Dutch Courage: The Remarkable Resurgence of the Netherlands

“Total Flopball”
31st August 2017: France 4-0 Netherlands
World Cup Qualifier

The Oranje’s hopes of reaching the 2018 World Cup hung by a thread after a shellacking in Paris, their heaviest defeat since 1961. Despite Dick Advocaat’s team rallying in the final two group games, Holland were eventually pipped to second place by Sweden, condemning the nation to back-to-back qualification failures.

Bronze-medalists in 2014 and runners-up in 2010, the Dutch machine appeared to have seriously malfunctioned. Following on so soon from their dismal performance in Euro 2016 qualification, a serious inquest into Dutch football began, with the theories behind their failures manifold.

“There was a generation of talent which should have replaced the likes of Sneijder, van Persie, and Robben but they didn’t reach their capabilities, leaving a side that was a mixture of ageing players and youngsters that wasn’t strong enough to make Euro 2016 or the 2018 World Cup.”
Michael Bell, Editor of Football-Oranje.com 

Papers and pundits pointed to the so-called ‘Lost Generation’, a group of players that should have been primed to replace the outgoings stars. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Netherlands star performers were Ron Vlaar, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, all of whom were 29 or over, while fellow key players Klaas-Jan Hunterlaar and Dirk Kuyt were also entering the winter of their international careers.

They should have been joined in the squad by players that had been blooded in South Africa four years earlier, with the likes of Ibrahim Affelay, Ryan Babel and Eljero Elia touted as the next big stars of Dutch football. Two years later, at Euro 2012, Jetro Willems, Luuk De Jong and Luciano Narsingh were touted as the up-and-comers, while Jordy Clasie, Daryl Janmaat, Daley Blind and Leroy Fer flew the flag for the nations future in Brazil. Only Babel and Blind started in the Netherlands’ final UEFA Nations League fixture last November.

It quickly became obvious that the issues with the playing staff were at both ends of the pitch too, though a shortfall of fourteen goals in the 2018 qualifying campaign compared to four years earlier in particular raised serious questions about a lack of firepower. While the great Dutch strikers of the 1970s were lauded for their ability to play anywhere across the pitch, the likes of Marco van Basten, Patrick Kluivert and van Persie introduced the notion of an out-and-out goalscorer more in-tune with fellow European nations. In their stead, Memphis Depay, Quincy Promes, and Steven Berghuis have arrived; all talented players, equipped with intelligence, skill and pace, but none of whom possess the instinct for goals of those that came before them.

“The Dutch tradition of producing great strikers has been hampered by the clamour to change playing style. Dutch press and experts called for the national team to move away from the ‘total football’ model, and become a more physical team, focussing on defending from the front.”
James Rowe, Dutch Football Expert at WorldFootballIndex.com

Thanks to Rinus Michels, the Dutch have long been renowned for their style of ‘Total Football’, whereby every player on the pitch can excel in every position. Originally brought to the fore in the 1970s, with Johann Cruyff as the teams talisman, the Dutch side that bounced back from consecutive unsuccessful qualification campaigns to win Euro 88 continued the tradition, with AC Milan’s trio Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and van Basten the epitome of the philosophy. By 2010, however, it was clear that a more pragmatic approach had to be taken, with the talent factories of the Netherlands beginning to run out of steam. The side that reached the World Cup final in South Africa was undoubtedly blessed with a degree of silk – most notably in Arjen Robben, perhaps the most technically gifted Dutchman since Dennis Bergkamp –  but coach Bert van Marwijk offset this flair with the introduction of two midfield destroyers in Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, resulting in the barbaric showing against Spain in the World Cup final.

That performance sparked much handwringing in the Dutch press and, more importantly, at the KNVB. After a disappointing display at Euro 2012, van Marwijk was replaced with Louis van Gaal, a well-respected authoritarian who’d enjoyed success all over Europe, but whose focus on the tactical minutiae of the game was anathema to the free-flowing Dutch way of playing. The Netherlands confounded expectations at van Gaal’s only major tournament, reaching the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup in a campaign best remembered for the 5-1 humiliation of Spain in the opening game of Group B. That result aside, however, Oranje were well below their best, and the 240 goalless minutes against Costa Rica and Argentina were glossed over by the resounding victory over a feckless Brazil in the Third-Place Playoff. With their manager spirited away by Manchester United, it was left to the Dutch Football Association to make the right choice with his successor.

