Dutch collectivism in football: an endless debate about favouring system over player quality

Dr Bob Heere

Posted: June 8, 2014

Tagged: football / quality / systems / teams

As we raidly head towards the start of the World Cup, the Dutch national team seems to have conjured up a serious identity crisis among the Dutch population. Van Gaal’s decision to switch from the traditional Dutch 4-3-3 system to what appears to be a more defensive 5-3-2 system has divided the nation in opportunists and romantic cynics. The opportunists understand that the young and inexperienced defense will need help to survive the likes of Villa, Costa, Iniesta, Sanchez, and Vargas through the group stage, with a potential match up with Brazil looming in the second round. Their hope is that the more defensive stance would allow the team to survive and after that, who knows? With players such as Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder up front, anything could happen. On the other hand, the romantic cynics have already given up on our chances to win the World Cup, and state that since we won’t win, we might as well go down swinging and stick to our classic 4-3-3 system with two wing players and a central forward, so the rest of the world will be reminded of the beautiful game and hopefully will continue their ‘adoration’ of the loveable losers. To the Dutch, what the rest of the world thinks of their national team is important, and after the World Cup final of 2010, many commentators were more upset by the fouls of De Jong and Van Bommel which allowed the Netherlands to neutralize some of the Spanish passing game, than with the eventual loss. Some of the commentators called it a disgrace and one of them, Ronald Waterreus (former goalie of PSV Eindhoven) even worried about what the commentators of the BBC would say. Afterwards the sport journalists suggested that while the Dutch had lost, the Dutch total football passing game had won, since it was Cruyff, Van Gaal and Rijkaard who installed the so-called tiki-taka passing game at Barcelona, and it was clearly a derivate of the Dutch total football game. Rewriting history to put a claim on the World Cup – it was not the first time.

The origin of this debate started 40 years ago, when the Dutch lost the World Cup Final against the German squad, a national trauma that still defines not only the Dutch soccer fans, but the Dutch as a nation. In the collective memory of the Dutch, their Orange dream squad, led by Cruyff and Van Hanegem dominated the entire tournament, including the final, and the loss against the Beckenbauer squad was undeserving and only because of a dive of Holzenbein, and a lucky goal of Muller. It gave an enormous boost to the confidence of the Dutch that they mattered in the world and could compete with the bigger nations around them on their own terms. Cruyff even went as far as to rewrite history and claimed that the Dutch were the true winners of the ‘74 World Cup as they remained more popular in the world than their German counterparts. The fact that Germany was actually the better squad in the final, and that Germany had a goal by Muller called offside (which it wasn’t) and Holzenbein could easily have been awarded another penalty in the 85th minute, has been forgotten. Even after reaching the final twice more, and winning the European championship in 1988, the ‘74 game is still the standard to each and every Dutch national team.

What is lost here is that while the debate around Van Gaal’s wish to play in a 5-3-2 system seems to indicate a loss of national identity as the Netherlands might be abandoning their national heritage and comply with international standards – the whole debate is actually symbolic of Dutch national collectivist identity in which tactics and strategy has always seen as more important than the individual performance of a player. The debate is always about tactics, system, and structure, and seldom about the individual player. The Dutch culture is about equality, in which the gifted are expected to behave like everyone else, and are on equal footing with the less gifted. The successes of ‘74 and ‘88 were explained by the Dutch total football game, not by the exceptional talents of Cruyff, Neeskens, Van Hanegem, Van Basten, Gullit, Rijkaard and Koeman. Neither were the failures of the Dutch national team contributed to the lack of pure defensive players. The fact that Suurbier was outplayed by Holzenbein did not matter, nor did the poor play of Rijsbergen or Haan (whose best qualities as a defender were that he was actually a midfielder and could attack). Similarly, the difference in the World Cup Final in 2010 was the defense. Heitinga struggled throughout the game and was sent off with a red card in overtime, right after Van Bronckhorst was replaced with Braafheid, a player who early that year was put on loan by Bayern Munich because he could not compete at that level. The other two defenders were Mathijssen, hardly a world class defender and Van der Wiel, who at that point had less than a 100 career games behind his name for AFC Ajax. Spain profited from the inexperienced defense and Iniesta scored the winning goal.

This focus on structure instead of player ability has masked the true problem of Dutch football. While the nation might arguably have produced more world class offensive players than other nation, starting with Wilkes and Cruyff, to Van Basten, Bergkamp, Kluivert, Van Nistelrooy, and now Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder, they continually fail to produce defensive players. Stam was the last world-class defender the Dutch produced and he retired seven years ago. What is most noticeable from the Dutch starting formation over the last 10 years is that the offensive players almost always play for clubs such as FC Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United and Bayern Munich, while the defensive players play for national club teams such as Feyenoord and Ajax, or smaller teams abroad, such as Wigan Athletic, Aston Villa, Celtic Glasgow and FC Augsburg. This year, the defense has less experience than ever before, only Vlaar has Premier League experience.

In this regard, Van Gaal might make the right choice. This is not about the system, but about ensuring that our best players can play their game. Total Football was the opposite of a system, it came into existence using creativity and mobility to mask defensive incompetence. It was never about 4-3-3, it was about Cruyff, Neeskens and Van Hanegem, and right now it is not about 5-3-2, it is about Robben, Van Persie and Sneijder. In this regard, it might be best to remember that our greatest success, winning the European Championship in 1988 was obtained with a 4-4-2 system that allowed Gullit and Van Basten to shine. Nobody complained about that.


About Dr Bob Heere

Bob is an associate professor and the PhD Program Director at the University of South Carolina. His research is on social identity and community development in and through sport and he has published articles on both the World Cup 2002 and 2010. Previously, Bob Heere worked for the University of Texas, Cruyff Institute for Sport Studies and Auckland University of Technology.