Missing layer of talent to blame for Netherlands crisis


As headlines go, the offering from Dutch daily newspaper Algemeen Dagblad was a jab at the most painful of weak spots. Writ large above a photograph of Robin van Persie lying on the turf with an expression that reeked of frustration, the message could barely have been more damning: "We don't count any more."

This is the Netherlands we are talking about here. The so-called best football nation to never win the World Cup. A team that fared well enough in Brazil 2014 to wallop Spain , capture global imagination and end up one heroic Javier Mascherano tackle away from reaching successive World Cup finals.

The Netherlands don't count any more? So soon? What is going on? How can this possibly be? This has been a cataclysmic international fall for the Oranje. Defeated at home by Iceland and then trounced by Turkey, the Group A table makes brutal reading.

The Dutch sit fourth, outside of the qualification slots, behind Iceland, the Czech Republic and Turkey. If results are favourable in the next and final round of matches, they might just squeak into the play-offs. In the misery of the moment, those who endured the sorry sight of the recent losses are not buoyed by optimism.

They do need favours and it is not too much of a stretch to wonder if Turkey might lose one match of their double-header against the Czechs and Iceland.

It is the Netherlands' side of the coin that is rather more concerning. Can they win in Kazakhstan and beat the Czech Republic to give themselves a fighting chance of finishing third?

After the week the Netherlands has just witnessed, that takes on the hue of a profound existentialist question.

There was a crazy stat that emerged after the latest loss. Only Andorra, Gibraltar, Malta and San Marino have been behind for more minutes than the Netherlands in these Euro 2016 qualifiers. What company to keep.

There is a deeper malaise at work. Confidence has been unravelling at a rate of knots since that third- placed finish at the 2014 World Cup.

There was a lot that felt unexpectedly fresh and uplifting about that tournament - and there was no reason to expect such a sudden decline when Louis van Gaal marched off to Manchester.

But the transition to his replacement Guus Hiddink - who has since been replaced by Danny Blind - was shaky and erratic. Starting over in the post-van Gaal era, they have struggled to find a pattern. They have mislaid their sense of purpose. Cohesion has dissolved. The counter-attacking football that was successful in Brazil was abandoned as they sought a return to the more possession-based game that was a traditional hallmark - but the change has damaged team structure, morale and results.

With mistakes creeping in and self-belief eroding, the squad's shortcomings have been exposed. There is a pervading sense of regret that they are missing an important generation of players and with the team not functioning that is more obvious than ever before.

In between the early 20s band - players such as Memphis Depay, Stefan de Vrij and Georginio Wijnaldum - and the early 30s generation - Arjen Robben, van Persie and Wesley Sneijder - there is an overall dip in quality.

When everything works - see Brazil 2014 - the youth are audacious and the veterans relish the responsibility. Everyone else is swept along with them. When everything doesn't work - see last week - the youth are rash and the veterans look past it. Everyone else looks too easily overwhelmed.

In fairness, Robben is not completely included in this study as he was injured against Iceland and played no part against Turkey.

Dutch legend Johan Cruyff was astonished at how the basics seemed to elude the current group.

"By placing the ball in front of someone, the person in question needs to be moving. I think it is shocking to see how few players of the Dutch national team has mastered this," he said.

All in all it has been a sobering introduction to management at international level for Blind, who was thrust into an emergency situation. But when he looks around he does look short of the tools to coolly dig the Netherlands out of this.

The fact the Dutch Football Association turned to Blind, an outstanding defender for club and country in his time, reveals another alarming problem when they examine what is going on in their football.

Blind had only a year as coach of Ajax 10 seasons ago on his managerial CV. Other than that, he has been an assistant. It is asking a lot of someone without a great deal of time at the sharpest end to handle this crisis.

The golden age of Dutch management, however, has lost some of its sheen. At the 2006 World Cup, for example, there were four Dutch coaches guiding teams - Hiddink, Dick Advocaat, Leo Beenhakker and Marco van Basten. The next generation of coaches is not so rich in number or experience.

There remains talent in the squad, enough of it to qualify for a bloated European Championship that will welcome 24 teams. If fortune allows them a play-off place, perhaps a blend of pride and determination might help them through.

Beyond that, the search for a brighter orange needs attention.


This article was first published on September 9, 2015.
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