The Dutch School is alive and well, just not in the Netherlands
The Dutch School is dead. With a classic 4-3-3 formation, the Dutch national team failed to qualify for Euro 2016, despite there being 24 places up for grabs. Dutch clubs are being slaughtered every time they cross the border. Even Ajax have concluded that things have to change, with head of academy Wim Jonk, the last defender of Johan Cruijff’s philosophy, being forced out. Even Cruijff distanced himself from Ajax after that incident in the same week in which current national team coach Danny Blind yielded to the call of playing a defensive 5-3-2 against Wales(!). Dutch football has lost its ideological feathers and even the media’s heralding of the Dutch School seems to have softened: It’s time for realism and pragmatism.
Before we ritually bury this ideology, we first have to answer the question: What actually is the Dutch School? The first issue is that this has never been properly defined. A Google search for ‘The Dutch School’ only turns up information on the Golden Era in Dutch art, the 16th century. Even the KNVB are unclear on what is meant with ‘The Dutch School’. Asking around on Twitter, it quickly became clear that there is not one clear definition or understanding of what it means. The descriptions of what the Dutch School should contain can simply be brought down to three categories:
- The Dutch School is the Netherlands 1974 World Cup (Or another team)
At first instance, this definition seems plausible. Did the Dutch play according to the Dutch School in the 1974 World Cup? The answer to that question is a clear ‘yes’. But when we’re exploring this definition, it soon turns out to be far too narrow. When one would ask what a chair is, any chair would do as an answer, even though this chair is a fairly specific one.
The team of 1974 undoubtedly has the characteristics of a ‘Dutch School team’, but not all of characteristics of that team (for example playing with a false nine) are necessary to actually play the style for which the Dutch School stands for. This is what makes using one team as a benchmark way too simplistic. The answer is more likely to be found in several teams with the predicament of the Dutch School. Just like the definition of a chair can be applied to chairs of several styles, ‘football’ doesn’t limit itself to one definite description of the game.
- The Dutch School is 4-3-3 (fill in your favourite formation)
This definition seems plausible at first glance, just as the previous one. The Dutch played a 4-3-3 formation during the ‘74 World Cup and this goes for most teams in the Eredivisie currently as well. However, this description has similar quirks compared to the previous definition. The ‘Dutch School chair’ might not be a ‘chair’ in this comparison, but just a piece of furniture consisting of four legs. In most situations this might come near the truth, but it doesn’t account for its exceptions.
This becomes clear when discussing the 4-3-3 formation. According to one, the Dutch School uses 4-3-3 with attacking full backs, whereas another says the libero defender is crucial to the system. While the two styles might fit in separate formations, it is highly unlikely a manager uses three of its four defenders to push into midfield. Apart from that, is the focus of the midfield the attacking No.10, or is it the holding midfielder? Is it necessary for the wingers to have chalk on their boots? Accepting such definitions will lead to many teams being considered teams playing according to the Dutch School, without actually doing that, or teams adopting ‘Dutch School’ principles but not being accepted as such due to formation. High profile exceptions to this are the counterattacking 4-3-3 deployed by Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, or the 3-4-3 Ajax used in 1995 to win the Dutch their last Champions League. If 4-3-3 is accepted as an essential part of defining the Dutch School, a team such as the 1995 Ajax one would be excluded, even though it is widely accepted as one of the pinnacles of Dutch football.
At the same time, it turns out that the 4-3-3 is one of the most popular ways to describe what the ‘Dutch School’ is. At some Dutch clubs, there is even a constitutional demand for 4-3-3 to be the leading formation for the first team. And so, a fairly innocent description has led to a dogma that is now threatening Dutch football as a whole. When you think a chair always needs to have four legs, you won’t be thinking of a three- or even a two-legged one.
- The Dutch School is applying principles of the game that lead to attractive football (fill in your principles here)
This third and last definition is the best one to actually apply. It is not too specific neither is it too abstract. The principles of play describe ‘the piece of furniture with legs and a seat’ that makes for a chair. By adding the mission of ‘playing attractive football’, the sentence itself becomes more of a concept, as for example ‘a comfortable chair’. The Dutch School demands ‘the chair of football’ not only to be able to be sat upon, but also to be comfortable. Entertaining the crowd (the comfort part) becomes a goal in itself.
In the end, it leads to the following definition: ‘The Dutch School is committing to the plays of principle that lead to attractive football, ending in as positive a result as possible’. This covers both the principles of play the Dutch School and the result it should lead to in a proper fashion.
