A longstanding intense football rivalry between the Netherlands and Germany has lessened with time. The post-war hatred, especially from the Dutch side, was projected on the football pitch in the early 1970s and decreased considerably after 1990. The scenes of Ronald Koeman wiping his bum with the German shirt and Rijkaard’s spitting in Völler’s hair are not what come to our mind recently, but more likely the mutual respect between Cruyff and Beckenbauer and the amount of Dutch coaches and players in the Bundesliga. It is the 21st century now, and in Football some nations are seeking perfection and for that, in certain aspects, they can learn from the best. It is only easier when the best are just the ‘neighbors next door’.
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Few football experts have gone deep into the many differences between German and Dutch Football, from the individual skills to the mentality and team spirit. In Germany, winning is the only thing that matters, how you achieve it is not as important, which is not the case for the Dutch. In the Netherlands, coaches can be sacked even if they win, and the story of Ajax coach Tomislav Ivić stands testimony to that. Tomislav Ivić, voted as ‘the most successful manager in history’ by La Gazetta Dello Sport (7 League titles in 5 different countries), who won the title with Ajax but was forced to leave his post right after because the fans and the club’s officials weren’t happy with ‘HOW’ he did it.
These differences in football mindsets for both countries have logically led to more continental and international titles for Germany, but more skillful players and football legends for Netherlands, and it all starts at first with scouting for 6 year-olds. Ball control, game intelligence, technique, skills and anticipation are the only key factors for selection in the Netherlands. Unlike Germany, physical maturity and endurance are less important at that stage. At the end of each season, in the youth sections of top Dutch clubs, who stays and who goes is not decided by the overall ranking of the players from the top to the bottom. A player with serious talent stays regardless of his ranking, as talent is indispensable, while the rest can be developed and improved with time with the right coaches and mentors.
For that, in the Netherlands, the youth coaches are highly regarded and respected and no matter how weird it may seem, they are NOT asked to win matches or championships. Talent can be easily spotted but how far it can be developed, that is the coach’s job. Dutch youth coaches’ main task is to make a 10-year-old special player remain a special player at 16-year-old, and be included in the senior team. This is why their coaching and education differ from that of Pro-coaches, emphasizing on the learning process rather than the final score.
In Germany, youth coaches, just like Pro senior teams coaches, are expected to bring titles home, as simple as that. Dutch coach Huub Stevens, renowned in Germany, once famously said, “It’s nice to win matches, but a coach should not be judged by this criterion. Losing is part of the process, for me it’s more important than winning….let the children dribble, pass and make mistakes and if they lose the championship by one point, it doesn’t matter. The future is important.”
This unique brand of football that emerged out of the Dutch culture in the early 70s is now not just limited to clubs, players and coaches, but also to the fans and citizens. If one were to ask the Germans about their best Top 5 ever, for example, Franz Beckenbauer and Matthias Sammer will surely make the list. If the Dutch were to answer the same question, one could be certain that Jaap Stam would not be named, and in 10 years from now, even van Dijk would not make the list. A top player in the Netherlands is not a player who is perfect in his position or the one who won many titles, it is just the player who is the most creative and unpredictable offensively.
This culture has created mini-philosophies within the overall ‘offensive-dominant’ football philosophy. The Coerver method of coaching, pioneered by Wiel Coerver, is an example: countless isolated repetitions with the ball, mastering certain techniques, skills, moves, footwork, feints and so on, all in order to develop a better ‘feeling’ for the ball and create skilled, confident, creative and mostly offensive players.
Speaking of the Coerver method Jürgen Klinsmann said, “I wish the Coerver coaching program had been available when I was young, it would certainly have made me a better player.” It has conquered the world and Boudewijn Zenden, for example, is a Coerver student. In Germany, on the other hand, they still focus on running in the woods, out-working the opponents physically, and they even do lactate tests for the U15 teams, not to mention the time spent on team spirit and winning mentality development.
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The Dutch seem reluctant to change anything. The absence of World Cup trophies for the National Team and the recent low level of the Eredivisie have little to no influence on their football mindset. They believe that in case you need to alter a certain aspect of the game the way they see it, then the whole learning process needs to change, as you will need to scout a different type of 6 year olds.
The quality of the group of players at your disposal will set the way and formation a coach would use. Every pro-coach knows that, even Dutch coaches. The Germans believe in this ‘rule’ and abide by it. The German formation that won the Euro 96 is different from the formation that won the 2014 World Cup. As for their neighbours, it is almost impossible for them to shift from the famous 4-3-3, as it is a formation that covers a lot of space with an advanced defense line when out of possession, and has the most triangles when in possession.
It is difficult to imagine that the Dutch believe that they made a compromise when using this formation as they played for years with 3-4-3. At the 1994 World Cup, without Gullit and van Basten, the Dutch played 3-4-3 in the Quarterfinals against champions Brazil. In today’s football, it can’t be qualified as a daring or offensive formation, it’s simply suicide. Whoever the Bondscoach was, whether Advocaat or Hiddink, they kept playing this way until they were hammered 4-1 by England at Euro 96. That was the last match that they played with 3 defenders.
