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.
Holland would, of course, make it to the semifinals before succumbing to Argentina, but it wasn’t pretty. “¡No era penal!” was the cry from the Mexican supporters in the Round of 16 as the fleet-footed Robben faltered late in the penalty box to give Holland a last minute penalty and the game-winning goal. Against an upstart Costa Rica side in the quarterfinals, Holland were again largely incompetent in front of goal instead, relying on van Gaal’s Tim Krul masterstroke to overcome the Central American side on penalties. Their luck would eventually run out against Argentina after another barren 120 minutes. Krul wouldn’t be able to save them this time as they lost on penalties. In the end, a third-place finish (Holland would go on to defeat a dejected Brazil in the third place match) was largely achieved through some rather unconvincing soccer.
Guus Hiddink replaced Van Gaal, and his decision to employ the traditional 4-3-3 backfired .Holland’s shortcomings were apparent for all to see. In their 14 matches since the World Cup, Holland have lost eight, only winning four times (twice against Latvia and Kazakhstan). That isn’t merely a run of bad form or an anomaly. That’s a middling nation that’s fallen from the perches from which the Oranje once ruled.
The Dutch style is, of course, not dead in definitive terms, but it’s developed. It’s been successful for both Chile and Barcelona, teams that employ some form of voetbal, but those sides have evolved for modern times. Holland in comparison seems so bland. The players still possesses that creative spark, but they seem almost clueless as to when to apply it. In many ways, Holland’s development is the polar opposite of Germany’s over the past 15 years, and undoubtedly the talent and now the results have followed.
The fallacy of a winning formula is one of the largest paradoxes in soccer. When a federation has a winning formula, it’s easy to become too reliant on it, until the stark realization that you’ve been figured out appears. Because there are so few games in international soccer, changes in form look sudden, and individual games are far more important.
At the helm of the calamity is Bert van Oostveen, the director of Dutch soccer who was somewhat defiant in the face of his country’s failure. Van Oostveen, at the helm since 2010, incredulously mentioned, “now is the time for building” despite the fact that he’s already been there for five years. Building what exactly? He’s already largely failed at his two most important tasks: developing Dutch football, and providing the proper platform for national team success. Van Oostveen has also been rather indecisive, stringing along Ronald Koeman for months and never quite committing before not only bringing Hiddink out of semi-retirement but also guaranteeing that Danny Blind would take over (originally) post 2016, effectively shutting out Koeman until at least 2018.
When qualification looked uncertain, he claimed Hiddink as his scapegoat until the veteran coach quit. Now despite overwhelming support for Koeman to get the gig from both the public at large and the players, he’ll stick with Blind, whose entire managerial career has been nothing short of a series of stumbles and false starts.
Holland’s orange jerseys have been sullied; far more than a mishap, their failure to qualify is the most visceral evidence that it should be time to clean house. World Cup qualifying officially begins a year from now – the ideal chance to completely revamp the national team set up with the luxury of time, something most nations aren’t afforded. The Dutch no longer have such a congested international schedule.
The talent pipeline may have slowed, but it’s not entirely as hopeless as their recent campaign may have suggested. The likes of Memphis Depay, Terrence Kongolo, Virgil Van Dijk, and Riechedly Bazoer are all major talents, but now is the time to properly manage their development as a cohesive unit. And while the likes of Sneijder and Robben can still play a role going forward, the KNVB needs to think long and hard about their future; because if Holland find themselves in this position two years from now, they’ll only have themselves to blame.
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