(This piece was written following the September 18-19 football weekend.)
Over the previous international break, we all laughed as Louis van Gaal shot back at a journalist deriding the Netherlands manager for supposedly defensive football. “You have a vision for newspapers and that’s fantastic,” he said. Once the Dutch coasted past Turkey 6-1 the next day, that unspoken next sentence became obvious. It was Van Gaal himself, the man in control of his selection and team tactics, who was the one in the room with the best vision for a football team.
Eindhoven’s concert to sting the ears
Fiery encounters with Dutch journalists are far from confined to the international scene. Last week, PSV Eindhoven coach Roger Schmidt found himself drowning under waves of criticism. The strong start which the German manager looked to build upon took a turn after his side’s admirable draw against Real Sociedad—Feyenoord ran rampant on the weekend, slashing apart a helpless home side 4-0 before a Marco van Ginkel winner helped PSV just barely squeeze by newly-promoted Go Ahead Eagles in the midweek.
Asked by a testy reporter why Van Ginkel, the team captain, failed to appear against Feyenoord, Schmidt insisted it was all about managing game time. “Believe me, I know more about [managing player] loads than you…To be honest, I expect that I know more than you because I am a coach and you are a journalist. You know more about your work as a journalist and I know more about football.”
Schmidt’s pushback was prompted by the reporter’s over-eager manner, interrupting the coach multiple times to speak of Van Ginkel’s accreditations. (“Captain!” “Leader!”) In many ways, his lack of selection is justified. After the midfielder’s move to Chelsea, he was never able to string together a run of form without falling victim to serious injury. It’s something Marco has dealt with his whole career and, now at 28, it shouldn’t be in anyone’s mind to question why he might be rested during a big game. That Van Ginkel’s replacement Davy Pröpper played a lackluster first half says less about Schmidt’s player management than his tactical acumen.
Although, if I were to take the Dutch approach and criticize Schmidt, it’s true that the way a coach utilises his players goes hand-in-hand with the way he sets out to play football. Never was this truer than against Feyenoord where—his side down only a goal with half an hour to play—the pensive boss removed Cody Gakpo from the field. The temporary captain indeed looked like PSV’s only chance at scoring in a side resembling a dull knife trying to tear apart a well-done steak. The jeers rang out at the Phillips Stadion as fans launched expletives at Schmidt: a “stinging flute concert,” as the Dutch call the whistling. They’re now fourth in the league after losing once again, this time to a revived Willem II. The concert of boos will only grow louder, and the questions from annoying reporters might soon reach a crescendo.
Feyenoord in transition
To Feyenoord captain Jens Toornstra, the striemend fluitconcert was music to his ears. “That a good, dangerous player like Gakpo went out gave us new energy.” Toornstra’s first goal was a beautiful volley that he plucked from the air, virtually the last kick before halftime. His second, with five minute to play, was the nail in the Eindhoven coffin. In years bygone, those whistles might have been coming from Feyenoord’s own supporters. But things are certainly changing in Rotterdam and there’s a tinge of excitement that even the title season of 2016-17 didn’t match. That was their first in nearly two decades, one which probably saw Toornstra reach his personal peak. Now with an innovative, attacking-focused manager in Arne Slot, this team has a renewed sense of self. Passing moves are coming together, goals are being scored, and the supporters are mostly satisfied.
After two home wins, against Heerenveen and newly-promoted NEC Nijmegen, Feyenoord sit just four points behind leaders Ajax with a match in hand. A 3-1 victory over the Frieslanders produced what will be the Eredivisie goal of the season: a spectacular flick by Bryan Linssen, who briefly levitated in the air as the cross arrived, skipping the ball from his boot to the far corner. Inch-perfect. Although the season hasn’t been perfect by any means—a scoreless draw against Maccabi Haifa kicked off their Conference League debut—it’s about as good a start for a team who finished fifth last term can hope for.
If the PSV and Heerenveen wins were displays of dominance, a newfound arrogance usually found only in Amsterdam, the NEC win announced Feyenoord’s confidence. After going up 2-0 at De Kuip, Slot’s side were pegged back to a draw by halftime. In the 74th minute, Feyenoord youth player Calvin Verdonk scored a brilliant shot with his first touch to put the visitors ahead. In years past, this is where Feyenoord would crumble. But after Guus Til’s headed home the equalizing goal, he bagged an 89th-minute winner when a fortuitous bounce gave him an opening in the box. The sight of a sharply-dressed Arne Slot pumping his fists is one rival fans may be feeling disdain towards already this season. Surely, there’s a lot more where that came from.
Maybe things would be wholly rosy at De Kuip if it weren’t for the club’s planned departure from the historic stadium. Feyenoord, in partnership with architects and the city, are set to build a new sporting complex called “Feyenoord City” by 2025. While the move would shore up much more funds for the financially outmatched club, some of their more “hardcore” supporters have taken offense. Recently, a Feyenoord director had his home windows smashed, while the plan’s architect reportedly saw the sidewalk in front of his house vandalised.
