Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Dutch in the ditch

The latest round of European World Cup qualifiers went largely to script.

The big boys all won comfortably - Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and England all registered victories. Surprise European Championship semi-finalists Wales drew again and struggling to make it to Russia next year have probably reverted to type.

Only Switzerland and Germany have 100% records after five games. Gibraltar, Lichtenstein, Malta and San Marino kept up their pointless campaigns. 

As it stands the seven automatic UEFA qualifiers will be France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium and Croatia. In the playoff berths are Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Montenegro, Slovakia, Italy. Greece and Iceland.

Dutch girls detained
Happier days for Dutch fans at World Cup 2010
The one stand-out story has to be the demise of the Netherlands, who lost 2-0 in Bulgaria and sacked coach Danny Blind afterwards.

As if failing to make it to Euro 2016 was not stunning enough for the doyens of classy soccer, the country which has produced Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullitt, Dennis Bergkamp and Arjen Robben and who finished third at the last World Cup, now languishes fourth in their group behind France, Sweden and Bulgaria.

All is not lost. For a first half of the campaign, two wins, a draw and two losses is not qualification form but recovery is still possible. The Dutch sit only three points behind second-place Sweden and a play-off spot.

Their rocky road to Russia in Group A so far:

06/09/16 Sweden 1:1 Netherlands
07/10/16 Netherlands 4:1 Belarus
10/10/16 Netherlands 0:1 France
13/11/16 Luxembourg 1:3 Netherlands
25/03/17 Bulgaria 2:0 Netherlands

They will surely take three points at home to Luxembourg in their next outing before a tricky trip to Paris at the end of August, where they really need to avoid defeat. Three days later they will have to take revenge at home to Bulgaria before winning in October in Belarus, a side who have surprisingly beaten the Dutch before in qualifying.

It looks however, like the fight for the playoff spot will all come down to the final day when the Netherlands host Sweden. 

What has gone wrong with the Netherlands? It seems to be a classic case of being caught amid an inter-generational transition. Only four of the players who came third in Brazil in 2014 were on the pitch in Sofia: Defenders Bruno Martins Indi and Daley Blind and attackers Arjen Robben and Georginio Wijnaldum.

Attention has centred on Danny Blind's fielding of 17 year-old debutant Matthijs De Ligt at centre-back, which even by the Netherlands' standards of developing young stars seemed recklessly premature.

The risk turned duly sour as Bulgaria raced into a two-goal lead after twenty minutes and De Ligt was hauled off at half-time. Blind, skipper of Ajax's youthful European Cup-winning team in 1995, may have seen something similar in the young Ajax defender, but it proved his downfall as manager.

Fred Grim is the caretaker choice but the KNVB will surely ring up Ronald Koeman to see if they can tempt him from Goodison Park, which seems unlikely.

Frank De Boer, most recently Inter coach last season, is a more likely possibility, or maybe Philip Cocu of PSV. One name surprisingly doing the rounds is Louis Van Gaal, who took them to third in WC 2014.
Looking at the young faces in Blind's side, none seem obviously to be of the same calibre of the great Dutch players of the last quarter-century, a revival which began with the Euro '88 triumph and featured consecutive Champions League finals for Ajax in the mid 1990's, World Cup semi-finals for the national team in 1998 and 2014 and second place in 2010.

Their domestic league was never powerful but now looks increasingly lightweight compared to England, Germany, Italy, Spain and France. 
As with good players, its best managers are easily tempted away. In 2011, Martin Jol wasted little time in swapping Ajax, the great Dutch club, for lowly Fulham in the Premier League.

Three years later Ronald Koeman guided Feyenoord to second in the Eredivisie and a Champions League spot but left to coach Southampton who had finished eighth in England.

More recently two Dutch starlets have come to England but fluffed their lines: Memphis Depay, who signed for Manchester United just before the 2015-'16 season to great fanfare but was quietly sold to Lyon in this year's January transfer window after an unimpressive year and a half at Old Trafford.

Vincent Janssen, the Dutch player of the year after a whopping 27 goals in 34 games for AZ Alkmaar, has been firmly in Harry Kane's shadow since joining Tottenham. He has only scored once for the north Londoners since joining last summer and 15 of his 20 appearances have come from the bench too.

Perhaps the Dutch football philosophy needs challenging, despite the long admiration from around the world for their nation's over-achieving.

4-3-3 and multi-functional players remain articles of faith for Oranje but tactics are evolving around them. Leicester won last year's Premier League with an effective direct style, speed and three individual talents, 4-2-3-1 has been all the rage this decade and now it seems 3-4-3 as practised to effect by Chelsea on top of the Premier League (and England last week against Germany) is the formation du jour.

If the Netherlands stick to their guns and refuse to learn from the competition, they will have fallen into England's historic trap and will miss out on another tournament next summer.

And that would be a tragedy for one the most outstanding football nations of the last half century.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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