The Dutch are a society littered with contradictions. Rising waters threaten a country largely below sea level, but it was Amsterdam that served as a breeding ground for the very capitalism which constructed our climate crisis. Nationalism inherent in the Dutch psyche sees Germany as an “other” when in reality the relationship between the two countries is as close as any. The Netherlands became famous in the football world for a revolutionary change in the perception of the game. Today, however, their current state of football is defined in many ways by conservatism.
It’s not unlike a nation-state to find itself drowning in its own conflict. In this the Dutch are not unique. But somehow, something is a bit different. The Netherlands tries to be normal and, in that pursuit, manages to break from its self-imposed mold. There’s a Dutch saying (doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg) which translates to “Just be normal, then you’re already crazy enough.” And everything in life is generally orderly: the streets are pristine, cities function well, and people are healthy.
Yet, for better or worse, Dutchies are abnormal. They reclaimed vast swathes of land from the sea and innovated ways to block its trespasses. It is a country with one of the highest volumes of agricultural exports, despite holding a tiny amount of land. Most notably to those visiting the Netherlands, its people are the only ones who would prefer you not try to speak their native tongue: English will do just fine. It’s all very strange and disorienting.
I write all of this not to poke fun at the Dutch and their inconsistencies. Just the opposite: I find them fascinating. When you add a complex history of football success to the mix, one simply can’t resist digging deeper.
This football season, I will be covering Dutch football for the site. In doing so I hope to dig deeper into the myriad questions which arise when you think about the Netherlands. Many will remain unanswered, but some may be aided by the sport. The Eredivisie is bound to be exciting, with a couple of teams vying for the top spot and the rest giving plenty of meaningful narrative contributions. Moreso, with the World Cup coming next year, all eyes will be on the Dutch national side, one which has an incontrovertible special relationship with the domestic league. The storylines of club and country are fluid, just like the style of play that first brought Dutch football to the fore of the global game. I can’t wait for you to uncover the mystical entity which is the uniquely beautiful Nederlandse voetbal.
Van Gaal’s Lesson on the Spectacular
International breaks. What good are they? We deride them as meaningless pauses in an otherwise persistent football schedule, screwing with the momentum players build with their club sides. This usually applies to the Netherlands. Usually. Taking the past week off for a few Oranje games was a joy. Our current side is the culmination of the work we’ve seen take place at the various Dutch clubs not only in recent years, but over decades. The players and coaches, along with their ideas, have been replanted from one setting to another to test themselves against other amalgams of professionals who also happen to share a common nationality. Now, we are witnessing Dutch football as it has never been: having experienced years of drudgery and failure, but finally looking at a light at the end of the tunnel.
This first break of the season put a halt to the Dutch Eredivisie just as things began ramping up. PSV Eindhoven started strong, winning three out of three even as they lost to Benfica in Champions League qualification. Ajax Amsterdam were held by Twente but, with that result sandwiched by two 5-0 triumphs, look in a good position to continue with a great run of form. Feyenoord find themselves further adrift after a loss in Utrecht, yet, with new coach Arne Slot sifting for theoretical gold in his lineup, things look positive in Rotterdam.
This week all eyes were on the new coach of the national elftal. Well, this is Louis Van Gaal’s third term with the reins in Zeist, but who’s counting? Prior to his arrival last month, it was Frank de Boer’s first time coaching the side. Yet he brought no new ideas besides switching to a 5-3-2 and building on his reputation as a coach lacking creativity. His otherwise unimaginative tactics practically hamstrung the side at the recent European Championships, which quite easily advanced from a weak group but bowed out to the Czechs in the first knockout round. When Van Gaal’s new-look eleven glided to a 4-0 win over Montenegro in Eindhoven, their first game back home since this summer’s failure, De Volkskrant dubbed the night one which reignited a love between the fans and the squad, one which had grown cold in recent times.
If the Montenegro win reignited a love, Oranje’s 6-1 thumping of Turkey took us to the brink of a rushed engagement. Never in recent years have the Dutch played with such confidence. When Davy Klaassen combined with Memphis Depay inside a congested eighteen-yard box to score a fantastic opener, with only seconds gone by, the match was in a sense already over. Frenkie de Jong controlled the game, coming deep enough to brush shoulders with his defenders before skating past the Turks like an Amsterdammer on a picturesque canal in the wintertime.
It was his pass further up the pitch to Memphis that began the night’s best combination. Frenkie nearly played his newfound Barça teammate into a troubling double-team by two Turkish midfielders just outside the box. Yet Memphis knew all along where the trouble lay. Instead of taking a touch to turn, he flicked the ball to Klaassen who returned the favour with a flick of his own, this one putting Memphis en route to goal. A feathery control on his right and another to stroke the ball into the bottom corner, all without taking the pause we’re used to seeing as players gather their feet between touches. Fluid football, just as we’ve been taught to expect from the Dutch at their peak. And all this in Van Gaal’s first period as manager since returning to the side he left after the 2014 World Cup.
For some Ajax, PSV, and Feyenoord players, an international break usually meant staying at home. Just two years ago, when the Dutch defeated Germany in a Euro qualifier, the only Eredivisie players in the eleven were Daley Blind, Denzel Dumfries, and Quincy Promes, the latter two of which now play abroad. Van Gaal seems to be ushering in a new wave of domestic talent. PSV’s Cody Gakpo scored a fine curling shot from the left wing in the Montenegro game while Ajax’s Davy Klaassen struck the goal to draw 1-1 with Erling Haaland’s Norway. Steven Berghuis and Jurrien Timber of Ajax, as well as Feyenoord’s trio of Justin Bijlow, Tyrell Malacia, and Guus Til each appear as part of the coach’s long-term plans.
Before the Turkey domination in Amsterdam, which took the Dutch to the top of their World Cup qualifying group, there existed many outstanding questions over the squad. Would there be enough talent in the team to support Memphis in attack and Virgil van Dijk at the back? If so, how would Van Gaal harness it to turn around a team which failed to qualify for either major tournament in 2016 and 2018? Most pertinently, what style of football would he set his men out to display? Journalist Valentijn Driessen sparred with Van Gaal on Monday, unjustly saying the manager “applauds defensive football.” Yet his fiery response, with his words and his team’s performance the next day, told a different story.
“Is that defensive football in your opinion?” (“Yes, Chelsea play that way.”) “It is not. It is not at all. You don’t understand that. I’m sorry to tell you this way, but you are just a journalist who wants to implement a vision. But you have no vision of football. You have a vision for newspapers and that’s fantastic.”
Van Gaal’s passionate defense of Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea speaks to something deep in the country’s football psyche. The Dutch media, and fans to a large extent, have for years viewed the game through an attacking-defending binary. There’s one way to play well and another to play poorly; While both may result in a victory, only the forward-thinking, beautiful sides are truly worthy of our gaze.
As the high of Oranje success comes down, players have returned to their clubs and the country will slowly forget about international football once more. In this moment of quiet, we have a chance to peek behind the scenes of this dichotomy between the “right” and “wrong” styles of football. These contradictions, of style and society at large, should become more apparent as the campaign drags on.
Here’s to another season of the most obscurely brilliant league in European football.