Why England struggle at Football and other observations from Simon Kuper

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I’m not sure of the moment I realized I wanted to be a Writer but I’m cognizant of the people that inspired me to. A couple of years ago, I found a profile written by Simon Kuper in the FT. He was the reason I got an FT subscription and the only other person that isn’t my Father I’ve consciously made the effort to write like. He came from Paris to speak on Dutch football at the Dutch Centre in London and it was AMAZING!

Horrible smile from me but it's what it is.
Horrible smile from me (Notice my Dennis Bergkamp badge)

Mr Kuper is a true man of the world. He’s Dutch (I think) but spent some of his younger years in South Africa. He lives in Paris but schooled in England and the States. He writes for London’s Financial Times. With that level of exposure, you can be sure he has a better and more enlightened take on things than anyone else.
I took notes all through his talk and would share them below. It really makes fascinating reading.

Not wanting Holland to win

Because of the number of countries he’s lived in, there’s no club Kuper supports. He talks about not wanting Holland to win the 1998 and 2010 World Cups because he felt that it would be “the climax” of his life as a fan. He tells of a sense of relief when Iniesta scored the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final.

Where did it go wrong for Dutch football?

From ‘Total Football’ to ‘Clogging’

The Dutch are the premier tactics culture of world football. The Total Football team led by Johan Cryuff is the team on which some of the great club sides are modeled on. (Cryuff’s Dream team, Wenger’s Invincibles and Guardiola’s Barca)

Kuper feels that the Dutch football is on the wane because it got stagnant and stopped developing. Dutch football has been exported successfully and this might have been to the detriment of the domestic game. Rinus Michels and Cryuff went to Spain and lay the footwork for Barcelona’s greatness. Marcelo Bielsa, the Chilean who is one of the great tacticians of our time is also a Dutch student. Guus Hiddink going to Asia and Australia also helped in taking the game further there. The Germans have also been influenced greatly by the Dutch and this inspired a great quip on how the Germans copy and become better than everyone else.

A clip was shown of the Dutch side from the 1974 World Cup final and Kuper made some observations on how slow and lean the players were then. To highlight the level of stagnancy in Dutch football, he describes Cryuff as “a revolutionary who’s now a Conservative voice”. This was an apt segue onto an anecdote on how Cryuff attempted to ban computers at Ajax hinting at a desire not to adapt to the increasing statistical and technological influence on today’s game.

He also talks about how the Dutch team have effectively only two great Dutch players (Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie) who happen to both be over 30 and how it’s increasingly becoming a trend that Dutch players struggle when they move abroad. He referenced the struggles of Ibrahim Afellay at Barcelona and Luuk de Jong at Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Historically, Dutch coaches are some of the greats. Michels, Cryuff, Hiddink and van Gaal as examples. Today, none of the top teams are managed by Dutchmen. (Seedorf at Milan an exception but Milan are a faded force these days). He says if de Boer and Van Gaal end up at Spurs and United, they would be the only Dutchmen at “proper football clubs”. *He expects van Gaal to sign players of German backgrounds.

He believes this World Cup would most likely end up in failure for the Dutch and it might serve to inspire a conversation ala Germany in 2000 on how to revolutionize their football.

Contrast between Dutch and English football

Mr Kuper says that anyone who has played in Dutch football (irregardless of the level) is trained to understand the game in that when a team concedes a goal, the first points to be made would be something like “The midfield should move ten yards backwards to close the gap between them and the defence”. He goes on to contrast this with the “Come on lads. Let’s do this” type rhetoric that he discovered in English football. He uses a quote (I can’t remember who he attributed it to) “Coaches don’t matter. Football culture is what matters” and uses the example of Andre Ooijer in the World Cup game against Brazil in 2010. In that game, Ooijer came off the bench and despite playing at a not so great domestic team (Blackburn Rovers) did not look out of place because he was intelligent enough to tailor his movement to suit that particular game.

He further uses the England vs Germany game  in 2010 to illustrate his point. In that game, Germany noted that Gareth Barry anchoring the midfield lacked pace and tended to be isolated. John Terry playing as centre back also lacked pace and was at his worst when chasing back. What did the Germans do? They targeted players like Barry and Terry by kicking the ball beyond them meaning they  stood no chance in a race against the likes of Mesut Özil and Thomas Muller. The English players, despite playing at a slightly higher level than someone like Ooijer lacked the in game intelligence required at that level.

Kuper also talks about how he’s heard that when Sven Goran Eriksson was England manager, he would hold one on one meetings with his players to ask them how they would defend their individual zones. They would reply saying something like “I don’t know. You tell us” and this alarmed him greatly.

