When we think about Dutch football, its impact and those who have defined it, usually it is the creative and attacking players that instinctively spring to mind. The artists of the game who dissected defences and found bottom corners with a flair and precision that van Gogh would have been proud of. 

Yet, in recent times the influence of Dutch football has been flipped on its head. It’s entered a ‘Stranger Things-esque’ upside-down world, in which it is the defenders who have come to the fore. Catalysed by 2019 Ballon d’Or runner-up Virgil van Dijk, a famous footballing nation largely shaped by its attackers has instead if only for now, become defined by its defenders. 

It’s a big claim – especially when you consider how badly Ronald Koeman’s national side has defended recently – but just look at this summer’s transfer activity and interest. It has seen numerous clubs curiously peering through the Dutch shop window before making a beeline for the stacked shelf of defensive talent. 

One of the key signings made by Mikel Arteta to take Arsenal to the next level was Jurrien Timber, the Dutch international brought in from Ajax for €40 million. After a cruel knee injury on debut ruled Timber out for most of the season, Arteta is now reportedly interested in 23-year-old Perr Schuurs, another former Ajax defender currently at Torino in Serie A who has also been linked with Liverpool and Napoli. Across north London, Tottenham Hotspur have spent the same amount as their rivals on their own 22-year-old Dutchman, capturing Under-21 captain Micky van de Ven from Wolfsburg to secure a porous backline. It may not technically be a new signing, but new Chelsea coach Mauricio Pochettino was seriously impressed during pre-season with 21-year-old Dutch left-back Ian Maatsen, who Burnley desperately wanted to sign permanently after he played a vital role in their Championship promotion. The man they were previously linked with moving for instead in that position was Feyenoord’s Quilindschy Hartman, who is of the same age and nationality and will garner more interest in January.  Last summer, Erik ten Hag acted quickly at Manchester United to snap up the long-term potential of Tyrell Malacia.

In Germany, until the deal collapsed RB Leipzig were on the verge of replacing star defender Josoško Gvardiol with Lutsharel Geertruida, who again is only 23 but last season broke into the Oranje senior side after impressing for Feyenoord at both centre half and right back. Considering he has been linked with almost every one of Europe’s major clubs, it is surprising that flying right-wing-back Jeremie Frimpong – who started the new season with a goal and an assist – remains a Bayer Leverkusen player. At only 22 and already worth 40 million according to transfermarkt, a big move must surely be imminent. He was tearing up the Bundesliga last season with fellow Dutch wing-back Mitchell Bakker, who has just been signed by an increasingly ambitious Atalanta in Italy. In Serie A, Bakker and the aforementioned Schuurs have now been joined by centre-back Sam Beukema, the Go Ahead Eagles graduate who shone for AZ Alkmaar in 22/23, helping them reach the Europa Conference League semi-final. He has joined Bologna. 

Yet this is not just about real and rumoured transfers. Last campaign we saw Matthijs de Ligt finally look like the player we remember almost captaining Ajax to the Champions League Final in 2019, with some imperious performances for Bayern Munich. And who would have thought that one of the most important players for Pep Guardiola in winning a historic treble for Manchester City would be Nathan Aké? His side had the joint-best defence in the Premier League last season, along with Newcastle United, whose defence was also dominated by another brilliant young defensive Dutchman in Sven Botman

One of the reasons Fulham were so impressive in their Premier League return was due to Kenny Tete, who had a fine season at right back. In the Liga Portugal, former Heerenveen graduate Jerry St. Juste had an excellent debut campaign with Sporting Lisbon, who came close to a Europa League semi-final. And an integral player for the Inter Milan side that won the Italian Cup, Super Cup and reached the Champions League final was Denzel Dumfries, arguably the best right wing-back in the game right now. It also goes under the radar that Joël Veltman made over 30 league appearances for Brighton last season – starting 26 – a side widely seen as being the most exciting in the league. 

So why are these Dutch defenders currently so appealing? 

The first point to make is that they embody what coaches want from modern defenders. It may seem like a more recent trend in football to see defenders playing out from the back, or centre halves being judged on their ability to pass as much as header and tackle, but this has been a priority for years at academies up and down the Netherlands. For example, a coach such as Arteta can plug and play with someone like Timber, who he knows is already well-educated in a certain style of play and can hit the ground running straight away. The role of the defender has changed enormously in the last five years and more sides are appreciating the ready-made Dutch options well-versed in the modern defensive traits they need. 

The second area to highlight is age profile. The majority of the players mentioned above are in their mid to low 20s. And those that are not, such as Dumfries, have moved into their peak years as one of the best in their position.  Even if market rates are higher than ever, signing Dutch defenders makes great sense economically as well as on the pitch. Take Botman at Newcastle as the case in point. At 23, he is already one of the best young centre backs in Europe. His ceiling for further development is huge. And in the future, if Newcastle United decide to cash in if a club like Real Madrid comes calling, they would expect at least double the 37 million Euros they paid to acquire him. You can bet that Brighton will be thinking the same with Jan Paul van Hecke, also only 23 but likely to get increasingly more game time in the coming months. 

Furthermore, a common characteristic in these players is versatility. It is a trait particularly valued by Pep Guardiolia in Aké, who he used in multiple roles on the way to the treble. In a long season, having technically talented players with the flexibility to be shifted around a line-up, even during matches themselves, is invaluable. Need a centre back comfortable stepping out with the ball or taking it straight from the goalkeeper? Check. What about inverting a full back into midfield? Check. Or having a full-back who can comfortably morph into a wing-back or centre back? You get the drift. 

This in part comes from the strong mentality you see in these players, many of whom have gained the levels of first team experience and responsibility in the Eredivisie that young defenders in other leagues can only dream of. It’s almost ridiculous to remember that de Ligt is still not even 25. In Rotterdam, the new captain of Dutch champions Feyenoord is Geertruida. It is a shame that so many leave the Eredivisie so early, but the league and its clubs should be praised for developing characters so eager to further themselves in Europe’s biggest leagues. If you watch van de Ven at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium or Malacia at Old Trafford, two of the world’s biggest grounds,  they are not overawed in any shape or form. 

The Dutch have produced many defensive giants over the years who seemed to transcend traditional notions of what a defender was meant to do. Think Frank Rijkaard, Koeman, Frank de Boer or Jaap Stam. However, the mounting evidence suggests that it is perhaps only now that clubs en masse are really beginning to realise their true value. 

Joe Baker (15 Posts)