Dutch football writer Elko Born analyses a dark period for Ireland's next opponents
It was a state of confusion. The Netherlands were playing a Euro 2016 qualification match against the Czech Republic, and despite his promise not to return to the system that had brought Louis van Gaal so much success at the World Cup in Brazil, Guus Hiddink had set up his team in a defensive 5-3-2 formation.
After a mere 40 minutes, however, the newly appointed manager panicked. The Dutch were 1-0 behind and the defensive solidity Hiddink had tried to achieve by playing five defenders was nowhere to be found. A centre back was taken off for a winger. Back to 4-3-3 it was.
About three months earlier, the Dutch had beaten reigning world champions Spain 5-1. They had managed to do this by ditching the famed ‘Dutch school’ of football, characterised by attacking intentions and a 4-3-3 formation, and resorting to a reactive, counter attacking setup. Now, they found themselves in an identity crisis. As Van Gaal had made abundantly clear, the squad simply wasn’t strong enough to even come close to the ‘Total Football’ the fans craved. Hiddink’s half-hearted attempt to use Louis van Gaal’s final tactical resort didn’t work either.
It was a conundrum Hiddink couldn’t solve. About nine months after losing the Netherlands’ match against Czech Republic 2-1, he parted ways with the Dutch FA. His assistant, Danny Blind, succeeded him. But results didn’t improve. After a disastrous string of results, Blind’s team failed to even qualify for Euro 2016. By now, the Netherlands’ little identity crisis had evolved into a full scale calamity. Like Hiddink before him, Blind simply couldn’t figure out how to get the Oranje back on track. On the pitch, his players demonstrated nervousness and confusion more than football prowess.
Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal (right) and his then assistant manager Danny Blind. Picture by: Nick Potts / EMPICS Sport
So what now? The Dutch FA decided to stick with Blind, despite the lack of faith in him among the Dutch public. Beyond that, they’re taking various measures. As a short term boost, they hired former PSV, Sunderland and Netherlands manager Dick Advocaat as Blind’s assistant. Looking to build a new foundation over the longer term, they also released a 50-page document outlining their strategy for improving the state of Dutch football.
Advocaat’s appointment has raised some questions. While he’s an experienced and respected manager, is the veteran truly the right person to take the Netherlands into a new direction? Similarly, the strategy document has failed to produce much enthusiasm among critics. Despite all the talk of ‘winning mentality’ and ‘aggressive pressing’, there is a sense the Dutch FA do not really know what they are doing.
This, then, seems to be the crux of the matter. While the Dutch once developed an entirely new way of thinking about football, they now seem to be stumbling, basing their ideas on guess work rather than vision. Gone are the days of the Netherlands showing the rest of the world how the game should be played. It’s 2016, and the Netherlands have been surpassed by the countries surrounding them.
Where is the Dutch Guardiola? Why is there no proper successor to Louis van Gaal, the last Dutch manager to truly influence football’s reigning tactical paradigm? In club football around Europe, managers like Diego Simeone (at Atletico Madrid) and Jurgen Klopp (at Liverpool) have been busy modernising the way the game is played. But over in the Netherlands, Danny Blind seems to be stuck in the past, not elevated but hindered by grand ideals about beautiful and attacking ‘Total Football’.
The Netherlands' Head Coach Danny Blind (left) and his son Daley Blind during a press conference at Wembley Stadium, London. Picture by: Adam Davy / PA Wire/Press Association Images
Meanwhile, Dutch football fans have a long summer ahead of them. The colour orange will be nowhere to be seen at Euro 2016, and to make matters worse, long time rivals Germany or Belgium might just go ahead and win it. Nationalism has a bad reputation in the Netherlands, but major international tournaments often provided a unique opportunity to wave around the national flag. But not this year. Forced to spectate from the sidelines, the summer of 2016 might become a summer of embarrassment rather than a summer of national pride.
Will the summer of 2018 be different? Will the Dutch have found their way back to the top by the time the World Cup in Russia comes around? This remains to be seen. The Netherlands’ last great batch of players, among whom were Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, will be finishing their careers around that time, and a new great generation has not yet presented itself. There are signs of potential, but talented players like Riechedly Bazoer (of Ajax) and Jetro Willems (of PSV) are too young to be truly relied upon, while the promising Memphis Depay has failed to make much of an impression in the Premier League at Manchester United.
The death of Johan Cruyff, then, carries extra significant symbolic meaning. Now that the legendary number 14 is gone, the Dutch are in desperate need of a new prophet-like figure, both on the sidelines and on the pitch.
Until the next truly innovative manager comes around, however, it seems unlikely this tiny country will be able to impose themselves on the rest of the world like they did in from the 1970s onwards. All in all, there is a feeling the country’s prominent role in football might be a thing of the past for good. No longer a beacon for other football nations, the Dutch will now have to follow rather than lead.