By Mohamed Moallim
The hope now is Euro 2012 is looked back on as a watershed moment. It wasn’t meant to end this way, on the plane home after eight days, a proud football nation humbled. The post-mortem and resurrection starts in earnest today.
The Netherlands’ failure is deep rooted and complex. In the first two years of Bert van Marwijk’s tenure, he successfully turned a team on a road to nowhere into a rigid outfit and near-world champions. His ethos, dubbed resultaatvoetbal—winning at the expense of style and performance—took hold. However, the Dutch have regressed in the previous two years—comfortable qualification for Euro 2012 only masked it—and player selection is a factor: working with only a select handful of players has created cohesion and understanding, but has also had a negative effect.
Van Marwijk’s reluctance to rejuvenate the squad, especially after the World Cup, confirmed the existence of a dependency model which has led to stagnation and ultimately Oranje’s worst ever post-war tournament performance. His system relies on a select few he trusts for it to operate in his vision. He’s used 56 players since arriving in August 2008, but only 15 have won 20 caps or more. In a blink of an eye those disciples aged and in some cases deteriorated.
His loyalty, commendable to a degree, has been to Oranje’s detriment. Take the Dutch defence. At the start of last season, Van Marwijk was aware of the rising talents, and there was surely no risk in calling up one or two and bedding them in by taking advantage of the various friendlies scattered across the year; he either thought they weren’t ready or counterproductive. His choices would come back to haunt him.
The decision to select Wilfred Bouma was baffling, on the count of his moderate to poor form at PSV. Van Marwijk cited “experience”, but that was a smokescreen. It would have been logical for one of Bram Nuytinck or Nick Viergever—both left-footed/sided central defenders—to have gone as Joris Mathijsen’s understudy. Only Dirk Kuyt (48 caps) has played more under Van Marwijk than the Málaga defender (46 caps). If both had been assimilated well before the tournament, who knows, one might have even replaced him in the starting line-up.
Nevertheless everywhere you now look—in goal, defence, midfield and attack—there’s emerging quality in abundance. What’s more encouraging is, as a result of this wealth, the identity crisis Oranje have endured can be solved.
Van Marwijk’s move from the traditional Dutch model has been the single biggest issue of his tenure. As long as he kept winning, no one could touch him, but now criticism of his approach is fair game. The discourse surrounds one area: midfield and subsequent build-up play. The purists loathe Van Marwijk’s double pivot (the thinking being that the Oranje or any Dutch side for that matter should not play with two defensive midfielders), a double whammy when both are destroyers, and a treble as one was past his prime. Here you have a perfect example of trusting a group for so long, in some ways forced to, because of the failure to revitalize the team.
An image speaks a thousand words: watching Holland’s lethargic and slow attacks made neutrals and purists weep for Dutch football. Vince Lombardi once said: “If you can accept losing, you can’t win.” Despite this disastrous setback, things can be rectified if the Netherlands learn from it. Cool heads are needed.
The egos on the team, immersed in their own delusions of grandeur, that have run amok will need to be marginalised sooner or later. This will create an opportunity to rebuild and revert to Oranje’s true footballing identity, as well as restoring pride and dignity. The abject performances and subsequent failure this summer has only dented the nation’s confidence in their national team, not destroyed it.
The virtues of teamwork, selflessness and camaraderie need to be reinstated. It’s evolution not revolution, the first steps into a brave new world, and a reference point is close to home at Ajax. The ideologue of modern Dutch football was forged at the Amsterdam club. They can be of national service again.
Frank de Boer’s transformation of the club in the last 18 months has shown there’s life left in the model Van Marwijk abandoned. De Boer’s approach is the same his predecessors: possession-based circulation football in a fluid and flexible system. This is what Oranje needs to return to.
