No Guts, No Glory: Dutch Sides Should Drop Possession Football

GuidoAnalyst INovember 17, 2008

An old adage says no guts, no glory.

Unfortunately, this is not quite compatible with the way the top Dutch sides play these days. We can all blame Johan Cruijff for that (yes, it's Cruijff and not Cruyff...), who once claimed that possession of the ball was the most important thing ever.

Now as any novice to football will tell you, teams that aim to retain control of the ball over longer periods of time, in the process making a large percentage of passes that give low risk of losing the ball, are said to play possession football. Utilizing this tactics demands players skillful in ball control and precise passing.

If successful, it will tire the opposing players because they have to run and tackle more. Also, the term sometimes indicates that each player retains possession for a longer period of time, using more touches. That will ensure that the move will be precise and effective.

One manager who loves (or used to love, when he was still active) his possession football is Johan Cruijff. At Barcelona, most of his training sessions consisted of playing two-touch football, six against four, in an area half the size of the penalty area.

As the master explained: "In a small area, the movement is necessarily fast and the passes must be pinpoint. Two of the six play wide and change team whenever the other four gain possession. It is always six with the ball against four trying to retrieve it."

"This possession principle should operate in any area of the normal field of play, so our training is intense and is the basis of our game. You can close down space more effectively by accurate passing when you have the ball, forcing opponents into certain positions, than you can by man-marking without the ball."

As you can see, Cruijff is a passionate advocate of possession football. Here in Holland, his words are considered infallible pearls of wisdom. In fact, they are considered equal to the word of God himself.

Cruijff is dubbed "El Salvador" or "De Verlosser," which roughly translates as "The Saviour." This means that not playing his style of football is considered an act of blasphemy by many fans and pundits, especially those of his former club AFC Ajax Amsterdam.

So let's recap. Cruijff is considered some sort of prophet. Cruijff loves his possession football. Cruijff is an Ajax man, and the fans love him. Ergo, Ajax play possession football.

Now possession football isn't always a bad thing. When played with the proper players, it can be very spectacular, especially when the one-touch variant is being played. Just think of Cruijff's Barcelona Dream Team in the early nineties or Van Gaal's Ajax side halfway during the nineties.

Possession football becomes boring when your players don't have superb on-the-ball-skills. In such a case, possession football is all about passing the ball around in every direction, except the right direction: forward.

The pace of play grinds down to a sluggish pace, with people just passing the ball to their goalkeeper or a player next to them. It's just becoming boring to watch a team like Ajax play, where most of the action takes place on their own half.

Call it blasphemy, but let's just disregard Cruijff's words. Let's dump the whole possession idea and revert back to a faster-paced, more interesting to watch style of play. Ajax has skillful and talented players that can play in pretty much any system, so why stick to ideas that no longer apply to this modern day and time?

Football has evolved since the nineties, the tempo has gone up, and possession football just doesn't work anymore at the absolute top. Our national team lost out to a more aggressive and higher-paced playing Russian team, and Ajax and PSV are shit in their European campaigns. Our national style has simply stopped working.

So let's cut the semi-cowardly passing the ball around on our own half and resort back to old-fashioned attacking. Our greatest assets have always been our forwards and offensive midfielders. I mean, besides Jaap Stam, who can mention a top Dutch defender of the past two decades? 

Exactly...but try to mention forwards and offensive midfielders and you get a big list, containing names like Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud van Nistelrooij, Robin van Persie, Rafael van der Vaart, Clarence Seedorf, Roy Makaay, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Wesley Sneijder and many, many more...

We don't have good defenders and holding midfielders, but we've got great forwards, so let's utilise them.

The only way we can do this is to drop the whole concept of possession football, which revolves around passing the ball around at the back, and move to a system that suits our players better. We don't have the defensive capacities to play possession football, so let's show some guts and attack more. No guts, no glory.

If we continue down this road of possession football, we can be certain we'll never be really successful.


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