England, Netherlands and the curious case of intertwined ideals, style and history

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The English invented football. Then they ran out of good ideas and the Dutch reinvented it. And if that is something of a simplification, at best, a semi-final can seem a meeting of near-neighbours who misunderstand each other. English league records have been set by a side with a Dutch influence, with the principles of Total Football fed via Johan Cruyff to Pep Guardiola and helping Manchester City win four consecutive domestic titles.

Victory in Dortmund on Wednesday could be traced to Dutch players who learned from experiences in England or English footballers who have benefited from Dutch or Dutch-inspired managers in the Premier League.

The English can import the Dutch directly in search of tactical nous, technical expertise and a level of sophistication that its own game sometimes does not produce. Manchester United and Liverpool, England’s two biggest and most decorated clubs, have Dutch managers: indeed in the last 37 years, United have had two Dutch managers and none from England.

Yet if Arne Slot’s reign at Anfield has just begun, the evidence from Old Trafford is that Dutch attempts to customise a team for the Premier League showed a lack of understanding. In very different ways, however. Louis van Gaal’s United were goal-shy sideways passers, frustrating a public used to more excitement.

Erik ten Hag veered to the other extreme last season, eschewing a predecessor’s horizontal football for vertical games of non-stop transitions and absurdly high shot counts. Frank de Boer, who played for Van Gaal and seemed to borrow his style of football, took precisely no points in his time in charge of Crystal Palace. Ten Hag and Van Gaal have won cups but arguably the most successful Dutch managers in the Premier League – relative to resources and expectations – have been the avuncular pair of Guus Hiddink and Martin Jol, each more of a man-manager than an ideologue.

Ronald Koeman, who took Southampton to their highest Premier League finish, may have some similarities; Dutch in nationality, but not necessarily in style of play.

As the biggest England-Netherlands game beckons, a rivalry is renewed. It gathered importance during Koeman’s playing days. These countries first met 89 years ago and have faced one another 22 times; arguably, though, the key games all occurred in an eight-year period.

It started with an illustration of Dutch class that sent them on their way to their only major trophy, the 3-1 win in 1988 that featured a hat-trick from Marco van Basten. A stalemate in the 1990 World Cup nevertheless helped England top the group and, in turn, reach the semi-finals.

Dutch boss Koeman famously scored against England (Getty Images)
Dutch boss Koeman famously scored against England (Getty Images)

They did not qualify for the 1994 World Cup in part because of Koeman; his professional foul on David Platt was punished only by a yellow card and a typically precise free kick enabled the Dutch to win 2-0. Then, after he had retired from international duty, came what remains probably England’s finest tournament performance against elite opponents since the 1966 World Cup, the 4-1 evisceration in Euro 96. Terry Venables’ England seemed to show the Dutch principles, of intelligent interchanging of positions and smart passing. That Hiddink’s Netherlands were in disarray off the field is a factor that tends to be overlooked in England.

Before and since, they have rarely met in tournaments. The Netherlands’ major achievements often occur when either England don’t even qualify – as in 1974 and 1978 – or retreat home early, like in 2010 and 2014.

But the Dutch have come to assume a ubiquity in the Premier League. Even before then, the Ipswich imports Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen were an indication that the Dutch could add qualities the English lacked. Since then, Ruud Gullit was a transformative figure at Chelsea, as midfielder, player-manager, trailblazer for a series of glamorous arrivals from overseas. Dennis Bergkamp was similarly revolutionary at Arsenal, turning a team renowned for drab 1-0 wins into stylists, aided by a velveteen touch; the non-flying Dutchman exploited the English fondness for 4-4-2 to show a No 10 could thrive in the space between the lines.

Robin van Persie was a successor, another Arsenal idol, probably the closest player since Bergkamp to being technically perfect. Edwin van der Sar was a goalkeeper who was ahead of his time, given his assurance in possession; as his penalty save from Nicolas Anelka won United the 2008 Champions League final, there is a case for saying he was the most successful Dutch import of all. Marc Overmars and Arjen Robben showed blistering acceleration and underlined the Dutch fondness for wingers.

Dutch icon Hasselbaink is on the England coaching staff (The FA via Getty Images)
Dutch icon Hasselbaink is on the England coaching staff (The FA via Getty Images)

And yet if the perception of Dutch football revolves around Ajax and Cruyff, Total Football and its proponents, some of the English football’s great Netherlanders had other skillsets. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had a cannonball of a shot and is now on the England coaching staff. Ruud van Nistelrooy had the selfish streak of the specialist goalscorer; as Dutch centre-forwards go, he was the anti-Cruyff. Nigel de Jong was responsible for the most famously ugly tackle in the history of Dutch football. Dirk Kuyt brought sweat but not flair; he endeared himself to the locals with a very English work ethic.

Then there is the curious case of maybe the Premier League’s greatest ever centre-back (a title that, had Sir Alex Ferguson not discarded him after a mere three seasons in a decision he came to regret, could have been afforded to Jaap Stam): Virgil van Dijk is criticised more in his native Netherlands than England. He is not a quintessentially Dutch central defender; a right-footer who prefers to play on the pass whereas the Cruyff school want left-footers for passing angles, a long passer who rarely steps into midfield, a defender omitted from the 2014 World Cup squad when Terence Kongolo was preferred.

Dutch captain Van Dijk (Getty Images)
Dutch captain Van Dijk (Getty Images)

Van Dijk and Gini Wijnaldum were nevertheless arguably the two most reliable cornerstones of Jurgen Klopp’s champion Liverpool team.

The current Netherlands squad reflect a difference of opinion across the English channel: Memphis Depay and Wout Weghorst, each underachievers in front of goal for United, have pivotal roles; Micky van de Ven, a revelation for Tottenham, is on the bench; Bart Verbruggen, who spent half of first season at Brighton understudying Jason Steele, is in the team. But maybe two countries who can both exhibit a superiority complex just see things differently. Ten Hag will sign anyone who has a stamp from Amsterdam Schiphol on their passport; he stands accused of overrating the Dutch league.

Yet it is a sign of success that the Dutch have exported so often: players, managers, a brand of football. And even in England’s greatest footballing year, there was a sign the Dutch were to be envied and emulated. An Ajax team with a teenage Cruyff beat Bill Shankly’s Liverpool 5-1. Almost six decades on, England want to turn back time to 1966 again. Just not that particular game in 1966.