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Formerly at the forefront of football innovation, the sackings of De Boer and Koeman have highlighted how quickly the Netherlands’ coaches are being left behind

16 November ~ Whatever you think of Frank de Boer’s sacking by Crystal Palace, his short stay as manager reminds us of the diminished state of Dutch football. A previously unthinkable gap has opened up between the Netherlands and the top football nations.

Feyenoord, Ajax and PSV have all been humiliated in Europe this season. And it’s been decades since the national team were so bad. The players who reached the 2010 World Cup final and came third in 2014 are mostly retired now and Holland’s new normal was exemplified by the 4-0 defeat by France in August.

Holland will not be at next year’s tournament in Russia. They didn’t make Euro 2016 either after being outfought and out-thought by the Czech Republic, Iceland and Turkey and finishing fourth in their qualifying group. The current bondscoach is Dick Advocaat, Graham Taylor’s nemesis back in 1993 but now 70 years old and only in the job because of the dearth of younger talents. With the exception of late-blooming Johan Cruyff disciple Peter Bosz, who is currently doing well at Borussia Dortmund, and Sarina Wiegman, who guided Holland’s Euro-winning women’s team this summer, the country has run out of coaching stars.

Which brings us back to De Boer. Following his failure at Inter last season, his 77-day stint at Palace has trashed his reputation as a great player who went on, as manager, to win four league titles in a row with Ajax. Yet he remains one of Holland’s best. He’s better than Ronald Koeman, now sacked by Everton, and is more highly regarded than his old Holland and Barcelona team-mate Phillip Cocu, now in charge at PSV, or Feyenoord’s Giovanni van Bronckhorst.

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Doyen of Dutch football writers Henk Spaan says: “All the international players who worked with De Boer think he’s a good coach and I personally think he’s still a very good coach. But he twice chose the wrong club.”

When chairman Steve Parish recruited De Boer he thought he was getting a man to bring Total Football to south London. Parish even speculated that Frank could do so well that Real Madrid would one day lure him away. Perhaps if De Boer had had more than four Premier League games to change Palace’s playing style, or been allowed to buy players he felt he needed, that would have happened.

“I think De Boer only made one mistake but it was a big mistake,” says Spaan. “In his first league game, he played Jairo Riedewald in defence. But Riedewald had no idea about the football they played in the Premier League. It was far too soon for him, and he was dumped into this very wild game.” Kicking out Damien Delaney, a friend of Parish, was also a mistake. “I think that was the beginning of the end, already in July. But if you look back on De Boer’s four matches, in the fourth, against Burnley, Palace played very well. It was their best game, and better than they’ve played with Roy Hodgson. If De Boer had been given the time Palace wouldn’t have been relegated, I’m absolutely sure of that.”

Author Auke Kok, who watched De Boer at close quarters for a year when he was in charge at Ajax then wrote a book about it, says his faults partially reflect the inflexible and obsolescent thinking that now characterise the Dutch game. “I think Frank went to Inter and to Crystal Palace and thought ‘I will work in my own Dutch way’. He was rather rigid in his methods at Ajax also but if you go to Italy or England you have to compromise a little bit with what you have there. You have to ‘put water with the wine’, as we say in Holland.”

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The Dutch are finding it difficult to adapt to new football realities, and seem frozen in shock at the sight of Germany, France, Italy and Belgium racing past them. In the Champions League, Feyenoord looked like small boys as Manchester City thumped them 4-0 in Rotterdam. PSV and Ajax failed even to reach the group phase of the Europa League, losing to Osijek of Croatia and Rosenborg respectively. Ajax, so full of promise last season, look broken after the loss of coach Bosz and key players Davy Klaassen and Davinson Sánchez.

Yet old-style 4-3-3 remains sacrosanct and a KNVB (Dutch FA) report last year concluded that all would be well if the country could adopt a “winning mentality”. In other words, the doctrines of Total Football, once the essence of fresh-thinking and radical iconoclasm, have calcified into nostalgia-sanctified dogma.

Worse, the nation of Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and Arjen Robben has stopped producing world-significant players. “Until about ten years ago we thought we were an island of brilliance, who produced brilliant players and were the only people with the right vision,” says Kok, who is now writing a biography of Cruyff. “While the rest of European football accelerated we went backwards. I watch Match of the Day now and see the top eight or nine English teams playing at a speed that is unheard of in Holland. Their players are mentally and physically quicker and stronger, technically better and have better tactical insights. Most of the time they’re six inches taller than ours too.”

Some in the Netherlands liken the malaise to the lean early 1980s when the country failed to reach three major tournaments. “It’s worse,” says Kok. “The last time we were so far behind was the early 1960s, before Cruyff, before football here was fully professional. It could be years before we have a decent team again.” David Winner

This article first appeared in WSC 369, November 2017. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here

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