Dutch football in crisis. How often have we heard this? A lot. We’ve always been highly critical of our top players. Cruyff was not that revered when he still played. The man has achieved deity status after his career as player and coach. When he was a player, the Dutch public opinion called him a “money wolf” and as a coach Rinus Michels (!) called him a psychopath!
The generation Witschge, Rijkaard, Van Basten was called the “patat generatie” (chips generation). The group Davids-Kluivert-Seedorf-Bogarde-Reiziger was seen as controversial with their complaints about racism. And even our Silver Team in 2010 received heavy criticism for their lack of defensive skills.
We haven’t been winning regular European trophies since the 1970s so this crisis is basically the standard situation for Oranje.
Earlier, Ajax and PSV failed to qualify for the EL. Feyenoord met its match at CL level already at home vs Man City. Internationally, we do not register. And our National Team always had ups and downs. But last week, the crisis increased.
Beenhakker trying to “get” the patat frites situation….
Cup winner Vitesse was ousted from the first round of this season’s cup competition by a lowly amateur team. Ajax draws vs Ajax and loses against the same Vitesse (implying that Swift, the amateurs, would beat Ajax even worse than they did Vitesse).
NAC Breda also got kicked out of the cup by amateurs and they ( in Holland seen as Manchester City’s C-team) were able to beat Feyenoord at home (!) for the first time ever!
At the same time, the PSV that was in crisis some weeks ago, with Cocu under heavy pressure, beat contenders FC Utrecht 1-7 in their own home!
So the finalist of last year’s Europa League, Ajax, is currently in crisis. They dropped eight points in six games. Too much.
PSV was in crisis but seems to be the top dog for now.
Last season’s champions have lost three of their last four games.
Ajax’ problems aren’t to be ignored. They lost key players (Sanchez, Klaassen, Traore) and had to deal with the loss of the biggest talent and highly popular Nouri. They allowed Peter Bosz to leave (who isn’t doing too shabby at the moment) and replaced him with inexperienced Marcel Keizer.
The balance sheet shows a capital of 160 million euros but some of that capital should be wearing football boots. But the Technical Heart (Overmars, Bergkamp, vd Sar and the head of development) failed to replace these key players with players of a similar level. They did spend money on new players, but these have merely warmed the bench.
New coach Marcel Keizer has clear “Ajax” ideas of playing but does he have the players? The midfield of Van de Beek, De Jong and Ziyech is attractive but also inexperienced. The wingers are hold-cold and striker Dolberg is lacking form. Huntelaar has had a good spell (and will always deliver) but with the current back four (lacking pace, and leadership) it will be hard to win big games, using the “5 seconds rule”. Ajax played the EL finals and was aware that Klaassen, Sanchez, Onana, Veltman, Kluivert, Youness, Ziyech and Dolberg were on many a radar. Tete and Riedenwald were already given up by Ajax’ management. But despite the interest in half the team, Ajax didn’t act. Sanchez and Klaassen were key in the team and Ajax should consider themselves lucky that Dolberg and Ziyech are still in Amsterdam. The Technical Heart has not managed the issue too well and Marcel Keizer is now lost in different systems, doubtful about the Dolberg-Huntelaar situation and most likely unhappy with the options he has available.
ADO Coach Alfons Groenendijk as Ajax assistant coach with Henk ten Cate and Frank de Boer
Gio van Bronckhorst seemed the winner in the summer, with Martin van Geel bringing good young prospects to the team. But while Feyenoord has to play 7 games in 23 days, they have to miss their line leader Nicolai Jorgensen. And immediately, the weakness of the squad comes to the surface. There is no decent second striker in red and white. Poor Michiel Kramer appears clowneske in this Feyenoord team and stumbles and bumbles through games. The fans applaud and cheer any successful square pass he gives. And with Nelom and Diks replacing the talented Kongolo and Karsdorp (Nelom plays for the injured Haps, while rightback Woudenberg was let go so Diks could come in), Feyenoord did not improve. Haps has the potential to become Oranje’s next left back, but Diks is clearly out of his league.
Dirk Kuyt is sorely missed as well of course and when 5 first team players are absent and the rest makes a hash of it (Jones and Kramer the two clowns vs NAC), Feyenoord looks very average.
The new kids at Feyenoord are all getting the benefit of the doubt, but when key players are missing, they come short. For now.
Elsewhere, PSV plays good games and not so good games. Not that consistent, with Marco van Ginkel still having to get used to his leadership/playmaker role and Ramselaar proving to be potentially nothing more than an average utility player. Lozano op front, the new Mexican winger, alongside Locadia might well do PSV a lot of good, but the weak defence might become PSV’s downfall. Rumor has it, that Bert van Marwijk and Mark van Bommel will take the coaching roles next season.
Mentor Pep with protege Erik ten Hag
FC Utrecht is still a club hitting above their weight. They have the 11th budget or so of the competition but continuously perform at sub top level. Erik ten Hag consistently overachieves and makes players better individually. Utrecht also lost a couple of key lads (Haller, Barazite, Amrabat) but the new kids gelled in nicely and despite some big defeats, they will most likely do well. Same as AZ, the first team plays attractive football and the Academy churns out some great talents. Heerenveen is one of the most attractive teams at the moment. Norwegian Martin Odegaard impresses every week and with a fit Stijn Schaars as the general in midfield, they keep on getting the points with attractive football.
Vitesse is the last of the contenders, Henk Fraser has forged an attractive team, playing free flowing football. Their cup defeat being a big blemish, I’m sure they’ll rebound and give it their all this season.
