The decline of Dutch ball-playing centre-backs

The decline of Dutch ball-playing centre-backs

BARRY HULSHOFF – beard unkempt, socks rolled down and a mullet with a life of its own – was something of a prototype. Looking something like the love child of Rod Stewart and Mick Quinn, his untidy and ample demeanour was deceptive. On aesthetic value alone, Hulshoff didn’t quite suit a football kit, let alone one as distinctively stylish as Ajax’s. Yet with a football in close proximity, Hulshoff would transform.

Fluidity would arrive in slow motion. In possession of the football, Hulshoff’s shoulders would drop. There would be a hint of a change in speed, and his hulking frame would seamlessly come together with the ball. Head, chest, thighs, both feet, his laissez-faire demeanour was his first touch. Upon immediate cushioning of the ball, Hulshoff was excellent in decision-making. Playing delicately through the midfield, dropping a shoulder and attacking the space with a mazy dribble, were all perfectly suited to the needs of each moment. Hulshoff also wasn’t afraid of hoofing the ball far, far away when he needed to. John Stones may wish to take note.

Much about the Netherlands lends itself to the stereotype of pragmatism and doing what needs to be done. For a small yet significant nation, space comes at a premium. With the intermittent exception of Andy van der Meyde, everyone has their role. Every square metre has a purpose, and every moment is one to be utilised. Over time, these principles have led to reclaiming land from the sea, creation of picturesque city canals, those mesmerising bruin cafe sink and faucet systems with the beer glass brushes built in, and Total Football.

As much a psychological disposition as a tactical model, Total Football encompasses a near neurotic obsession with space. Its founding fathers – Jimmy Hogan, Vic Buckingham, Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff – gave significant value to players’ propensity to switch positions. The entwined ability to anticipate several passes into the near future, and move to create space where there was none, required players to change positions, and was essentially the aim of Total Football. This spatial intelligence enabled players to simultaneously nullify and dominate the opposition. It was coached to the point of obsession.

As something of a by-product, the ball-playing centre-back was born.

Cradled into the position have been some of the best footballers the world has ever seen. While many footballing nations can list an accomplished ball-playing centre-back or two, the Netherlands enjoys a special history with the role. Some migrated there in their later years, while others made it their career’s calling card, but there’s a generation gap at play. With Dutch football currently enduring something of an identity crisis, have they produced their last true footballing centre-back?

Prior to Total Football and its obsession with movement and space, Dutch defenders were much like any other defender: big, strong and unforgivably physical. The swinging sixties, decade of the Total Football boom, lent many of them the physical appearance of a lost lumberjack. Across Europe, wild and hairy men in short shorts kicked attackers, growled angrily, and hoofed the ball as far away as they could whenever danger or possession threatened.

Barry Hulshoff went a long way to changing that. In doing so he began a Dutch tradition that unearthed some of the world’s most intelligent and technically gifted footballers.

Appropriately for themes of footballing purity, Hulshoff received his Ajax debut in the European Cup at Anfield. It was 1966 and Rinus Michels was 12 months into building arguably the greatest Ajax team. Soon after that cold December evening on Merseyside, Hulshoff went on to win three successive European Cups with ‘Gouden Ajax’ and deceive some of the continent’s best attackers.

Coached by Michels, Ștefan Kovács, and George Knobel, and placed alongside other great Ajax defenders such as; Velibor Vasović, Horst Blankenburg and Tonnie Pronk, Hulshoff was a quick learner. Despite winning just 14 international caps, the prototype soon became a polished product. His six international goals are a testament to his dead ball expertise and attacking awareness.

The Netherlands is a small country and while the inner theories of Total Football remained in Amsterdam, safely locked inside the brains of a select few, it wasn’t long before the ball-playing centre-back became a replicated concept.

In mirroring Hulshoff’s application and comfort on the ball, Rinus Israël was Feyenoord’s cool head at the back in Rotterdam. With the audacity to wear thick-rimmed hipster glasses for Feyenoord’s 1970 photo-call, he too was highly distinctive. He was also highly successful.


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With Feyenoord he won three Eredivisie championships, a KNVB Cup, a UEFA Cup and, in arguably his finest moment, a European Cup in 1970. Winner of 47 international caps over the course of a decade, Israël wasn’t as prolific as Hulshoff, but he was consistent and had a knack of netting important goals, as he did against Celtic in the 1970 European Cup final.

