The Dutch Debacle: Possible Solutions
When the final whistle blew at Metalist Stadium, Kharkiv on Sunday, June 17, the expressions on the faces of the Dutch players on the pitch were almost the same as they were two years ago at Johannesburg. Arjen Robben, Rafael van der Vart, Robin van Persie and others were all either looking blankly at the turf or to the sky!
History repeats itself as favourites Netherlands self-destroy themselves in yet another major tournament. Subhashis Biswas looks into the life of the Dutch beyond Euro 2012
The difference? In Jo’burg, they had failed to win a World Cup final in their third attempt. In Kharkiv, they lost three competitive matches in a row in a major tournament for the first time in their footballing history, and thus bowed out of Euro 2012 empty-handed.
We have all seen what happened on the pitch with Dutch football in this Euro, so shall not deep dive into it. It will suffice to say that they simply did not finish effectively. The story could have been a whole lot different had they scored goals in the first match. They had created many chances, and going by the calibre of their goalscorers, they should have won that match at least 3-1.
Unfortunately, that did not happen, and nothing did happen for them afterwards. Their match with Germany was reminiscent of the Italia 1990 round of 16 match-up, sans the Voeller-Riijkaard saga. Holland was almost non-existent in that match, and some poor finishing by the Germans saved them from further blushes. The movements, the penetrations, the punching finish, were all quite evidently lacking. Could be players like Giovanni van Bronckhorst were being missed considerably.
Anyway, as there is no way to turn the clock back, at least in the real world, let us move on. It is important to think, how the Dutch should move forward, because within three months the World Cup qualifiers will be here.
A lot of people may think that this crack in the Dutch scenario is nothing much to worry about. Every possible good player is available at various positions. Maarten Stekelenburg has done his best and he is a worthy torchbearer for the likes of Edwin van der Saar. He can be nurtured into the future captain of Holland. Over the years we have seen their goalkeepers uniting a football squad short of spirit. Dutch football need not entertain the thought of a complete overhaul. Their football association must conduct a root cause analysis of Dutch failure. Not only in this Euro, but time and again, the Dutch players have been to big tournaments with plenty of dressing room problems.
Most of the Dutch star players play in separate teams, where they are indispensable for their club sides. Come national team scenario, there is bound to be some omissions from the starting eleven, and that’s where the problem begins. Having too many talented, but egoistic players vying for the same position is recipe for disaster. That is what happens with them most of the times. There were problems regarding different types of players and camps within the Dutch squad in earlier days. The Dutch team that won Euro 1988 was a tough one, and such was the stature of Ruud Gullit at the time, that other players got united under him and delivered the best performance by a Dutch side, recorded till date. But almost the same set of Dutch players then lost to Denmark in a penalty shoot-out at Euro 1992 semi-final, and stories of rift in the squad started pouring in. Before delving into the rift theory, let’s take a quick look at the current Spanish squad. Most of the players in the Spanish national team play their club football in Real Madrid and Barcelona – two of the fiercest rivals of club football, or for that matter any form of football, and the rivalry stretches much beyond the football ground. Yet when the time comes, all men playing under the La Furia Roja banner unite like they are part of one body, and deliver like there is only one goal in their life. That’s how professionals ought to play. Different individuals may have diverse upbringings, opinions and egos. But on the pitch, there should be only one goal- to put the ball inside the opponent’s goal, and protect it from entering your own.
Football is a simple game, but players tend to complicate it. Bert van Merwijk created problems by his poor reading and judgment of the squad. Mark van Bommel, alas, is no longer one of the great holding midfielders to have donned the orange jersey. Making him the captain,, when some other worthy players are warming the bench, does not look like a wise idea. Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart are both creative players and to accommodate them in the squad, Bert van Merwijk could have employed Robin van Persie as wide-left out to partner Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The formation would have been 4-3-3, and Holland could have looked more effective in that scenario. But that meant son-in-law Mark van Bommel sitting on the bench. The coach’s daughter probably would not have liked that!
