The worst thing about Holland’s failure to qualify for the European Championships is the general apathy surrounding the entire debacle. We’ve seen teams fight for their survival before, and the panic levels sufficed: As Mexico limped into last year’s World Cup there was a palpable sense of fear when they were rescued by the United States. When England failed to qualify for the 2008 European Championships, the discourse was filled with all the pessimism and self-defeating banter we’ve come to expect. But for Holland it seems the collective response could be summed up with: ¯_(ツ)_/¯
The Dutch have long been rightly heralded for their innovative approach to the game, and for such a tiny nation, they’ve become one of the biggest properties in international football, known for punching far above their weight. It’s respect that’s rightly deserved historically, yet alarmingly non-existent in recent times.
So what happened to the nation that produced the likes of Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Dennis Bergkamp? The country that produced total football, propped up Barcelona for a moment and spread their soccer ethos throughout the world? When did it all go wrong? The truth is, and this is largely evidenced by the general attitude in the wake of their lost, that Holland, everyone’s second favorite team, is largely floating by on a reputation.
On the surface, it may seem like a jarring drop-off: from third in 2014 World Cup to finishing fourth in a European Championship qualifying group. But it’s not been the freefall that those results would indicate; instead it’s been a slow gradual decline, one that’s been largely hidden by some timely tactical facility and some world-class level talent. But a closer analysis reveals why certain performances merely hid deeper rooted underlying issues.
The success of the Dutch in the last two World Cups was rooted in brute pragmatism – eons away from the free-flowing brilliance of total football. In 2010, Bert van Marwijk took his team all the way to the final, taking the scalps of Brazil and Uruguay in the process, but that team was built on a rough style of play that stood in contrast to Dutch tradition. It was a strategy that was especially on display during the final, with Nigel De Jong’s infamous “tackle” on Xabi Alonso the iconic moment of the matchup.
After a disastrous Euro 2012 in which Holland’s woeful defense and general ineptitude were on full display (Holland lost all three of their matches in that tournament) van Marwijk was fired, leaving the eccentric Louis van Gaal to take over. It likely didn’t take long for van Gaal to realize the major gaps in a Dutch team that, for the fifth tournament in a row, would be relying on three players: Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie. Van Gaal managed an impressive qualification campaign, but he knew that the final tournament would pose a greater challenge. In hindsight, that 5-1 victory over Spain, one of the most memorable performances in soccer history, was an anomaly. While Holland were splendid that day, Spain were ripe for a hiding, and van Gaal’s 5-3-2 formation allowed them to catch Spain while compensating for a defense that had been a weak point for years.