His nickname IJzeren Rinus (Iron Rinus) tells much about his defensive ability, but he is held in higher esteem than that. Israël is lauded for his understanding of the game and his application of Total Football principles. High praise for a player who was never privy to any Ajax training sessions.

This early surge of Total Football, and with it the first generation of Dutch ball-playing centre-backs, had their date with destiny at the 1974 World Cup. With Israël approaching the tail-end of his career and struggling with injury, his Feyenoord teammate, Wim Rijsbergen, would line up alongside Arie Haan in the Dutch defence. Rijsbergen, naturally, was another technically gifted and progressive central defender.

If Michels’ Dutch team of 1974 are considered the greatest team to never win a World Cup, the foundation of the sentiment lays in defence. With Ruud Krol and Wim Suurbier completing the back four as full-backs, not only did they concede just three goals all tournament (two of which came in the final), but also contributed much in attack.

The career path of Krol highlights many positives of a defender comfortable with the ball. Primarily a full-back, Krol began his career at Ajax under Michels. If Cruyff spearheaded the understanding and application of Total Football in attack, Krol was its defensive ambassador.

Having switched to sweeper and assumed the captain’s armband at the 1978 World Cup, Krol was named in the FIFA Team of the Tournament as the Netherlands lost a second successive World Cup final. In recognising the influence and expertise Krol lavished upon teammates, he came third in the European Footballer of the Year poll in 1979. Pipped to the post by Kevin Keegan and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, mere inclusion was high praise for a defender.

June 21, 1988, and set to a backdrop of golden evening sunlight, vengeance had never been so colourful. A swell of orange had poured across the Dutch-German border and into Hamburg for Euro 88 first semi-final. Mouth-watering to the extreme, it was a rerun of the 1974 World Cup final, and only the third time the two sides had faced each other since.

In his second stint as national team manager, Rinus Michels added heady levels of poignancy, and spearheaded something of a Total Football throwback.

Throughout the 1980s, the influence of Total Football spread wide and ran deep. Johan Cruyff spent the first half of the decade wrapping up his playing days in the Eredivisie, initially back Ajax before a controversial swansong with rivals Feyenoord. He spent the latter part of the decade as a manager, returning to Ajax before taking over at Barcelona in 1988.

As the Netherlands came from behind to beat West Germany 2-1 and claim ultimate success by beating the Soviet Union 2-0 in the final, it was Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit inevitably making most of the headlines. Both had just completed impressive first seasons with AC Milan, and were now well-decorated poster boys of Total Football‘s new generation.

However, astute observers would be sweetly distracted by two pure ball-playing central defenders. Lean, youthful and with definite style, they sure didn’t carry the appearance of lost lumberjacks. They did, however, replicate the confidence and ability of Hulshoff, Israël, Rijsbergen et al, and added their own contemporary refinements.

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At the heart of the Dutch defence in 1988, and under Michels’ expert tutelage, were 25-year-old Ronald Koeman and 26-year-old Frank Rijkaard. At the time, and for the best part of the following decade, they proved themselves two of the world’s most intelligent, fluid and adaptable footballers.

Prior to Michels’ jour de gloire, the 1980s hadn’t been a particularly kind decade to the national team. In another era famously known as an awkward transition between generations, the Dutch failed to qualify for World Cups in 1982 and 1986 and the 1984 European Championships. As John Stones may testify, it takes time for a ball-playing centre-back to fully learn his trade, and very rarely is it a smooth learning curve.

Rijkaard, who started his professional career at Ajax, would most likely agree. Given a goalscoring debut by Leo Beenhakker in 1980, Rijkaard was understandably raw. Via instinct and coaching, he knew the value of playing with the ball, but his tender years and stubborn mind meant decision-making would be a skill to be honed over time.

Aad de Mos, Ajax coach from 1982 to 1985, was feeling the pressure of leading an Ajax team to domestic dominance but European failure. “You don’t win the war with boys like Rijkaard and Vanenburg”, he famously quipped. Despite the sentiment offered, de Mos was responsible for first pairing Rijkaard with Koeman in 1983, the latter signing for Ajax from Groningen.

