Dutch football journalist Elko Born explores the shortcomings of the national side's manager and where Dutch football goes from here
It has not been an easy few years for fans of the Dutch national football team.
After finishing third at the World Cup in 2014, their manager Louis van Gaal left for Manchester United. What happened next astounded everyone. Not only did Van Gaal’s successor, the esteemed Guus Hiddink, fail to keep things on track, he saw the whole of Dutch football completely collapse like a house of cards.
Hiddink didn’t even get through his first year in charge. After losing or drawing six of his first 10 matches, he was sacked. Hiddink’s successor, Danny Blind, didn’t do much better. He held onto his job for two and a half years, but had to endure losses against teams like Iceland, Czech Republic and Turkey. Last Sunday, after the Netherlands’ defeat at the hands of Bulgaria, he was sacked.
Matthijs de Ligt, who had been granted his debut for the Oranje against Bulgaria, must have heaved a sigh of relief after hearing the news. The game, which was supposed to be a dream come true, had turned out to be a nightmare for him. Only a few minutes into the game, De Ligt failed to defend a high ball aimed for the Bulgarian attacker he was marking. Bulgaria scored, and De Ligt had the worst start to his international career humanly possible.
But De Ligt wasn’t any old debutant. As a matter of fact, he is only 17 years old, and he has only played a handful of games for Ajax’s first team. Consequently, few fans of the Dutch national team will blame De Ligt for the loss. Anger has been rightly directed at his boss, Danny Blind, instead. What on earth was the now jobless manager thinking?
Answering that question is easier than you might think. According to himself, at least, Blind simply did what he was supposed to. Playing youngsters in big games is a great Dutch tradition, you see. And Danny Blind is not one to break with tradition. What worked for Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal, was surely going to work for him. It had to, right?
Danny Blind talks to his players during this week's defeat to Bulgaria. The game would be his last in charge of the Netherlands. Image: Vadim Ghirda/AP/Press Association Images
The Dutch have always loved their little traditions. In fact, they can’t stop talking about them. Watch any sports programme on TV or read a football column in the newspaper and you’ll probably be able to keep a checklist of buzz words. Terms like '4-3-3', 'attacking football' and 'the Dutch school' are thrown around without a lot of scrutiny. Pub chat is no different. Such in Dutch football culture.
Every Dutch manager is judged by what happened back in 1974. So, when Louis van Gaal was manager of the Dutch team at the World Cup in 2014, he was heavily criticised for dropping the revered 4-3-3 formation in favour of a much more defensive 5-3-2 setup. Despite reaching third place in Brazil, pundits in the Netherlands remarked it simply wasn’t worth it. Van Gaal abandoned the Dutch school of football just like that? How dare he!
Pragmatically, however, Van Gaal didn’t really have a choice. There was no Johan Cruyff in his squad, he had no Rob Rensenbrink and there was no Willem van Hanegem. Recreating the Total Football of 1974 was not an option, and so he had to drop the 'quintessentially Dutch' 4-3-3 formation and opt for a very defensive and counter attacking 5-3-2 instead.
Bert van Marwijk did something similar before Van Gaal. At the World Cup in 2010, where Holland narrowly lost the final against Spain, he put a solid but rather uncreative midfield duo of Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel in place. Despite the team’s good performances, the Dutch public were dismayed.
But then Van Marwijk had Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie in their prime at his disposal. The same can’t be said about Danny Blind. This triumvirate, who pulled out their final trick at the World Cup in 2014, has not been replaced. The Dutch team of 2017 mainly consists of squad players, Eredivisie talents and very few big game superstars.
Danny Blind has failed to identify suitable replacements for Arjen Robber (right), Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder. Image: Peter Dejong/AP/Press Association Images
So why then, did Danny Blind refrain from taking the kind of measures his predecessors took before him? Why was he not able to find a defensive midfield duo, his own Van Bommel and De Jong, or his own version of Van Gaal’s ultra defensive 5-3-2 formation? Most importantly: why did he decide to play a nervous 17 year-old defender in a game his team really, really had to win?
It’s doubtful even Blind knows. Like the Dutch FA, he seemed too steeped in regressive nostalgia to formulate any type of constructive plan for the future. Instead, he repeated soundbites about what the people liked to hear, but left his players confused and uninspired in the process. As this realisation is setting in in the Netherlands, few will be very sad about Blind’s departure.
The Netherlands failed to qualify for Euro 2016. The way things are looking right now, they may well fail to qualify for the World Cup in 2018. If the Dutch want to return to the biggest stage in international football, let alone compete for the top prize, they will have to become more inventive.
They might even have to look abroad for a creative, young manager to teach them a thing or two. You’re not really allowed to say it, but some critics in the Netherlands have finally worked up the courage to utter the suggestion.
In the end, wasn't it the creativity of the Dutch that led to Total Football in the first place?