Principles of play
Without any clear other definition or ‘definer’, the best source to turn to in order to answer this question is Johan Cruijff. An essential part of the Ajax teams of the seventies as well as the Dutch 1974 team, he is someone who has influenced two clubs (Ajax & Barcelona) that purport themselves as disciples of the Dutch School and who as a manager has had his say in the evolution of both clubs over the last few decades and, arguably, European football in general.
Johan Cruijff has never been clear about his principles of play. But we can extract nine of his previous quotes that describe his vision on football.
- Keeping the field small
‘If I need to defend the whole garden, I am the worst, if I need to defend only a small part of it, I am the best: It all has to do with metres, nothing more’.
The foundation of the Dutch School is using spaces to its optimum. The most revolutionary aspect of the Oranje in 1974 was that the offside trap was used as a weapon for attack. The back line stormed forwards, limiting the space of the opponent and often conquering possession. “To be clear: Playing on offside is an attacking move,” Cruijff wrote in De Telegraaf. “Because the offside trap decides the size of the playing field.”
Cruijff then explained the logic between keeping spaces limited whenever the ball is not in possession. “Things are often too easy for the opponent. By giving them two or three metres, they appear better footballers than they actually are. When you’re limiting them, they often turn out to be way worse. Therefore, you must prevent your opponents from looking better than they are.”
This distinction is often already made before actually losing possession. Cruijff states that distances between players, especially in the axis of the team, should never be too big. Crucial within all of this is creating lines, creating the option of closing in as a formation whenever possession is lost.
Since 1974, keeping play compact has become more and more important. For international coaches, compactness has become the magic word. This principle of the Dutch School has become more important and more widespread than ever before.
- Direct pressure after losing possession
‘Whenever possession was lost, the striker turned into the first defender and that attitude ran through the whole team. It is essential in transition’.
In order to attack, it is necessary to keep focus for whenever the ball is lost during transition. Cruijff explains that by doing this, a team can be prevented from dropping back into its own half whenever the ball is lost. “Defending needs to occur on every position of the field, it costs less energy than when a team doesn’t have to get back to its own half in order to gain possession and score a goal.”
Apart from saving energy, Cruijff sees direct pressing when possession is lost as the right strategy from a defensive point of view as well. “That way, your opponent remains under your control, by keeping spaces small and taking away any depth in their play”. An extra advantage of applying pressure when the ball is lost is that the opponent probably needs a lot of energy to regain possession while lacking a proper organisation, making it easier for the team to recover possession.
In modern football this tactic is often described as counterpressing, a widely discussed and documented phenomenon. ‘Counterpressing is the best playmaker in the world’, said current Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp when he was at Borrussia Dortmund. His former rival Pep Guardiola uses the same principle for his teams.
- Defending spaces rather than opponents
‘When a player is not marked, he cannot get away from marking either’
As a coach, Johan Cruijff understood that a team can be active without being in possession. ‘You can be dominant with or without the ball’. The only way to manage the last one is by applying zonal marking. The opposition has to adjust to the positioning of the team that way. When that is combined with keeping the field small and pressing, it will leave the opponent without a moment of rest.
Cruijff has a personal reason for preferring zonal marking to man-marking too. He is too much of a lover of football to give the greats an actual task. “I love creative players,” he said. “I would never try to eliminate a player like that from play by getting him a man-marker. I would look at which players are looking for him and would try to make that impossible. If the creative player only receives half of the passes he usually gets, he is only half the problem he usually is.”
These days, zonal marking is the golden rule for almost all big competitions. Managers have found out that a good organization can mask a lack of quality in a side. The Eredivisie is an exception to the rule in that.
- Depth over width
‘A playing style in which a pass wide is unacceptable’
Johan Cruijff is allergic to passes wide in build-up play. He is insistent on the midfield getting the ball inside opponents’ half and while facing the opposition goal. To make that possible, Cruijff insists that a pass forwards always trumps a pass sideways in terms of philosophy.
Cruijff explains that this principal is mainly important when the opposition is trying to put pressure on the team. “When the ball is only passed sideways, the risk occurs where you get trapped. By choosing the way forward – without blindly booting it forward – you can exclude this risk.”
In the last few decades, football has increasingly become a sport in which transitional play has become crucial. Teams are often well organised, meaning they are often only vulnerable when possession is lost. During the most recent World Cup, on average fewer than three passes were needed to score a goal. Especially when the ball is won, preferring a ball forward over one sideways is crucial as the opponent is more likely to be surprised at that specific point in a match.