One of the key traits and cherished legacies of Total Football is versatility. In exploring Dutch football’s bloodline of ball-playing centre-backs, versatility is a common trait. Sure, from Sunday leagues to professional football, versatility can still mean a player is easily placed on the bench, but for the gifted elite it’s simply another feather in the cap. Of the many Dutch midfielders transferring away from the Eredivisie, it meant an easy transition to defence.

Johan Cruyff replaced De Mos as Ajax manager in 1985. Sonny Silooy became an established central defender, and both Koeman and Rijkaard spent time in midfield. The experience gave both players freedom and the space in which to develop, safe in the knowledge that mistakes would be punished with less severity.

While the move harboured individual growth, Ajax couldn’t quite return to winning ways. Under the stewardship of their favourite son, twice Ajax finished runners-up to PSV. Controversially, 1986 saw Koeman jump ship to PSV where he continued to excel in midfield and defence. Rijkaard left Ajax just a year later. Twelve months later and Cruyff himself would tread a familiar path to Barcelona.

Following the 1988 European Championship success, Koeman and Rijkaard took different career paths. Rijkaard became a world-class holding midfielder under Arrigo Sacchi at AC Milan, where his aggressive approach and sublime footballing ability found an ideal home. Between 1988 and 1993, Rijkaard won the European Cup twice, Serie A twice, and earned a reputation of one of the world’s best players.

Koeman joined Cruyff’s Barcelona in 1989. As a sweeper, a central defender playing behind Pep Guardiola, or sometimes as a defensive midfielder, Koeman became an integral part of the Dream Team. In six seasons with Barcelona, Koeman won four LaLiga titles, a European Cup, a Copa del Rey and a European Super Cup. Individually, 67 goals from a little under 200 games is a testament to more than dead ball expertise.

The mid-1990s saw both men return to the Eredivisie. In joining Feyenoord, Koeman became one of the few footballers to represent the big three clubs in the Netherlands. He captained Feyenoord to an Eredivisie runners-up spot and retired as world football’s highest scoring defender with 193 goals. Inevitably though, the limelight shone brightest in Amsterdam.

Rijkaard returned to Ajax in 1993. Louis van Gaal was expertly shaping a talented young team, yet needed experience to compliment youth. Alongside another technically gifted Dutch central defender in Danny Blind, Rijkaard formed a back line steeped in Total Football tradition. Twenty-five-year-old Frank de Boer and 22-year-old Michael Reiziger were the grateful next generation.

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Switching between sweeper, centre-back and defensive midfielder for Van Gaal, Rijkaard became the versatile epitome of a ball-playing centre-back. In his last game as a professional, he lifted the European Cup after a sensational victory against AC Milan. This followed an unbeaten domestic season and cemented Rijkaard as probably the world’s best example of a ball-playing centre-back.

In football, as in life, one is only the sum of their experience. Rijkaard is perhaps the rarest and contrasting footballing hybrid; 50 percent free-flowing Total Football and 50 percent rigid Catenaccio. Half orgy of freedom and individual expression, and half disciplined, drilled machine.

As a youngster at Ajax, fractious experiences and disagreements with Cruyff gave him mental strength and a dogged determination. Sacchi and calcio taught Rijkaard how to win at the very highest level. Rijkaard imparted all of that on to Ajax’s youngsters in 1995.

The Stade Vélodrome, Marseille, is positively roasting. It’s July 4, 1998, and a sublime Dennis Bergkamp goal sends the mercury rising further. It’s the World Cup quarter-final, Netherlands versus Argentina, and with a typical air of nonchalance, Frank de Boer lays on the assist in the form of an inch-perfect, cross-field, 50-metre pass. If the goal itself was exquisite, controlled and completed with effortless precision, the same applies for the assist.

Likewise, adjectives such as controlled and exquisite do an equally suitable job at describing Frank de Boer the footballer. Part of the Ajax family, De Boer made his debut in 1988 and immediately heralded himself as the new generation of ball-playing centre-backs. With Koeman and Rijkaard recently departed, Ajax, in the typical Ajax way, had a ready-made replacement.

Equally comfortable at full-back, sweeper or central defence, De Boer claimed five Eredivisie titles, a UEFA Cup, a Champions League and two Dutch Cup winner’s medals with Ajax. He was consistently stylish and secure. He dazzled as a defender with the deft touch of an attacker. His modest goal tally of 30 encapsulated a true footballer’s worth; 30-yard pile-drivers, neatly woven finishes in the penalty area, headed goals and set pieces.

