The Netherlands’ first division has almost been monopolised by the mighty Ajax, but when it comes to goalkeeping, the talent is – and has been – diverse…
A man approaches you in the street, offering you £1000 if you can name five goalkeepers. And, no, this isn’t the beginning of a goalkeeping-themed, macabre Squid Game remake. That seems easy enough, right? In fact, the man standing in front of you appears to be, above all else, rather naïve. Goalkeeping enthusiast or not, any football fan, anywhere in the world, would snatch the £1000 away without thinking twice.
But you’ve said yes to the deal before the mystery man finishes explaining his proposition. He doesn’t want you to name any old five goalkeepers. He wants you to name five current goalkeepers playing in the Netherland’s highest professional league: the Eredivisie. Does that £1000 look quite so accessible now? The odds are definitely lower.
Eredivisie goalkeeping is something of an unknown entity, in the sense that the league itself isn’t broadcast as widely as the European ‘big five’: the Premier League, La Liga, Ligue 1, Serie A, and the Bundesliga. Thus, the league’s plethora of goalkeeping talent doesn’t tend to get the same publicity as their contemporaries across the continent.
Yet, goalkeeping in the Netherlands has a rich, rich history. Both on and off the pitch, Eredivisie goalkeeping has been a prominent influencer in the global goalkeeping game. However, it tends to be so that some of the biggest Dutch goalkeeping names make said names for themselves away from their native territory. Immediately, the likes of Maarten Stekelenburg, Tim Krul, and Sander Westerveld come to mind.
From the father of modern goalkeeper coaching philosophy, Frans Hoek, to the controversies surrounding current Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana – who, most definitely, has a point to prove and time to makeup – we document the history of Eredivisie goalkeeping and analyse who, what, when, and where, made the Netherlands an underappreciated haven for developing world-class goalkeepers.
How Eredivisie goalkeeping influenced the development of the position?
The rise of ball-playing goalkeepers is no coincidence. As the modern game has evolved, so have the demands of a goalkeeper. After backpasses were banned in 1992, goalkeepers have been forced to use their feet a lot more. Aaron Ramsdale’s flawless distribution has recently caught media attention, and whilst it might appear reasonable to trace the origins of the ball-playing goalkeeper in the Premier League back to more recent innovators (namely Pep Guardiola, Claudio Bravo, and Ederson), the origins of the ball-playing goalkeeper can be traced back to the Eredivisie.
Ajax’s Johan Cruyff was a legendary footballer, but also a legendary coach. Possession-based ‘total football’ may now be more widely associated with Guardiola’s Barcelona or Manchester City teams, but it was Cruyff who Guardiola learnt from when he played under the Dutchman at the former. In 1984, Cruyff became Ajax’s Head Coach, and wanted to bring in specialists to bolster his backroom staff.
He picked a certain Frans Hoek, only 28 at the time, to come and be the goalkeeper coach. Outside of goalkeeping, some may remember Hoek as the man who chose to bring on Tim Krul in the 2014 World Cup quarter-final penalty shootout for the Netherlands.
It is worth noting that at the time, goalkeeper coaches weren’t common at all. However, Frans Hoek, nicknamed the ‘godfather of modern goalkeeping’, had written the world’s first thesis that pre-empted what we now take for granted as modern goalkeeping: sweeping and building play out from the back.
‘People want to be in their comfort zone. If I am going to take people out of their comfort zone they will be uncomfortable. That is not what they want. But my whole life I have been out of my comfort zone. That is how you improve. It is the only way‘.
Cruyff wanted there to be eleven footballers on the pitch, and Frans Hoek became the key that unlocked the goalkeeper to be that eleventh player. Designing sessions that involved the whole star-studded squad, including the likes of Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, Hoek and Cruyff simulated situations where the goalkeeper would sweep up and join in with the play.
Meticulously detailed in his planning and methodology, everywhere Hoek went afterwards, the progression of modern goalkeeping followed. Goalkeepers began to be picked and signed not only for their shot-stopping ability, but arguably more for their ability in possession and reading of the game. For Ajax and Holland, a very young Edwin Van der Sar began to perform on the highest stages under Hoek’s tutelage. At Barcelona under Van Gaal and Hoek, Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina were entrusted with starting for the club at the age of 20, owing this at large to their ability with the ball.
