The State of European Football, Part two, Holland

Ajax Rosenborg


For the second in a series (you can find the first one here) about countries who either under or overachieved in 2017-8 European competition qualifying rounds, our attention turns to the once mighty Dutch league which has recently fallen on increasingly hard times.  This season both Ajax and PSV failed to make European competitions, Ajax losing to OGC Nice in the Champions League qualifiers and then Rosenborg in the Europa League Playoff Round and PSV being unceremoniously knocked out by Croatian side NK Osijek.  To find out what is behind this failure Rightbankwarsaw talked to Journalist and Dutch League expert Peter McVitie.

Hi Peter, Can you explain the roots of Ajax and PSV’s failures this season to qualify?

This season, it’s mainly down to bad decisions in the summer.  Ajax have done a lot to undermine the promise they showed last season.  The departure of Peter Bosz was made easier by issues in the background.  He wanted to bring in his own assistant coaches but the Technical Heart (those who make the key decision at Ajax – mainly Van der Sar, Overmars and Bergkamp) didn’t think it was a good idea, so Dortmund offered him an escape.  Since then, Ajax have reverted back to some questionable signings and failed to strengthen in many areas, crucially left back.

New coach Marcel Keizer’s coaching career was brief and poor before he took over Jong Ajax for 2016-17, guiding a talented group to second place in Dutch football’s second tier. The Technical Heart are banking a lot on him given there are a lot of talented young players in the squad, but he has a lot to prove.  Crashing out of the Champions League and Europa League is a terrible start. They played well against Nice at times and of course the Rosenborg tie was close too until the final 10 minutes, but it is a big sign of how far they have fallen in just a few months.

The tragedy of Abdelhak Nouri’s heart arrhythmia, leading to severe and permanent brain damage, has also devastated Ajax in the build up to this season.  Appie was loved by everyone at Ajax and was already a big figure with the fans, so the club came to a halt while they awaited news and dealt with the immense grief.  Overall, beyond the money they brought in for Davinson Sanchez, Davy Klaassen, Jairo Riedewald and Kenny Tete, the summer has been a tough one for Ajax.

With PSV, they have taken a big decline since their 2014-15 title win.  They sold three key players before the first qualifier but needed much more depth to the squad than the three signings they made.  They were always lagging behind Feyenoord and Ajax last season and just haven’t improved.  There are few signs that Phillip Cocu can really take them forward as a coach. He is tactically weak and that has hindered them at times in Europe, despite the occasional uplifting Champions League result.

Dutch Eredivisie sides have been having problems for sometime in Europe.  What’s the cause of this and is there hope for the future?

Despite Ajax’s impressive season, the struggles of Eredivisie sides in Europe has been going on for years and the gap is widening.  With regards to the Eredivisie itself, that no teams have been capable of challenging the big three in recent years is a concern. Dutch football is in a very strange predicament at the moment.

But it stretches beyond that.  It’s very much a collective issue. Dutch football has been frozen in time tactically while the rest of Europe progresses, heavily inspired by the famous Dutch style.  Eredivisie teams generally play to the same template – 4-3-3 with width, building from the back and holding onto possession.  There have been a few recent examples of more flexible, progressive coaches, like Peter Bosz and FC Utrecht’s Erik ten Hag, whose reputation is growing since his return from coaching Bayern Munich II (recruited by Pep Guardiola).

The traditional thinking is rife throughout Dutch football and affects the national team too.  With a generational shift on their hands in the national team, the KNVB have reverted to old and inept coaches stuck in adhering to a typical Dutch style.  The failures of the national team at the moment are of no great surprise, the real surprise is just how bad they look against sides they historically could contend with.  The issues within the team can’t be fixed easily, but the Dutch FA the KNVB set them back a few years with the decision to replace Van Gaal with Hiddink and to have Danny Blind replace him.  There is little direction from the top to see things in a different light, so the problem is easy to spread through.

Eventually, the right people will get into the right positions to fix it.  Today it was reported that the KNVB will hold talks with consultancy firm Cruyff Football – run by Wim Jonk and Ruben Jongkind with Jordi Cruyff- over a partnership to develop more of a focus on the technical and tactical side of youth football.  Jonk is a true proponent of the Cruyff philosophy, but he has a clearer interpretation than most who believe they are adhering to that philosophy.

Somewhere along the line, the message has been lost with many current coaches who don’t see the depth to it beyond playing a in a 4-3-3 formation with width, building from the back and keeping possession.  There’s much more to the type of football that made the Dutch iconic and many of the more successful coaches in Europe adhere to the style more than most Dutch do, as was shown by Dutch journalist Pieter Zwart.

If they can further improve the education of players and coaches over the next few years, it will be a big step forward for Dutch football, but it will be a long process, I imagine.

Where should Dutch domestic football be aiming in the future?

It is low at the moment but it should be aiming to get to the level of Serie A and Ligue 1. You could say it wasn’t far off the level of the Premier League in the late 90s.  Things have changed so much that it’s impossible for that gap to narrow, but the Dutch are still producing talented players.  If they can improve again tactically and produce better coaches, they can make some progress.

What do you think of UEFA’s new reforms making it more difficult for smaller clubs to qualify?

It’s a shame to see of course because so many teams are being left behind and it will only lead to a wider gap.  I can only see bad things happening for Dutch football as a result too.  They already struggle to get in if not via the champions’ route, so the coefficient takes a battering.  When PSV failed to qualify for the Europa League, it led to the sale of Davy Propper to Brighton and they are severely weakened this season, they don’t look capable of challenging and if they don’t get into Europe next season, they may have to downgrade the squad again.  The knock on effects are huge so limiting the access to the big stage only hinders smaller leagues.

Would you like to see a new third competition being developed by UEFA? Is so, what should it look like?

It’s not something I’ve ever considered but I can’t say I have an immediate desire for it.  I’m not sure who it would benefit or what appeal it would have.

Thanks go to Peter, who you can follow here.  Stay tuned for further instalments!

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