“The KNVB dithered in finding a suitable managerial candidate with a long-term vision to lead the national team, and the approach to the subsequent qualifying campaigns was arrogant. They expected to beat the likes of Iceland, Czech Republic, Sweden, and Bulgaria.”
James Rowe, Dutch Football Expert at WorldFootballIndex.com

Guus Hiddink arrived as a short-term replacement for van Gaal, with a view to grooming Danny Blind as his eventual successor after Euro 2016. Despite his pedigree, the former Real Madrid manager got off to the worst possible start, losing two of the first three qualifiers away to the Czech Republic and Iceland. The KNVB were soon pushing the panic button, and Blind was thrust into the hotseat to replace the fired Hiddink. The Ajax stalwart fared little better however, and after completing a disastrous Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, he was sacked after five games of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, following a 2-1 defeat in Bulgaria.

As is often the case, the KNVB looked backwards to move forwards, and invited former coach Dick Advocaat back into the set-up in order to salvage the campaign. A 5-0 victory over Luxembourg in Advocaat’s first game spaked scenes of jubilation in the Dutch dressing room, but they were brought back down to Earth with a bump following their French humilation. By the end of 2017 Advocaat had departed, and Dutch football was in disarray.

“A lot can change in a year in football, and the chance to establish those promising youngsters into the senior national team is one the Dutch must grasp with both hands, or we could soon be talking about the Never Netherlands.”
‘Oranje Crush’, That’s Liquid Football, 15th October 2017

 

“Magnificent Oranje Reborn”
13th October 2018: Netherlands 3-0 Germany
UEFA Nations League

Dutch supporters have the unlikely figure of Jeff Hendrick to thank for providing the catalyst for the national team’s turnaround. It was the Irishman’s late winner for Burnley at Goodison Park that saw the tables fully turn on Everton manager Ronald Koeman, just months after leading the Toffees to seventh in the Premier League. Two games later, a 5-2 defeat at home to Arsenal proved to be the final straw, and Koeman was relieved of his duties on Merseyside.

A member of the Euro 88 winning side, Koeman’s reputation in the Netherlands as a rampaging central defender had already earned him legendary status. His career in management has also brought plenty of success, with trophies in Spain and Portugal sitting neatly alongside success with three different clubs in the Eredivisie. When Advocaat vacated the role of national team manager, there was an obvious candidate to take the reigns.

“Everything is starting to look rosy again and it’s down to the appointment of Ronald Koeman, who has come in and built the confidence again. He has made Netherlands defensively more sound and built a side around the nations best players.”
Michael Bell, Editor of Football-Oranje.com

Appointed in February 2018, Koeman quickly set out his stall as Netherlands manager, naming five uncapped players in his first squad. Robin van Persie was ignored in favour of new blood, and Wesley Sneijder had been informed that he was no longer in the national team’s plans. While his predecessors had continued to cling on to the past, the former Ajax coach was only looking forwards. 

Koeman’s next big decision was to appoint a captain, and no-one fit the mould better than the most expensive defender in world football. Virgil van Dijk had been signed by Koeman during his time at Southampton, and had developed into a world class defender in the Premier League, convincing Liverpool to splash out £75m for his services. A commanding presence in the backline with strength and pace in spades, van Dijk’s game has undoubtedly been inspired by Koeman’s playing style, offering the manager a talisman to build his team around.

A friendly defeat against England in Koeman’s first game was disappointing but not without positives. The shambolic defence that had leaked twelve goals in ten World Cup qualifiers looked decidedly sturdier, with Ajax’s Matthijs De Ligt slotting in comfortably alongside van Dijk. A regular starter in Amsterdam since turning eighteen, the impressive stopper has become a key player in the Dutch resurgence.

The second game of Koeman’s reign three days later offered a glimpse of the new coach’s impact on the side. A meeting with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in Geneva saw the Oranje blow the European Championship holders away with three first-half goals. The unlikely forward line of Besiktas’ Ryan Babel and Memphis Depay helping themselves to a goal apiece. Neither player had lit up the Premier League during spells with Liverpool and Manchester United respectively, but the ageing Babel had found a new lease of life in Turkey, while Depay’s confidence has grown exponentially since moving to Lyon in 2017, finishing last season as the third top scorer in Ligue 1. Whether by luck or design, everything started to click into place for Koeman.