Adjusting the midfield is paramount. The most important component is the deep-lying player in a balanced triumvirate, whose job is to retain and recycle possession. Vurnon Anita is entrusted by De Boer at Ajax. His continual excellence in the role, the fulcrum, has only elevated his importance, and there’s no reason why he can’t replicate it for his country. In front is the controlling midfielder (Theo Janssen) and incisive playmaker (Christian Eriksen), players similar to Dutch nationals Kevin Strootman (PSV) or Jordy Clasie (Feyenoord) and Adam Maher (AZ). Integrating these three, particularly Clasie and Maher, is imperative.
Both are the biggest talents in the Netherlands. The way Clasie effortlessly dictates and switches Feyenoord’s play, providing precise short passes coupled with long and direct balls, earned him the nickname “Xavi of De Kuip”. As for Maher he’s drawn similarities with Andrés Iniesta; he’s intuitive, vertical, fast, adventurous and intelligent. He effortlessly glides between the lines, is spatially aware and creative, and maintains eye-of-the-needle passing and dribbling. A burden for some not him, nurtured correctly he can be a huge asset in the long-term. The same goes for Clasie. In days gone by similar players were regularly produced. That’s not so much the case now, so when the players come around, Oranje need to capitalise.
De Boer’s reason for restructuring Ajax is ironically the same as Van Marwijk adopting his passive model: to control the ebb and flow of the match and minimise individual errors. De Boer’s is more proactive; Ajax continuously circulates the ball (retention of it is merely a defensive weapon) exercises forward pressing, and makes the pitch as small as possible. This in turn heightens the tempo and sharpness of play.
The fluidity of the system is evident when they’re in control: central defenders—who start the attacks—become secondary midfielders and fullbacks turn into auxiliary wingers etc. Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, last season, would push forward and Anita would drop turning into a third centre-back making the transition between defence and attack seamless. Not so long ago this method of play came naturally to Oranje. It should again.
John Heitinga and Mathijsen won’t be around for long. The question is, are there any central defenders around made for this system? Yes. First, there’s Nuytinck and Viergever. Then throw in the two players Jaap Stam is excited about: Ricardo van Rhijn (who could also play at right-back) and Virgil van Dijk. The latter player is the closest Dutch football will have to Stam. Then the jewels: Feyenoord’s very own Stefan de Vrij, commanding, imposing and a natural born leader who’s only gotten better under Ronald Koeman’s tutelage.
The other player Jeffrey Gouweleeuw, currently at Heerenveen, could be Oranje’s answer to Gerard Piqué. He models his game on the Spaniard; there are certain similarities such as kicking technique when playing a cross field pass, his running and dribbling style, positional sense, stance and heading. With an obsession with joining the attack and maintaining a fluid midfield in front there’s every chance the system can be played at national level again. It’s important to find the right combination: Gouweleeuw and Van Dijk for example.
To implement such this way of playing, especially at international level, not to mention overhauling the existing static model, will take time, so patience is required. Before the year is out, there are six games scheduled, starting with Belgium in an August friendly, and then four crucial World Cup qualifiers: Turkey, Hungary, Andorra and Romania, concluding with a friendly rendezvous with Germany.
Whatever Van Marwijk does will be scrutinized. For the sake of Voetbal, one hopes the bruising he’s taken will lead to a period of self-reflection—for him and the KNVB—and that the outcome involves taking the Oranje back down the road Rinus Michels built. It’s looking likely he’ll remain on the job pending a review, unless he decides to resign (which at the moment is unlikely). If he does step down, his successor must be a strong adherent of the Dutch school.
This is all hypothetical, but those who doubt Oranje can ever be ‘Oranje’ again are mistaken. I’m sure many Dutch fans look with envious eyes across the border at Germany, but they shouldn’t be disheartened. The resources are there to rise again. As one chapter ends, another begins. If the seeds are sown now, come 2014, maybe Oranje can reap the fruits.
Mohamed Moallim writes on Dutch football for FourFourTwo. He can be found on Twitter @jouracule.