Following Van Gaal to Bayern Munich in 2010, Hoek presided over the signing of a certain Manuel Neuer just one year later. Under the Dutchman’s guidance, Neuer flourished into the embodiment of the modern goalkeeper he is today. Hoek’s brief stint at Manchester United with Van Gaal also helps explain their signing of Victor Valdes, especially considering David De Gea’s previous perceived issues with distribution in his earlier years at Manchester United.
The best of Eredivisie goalkeeping
If Edwin van der Sar is the answer, what’s the question? Most likely, something along the lines of ‘who was the first ‘modern goalkeeper?’. This isn’t strictly true – the notion of the sweeper-keeper goes far back to the 1950s, with goalkeepers across Europe beginning to implement more primitive styles of this positional innovation not long after the end of the Second World War.
However, in the modern age of football, Edwin van der Sar defined the demands of the goalkeeper well before the likes of Ederson, Alisson, Neuer, and, amongst others, Marc Andre Ter-Stegen came to implement a sweeper-keeper style.
Edwin Van der Sar moved to Manchester United at the ripe age of 34, which leads many to believe Van der Sar was a ‘late bloomer’ in the goalkeeping world. This couldn’t be further from the truth; he made his senior debut for Ajax at 20 and was playing (and winning) Champions League games by the age of 23. By the time he signed for Manchester United, Van der Sar had already won the Champions League, the Eredivisie four times and played for Juventus under Carlo Ancelotti.
So what made Van der Sar so good? Well, for one, being almost two metres tall was an obvious advantage that allowed him to dominate his box and reach crosses with relative ease. Shot-stopping wise, van der Sar was arguably unorthodox but undeniably effective. Unsurprisingly, his other golden point was precision in distribution; something still rather rare for a goalkeeper to possess at the time. His ex-Manchester United teammate Ben Foster recently said it was ‘impossible’ to get near Van der Sar because his passing was so good.
In fact, Foster even claimed teammates wouldn’t even bother pressing Van der Sar in training because of this.
He retired not only as one of the most successful goalkeepers of all time, having accumulated 26 pieces of silverware over his career, but also as one of the most complete goalkeepers the world has seen. Very rarely do we get a goalkeeper who has the height to dominate the box, the athleticism to reach difficult shots, and the passing ability to match an outfield player. Manuel Neuer is arguably the only goalkeeper who fits a similar style nowadays, which is a testament to how good van der Sar was.
It is no coincidence that van der Sar’s ball-playing ability developed from his time at Ajax under the tutelage of none other than Frans Hoek himself.
Delving back further into the archives, Eredivisie goalkeeping was full of accomplished shot-stoppers. One of the most famous was Jan Jongbloed, who was an early precursor to the likes of van der Sar in the development of the sweeper-keeper. Jongbloed, who made over 700 career appearances and earnt a runners up medal at the 1974 World Cup, was a player who Frans Hoek himself looked to model his ‘new’ goalkeeper on.
Jongbloed ruled the 1970s with respect to Eredivisie goalkeeping, and the standard of goalkeeper remained high as the Millenium drew near. Hans van Breukelen was between the sticks when the Netherlands triumphed at EURO ‘98, saving a penalty in the final. Making over 300 appearances for PSV Eindhoven, van Breukelen’s career was littered with silverware – and often defined by a proficiency from the penalty spot.
The now-65 year old won six league titles and three domestic cups with PSV, as well as saving the decisive penalty in the 1987/88 European Cup final against Benfica. The Dutchman’s influence on football wasn’t limited to Eredivisie goalkeeping; he was signed by Brian Clough in the early 1980s and named as his starting goalkeeper in the legendary Nottingham Forest teams of 1982/83 and 1983/84, signing from FC Utrecht before joining PSV.
As the century turned, the likes of Ed de Goey and Sander Westerveld arrived in the UK. De Goey made his name at Sparta Rotterdam, missing only eight games in his seven years at the club. This ever-presence continued with Chelsea, as de Goey set a record (now surpassed) in the 1999/00 campaign for the most appearances and clean sheets in a season for Chelsea.