The real litmus test would arrive in the inaugural UEFA Nations League however, and though the opening game against newly-crowned World Champions France ended in a 2-1 defeat, Dutch supporters left Saint-Denis in far greater spirits than they had a year earlier. A meeting with rivals Germany, themselves in a period of soul-searching following a dismal showing in Russia, would provide a timely progress report for the Koeman era. In the event, the Netherlands crushed Joachim Low’s side. A resounding 3-0 victory in Amsterdam provided a performance and result for the Dutch to hang their hat on. The Koeman Revolution had lift-off.

Though the odds of topping their Nations League group were slim, the victory over Germany provided a platform for the Dutch to build on, and after a decent showing in a friendly against Belgium, France were swept away on Matchday Three. Gini Wijnaldum, who’d broken through under van Gaal but struggled to make an impact in the previous two qualification campaigns, looked revitalised under Koeman, opening the scoring with his second goal in successive Nations League matches. Depay’s late penalty not only condemned Germany to relegation, but also gave the Netherlands a chance of reaching the final tournament.

In Gelsenkirchen three days later, it seemed that the improbable would not come to pass as Timo Werner and Leroy Sane gave Germany a two-goal lead inside twenty minutes. If the Oranje supporters were looking for a reaction to adversity, they got it. Quincy Promes’ strike five minutes from time restored hope of gaining the point that would secure top spot, and with van Dijk sent forward by Koeman as an auxilary striker, the imposing centre-back’s delicious stoppage time volley sparked bedlam among the travelling fans. Seemingly from nowhere, the Dutch had risen.

“The way the Netherlands are playing at the moment, reaching Euro 2020 should be achieved especially since the draw has been kind, apart from Germany. At the moment I think they’re one or two players short of having a team to compete for titles again but anything can happen at major tournaments. I think by 2022 or 2024, they’ll be among the favourites.”
Michael Bell, Editor of Football-Oranje.com

With another meeting with England in the Nations League finals to look forward to, attention can now turn to the qualifiers for Euro 2020, with the nation desperate to avoid a hat-trick of tournament absences. Belarus, Estonia and Northern Ireland hold little in the way of fear factor for the Dutch, but with back-to-back meetings with Germany on the horizon, Koeman will be desperate to see his side hit the ground running. Key to their good start will be the performances of the youngsters called up to the squad, with Koeman naming nine players aged 25 or under ahead of the first round of qualifiers. Of those nine, five have come through the Ajax academy.

It’s no secret that De Toekomst has helped produce many of the finest Dutch players of the last fifty years. From Cruyff to van der Vaart, via Davids, Seedorf and van der Sar, the spine of every great Netherlands side has been forged in Amsterdam. More recently, however, it has been the development of overseas players that has helped maintain the academy’s reputation, with Belgian stars Toby Alderweiereld, Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen all graduating from the world’s most famous youth set-up. Luis Suarez and Christian Eriksen, too, earned their stripes in Ouder-Amstel, but in the past few seasons focus has returned to producing homegrown heroes.

“The youth policy of Ajax is key to the club’s identity and will of course be vital to the success of the Dutch national team in future, not just in terms of personnel but mentality in competitive matches too. Eredivisie players who have come through the Ajax youth system always speak highly about the education they received both on and off the pitch.”
James Rowe, Dutch Football Expert at WorldFootballIndex.com

Kluivert, de Ligt and Donny van de Beek are all recent graduates of the Ajax youth system, while the latest Golden Boy of Dutch football Frenkie de Jong was polished up upon his arrival from Willem II. It’s not just Amsterdam producing exciting young talent, however, with the academies at Sparta Rotterdam, AZ Alkmaar and Heerenveen all producing household names in recent memory. Meanwhile, young Dutch starlets across Europe are slowly working their way onto the radar of the national team manager, with Bayern Munich’s Joshua Zirkzee and Chelsea’s Daishawn Redan both contenders to become Holland’s next great striker.

In the short term, qualification for the European Championships is the goal. After four years of misery, Netherlands fans can finally begin to get excited about their team again. The future’s bright; the future’s Oranje.

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