Faded Orange – The decline of a footballing superpower

The Netherland’s recent dismantling by France symbolized the frightening predicament the national team now finds itself in.

The side that gave us ‘total football’, previously a staple fixture in the latter rounds of major tournaments, now faces the prospect of failing to qualify for two in a row.

In truth, the 4-0 score line flattered the Dutch, who were overran in midfield, ponderous at the back, and unimaginative up top. New manager Dick Advocaat was clueless as how to line up against a technically superior side, in stark contrast to his predecessors van Gaal and van Marwijk.

Their problems go far beyond the manager however, and at the present moment Dutch football is facing an identity crisis and a lost generation of talent as they desperately attempt to scramble their side into the World Cup finals next summer.

The identity crisis that has befallen the Dutch in recent times could be traced back to their run to the World Cup final in 2010.

Despite equalling the feats of Johan Cruyff and co. in the 70s, their combative style of play was still met with grumbles of discontent back home. Combative is an understatement given their little interest in scoring a goal and attempts to kick Spain off the park in the final.

The Netherlands in 2010, despite containing a few world-class players, were by no means one of the strongest outfits going into the tournament.

They set up in a rigid defensive formation throughout the tournament deploying ball winners such as Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel in midfield to break up play.

As well as a reliance on set pieces, they almost exclusively depended on Robben and Sneijder as a source of goals. Unfortunately today, seven years on, this reliance still remains, whereas the turgid defence has gone.

Van Gaal’s side in 2014 were similarly disinterested in entertaining the neutral, in spite of playing the lead role in one of the most enthralling games of the tournament.

Thierry Henry declared ‘Dutch total football is back’ after their destruction of Spain, however no real tactical similarities in between the two sides in question existed. Van Gaal set his team up as the most effective counter-attacking unit at the tournament.

They sat deep before transitioning the ball from defence to attack as quickly as possible, utilising the pace and finesse of Robben again to devastating effect. They experienced 36% of possession against Spain, a far cry from the total domination of the ball Cruyff’s sides enjoyed.

This style became less effective as the tournament wore on however, partly due to other sides learning from Spain’s errors, and they drew their final two knockout games 0-0 before exiting on penalties.

The Dutch sides of the previous two World Cups were intent on overcoming sides containing more talented individuals by playing a largely unattractive style that suited the players at their disposal.

They were committed to using tactical nous to deploy a radically different approach to their rivals and make up for their lack of individual world-class talent. This current side seems to be stuck at a crossroads.

The arrogance that comes with being a traditional footballing heavyweight has returned, and doubts still remain concerning the style deployed at past tournaments.

It was perhaps due to these doubts that the KNVB decided to re-appoint Guus Hiddink as manager following the 2014 World Cup. Hiddink presided over the successful but also fluid and exciting Dutch team in 1998, who also contributed the goal of the tournament.

However where Hiddink had Bergkamp, Kluivert and Davids back then the talent the second time round wasn’t comparable. After his and subsequently his assistant Danny Blind’s sacking there was a scramble for the right appointment.

The harsh reality is that as the KNVB insisted on a Dutch replacement, the options were scarce.

The potential candidates made England’s choice between Alan Pardew, Steve Bruce and Gareth Southgate look enticing. The highest profile Dutch manager not to have already held the job has just finished the shortest managerial spell in Premier League history.

This followed on from De Boer’s nine game stint at Inter Milan. This dearth of options led to the Dick Advocaat taking up the mantle for the third time.

One persistent issue with the squad is that the talent is simply not being produced at previous rates, and the Dutch are suffering from a ‘lost generation’ of players. The core foundations of all previous successful sides have stemmed from Ajax academy products.

In past generations, Ajax have produced Bergkamp, van Basten and Cruyff, and more recently Wesley Sneijder and Daley Blind. A quick look at Ajax’s academy products reveals that there have been only two notable developments since 2010 – Christian Eriksen and Davy Klaassen.

For all his mercurial talents, Eriksen is Danish, and Klaassen is struggling to adapt to life in England.

The national side is now often composed of the old guard (Robben, Sneijder, van Persie) and unproven youngsters in the blind hope that they can match the feats of their predecessors.

This could not be epitomised more by debutant Matthijs de Ligt’s panicked defending costing his side both goals in their defeat to Bulgaria in March.

Club sides in Holland are not only failing to produce talent but also suffering from a major loss of competitiveness in Europe. The glory days of Ajax dominating European football are long gone of course, and their relative financial status means they will never return.

All the same Dutch clubs are no longer even putting up a fight in Europe’s elite competition. It was only five years ago that a youthful Ajax side swept away the English champions Manchester City in the group stages.

Dutch teams previously were treated with caution and suspense, and playing away in the Netherlands was viewed as a tricky fixture to negotiate.

There could not be a starker contrast five years on when Manchester City took apart Feyenoord in Holland, without the hosts ever really showing up. Whereas Ajax are not even present in this years competition, falling in the qualification round for the third year running.

It used to be the case that one Dutch team would make the knockout stages of the champions league, but now just one side fulfils the role of group whipping boys for the big guns.

Speculation in the Dutch press is that this lack of talent is in part due to the Eredivisie’s role as a feeder league for the Premier League. Complaints have arisen that the more fast paced and physical nature of the Premier League has led to the production of a different mould of player, which contradicts the Dutch model. It’s too early to tell how much truth there is to this, but the hierarchy of leagues is set to stay, and a rapid solution is needed for the national side.

Going into the final round of qualifiers the Dutch sit three points behind Sweden in the race for a playoff spot. They both clash in what is surely a must win for the Dutch at the Amsterdam Arena in October.

A reversion to the strategies of van Gaal or van Marwijk is needed, as well as a heroic effort from the old guard, to ensure we don’t settle down to another major tournament without the Oranje.

The Author

Felix Tasker

Freelance football journalist - @boxtoboxfootbal and @bpfootball

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