Platform writer James Law looks at why the Dutch have lost their courage…
With almost an identical side; the Dutch have gone from World Cup runners-up to Euro flops in the space of two years. Not only that, but the manager and general philosophy of the team have remained the same. So what is it that has turned Holland into a winless, gutless and ultimately ineffective group of individuals?
Looking back at the 2010 World Cup Final line-up against Spain in Johannesburg, only Giovanni Van Bronckhorst (retired) and Dirk Kuyt failed to start a game this time around. Granted, Oranje made more enemies than friends for their style of play in South Africa, which earned a staggering eight yellows and one red card in defeat, but it worked by enlarge.
However, the country’s people expect a brand of total football, and this negative style of football was never going to breed long-term success. The inclusion of both Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel supplemented an average back-four, but did not play to the Netherlands’ strengths; which undoubtedly lie in attack.
Coach Bert Van Marwijk may only have won a solitary cap for his country, but was more than aware of the need for evolution and rebranding of the Dutch, despite their World Cup success.
The opportunity to play around with the side presented itself early into Holland’s Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, as hard-man De Jong’s suspension paved the way for Rafael Van Der Vaart to take his place alongside stalwart Van Bommel in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation. The change in personnel affected the dynamic of the side massively, as Van Der Vaart revelled in the deep-lying playmaker role, a far cry from just a few months previous when the Dutch defence was protected by two technically limited, and very like-minded players.
Taking their place in a fairly favourable qualifying group, containing the likes of San Marino, Moldova and Finland, it was difficult to gauge how this subtle change worked, but the Netherlands best two performances in the group came arguably against the strongest opposition they faced – Sweden and Hungary.
There is a lot of common ground between the two impressive victories.
First and foremost, a settled back four featuring Joris Mathijsen, Johnny Heitinga and Gregory Van Der Wiel, who all covered themselves in glory at the World Cup. Replacing Van Bronckhorst at left-back was young PSV man Erik Pieters, who impressed in the role.
In the 4-1 thrashing of Sweden, Van Bommel was partnered in defensive midfield by Van Der Vaart, while Holland’s 4-0 away triumph in Hungary saw the Spurs man alongside De Jong. This mix seemed to suit the side much more, while in stark contrast, one of the country’s more disappointing displays (a 2-1 win over Finland) came when De Jong and Van Bommel were reunited as a pairing. Van Der Vaart was shoved out on the left, where he was largely ineffective and often went missing.
Further forward, ex-Liverpool workhorse Dirk Kuyt figured regularly from the start, and impressed with six goals in qualifying; the same total achieved by Robin van Persie. Coincidentally, Oranje’s best showings came when either van Persie or Schalke talisman Klaas Jan Huntelaar led the line; not both. But with Huntelaar comfortably top of the goalscoring charts with 12, as the Netherlands qualified with more goals than any other nation in Europe, could Van Marwijk conceivably leave van Persie out in the tournament?
The answer proved to be no, as the Arsenal man played every minute of his country’s wretched showing in Poland/Ukraine, scoring one goal and looking a shadow of his usual self.
Huntelaar on the other hand was used much more sparingly, making just one start, and not given the opportunity to play without van Persie also being on the pitch, which was where he proved to be at his best in qualifying.
At the other end of the pitch, it is no secret that Holland have a dearth of quality defenders, and the injuries to both Mathijsen and Pieters prior to the start of the European Championships caused no end of problems. Replacements Ron Vlaar and Jetro Willems are massively inexperienced at international level, and could not deal with the pressures and quality required.
You have to feel sorry for Van Marwijk in this respect, as he was left with no other options, but further forward, the exclusion of Van Der Vaart, Kuyt and Huntelaar are unexplainable.
The Dutch looked spineless in attack, with maestro Arjen Robben in particular cutting a frustrated figure. He showed examples of petulance and greed, while often looking disinterested. Only Wesley Sneijder really did himself any justice, but his team-mates did not seem to be on the same wavelength as his incisive passing and probing.
They may have been in the so-called ‘group of death’, but the Netherlands showed very little to suggest that they would have progressed under any circumstances. Van Marwijk tinkered slightly in the final game against Portugal, but there were no barnstorming changes to shake up the camp.
Promising youngsters Luciano Narsingh, Kevin Strootman and Luuk De Jong were given no opportunity to shine, and in a situation where the more established players failed to produce the goods, it was eye-opening that these flair players were not considered when goals were needed.
Looking forward, the Dutch FA have a big decision to make about the management of the national side, but they would do well to look at the bigger picture. Van Marwijk may have made a series of tactical gaffes over the three group games, but has also overseen a fantastic World Cup display, plus two impeccable qualifying campaigns.
He does realise the need to be more expansive, and with Mark Van Bommel’s international career now all but over, it will give him the chance to rebuild, and play the way people want to see them; with just one midfield terrier. It will however be interesting to see how Huntelaar and Van Persie are dealt with, while Robben may need to be dropped to realise that he has not been up to scratch.