Rafael van der Vaart had a relatively good season at Spurs, and was expected in the starting line-up for the Oranje. But he ended up on the bench more often than not. Same with Hunteelar. Recently Johan Cruyff billed him as the ’next best thing’ in Dutch football. After rather poor stints at AC Milan and Real Madrid, Hunteelar has settled in Schalke 04 for the last couple of seasons and found his goal-scoring touch. He wasn’t too pleased at not seeing his name in the starting XI. And those who were in the starting eleven did not live up to expectations.
Robin van Persie has scored a plethora of goals in EPL this season and carried the Gunners almost single-footedly to the next season’s Champions League. Yet, he failed to deliver in the Euro. In the first match against the Danes, he wasted a fairly simple chance of scoring at the start of the match, shooting the ball well over the bar from a relatively close range. He never was allowed a free shot at the goal in the rest of the match. Sometimes the Danish defenders suffocated the Dutch forward line at the edge of the penalty area and the Dutch players were forced to shoot from a long range, albeit ineffectively.
That 0-1 loss to Denmark probably took all the steam out of the Dutch team. What everybody termed as the match of the Euro, after the draw, the Germany-Netherlands encounter turned out to be a badly one-sided affair. Thanks to some missed chances by Thomas Muller and Mario Gomez, the scoreline looked a respectable 2-1. Something similar happened against Portugal as well. A bright start, a superb Rafael van der Vaart goal, and then Ronaldo stole the show, and the Dutch slowly but surely faded out of the tournament, registering three losses in a competitive tournament for the first time in history.
Robben jumped out of the ground from the far side and was not seen in the bench after being substituted in one match. He never looked like a team player. Sneijder admitted that the Dutch dressing room was not a place where people treat each other as friends. As long as the common goal of winning trophies remained intact, he did not have any issues with it. But the problem persisted. All the big players with their self-proclaimed superiority over the others, wanted to increase their price in the club football market. After all, the previous Euro had given rise to the likes of Andre Arshavin and Luca Modric. One could barely see the pride of playing for the country. Mark van Bommel was saying a lot of things to his previous club mate Bastian Schweinsteiger after the Holland-Germany match. Bastian was consoling him. Consolations do not heal wounds. Unless you feel the depth and pain of the wound, you will never be able to heal it. I have seen the blank faces of Dutch players after the match against Portugal, but that pain was missing. They have to feel the agony of losing, in order to succeed in the future.
What lies ahead for Dutch football? First step: out goes Bert van Merwijk, enter Louis van Gaal. Yes, Louis van Gaal. Last time when he was the coach for a substantial period of time with the Holland national team, they failed to qualify for 2002 World Cup; their only failure to qualify for a major tournament in recent times. He tasted some success with Ajax, followed by Barca, and his last big assignment was with Bayern Munich. Overall, as the football world recognizes him, he is a decent coach. But here, old wine is served in an old bottle. The Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB) thinks this is the right step forward. Although, quite a few people have doubts regarding his appointment.
Coming to players, who are the new bloods in Dutch football? First thing that popped up in my mind after the debacle in Euro, is that I missed a player named Giovanni van Bronckhorst. The ex-Arsenal and Barcelona player was a link between defence, midfield and wing players. He changed positions along the flanks frequently, and sometimes used to cut back inside effectively to create scoring opportunity. Holland lacked versatility in Euro. Same old left flank runs by Robben or powerful shooters by van Persie were no more a threat to opponents who were well prepared this time.
Ron Vlaar is creating some excitement in EPL. Some of the mid-table EPL clubs are after him. Names like John Heitinga, Joris Mathijsen and Gregory van der Wiel are common in football circle by now. The problem is players like Nigel de Jong have not evolved in the last few years. Holland is getting stuck in the midfield, no supply line, not many players who can orchestrate a game from the midfield. Wesley Sneijder needs to change his approach. He will have to get back to the level of the second half of 2010 World Cup match against Brazil. He is becoming more of a dead-ball player nowadays.