- Build-up play through the centre
“The problem starts with playing in the full-backs. At that point, you only have a quarter of the field left to you. With that 25 percent, the full-back has to manage and when the opponent puts pressure on those full-backs, there is little left to do but pass it back to the keeper’.
To be able to dominate, as much possession as possible is needed at the centre of the field. When the players are positioned well, the players in the centre naturally would have several options to pass the ball to. This makes it more difficult for the opposition to disrupt the building-up from the team.
The idea of a full-back being responsible for the build-up play from defence leaves Johan Cruijff, naturally, in disgust. He thinks the full-backs should only be used in attack and not when the ball is in the attacking team’s own half. As coach at Barcelona, Cruijff used two footballing defenders in Ronald Koeman and Pep Guardiola in his defence. This enhanced the use of wingers and strikers whenever they were moving between the lines. The thought behind this is that the attackers can actually lay off the ball to a midfielder, who then would have the play in front of him.
As for previously managed principles, this has become more of a norm rather than an exception in international football. The German FA (DFB) for example divides the field into five different areas.
The most central area is seen as the most valuable. From the most central lane on the pitch, you can go each way and from there, you’re closer to the goal. Given that this is always a crowded area, it also leaves you with less time to make decisions. As a result, a lot of attention goes out to the so-called half-spaces. These lanes are in a quite central position as well, but there’s not as much pressure applied to players in possession there and it leaves the player with the option of playing a diagonal pass that is difficult to defend. Pep Guardiola always tried to pull all kinds of tricks in order to dominate the centre. At Barcelona, Lionel Messi often transformed into an extra midfielder, whereas his Bayern sees their full-backs offer extra back-up in the middle.
- Third man and triangles
‘This has nothing to do with positional play. Because the third man can’t be reached. Which is why you see 30 balls back to the keeper per game’.
When Johan Cruijff discusses team passing, he often talks about triangles and getting a third man involved. The theory behind getting a third man involved is simple: The positioning of a team, according to Cruijff, is optimal when a player has two options in possession.
The so-called third man is a result of a coming-together of several triangles on the field. The third man is the player that starts to move once two team-mates start to set up a passing move. In practice, this is very difficult to defend. The opponent is often focused on the two players passing, but instead of seeing a one-two play out, the defender can be caught out by a third option presenting itself.
The fact that Cruijff often pleas for a 4-3-3 is a result of him wanting to see those triangles on the field rather than a love for the formation in itself. “Four at the back and four in midfield has no chance of functioning properly. The triangles fall away. You must always have triangles, because only that ensures a player of having two options in possession.”
For teams who prefer possession, creating triangles is still crucial. Successful coaches such as Thomas Tüchel, Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Louis van Gaal, Marcelo Bielsa and Jorge Sampaoli have all acknowledged and emphasised the value of this.
- Creating one-on-ones
‘If my attacker comes into a one-on-one, I always say: “’Let him sort it out’’. The players then say: ’’But we can help him’’ My answer then is: “At first, there is a chance of you walking into his space and second, you’ll pull a second defender in and 2 vs 2 is more difficult than 1 vs 1”.’
For Johan Cruijff, creating one vs ones is an important attacking weapon. The former No.14 assumes a team has an attack with exceptional qualities. The goal of the passing game of a team is to get these players into a position where they can take somebody on, resulting into a situation where the attacking team has more men in attack than the opponent in dangerous positions.
Cruijff sees too many teams where this principle isn’t applied, or is misunderstood. “Now Robben gets on the ball and the right back and the striker move towards him. Instead of a 1 v 1, it turns into a 3 v 3 and the previous advantage is now gone”. This principle works the other way as well: When an attacker can be brought into a one-on-one position this should always be preferred to a pass wide.
According to Guardiola, this principle of play counts for every team sport. “The secret is to overawe your opponent in numbers at one side of the pitch, causing your opponent to re-shuffle in order to avoid becoming defensively prone at one side. By creating a majority on one end, you draw the opposition that way and it leaves you with the chance to hit them at the other end.”
- Interchanging of positions
‘Put one in as a striker, make it a tutti frutti’
Another important principle of play of Johan Cruijff is creating and profiting from operational spaces. This idea of Cruijff originates from his playing career, when he as a striker started to roam more and more to lose his markers. This caused the striker position to become more of an operational space: Other players, such as left winger Piet Keizer, right winger John Rep and midfielder Johan Neeskens profited from this by getting into this area and causing confusion.
The interchanging and usage of space are good ways of disorienting a well-organised opponent. At the same time, this is the most important thought behind Total Football: When a left forward is capable of defending and a left full back is capable of attacking, they can interchange depending on the situation. This asks a lot from the players, especially in terms of football intelligence, but when applied well it leads to a flexible formation that is hard to contain for any opposition.
