” The programming of a striker, midfielder, or defender growing up on the streets of Den Haag or Rotterdam largely mirrors this description of the domestic game. The curious movements of Cruijff’s turn or the downright nerve-wracking sight of ten outfield players pressing the ball are the moments the country has been identified with. As Jon says, “The Dutch footballer is a complex figure…Dutch football continues to perplex in the most intriguing of ways.”

Most wouldn’t expect the greatest (statistically speaking) striker from the low country to be a hangman: there to do one job and one job only. Bas Dost is not complex. A hangman takes what is given to him by society – criminals, killers – and hangs them. Nothing less, nothing more. Dost takes what his team gives him, whether it be through complex passing or route-one football, and scores. He doesn’t fuss about. He gets the ball in the box and he scores the damn football.

In Heerenveen, Dost scorched the Eredivisie with his efficient goalscoring. At Wolfsburg, he combined with Kevin De Bruyne to gain his reputation as a stone-coldcold-stone finisher. Now, after taking his journey south to Lisbon, Dost has transformed into the world’s best destination for crosses. His career scoring rate is more than a goal every two matches, but since joining Sporting, the Dutchman has a near 1:1 ratio of appearances and goals. Nobody can stop this man.

To answer the question about Bas Dost’s career, we must begin by looking elsewhere. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is renowned as one of the best Dutch strikers in recent memory, having scored 42 goals for the Oranje over his long-spanning career. Huntelaar – now biding his time as a post-prime player at Ajax – is also categorized as a pure scorer. His abilities and tendencies when his team is in the build-up phase is not to not offer a short passing option, but instead to find pockets of space in the box in case a teammate elects to cross or pass through the defense. In many ways, Huntelaar has cleared the path for strikers like him. In other ways, Huntelaar has exposed the detriments to having a one-minded player on your team.

In the same magazine, Christopher Weir wrote that Louis van Gaal “once described Huntelaar as the ‘best player in the world bar none’ in the penalty area”. However, we saw that in the 2014 World Cup, Robin van Persie was given the nod by van Gaal over the Schalke 04 legend. The Dutch manager may have sung the praises of Huntelaar, but deep down there seems to be something intrinsically inadequate about a poacher. Especially to the Dutch, who pride themselves on fluid football with all eleven players contributing to almost every phase of play.

Bas Dost is just as much, if not more, of a “minimalist” player than Huntelaar. There are occasional flashes of skill or vision, but a majority of Dost’s career has been spent hovering in the penalty area. He plays at the whims of his teammates; if they struggle to create, Bas may not find much luck throughout the match.

A youth player at FC Emmen, Bas Dost moved from the eastern Netherlands club on the German border to Heracles Almelo, a short trip south. His first taste of Eredivisie football was quite sour – only three goals in his first campaign – but the nerves were quickly shaken off. The 2009/2010 season saw Dost come alive as his 14 league goals placed Heracles in sixth, their highest finish to this day. A move was imminent, and the Friesian club of Heerenveen pounced at the chance to sign the promising, physical Dutch talent.

A similarly consistent return of 13 goals in his debut season at Heerenveen was a precursor to a breakout 2011/12 campaign. A phenomenal 32 goals in only 34 league matches proved to everyone that Dost was a bit too good for a club with Heerenveen’s reputation. A move to a larger Dutch club would have been the norm, but Dost’s play style requires a systemic focus on the striker. Enter VfL Wolfsburg, the gritty German club manufactured just for a player like Bas Dost.

Wolfsburg’s 2009 Bundesliga-winning season was unheralded in a league with the likes of Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund. At the center of this team was Edin Džeko, a tall Bosnian targetman caricatured in a similar light to Dost. Džeko got a move to Manchester City after leading the Bundesliga in goal return, while his Croatian replacement Mario Mandžukic shipped off to Bayern a season later. Wolfsburg had experience with a talent such as Dost – stocky, aerially proficient, clinical in front of goal – but the Dutchman took time to rev his engine in the car-manufacturing metropolis.

Bas Dost at Wolfsburg

A lackluster yet promising first season in Germany gave way to a poor spell of form following a managerial change. Abel Meszaros, editor at Bundesliga Fanatic, watched Bas Dost’s career in Wolfsburg closely. Ivica Olic and Nicklas Bendtner were above him in Dieter Hecking’s pecking order, so a disastrous 13/14 season looked like his last in the lime green kit of Wolfsburg. “It was clear that he was no longer a starter for Hecking, wrote Meszaros. “Perhaps he never really was.” However, after the sale of Olic during the next winter break, things began looking up for Dost.

“Two [goals] in the spring opener against Pep’s mighty Bayern” were followed by a barrage of poaching finishes to finish the season with 16. Dost suffered through injuries in the following season, but he’d already proved himself at a high level. Abel Meszaros explains that Wolfsburg’s plan of attack was to move the ball wide and deliver crosses into Bas Dost. It was a “happy coincidence of linking up with the best creator in European football for the last 4 years…and Hecking-ball.” Not only did Wolfsburg’s crossing tactics suit Dost, but Kevin De Bruyne’s phenomenal passing ability contributed massively to Dost’s scoring tally.

The summer of 2016 was a turning point in Dost’s career in multiple ways. The Dutchman signed with Sporting Clube de Portugal, one of the Liga NOS’ most prolific clubs, trading in the spanning fields of the Friesland and industrious streets of Wolfsburg for the warm weather of Lisbon. But it wasn’t only the scenery that changed for Dost.