Apart from them PEC Zwolle (John van ‘t Schip) and VVV Venlo are doing surprisingly well.
But all these domestic battles full fun and games are not so impressive in the perspective of Dutch football internationally.
If we analyse the way they most dominating teams play, we come to a highly concerning conclusion. I’m talking Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Napoli, Borussia Dortmund… They do the exact opposite of what Dutch coaches (and coach’ coaches) preach about. In Holland, we say “without possession, keep the field compact, but when in possession, stretch the pitch and make the field big”. This is not what Lazio does, or what Dortmund does…
Mentor Cruyff with protege Peo
Their coaches say: “When without possession, keep the pitch small. When in possession, keep the pitch small”.
How does this work? These teams all play in “triangles”. Every thing they do, is done in triangles, meaning that when a player has the ball, anywhere on the pitch, at least two team mates are close for the bounce. The player with the ball needs to play the ball vertically, never square, even if the team mate is marked. A precise ball can be bound back to the third – moving player. And so on. So the team moves across the pitch like an organism. In triangles. Example, the left midfielder has the ball, so the left winger, left back, the striker and the mid midfielder should all be somehow offering themselves as options. If the left winger is the target, the striker will make a move so he becomes the third player receiving the ball. In that case, again the mid midfielder and the left winger (and maybe the right winger) will make themselves available.
This involves total fitness! Lots of movement. And lots and lots of practice. A typical practice is: 11 v 11 on half a pitch and you can only have one touch before releasing the ball.
This is total football New Style. And it’s not how Oranje plays. It is how Peter Bosz let Ajax play last season, but two key players (Klaassen and Sanchez) are missing from that team.
There are key advantages to play this way. 1) as you’re constantly moving around, it’s hard for the opponent to win the ball back. 2) you have several options always available to you to unleash the killer pass. 3) once you lose the ball, you don’t need to track back 20 to 40 meters to get back in position. You can immediately go for the wolf pack 5-seconds approach, get the ball back and you’re still not far from the position where you were.
These eight principles are the foundation of Napoli’s positioning game.
Coach Sarri doesn’t play ” a system” or formation. He even says: “If people talk about systems, they don’t get football”. His players will adapt their position to what is happening on the pitch. And Sarri uses specific key points to instruct players what to do and how to respond. These key points are the basis, but there is a lot of freedom for creativity as well. “What they have to do is firm, how they do it is up to them.”
- Most players in the centre of the pitch
– The flanks of the pitch are only taken up by the full backs and sometimes Callejon plays a bit more wide. Most players will be found in the ax of the team. See the image on the left, above
- Using the passing lines to become free in space – The oppoosing midfielders will try to block the passing lines to the key midfielders of Napoli, Hamsik and Jorginho. These two will gladly “hide” behind their markers until the right moment pops up to move a litle bit wide or away and that timing is drilled into the team, so the pass will come right on time. And it takes them just two or three steps to get the ball between the lines.
- Anticipate, not re-act – The Napoli players are constantly moving. Whenever a player is played in, the others move around, finding space or making dummy runs. This is incredibly hard to defend.
- Movement in conjunction – Sarri tells his players to constantly watch each other, constantly check the movements of the others and to offer options all the time. The distances between the players will be maintained this way and there are triangles everywhere.
- Ignore second man, play in third – In Napoli’s positioning game, the players like to ignore the closest player but play the ball one line further up. This allows the “ignored player” to turn and move towards the goal and receive the ball as the third runner. This player is already positioned right, doesn’t need to turn and can find the next solution.
- High paced circulation – Napoli plays a lot of short, fast paced passes from feet to feet. The opponent is forced to think on their feet and constantly confronted with new situations. Napoli tends to be a step ahead all the time.
- More players around the ball – Wherever the ball is, the players are. They create a man more situation all the time and it is harder for the opponent to keep possession. See the situation in the image, below right. It is a 4 v 2 situation. The goal is not necessarily to get the ball then and there, but to push the opponent back.
- Tempt the opponent – Once the opponent is organised and behind the ball, Napoli will slow down. The opponent will at some state try and find something and once one or two players “bite” and are out of position, the accelerations starts.
Final third play
Positioning play is nice, but useless if it doesn’t lead to chances. And Napoli has a clear plan. As they really are capable of that dazzling positioning play, the defenders of the opponent are dragged higher up the pitch. The midfielders try to put pressure on Napoli, so the defenders need to push up too. This will make it easer for them, but it also offers Napoli space behind the backline. And that is what Napoli wants. Napoli uses this situation in two different ways.
The first one is by running deep in behind the backline. The three forwards are masters in this. Mertens, Callejon and Insigne scored 60 goals together last season. Most of these goals came from a deep run in behind. They actually first come into the ball, and then turn to sprint in behind. They create their own space, but they also have a head start as a result of this “in the ball, turn, go deep” move. Which means that they can run at full speed without being off side. And their team mates get a sort of red flag sign: once Mertens comes into the ball, they know he’s going to make the dart towards goal and the midfielders can loop the ball into space for him.
The second way they create chances is by suddenly using the player on the flank, who usually moves up unnoticed (the action is all in the axes of the game, remember?). So if the opponent’s backline has moved up, the space behind can be attacked. By playing in the left back, for instance, he can swing the ball into the space – mostly low if Milik doesn’t play – and the forward runners can score an easy tap in, when the ball is played between goalie and backline in no man’s land. Left back Ghoulam does this all the time and creates easy tap ins. See below.