In modern football, Universality is a core principle. Players are expected to have qualities that will allow them to play in several positions and several roles. That tendency was predicted in the 80’s by then-AC Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi, who said: “Football will evolve into a game that more and more will exist as one big midfield”. What the Italian meant was that the spaces would get smaller, leaving less space for the true specialists in football. The playmaker who doesn’t defend, the winger who only keeps track of the line he’s running next to, the poacher in the striker position and the butcher-type defender: These were the type of players that were close to extinct.
Football has become a game that is being played in small spaces, and from that, switching positions and using operational spaces has become more important than ever. Basically any top team has variances on these concepts. For example, look at the amount of midfielders played from the flank, only to create an extra man in the centre of midfield. These type of tactical tricks are more of a rule than an exception these days.
- Profit from weaknesses
‘Find the weak spot of your opponent and you have won’
The ninth and last principal from the Dutch School is using the weaknesses of your opponent through tactical tweaks. “The difficult part of an easy match is making your opponent actually play badly”, is what Johan Cruijff once said.
The Dutch School is about trusting your own power, but it also means that you have to use the weaknesses of your opponent by adapting your tactic to the team that you’re facing. Cruijff once said, talking to Amsterdam-based newspaper Het Parool: “I am the street football coach, I try to use any small advantage I can find to my disposal”. A famous trick of Cruijff was to play a player like Michael Laudrup as a striker, leaving the man-markers of the opposition without a reference point.
Pep Guardiola explains how he adapted his Bayern team to an opponent with five defenders:
Guardiola, an apprentice of Cruijff, took this principal of his master to a next level. For him, this is now the core of the job. “I sit down, watch videos and take notes. That’s when a moment of inspiration comes to me”, Guardiola states in the brilliant Pep Confidential. “All of a sudden, I am sure I’ve got it, the solution to us getting a victory. These are the moments that give my job purpose.”
Now that a definition of the Dutch School has been established by nine principles of play, we can test this compared to teams who are famous for being linked to the Dutch School.
It seems these teams are definitely fitting within the definitions of the Dutch School. That does not mean the definition is infallible, but it could well serve as a good starting point discussing what the Dutch School actually is.
With the previously established definitions, we can also look at the Dutch teams and whether they have adapted similar standards as the previously mentioned teams that are defined as ‘Dutch Schooled’. Only when this is the case, the accusation of the Dutch School being at the base of the bad results of the Dutch national team and the Dutch teams in European competitions becomes worth investigating.
Of the selected teams, Vitesse comes closest to playing according to the Dutch School following the nine principles just established, while the standout team of not doing so is the flagship of Dutch football – the national team. Oranje does play ‘Dutch’ to one of the aforementioned definitions, in shaping up in a (possession-based) 4-3-3, but the actual execution of said formation is miles away from the football that Dutch Football’s ultimate protagonist Johan Cruijff actually preaches.
Or, to put it in Cruijff’s words: “There are many people that can say a team plays bad football, there are only a few that can say why a team plays bad football and only a couple can tell what is needed to make a team play better.”
So let’s be cautious with throwing away a whole philosophy because of one wrong interpretation. The Netherlands can easily maintain without the dogma of 4-3-3 or the wingers with their feet rooted to the sidelines. But that does not mean the principles of the Dutch School are dead and buried, because coaches such as Thomas Tüchel (Borussia Dortmund), Jorge Sampaoli (Chile), Michael Laudrup (without club) and Pep Guardiola (Bayern München) have proven successful with modern interpretation of said philosophy. Having said that, these principles of play are hardly a guarantee for success, but the opposite is hardly true either.
Maybe, Dutch football should not be so busy jumping ship when it comes to abandoning its identity, but should focus on re-inventing its original identity. Because the Dutch School is still alive and well, but not in the Netherlands.
This article previously appeared on Catenaccio.nl in Dutch and is written by the great Pieter Zwart, journalist for Voetbal International and one of the editors of leading Dutch independent football blog Catenaccio.nl. We are thankful that we at BeNeFoot were allowed to translate and publish it in English.
The article has been translated by Michiel Jongsma.
The quotes of Johan Cruijff used in this article are from columns in De Telegraaf, his analysis for the NOS, his boek ‘Voetbal’ and books with assembled quotes from Cruijff, such as ‘Je gaat het pas zien als je het doorhebt’ en ‘Johan Cruijjf uitspraken’.