“At first sight, he appears a classic target man…permanently stationed in the box to head in crosses or to win headers from long balls.” Tom Kundert is the Portugal correspondent for World Soccer Magazine, and his take on the former SC Heerenveen star varies from the preconceptions many have of him. In Portugal, Tom testified, the Dutchman has remanufactured his game. “It’s rare for Sporting to play a long-ball game – everything goes through midfield – and Dost has become adept at dropping back…then running into the box to try and finish the move.” Dost may only take one touch to finish his goals, but this shouldn’t undermine his contribution to Sporting’s play.

Bas Dost came to Sporting as a replacement for Islam Slimani, another target-man-type player, but his influence has been undeniably greater. Sporting CP haven’t won the league in over a decade, but thanks in part to Dost’s scoring exploits, the club have been inching closer and closer to usurping Porto and Benfica.

In Portugal, it has not only been Bas’ scoring ability that has been on show, but also the personality he’s developed over years of living. Despite his recent arrival, Dost has already become a fan favourite. Tom Kundert believes that this is not only because of his scoring as well as , but also his team-oriented mindset. “Whenever he scores,” Tom writes to me, “he makes a big point of going to the assist provider and celebrating together.”

So why has Dost’s altruistic mindset not translated well to the Dutch national team, a system prided on fluidity in movement based on a cornerstone of teamwork? The striker has scored only once in his 18 appearances in the national team;, back in 2015 from a header, no less. However, one would imagine that Dost’s work under Sporting boss Jorge Jesus would have improved his stance within Ronald Koeman’s squad.

As Dost contemplated his future in the national team, he was called into action for the friendlies against England and Portugal. “I came here with the idea wanting to damn well show you what I’m worth now,” the striker said in a Fox Sports interview before the set of matches. Dost was certainly not lacking motivation when he walked onto the pitch inside the Amsterdam ArenA to face England, but 66 minutes later the striker’s lackluster contribution was ended with a substitution.

Bas Dost had shown a willingness to play the “Dutch way”; he dropped deep to complete link-up passes, but his teammates couldn’t deliver any promising final balls. Last season’s leading scorer in Portugal had failed to live up to his billing inon his own national team. When time came to draw up his starting eleven against the Portuguese, Koeman probably didn’t consider Dost for a minute.

Back by the factories of Wolfsburg, he got his first (and possibly only) taste of top-level European league play. Even in the season with 16 goals, the national team outcast didn’t look fully comfortable in his own team. “I don’t ever really think he was a perfect fit in the sense that I don’t think anyone would build a team around him,” says Abel. “He’s a limited player…but has a world-class finish.” Even Sporting CP, who focus on getting the ball to Dost at all costs, don’t revolve around their striker. “It’s definitely a case of Dost adapting to Sporting’s tactics,” pens Tom Kundert. “He’s said himself that he has learned to become a far better player under coach Jorge Jesus.”

The question of the importance of a “limited” striker must be asked, especially after exploring Dost’s career. He is probably the single-most clinical striker in the world at the moment, yet he was forced to retire from a lackluster Dutch national team. Maybe the contrasting styles of tactics in modern football really are extreme. Dost isn’t an immobile blob, but he lacks the instinct to work in the midfield very well. He relies heavily on delivery from teammates. In an era where strikers like Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus, who drop deep into the midfield, succeed as key pieces of buildup play, Bas Dost’s style just doesn’t cut it sometimes.

Bas Dost and Arjen Robben

Maybe one day, we will all look back and reminisce on the time when one of Europe’s most prolific goal scorers was forced to retire from international duty at the peak of his prime. In ten or twenty years’ time, maybe the reasoning will become clear. Was it his mentality with the Oranje? Or possibly the possession style of Sporting vastly differs from that of Koeman’s squad? Maybe it just comes down to Bas Dost’s bad luck with his compatriots.

“Dutch football is artistry.” This excerpt from Jon Townsend’s feature on the aforementioned subject has stuck with me for quite some time. Never has there been a sport in a specific country with so many adjectives attached to it. “Artistry.” “Fluid.” “Beautiful.” If there’s one thing that Bas Dost is, it is straightforward. He plays ugly. His job is to find space around beastly defenders, just to get a sniff at a cross that he may head over the bar or injure himself sliding into. It’s a dirty job, Bas Dost’s role. But when the exiled Dutchman runs to the stands of the Estádio José Alvalade, it’s all worth it.

The failure to make his country proud. The failure to make his name known as one of the world’s best forwards. The countless times in Almelo, Friesland, and Wolfsburg he went unappreciated. It’s all worth it when, on a warm spring day on the Atlantic Coast of the Iberian Peninsula, fifty-thousand people yell at the top of their lungs.

Sure, they may have yelled only because you headed in a lofted cross from five yards out. But they yelled, just as they did for Cristiano. Just as loud, with just as much passion.

*****

Bundesliga expert Abel Meszaros is an editor at the Bundesligafanatic – the longest-running English language Bundesliga magazine and a panelist on Talking Fussball – the oldest English language Bundesliga podcast. You can find him on Twitter @BundesPL or writing for Footballwhispers and various other media outlets.
Tom Kundert is World Soccer Magazine’s Portugal correspondent, as well as founder of Portugoal.net. As a Portuguese football expert, Tom has written for ESPN, The Guardian, and many more publications.
Statistics provided by Transfermarkt.nl.

 

Alex Dieker

Alex is an American college student studying marketing, but his passion lies in football writing. A fan of the quirkiness and underappreciated aspects of the game, it comes as no surprise that he loves Dutch football.