At the 1998 World Cup quarter-final in Marseille, lining up alongside De Boer were Arthur Numan, Reiziger, and Jaap Stam. While the Netherlands’ ball-playing centre-backs have always been complemented by energetic and equally competent full-backs, the pairing with a player like Stam chartered different waters.

In 1999 De Boer became the latest Dutch export to make his way to Barcelona. Gullit, Koeman and Rijkaard were embarking upon coaching careers, and it is here the bloodline of Dutch ball-playing centre-backs starts to get watered down. Football’s globalisation boomed around the turn of the millennium and ultimately led to something of a dilution of Total Football. The Eredivisie began a harrowing process of becoming first a talent drain and then a selling league.

If the blueprint for Total Football existed in paper form, it was scrambled upon. Rijkaard took half of it to Barcelona in 2003, and used it to lay foundations later enjoyed by Carlos Puyol, Javier Mascherano and Pep Guardiola.

Cruyff had always kept a couple of secret chapters for retirement reading. Koeman left his post of Ajax boss in 2005, snaffling various chapters marked ‘How to win the Premier League before 2020’ and placing them in a sealed envelope. Total Football’s content pages remained in the Netherlands, confusing a number of lesser-known Dutch coaches.

Up and down the country, from grassroots to the Eredivisie, coaches and defenders knew it was good to be comfortable with the ball, but not necessarily why. They indulged in drills where they’d receive the ball from the goalkeeper, gaining confidence without understanding. Without the guided intuition of where to take the ball, which run to pick, or which space to look for, the ball was often returned to the keeper or hoofed long into channels. Like a small boy side-footing a ball against a brick wall, the Netherlands appeared to stick at this for a while.

Frank de Boer HollandIs Frank de Boer Holland’s last great ball-playing centre-back?

Elsewhere in the world, tectonic tactical plates were shifting. Modern principles of Total Football cast the world’s midfielders and attackers as the versatile and interchangeable ones, and celebrated for it. Vocabulary such as ‘false 9 and ‘deep-lying forward’ had many scrambling for true understanding.

Necessity is often seen as the mother of invention, and having a historical association with pragmatism, Dutch defenders once again became defenders. Epitomised by Jaap Stam, the new generation returned to the rudimentary basics of defending. Though still practised and cherished, the ability to suavely bring the ball out of defence became secondary.

Furthermore, it is a harsh reality that other prominent Dutch defenders of the era simply weren’t of the same ilk as Rijkaard, Koeman and De Boer. Without disrespecting the likes of Wilfred Bouma, André Ooijer, Khalid Boulahrouz, Jon Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen, they represent a different class of player in a much-changed context of international football.

The Dutch failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup and exited the 2006 tournament after a brutally ugly defeat to Portugal. Poetically, tragically and ironically, this shift from Total Football to defence at all costs culminated at the 2010 World Cup.

In winning all three group games and narrowly defeating Slovakia, Brazil and Uruguay, 2010 saw the Netherlands playing to new strengths: disciplined, dogged defending and aggressive holding midfielders. With Heitinga and Mathijsen supported by Mark van Bommel, Nigel de Jong and Demy de Zeeuw, attacking and artistic license was strictly limited to attack.

Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Dirk Kuyt were miraculously all fit and in-form at the same time, and provided a heady mix of industry and creativity on the counter. The deceptively shrewd Bert van Marwijk oversaw an unlikely path to the final.

In opposition, Spain were fast-becoming the new rulers of football’s empire. Their style and philosophy was largely based upon the Barcelona model, which was essentially the Dutch model. Appointed as Barcelona’s coach in 2008, Pep Guardiola had directly replaced Rijkaard. Tiki-taka’s foundations – it’s hypnotic possession, intricate triangular movement, rhythmic one-twos, and incisive end product – were pure Total Football.

Michels, Cruyff and Rijkaard had essentially supplied the blueprint for the Spanish tactical approach, and in Johannesburg on 10 July 2010, the Dutch couldn’t cope with it. Spain won a captivatingly unique match with an Andrés Iniesta goal late in extra-time. The occasion didn’t bring about a shining example of tiki-taka, many labelled Spain’s possession-based approach as boring, but it was ultimately successful. Its contrast to the rudimentary and aggressive Dutch was startling.

