Start with a bang, end with a sigh. In the penalty shootout defeat to Argentina in the semi-final the Netherlands can be proud they managed to contain the opposition defensively without so many fouls this time but were again found wanting when the ball crossed the halfway line.
Given their group, the indifferent form of key players (bar Arjen Robben), the relative youth of the squad, and arched eyebrows cast at the posturing of Louis Van Gaal, it’s difficult to look back and pinpoint exactly what the expectations were when the tournament began. Some pegged them to be one of the shock early exits, most didn’t expect them to get much farther if they did make it out of the group. Thrashing Spain and a run to the semi-finals was not on the cards.
With all the power of hindsight about this Dutch campaign I’ve become increasingly convinced of two things. The first is that most of the preparation for this tournament focused entirely on beating Spain. The surprise system that Van Gaal rolled out in their opening match worked flawlessly, the players were clearly well drilled but it helped immensely that Spain hasn’t varied their game at all since 2008.
After that game Van Gaal only continued with the system on the insistence of his players, high on the confidence only available to those who hand the kings their collective head. Each game saw the system be less and less successful, usually abandoned in the second half while on the fly adjustments were made, the fact that the Dutch were often flying by the seat of their pants makes the appearance in the semi-final even more impressive.
The second thing casts King Louis in a slightly less flattering light when it comes to handing out the genius label. When picking his 23 man squad (of which he used 22) he was extremely overconfident with his attacking options. The bold choices of younger players that made up the backline and some of the midfield were tempered by a front line on the wane. Aside from the potentially superhuman Robben, the other leading lights of the Golden Triangle had uneven or downright depressing tournaments.
During every game in this tournament I found myself wishing that Wesley Sneijder would be subbed out. It never happened because there wasn’t a equal/better option on the bench. With Sneijder a shadow of his former self there was zero creativity to this side, the final two matches combined for 240 minutes of sideways dreck, interrupted only when the ball found it’s way to Robben’s feet. Van Gaal brought younger options at every position except No. 10 and that is entirely his fault. Though they don’t have the name recognition of Sneijder but surely Siem de Jong or Davy Klaassen could have brought a spark to that dour midfield.
Still, this deep run will provide great experience for the younger players, a few of whom will likely make up the starting XI for the next decade or so. Daley Blind, Daryl Janmaat, Stefan de Vrij, Jordy Clasie, Memphis Depay. They all showed promise in Brazil and hopefully Guus Hiddink and Danny Blind view the qualifications for Euro 2016 as an opportunity to reshape this team, moving away from such a reactive style and bring back some of the magic that made previous generations of the clockwork Oranje tick.