At 6ft6in, de Goey is also the second tallest player to have ever played for Chelsea. He sits behind Thibaut Courtois, who beats him by an inch (6ft7in, 2m).
Sander Westerveld was another. His time with Vitesse Arnhem is where he forged his name in the Eredivisie goalkeeping books, attracting a then-record British fee for a goalkeeper when the late Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool came knocking in 1999. Westerveld had achieved European qualification with Vitesse, and would never make more appearances for any club he played for than the 101 he did with the Dutch side.
Quite why things didn’t work out for Westerveld at Liverpool is something of a mystery. He only seemed to be improving as his spell on Merseyside went on, and had played a key role in games such as the 2000/01 League Cup final, helping Liverpool beat Birmingham City on penalties. His very swift dropping and departure from the club upon the signings of Chris Kirkland and Jerzy Dudek (who himself had a prolific spell with Feyenoord between 1996-2001) arguably smeared Westerveld’s image unfairly.
Jasper Cillessen is the most recent ‘past’ Eredivisie goalkeeper. 101 appearances for Ajax, after coming through the ranks at NEC Nijmegen, solidifies his place as a shot-stopper made in the Eredivisie. Cillessen stood on the boundary between ‘good’ and ‘great’ when he made the move to Barcelona in 2016. Yet, since leaving the Netherlands, he has made all of 45 appearances in five years (his time at Valencia included). Missing EURO 2020 due to COVID-19 hasn’t helped Cillessen’s cause in his search for regular match minutes.
The current crop of Dutch top-flight goalkeepers
Ajax won the Eredivisie last season with veteran Maarten Stekelenburg in goal, who played in the 2010 World Cup Final but had otherwise remained on Everton’s bench in recent years. This season, another veteran has also played in goal for Ajax: Remko Pasveer. At 38, he’s nearing the end of his career, but don’t let that fool you. From the 10 matches he has played this season he has saved 96% of shots faced, and from the four Champions League games he has played he has saved 90% of shots faced.
In a similar fashion to Gianluigi Buffon in his later Champions League campaigns, Pasveer’s positional sense and decision making is excellent which has allowed him to achieve such a high save percentage. Although Pasveer does still possess good athletic ability and reflexes, his positioning does generally allow him to make saves more effectively.
Given the quality of Ajax’s squad, Pasveer is rarely exposed meaning the shots he faces are from chances that are difficult to convert. Yet, his consistency in shot stopping cannot be ignored. His distribution has been impressive, too, with a respectable 83% success rate. Sadly for Pasveer, Andre Onana’s return to the squad means it is unlikely he will keep his place in the starting eleven in the coming weeks.
Feyenoord’s Justin Bijlow is another that deserves mentioning given his recent gametime for the Dutch national team. At the age of 23, Bijlow is still a very raw talent but is showing promising signs already, especially after starting for Holland in the World Cup Qualifiers. One thing becomes clear when watching Bijlow play: he has no fear. When faced with one-one-ones, Bijlow’s bold and direct approach, combined with an effective spreading style, is particularly impressive to watch. It’s clearly successful, too, given that he has already picked up six clean sheets this season and saved 70% of shots faced.
Bijlow also times his spreads to perfection, moving into the shape at the right time to not only block the ball but also not injure himself. He shared the gloves in the 2020/21 campaign with Nick Marsman, eight years his superior, who topped the Eredivisie goalkeeping charts with a save percentage of 81.6% in the 21 matches he played.
Joel Drommel is the current custodian of the number one shirt at PSV. Making over 100 appearances for his previous club, FC Twente, between the ages of 19-25, Drommel signed for the Eredivisie giants off the back of two very solid campaigns with Twente, recording 70%-plus save percentages over the course of the two seasons. This year, however, he actually sits bottom of the shot-stopping charts in the Eredivisie.
His replacement at Twente, Lars Unnerstall, is in fine form so far this season, alongside the likes of Utrecht’s Maarten Paes, and Go Ahead Eagles’ Warner Hahn, and Sparta Rotterdam’s Maduka Okoye.
The Eredivisie is the place where much of modern goalkeeping was born. With young talents like Bijlow and Onana impressing on the biggest stage already, Eredivisie goalkeeping’s rich history of producing top goalkeepers is likely to continue well into the future.