World Cup Football: Gifted dissidents define Dutch tradition: Steve Coppell, the former England international, has admired the Dutch game for many years but believes the individualism it encourages is also its Achilles' heel
Tuesday 12 October 1993
I have long been an admirer of Dutch football, ever since I lived for three months in Amsterdam after I retired to receive physiotherapy treatment there. I used to enjoy watching Ajax or Feyenoord play every week, and I was fortunate enough to witness the Indian summer of the wonderful Johan Cruyff, who, to the horror of the Ajax fans, helped Feyenoord win the Dutch championship in 1984.
On my return to England I was asked by Ron Atkinson if the Dutch had any players who would interest Manchester United. I told him to break the bank for Marco van Basten or Frank Rijkaard of Ajax, and then pay even more for a young black kid who played for Feyenoord called Ruud Gullit. Gullit at that time was playing right-wing or sweeper, depending on the whim of Cruyff, whose selection influence was considerable at Feyenoord.
I hasten to add, with all humility, that selecting these players was not the result of incredible football insight. They were outstanding in the Dutch arena and later proved to be the nucleus of Milan, the best club side in the world.
The production of gifted Dutch players has been phenomenal and almost defies logic from a population of 10 million people. From the early 1970s, when Cruyff went to Spain, there has been a steady stream of football-literate Dutch players moving to all well-paid parts of Europe to show their skills.
There is no secret to it. In the Netherlands boys from the age of 10 are allowed to train up to four nights a week with their local professional club. They are coached by professionals and are not subjected to the whims and excesses of well- meaning amateurs. The philosophy of the Dutch is to concentrate on technical skills at this early age in preference to winning. I guarantee that if you speak to a Dutch fan about football, the one word that crops up constantly is technique. They are obsessed.
In England, under the auspices of Charles Hughes and the Football Association, our youth football is such that we sacrifice the long-term development of skills for the short-term goal of winning at all costs.
To match their excellent techniques, I believe that Dutch football is the most tactically advanced in the world. A connoisseur's delight. Anyone who has ever tried to organise a football team will appreciate the intricate tactical patterns around which the Dutch play. It has been an established theory that good players can play anywhere; Dutch football expounds that belief so that at various times during a game players pop up anywhere. Hence total football.
Against England, the structure of the team will be a diamond fitted in between three defenders and three attackers. That is a very loose, very inadequate description, but probably as close as you can get. Bearing in mind that one of those defenders is the sweeper Ronald Koeman, whose forte is to move forward and shoot on sight, one can see that the machine is made to attack. Therein lies its weakness. In essence the team only has two defenders whose specific job is defending.
I implore Graham Taylor to attack and to attack with width. If the Netherlands are made to defend they will make mistakes and England will win. Conversely, if England go to Rotterdam to 'not get beat', ie go for a draw, then we will be playing into their hands and they will have the initiative.
Dutch footballing excellence is equally matched by fragile personal relationships which guarantee its downfall. Since the Netherlands emerged as a force in world football during the early Seventies, their success has been cyclical. They have created superb teams from brilliant emerging footballers. When individual success has resulted, player-power has taken over and total disarray has ensued. Player-power, or Cruyff-power, destroyed the great Seventies team and resulted in eight years in the wilderness.
Player-power, or Gullit-power, is threatening to do the same now. It is ironic and to England's ultimate good fortune that currently the most potent player in Europe is making himself unavailable for this game because he does not like the coach. This together with the absence through injury of Van Basten means that the team have no dominant spirit. No rudder, if you like.
In the past, the strength of a coach like Rinus Michels would have overcome this loss. But at the moment the Dutch FA have put their coach, Dick Advocaat, between a rock and a hard place. Success would apparently mean Advocaat being moved sideways or out to make way for Cruyff to coach the team in the finals. In such circumstances Advocaat cannot be inspirational for his team.
The situation has created an atmosphere in which the Dutch players are almost talking themselves out of a ticket to America. At the recent San Marino game Dennis Bergkamp was saying that on present form the Dutch could not beat England. Rijkaard and Jan Wouters were both marvelling at the fluent one-touch English attacking football. A clever psychological ploy or genuine fear? I favour the latter and hope that Graham Taylor too has smelled this fear.
So, with key players missing, senior players already making excuses and a coach with a death-sentence hanging over his head, the signs are good for England to win. A positive approach will result in this 'Judgment Day' being decisive.
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