The late and great Johan Cruyff recognised the gulf in style and labelled the Dutch team “ugly”, “vulgar”, and “anti-football”. Referencing a somewhat confused, skewed and conflicted football public, the Dutch team were welcomed back to Amsterdam by over 200,000 supporters. Captain and coach – van Bronkhorst and van Marwijk – were even knighted by Queen Beatrix.

The 2016 European Championship qualifying saw the Netherlands fall short of making the finals in France. UEFA’s marquee international competition, bloated to include 24 teams for the first time, saw the Netherlands fail to make the tournament in 32 years. Following the Spanish clash of ideology in 2010, the Netherlands have shown flashes of hope for a brighter future, most notably during their World Cup 2014 campaign, yet have failed to sustain momentum.

Rinus Michels

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Louis van Gaal’s tactics were a brave and pragmatic tribute to his 1995 Ajax set-up, only more compact and defensive. Miraculously, it nearly paid off. Spain were demolished 5-1 in another revenge mission, and the Netherlands finished the tournament in third place.

Bruno Martins-Indi, Ron Vlaar and Stefan de Vrij formed a three-man defence that conceded four goals in seven matches, half of which were shipped in a single group match against Australia. Clean sheets were recorded against Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Perhaps even more astonishing was the fluency and confidence in which Vlaar, De Vrij and Martins-Indi commanded the space around them, and their own command in possession.

However, rather than be a springboard for things to come, Brazil 2014 proved to be little more than a fluky genetic throwback. Vlaar received his most recent Dutch cap at the tournament. Martins-Indi joined Porto the Stoke where a stoic and unspectacular existence is far from his tournament hype, and though just 26-years-old, De Vrij is currently suffering a similar fate, along with injury and a loss of form at Lazio.

Ironically, the fizzling out of Van Gaal’s own stubborn reign of Manchester United encapsulates much of the wider issues of Dutch football. Inevitably, the depletion of their ball-playing centre-back is inextricably linked.

For the best part of two decades, the Netherlands developed whole squads in the well-defined mould of Total Football – see Ajax of the late-1960s and early-1970s, and the national teams of the same era. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Dutch produced only talented individuals in that same mould. Coaching expertise, and the players themselves, were spread too vast to hone a squad under one ethos.

Dutch expertise mixed with other European tactical ideals, players spent fewer seasons in the Eredivisie, and by the late-1990s, the world’s best ball-playing centre-backs were Italian, Spanish or South American. They had Total Football in their blood, but their footballing DNA was enhanced by new impulses and inspiration.

Total Football was born out of progressive and obsessive thinking, but a double whammy has stunted Dutch football. In sharing their expertise far and wide, the Dutch not only spread their wisdom thinly, but it was thrown back at them twice improved. Coupled with the dwindling significance of the Eredivisie, the continual growth of Dutch football has its fair share of obstacles.

Nevertheless, across the Netherlands the same basic coaching principles have been loyally adhered to, though with somewhat less obsession. Self-assured to a fault, and with no reason to budge, to fans of Manchester United it may all sound too familiar. As was the case at Old Trafford under Van Gaal, refusal to adapt to a swiftly evolving environment rarely ends with success.

If Van Gaal’s FA Cup success papered gently over some gaping fault lines, the same is true of the Netherlands’ most recent World Cup campaigns. In Manchester, a failure to qualify for the Champions League is the more reliable performance indicator, as is the Dutch failure to secure a place at Euro 2016.

Proverbially, it is said that night is at its darkest before the dawn, and as was the case in the 1980s, Dutch football will hope that a brighter, fruitful existence looms on the not-too-distant horizon. If the Netherlands’ ball-playing centre-backs were thought extinct, hope has a Dutch accent in Liverpool. Under the tutelage of the Koeman brothers previously at Southampton, Virgil van Dijk looks every inch a ball-playing centre-back with limitless potential. At an imposing six foot four inches, and aged just 26, he is comfortable on the ball and on the right path to becoming the complete defender.

As they were in the 1980s, the Dutch national team are currently overseeing a transition between generations. Expectancy rests delicately on the shoulders of other prominent Dutch defenders in the form of Daley Blind, Timothy Fonsu-Mensah, Jaïro Riedewald, Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Sven van Beek. However, it might be a while before any of them transfer to Barcelona.

By Glenn Billingham  

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