Nearly a year from routing Spain in Salvador, Holland have plummeted from their illustrious platform. Rock bottom. The Netherlands 3-4 USA. Their post-Brazil malaise, with six defeats from nine, is nothing short of shocking.
Defeats to Iceland, Czech Republic and Mexico hinted at the early stages of a syndrome. However, following Friday’s capitulation, Holland are fully gripped by a severe, debilitating disease. So much so, that qualification for Euro 2016 is less a certainty, more a disturbing doubt.
This is not ‘Total Football’. This is a diluted, crooked imitation, beset by naivety and tactical imbalance. The USA, though inspiring in their approach, seized full advantage of Holland’s complete disregard for defensive responsibility. 3-1 down with 20 minutes remaining, the Dutch surrendered, capitulated.
While Louis Van Gaal’s bronze-medallists flickered ominously between incisive interplay and stubborn organisation, Guus Hiddink’s Holland appear lost, unstable, a shadow of their former selves. Though the myriad of problems, it seems, lack a sufficient solution.
Football is often the subject of over complication, an insistent desire to find flaws in a blueprint. Though it doesn’t require a microscope or esteemed pundit to expose Holland’s primary deficiency. Formidable in attack, forgettable at the back; an age-old Achilles heel.
The pairing of Bruno Martins Indi and Jeffrey Bruma, beset by poor positioning and an astounding absence of organisation, will endure intense scrutiny. And rightly so. The susceptible performances of Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat, meanwhile, will only increase concern. After all, the USA’s goals were hardly the brainchild of esteemed genius. Neatly crafted, yes, but ultimately avoidable.
However, for all the vulnerability, the simple lack of defensive quality, Holland’s problems stem beyond an ill-positioned backline. They lack a key cog, a vital link of an interlocking unit. In other words, an intelligent, tactically astute defensive midfielder.
Five years ago, Bert Van Marvijk led Holland to the brink of their first ever World Cup triumph. An extra-time strike from history. Yet, the veteran tactician remains a divisive figure in his homeland, downright disregarded by the purist pack. His strategy, though ultimately effective, drew incessant ire, frustration from a nation reared on ‘Total Football’ traditions.
The, much-publicised, constantly criticised defensive double-pivot of Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong undoubtedly defines the Van Marvijk era. Rugged, reliable, essential; yet they paint a picture of pragmatism, of a sacrilegious attempt to defy Rinus Michels’ innovative philosophies.
But, beyond the widespread disapproval, the plain fact remains that the Class of 2010 came closer than any of their esteemed forefathers to the glint of gold. Van Marwijk, to his credit, embraced what his revered predecessors frequently overlooked; balance.
De Jong and Van Bommel fulfilled essential functions; anchoring the midfield, freeing the forwards and shielding to the defence. Consequently, Holland conceded only three times from open play in South Africa, despite boasting a less than formidable backline of Joris Mathijsen, Johnny Heitinga, Andre Ooijer, Edson Braafheid. No better, no worse than the current crop.
The steadfast presence of De Jong and Van Bommel facilitated Holland’s evolution from buccaneering yet unbalanced entertainers into a sturdy, structured results machine. Yet the enduring memories remain; Van Bommel’s cynicism, De Jong’s chest-high stamp. Substance over style, it’s hardly the Dutch tradition. Though, as history attests, pride and principles frequently get in the way of glory.
The Netherlands need Nigel
In truth, Friday’s thriller was typically traditionally Dutch. Emphasis on attack, on outscoring, obliterating opponents. However, in the modern era, as yesteryear’s minnows transform into respectable footballing nations, the ‘Total Football’ philosophy must dovetail a controlled discipline. Iceland, Mexico, the USA; less renowned nations will not roll over, submit to tradition. They will fight back, win on occasion. After all, would Friday’s second-half horror occurred with De Jong or Van Bommel prowling the penalty area? Doubtful.
For all their attacking exuberance, three goals inspired by the vivacious wing play of Memphis Depay, Gregory Van Der Wiel and Luciano Narsingh, Hiddink’s charges lacked game management and subsequently let style overcome sense. Holland, though they may shun the notion, are crying out for pragmatism.
Jordy Clasie, undoubtedly an exceptional distributor, lacks the positional awareness or big-game experience to shield an oft-overran defence. His was a performance of two halves; Clasie’s metronomic passing a joy to behold, starting every attack with a pinpoint ping. Conversely, his lack of defensive awareness was ruthlessly, frequently exposed, with the USA’s playmaking maestro Michael Bradley running riot in the final third.
Meanwhile, midfield partner Georginio Wijnaldum, despite his trademark dynamism and box-to-box drives, frequently failed to cover, leaving Blind outnumbered on the left. The direct darts of DeAndre Yedlin, Timothy Chandler and Fabian Johnson repeatedly dragged the versatile full-back out of position, with no one plugging the gaps. Meat and drink for De Jong. Simple intuition.
The USA equaliser, surprising in its simplicity, could, nay should, have been stopped at source. Johnson, presented acres by Wijnaldum, turned, looked and delivered. Too easy. The second goal and stoppage-time winner, meanwhile, screamed inexperience, an alarming display of naivety. From John Anthony Brooks jogging 60 yards unchallenged to Bradley skipping effortlessly past half-hearted lunges, the USA frequently dissected Holland’s haphazard defence. Needless to say, De Jong, cut from Claude Makelele’s cloth, would never have permitted such misdemeanours.
No options, no hope?
However, for all the criticism, all the discordance and disillusion, Hiddink’s hands appear tied. In his 31st year, knocks and niggles have restricted De Jong’s presence, with October’s defeat at Iceland his last outing in Holland’s distinctive hue. Against the USA, his tenacious ankle-biting was conspicuous by its absence.
To put it simply, none of Hiddink’s hand-picked 23 can execute De Jong’s thankless chores. The central pivot of Clasie and Wijnaldum merely highlights a manager shorn of options, of viable alternatives. The substitutes offer no remedy – Davy Propper, a beautifully balanced, cultured playmaker; Steven Burghuis, a flitting, interchangeable playmaker; Tjaronn Chery, an ambitious, bombastic playmaker. In reserve, Leroy Fer, Hakim Ziyech, Jonathan De Guzman, Davy Klaassen; all primarily playmakers.
There’s a clear, unavoidable trend. Beset by a severe dearth of alternatives, Hiddink should not shoulder the blame alone, should not be forced into the guise of a senile scapegoat. Every great attacking unit requires a reliable watercarrier. Barcelona have Sergio Busquetts, Chelsea have Nemanja Matic. Remove their presence and vulnerability skyrockets. Midfield anchormen; the glue that holds it all together. It is little wonder Holland come so frequently unstuck.
Michels’ ‘Total Football’ legacy breathed fresh life into the sport, reinforcing the notion of the ‘Beautiful Game’. But, in the modern era, an element of discipline and defensive awareness is essential. Until balance is struck, until the thought of pragmatism is at least entertained, Holland cannot dream to match Germany, Argentina or even Belgium.
The USA defeat should serve inspiration, food for thought. Hiddink, the Dutch FA even, must find a way to fill the gaping, De Jong sized wound that’s bleeding Holland dry. Failing that, with a lack of youthful promise arising in the role, a more conservative gameplan must be adopted. Until then, more defeats, more embarrassment, more appalling capitulations are not beyond the realms of possibility.