Patrick van Aanholt has been on loan in various clubs after 2009, and played just a couple of matches for Chelsea. He is a young speedy defender. Good coaching can help him cut down juvenile mistakes, based on which he can have a bright future. Jetro Willems is a strong defender, who can play in centre back along with his usual left back position. These two should be good prospects as full-backs. They also have Erik Pieters, Alexander Buttner and Urby Emanuelson to consider for the full-back positions. Urby is rather an experienced player, having played seven seasons for Ajax and currently with AC Milan.
In central defence, Daley Blind, son of Danny Blind, is a good prospect. He needs a strong marker as assistant, and some names that can pop up there are Ryan Donk, Jeffrey Bruma and Nick Viergever. Jeff Bruma has played a few games for Chelsea, and then was on loan to Leicester City and Hamburger SV. His height and presence in central defence makes him an intimidating player. Jeffrey Gouweleeuw can be another choice, though he is short on experience, and need some more playing time at the club level before he can be tested in national team. But the man who will rise strong in the central defence and counter opponent attacks both on the field and air, is Douglas Franco Teixeira. He is a sure choice for the Dutch in Brazil 2014. The defence needs to be built around him.
As holding midfielders, Dutch playing style allow only one player in that role. Kevin Strootman did not get a look-in although he was in the Euro 2012 squad. Nigel de Jong is still there, but if freshening up the squad is the agenda then Kevin is definitely a choice. He can be used as a sweeper too. Another option is Stijn Schaars. Schaars is an experienced campaigner, having played most of his club football at AZ Alkmaar, and moved to Sporting Club de Portugal last season. Some other names in this position are Jordy Clasie, Leroy Frer and Vernon Anita. Vernon Anita came through Ajax youth ranks and has been a consistent performer for Ajax in the last few years. He was also selected in the preliminary squad for 2010 World Cup, but was not picked for the final squad. Martin Jol introduced him as left-back, but later he was more successful as defensive midfielder.
In the more creative role as a midfielder, Netherlands is well set. Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vart should play together to open up the field in a more effective way. They will need some support in the upper half of the field. Marco van Genkel and Adam Maher can both be their support and backup.
Up front, Luuk de Jong is creating headlines. He had three fairly reasonable seasons with Twente, and several clubs from EPL and other leagues are looking to sign him. He recognizes the goal. He has a sense of where the opponent’s goal is, and his effectiveness in putting the ball inside the net is admirable. Dutch Eredivisie generally consists of good big defenders and Luuk de Jong showed promise by scoring goals against those defenders.
Bas Dost has been the top-scorer of Dutch Eredivisie in the 2011-12 season. He scored 32 goals in Eredivisie last season for SC Heerenveen and will be playing for Bundesliga club VfL Wolfsburg in the coming season. Under the guidance of Marco van Basten, who knows a thing or two about goal-scoring, Dost learnt the art well and can be a great prospect for the national team. He has the looks and movements of a striker. KNVB will do well to nurture him.
So the talents are there. Dutch Eredivisie has always been the place from where some spectacular world beaters came up, played the game in an artistic, passionate yet steadfast way, and achieved glory through the years, though mainly at the club level. The current group playing inside the Netherlands boundary is also capable of doing great things in future. Holland is like an emotional and unpredictable pop singer – creative minded, passionate, sometimes beautiful yet sometimes straightforward. And, like we all know, a pop singer’s life will always be eventful. Sometimes their shows are a complete sell-out, while at other times you won’t find many followers. Sometimes they might disappoint you, but can leave you spellbound too.
We cannot revisit the past and alter the course of history. Also, old habits die hard. However, what Holland need now is stability. They are due to catch the plane to Rio de Janeiro come summer of 2014. Other than Turkey, they will not have much competition to face in their World Cup qualifying round group. How they will fare in Brazil, depends a lot on the next few months. Will the artistic pop star rise again? As football lovers, we await the return of “Rhythm Total”.