Arne Slot is set to take Feyenoord to the brink of another championship. But will their ardent supporters take a historic departure as well?
Ajax’s memories of tournaments past
Feyenoord’s staunch rivals from the cosmopolitan Noord-Holland had a similarly disheartening departure from their old stadium. In 1996, Ajax left their over 60-year home, the cozy De Meer which only sat 30,000 at most. In the wake, David Winner said that “plenty of older fans think the Arena is the biggest mistake Ajax has ever made. They feel alienated by the stadium’s oddly tinny acoustics and obviously commercial imperatives.” At the century’s turn, there was of yet no telling how doubling the club’s seating capacity would shape its future.
The move has not helped Ajax achieve higher finishes domestically. From 1973 to 1996, from the end of the “Gloria Years” with Johan Cruijff until Louis van Gaal brought European glory back to Amsterdam, Ajax’s average Eredivisie finish was 1.75. In the quarter-century Ajax have played at the Amsterdam or Johan Cruijff Arena, it has fallen to an even 2. Erik ten Hag and Frank de Boer have been an immense aid to the latter average; without their about eight-and-a-half seasons in charge, the post-De Meer average is at 2.5.
The numbers suggest Erik ten Hag is overseeing an incredible period of domination by Ajax in the Netherlands which is all the more likely to continue. Much of this conversation can be about finances—the club has a monopoly on the country’s largest municipality and an even wider fandom across the country. Its operating budget as of 2019 was 110 million euros, compared to PSV (€79m) and Feyenoord, €68m). There’s a clear gap in their rivals’ capacity to challenge for the title. Perhaps “Feyenoord City” will bring enough revenue to have a more equal Klassieker rivalry in the long term.
But let us not get blown off course: Feyenoord this season look like the biggest threat to Ajax’s Eredivisie retention. But if the opening month or so of matches is anything to go by, there won’t be any room for Arne Slot to slip up. Ten Hag has led a side having conceded only once whilst scoring 30. Steven Berghuis, prior to this summer the most important attacker in Rotterdam, has been impactful more centrally as an attacking-mid with 11 goal contributions across only 8 starts. He scored in each of Ajax’s Champions League victories, two high-functioning thumpings of Sporting Portugal (5-1) and Beşiktaş (2-0) symbolic of their turn towards dominance. Sébastien Haller has been derided as a lackluster contributor to Ajax’s smart passing play yet scored an unbelievable four in Lisbon and another against the Turkish side.
There’s no stopping them in Holland either. After winning away to PEC Zwolle, Ajax absolutely trounced Cambuur 9-0 in a surprising collapse by a truly competitive side. More recent wins over Fortuna and Groningen saw little resistance to a side with both an incredibly strong, dynamic first XI and a bench including David Neres, Mohammed Kudus, Nico Tagliafico, Davy Klaassen, and recent Denmark international Mohamed Daramy.
[block quote] “We planned to look them in the eye, to show we were as big as they were. They had the feeling they were invincible — you could see it in their eyes. Their attitude to us was, ‘How many goals do you want to lose by today, boys?’…They made us feel small.”
This memorable Bernd Holzenbein quote recalls his West German teammates squaring off against the Dutch in München. This quote always amuses me when I remember how the 1974 World Cup was the Netherlands’ resurgence onto the global football scene after decades of obscurity. A tournament is not logical like a league season. Instead of succumbing to patterns of rises and falls, tournament play gives way to more variation in results and more pronounced emotions. It’s the local pub side surprising a regional powerhouse on a weeknight, or a side like Rinus Michels’ Netherlands—equal parts fearsome and intelligent—rampaging in a summer finale only to succumb to defeat.
One doesn’t want to draw too many comparisons between the Golden Age of Dutch football and the current state of Ajax Amsterdam, but it’s easy to draw similarities. They both play with a style straddling the fence of confidence and arrogance. World-renowned buildup play crafted by the fusion of body and mind to form patterns, threading together scoring plays as a grandmother would sew mittens with no conscious thought. They both suffered a sporting tragedy by going out of a major tournament when they were, by consensus, the dominant force in the competition. The memory of the Dutch team nearly 50 years ago carries on, in a capacity, with each of the veterans and youngsters in the red and white. An air of wonder that can be glimpsed around an imperious style of football on an afternoon trip to the spaceship-looking Arena.
In a recent episode of the NOS Voetbalpodcast, the hosts debated whether this is another year Ajax can hope for a deep Champions League run. With Juventus, Barcelona, and Real Madrid all having off-seasons, and Ajax hitting their stride, now may be the time to repeat that 2019 brilliance. But maybe that means nothing, for there are still a handful of sides with much better lineups than the team which lost its best players after that season.
Either way, we’re witnessing a debate in the Dutch media over how far Ajax can go in Europe. The criticisms around their performances are nowhere to be found, and even if he doesn’t have another magical Champions League campaign, Erik ten Hag will appreciate the muted criticisms relative to his contemporaries.