He emphasizes the importance of football intelligence using Steven Gerrard as an example when he says ” Steven Gerrard has become a better player as he’s gotten older because it has meant he has to think more”.

Why the Dutch are “troublemakers”

As a result of some form of superiority complex, the Dutch football culture tends to be made up of dissenters. He argues that whilst the English media like the narrative of the Dutch self implosion, it’s a good thing as “it stops you from doing stupid things”. It breeds a debating culture. When he said this, the rumoured tiffs Robin van Persie and David Moyes came to my mind.

He also speaks of an interview he had with Steve McMannaman, the Englishman who played in the great Real team of the early Noughties. When McMannaman joined Real and struggled to make friends,  Clarence Seedorf ( a man who speaks five languages with flawless English being one) took him under his wing. Seedorf would sit with him at team meals, drive him to and from training and would act as interpreter when Vicente del Bosque provided tactical instructions. Seedorf’s interpretation would go something like ” Vicente says we should do …….. But I think we should do it like…”

This reminded me of a tale told by Steve McClaren of his time in Dutch football. He said;

I remember one young lad I had who was a 21-year-old. We wanted to teach him a bit of tactics and a bit of formation work ahead of a game. He spent 20 minutes talking through what he would do against this team. It was in such an intelligent way and exactly what we’d been talking about.

I told him that his presentation was unbelievable and that no English player I know could’ve done that. I asked him where he’d picked that up from. He explained that he’d been doing this kind of tactical work and intelligence work since he was about 11 years old. That’s the difference between the two cultures.

My favourite expression about the Dutch is that when you say what you’re going to do today, they say, ‘Yes, coach, but’. And there was always a ‘but’. They would do anything for you but only as long as you could answer the ‘but’ clearly in their language.

Cryuff’s development plan with Ajax

Kuper thinks the model used by Ajax is built around the misguided notion that “Only ex players can coach football”. He describes this as being a sort of “jobs for the boys network” and believes it inefficient.

He also notes that Feyenoord and not Ajax produces the best young Dutch players these days.

A lady asked why people were more likely to turn their noses up at the high wages and bonuses earned by Bankers but willing to accept that from footballers.

He argues that it’s because Footballers do their stuff in public meaning that people can see for themselves exactly what they do and how good they are at it.

Banking is a much more closed occupation so the mystery tends to arouse suspicion and distrust.

The Next Great Dutch Player or Manager

“No one”

There was a bit of a long winded question on what van Gaal would bring to Man Utd. The questioner wondered how van Gaal could make the players different. He said something about having doubts that Phil Jones would be able to have a proper conversation on something like “spatial awareness”.

He was a bit dismissive of this arguing that any player who found themselves at Manchester United was there for a reason: They are good at football.

On the “spatial awareness” point, he notes an interview which he was supposed to have with Wayne Rooney which he ended up  delegating to a colleague. The colleague had informed Rooney’s agent he would ask about how he learned to play between the lines and was told categorically that “Wayne won’t be able to answer that”. He insisted on asking Rooney upon meeting him and found the Scouser providing quite an intelligent answer. He had learned that technique from watching Jari Litmanen (The Finnish, Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool legend) play. Kuper is of the opinion that British players “know more than they let on but are taught to say nothing” as it’s the most efficient way of not getting into trouble. That partially explains why footballers tend to be bland and devoid of personality (*coughs* David Beckham) and it also reminded me of the uproar when Jack Wilshere remarked “only English people should play for England” on the Adnan Januzaj/England debate.

On his theory about Managers not being THAT important, he notes a conversation he had with Arsene Wenger. He had asked Wenger on how he was influenced by Dutch football. Wenger argued that his eyes were opened more by German football. Kuper joked about that being the moment he realized Dutch and German football were the same. ( Wenger grew up in Alsace, a town that borders France and Germany and supported Borussia Mönchengladbach as a boy) Wenger telling him that whilst they could be mimicked, it was hard to replicate. One of the members of the Dutch 74 team ( I can’t remember his name) who managed in Japan at the same time as Wenger had told him how a lot of the greatness of that side lay in Cryuff’s (the Team Captain) in-game coaching. Cryuff would tinker with the tactics by telling players to switch positions during the game). In a sense this explains why vocal and tactically aware Team leaders are essentially the most indispensable members of the team. It also explains why Arsenal might not have won anything since Patrick Vieira left. In the Keane vs Vieira documentary, Vieira told of how the defensive unit would make a pact with Robert Pires: Get us the goals and we’ll do your tracking back. Footballers who are tactically sound and have the clout to influence their teammates are most essential. He also hints that most touchline instructions (All that gesturing Tim Sherwood does) are absolutely useless and merely for camera effect as the players tend to be caught in another planet.