Just one exception was made 8 years later when coach van Basten, being a fan of Johan Cruyff, decided to play again with 3 defenders in the 2006 World Cup opening qualifier against Czech Republic. He won the match but never used the 3-4-3 anymore. The current Bondscoach Ronald Koeman should realize by now that the Oranje have won the hearts of many with the 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 formations but the only title at Euro 88 came with a 4-4-2 formation. It is just very weird that it was never deployed again.
One of the main characteristics of the German National team is the mentality and team spirit. They have always been excellent and distinguished for this. They always had the right staff to minimize the probability of disturbances inside the camps. This has always been a major reason for their titles so far; the better the mentality of the group, the better the environment is for the coach to work on tactics, and thus an increased chance of success. Their Orange counterparts have always suffered here, and endured serious consequences in major tournaments. They always had more ‘stars’ and therefore more little ‘kingdoms’ as Rinus Michels liked to call them. A coach’s most difficult task is to be able to convince the players with ‘kingdoms’ that their self-interest cannot prevail over the interest of the team. The more stars a team has – the more kingdoms – the more difficult the job gets for the coach.
One of the very few exceptions in the German camp was at the 1994 World Cup. Germany was one of the favourites for the title and even had an easier path than expected, having been paired up against Bulgaria in the Quarterfinals. Before the match, unexpectedly, one the players’ wife claimed that all the players’ wives were not being taken care of properly in USA. That sounded worthless at first, but mainstream media loves these statements. It created divided opinions in the German camp. Few agreed and others thought it was exaggerated. Team spirit was hurt and Die Mannschaft paid the price against a weaker team.
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Two years later, Berti Vogts took action in the most appropriate and professional manner. He removed some major names from the final selection, increased the staff so that the non-football related issues could be taken care of, limited the media intervention and eventually won the Euro 96 with a lower quality group of players.
For Netherlands on the other hand, countless examples of failed team spirit have occurred at almost every tournament. A player going to a bar against the basic team rules at 1974 World Cup, star players revolting against coach Thijs Libregts for no reason before the 1990 World Cup, the vicious rift between Guus Hiddink and Edgar Davids at Euro 96, Kluivert and van Nistelrooy situation before and during Euro 2004, down to Euro 2012 when Huntelaar and van der Vaart just refused to start on the bench are just a few examples of Dutch notoriety that come to mind.
Dutch players care more about the journalists’ after-match ratings and not the coach’s opinions, and are much faster to voice their opinion. The media, as always, is on full alert for such ‘gifts’. Coach of the century, Rinus Michels always forbade his players to criticize his tactics or their teammates. They were only allowed to criticize themselves. He always succeeded to convince his group that media is their number one enemy. In their most memorable World Cup 1974, when one of their players went to a bar, Michels kept him outside in the hall ‘like a little child’ while consulting the rest of the squad to decide his fate. They decided to give him another chance, but this story was not leaked to the press and Michels felt the squad’s solidarity that he had always wished for and went on to work on the tactical aspects.
Germany will always remain highly disciplined in Football, updating themselves on the continuously changing aspects of the game and their coaches are ready to travel the world in search of new methods and training programs seeking perfection for the development of their players. Germany will remain humble in the coaching and learning processes and will definitely win more titles.
On the other hand, arrogance and self-satisfaction dominate the minds of pro-coaches, youth coaches and KNVB officials. Their expectations will always be questioned by many. Are they disheartened by the loss of a third World Cup Final in 2010 or are they just happy of their overall result in the tournament? Are the Amsterdammers frustrated that they were one second away from reaching a Champions League Final in 2019 after 23 years or are they content that they gained huge respect all over the world and introduced their special graduates Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt?
Complacency sets in and will keep on arising even with their most professional players and their strongest teams at the most crucial moments. Rinus Michels believed that in Euro 92, the failure to win the Semifinal against Denmark was a direct result of the complacency after the win against Germany. “I would have preferred to start this match with a player down or 1-0 down.” he said. He also believed that the exact same thing could have happened in the Euro 88 final against USSR, after a historical Semifinal win against Germany in Hamburg. But the loss against Soviet Union in the opening match played a positive role this time.
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The Dutch need to accept the fact that a chance to score created by a beautiful combination play has the same value as a chance created by a counter attack via one pass only. It goes for goals as well. The fifth goal scored by Ronald De Boer for Netherlands in a 5-0 win against South Korea in the 1998 World Cup is as significant as Robben’s fifth goal against Spain in the 2014 World Cup. This game has been invented so that there will be only one winner in the end. So discipline and winning mentality should be taught at an early stage and there is no reason why this is omitted from the youth section training programs in the Netherlands.
Footwork and speed have their limitations but the mind does not, and the room of improvement for the Dutch is huge in this area. Winning mentality is the most difficult asset to teach anyone in any sport. The Dutch need to master that to the smallest detail from their neighbours. Many argue that it comes as an intrinsic motivation and you either have it or you don’t, but that is not true. Germans are one the world’s best in adding intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in the most efficient way to create players with sharp winning mentality and even moved to create players with a winning-habit mentality.