Football

3 Reasons why Netherlands are struggling

With the sacking of Danny Blind, KNVB is set for their 50th managerial appointment following Netherlands' shock 2-0 defeat to Bulgaria in the World Cup qualifiers.

The Oranje's first competitive defeat at the hands of the Bulgarians in over 48 years leaves them with an uphill task of claiming a playoff spot let alone the top spot to qualify for the FIFA showpiece in Russia next year. The fallout of the result saw the Dutch drop down to fourth in Group A – 3 points off second-placed Sweden and 6 points behind group leaders France.

Also Read: European World Cup Qualifiers: Who will make it to Russia?

On paper, it doesn't look like a difficult task to secure a top 2 finish with five matches still to play. However, looking at the downward spiral Netherlands have been enduring since Brazil 2014, any hope of a turnaround in fortunes seems a distant dream.

 

 

The three-time World Cup runners-up already missed out on Euro 2016 following a dismal qualifying campaign that not only saw them being trounced by inferior teams like Czech Republic, Iceland and Turkey but also sacked coach Guus Hiddink midway through the qualifiers in favour of handing over the reigns to his assistant Danny Blind – a decision which further exacerbated the gloom surrounding the Dutch camp. At the time of sacking, Danny Blind's win-draw-loss record with Netherlands stood 7-3-7. Out of those seven wins, just 3 came in a competitive fixture against the likes of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Luxembourg and staggeringly, none of them is currently ranked among the top 70 footballing nations by FIFA.

A nation credited with revolutionising the way football was played back in the 70s and was topping the FIFA World rankings chart in September 2011, now finds itself staring at the possibility of missing arguably the World's biggest sporting event for the first time in 16 years. What will be even more agonising for the Dutch is missing out on a second successive major tournament which will certainly evoke the memories of the struggles in the early 80s when they missed out on qualification for the 1982 Spain World Cup, Euro 1984 in France and 1986 Mexico World Cup.

We look at the 3 factors that have contributed to the demise of the Dutch football in recent times:

 

1) Managerial and Tactical mess

 

Two-and-a-half months before the FIFA 2014 World Cup commenced, KNVB announced Guus Hiddink will succeed Louis van Gaal post the tournament while Danny Blind, who was allowed to continue the sidekick role alongside Hiddink, was to take over from him in 2016 after the Euros. The aim was clear – to plan for long term and in Danny Blind, KNVB envisaged a person capable of remaining at the helm of the national team for years to come. The Dutch football administrators were implementing a plan which was unprecedented and would have certainly hoped if the plan turns out to be a success, KNVB could be revolutionising the way football management is approached worldwide.

 

How noble and innovative the Dutch FA's cause was, unfortunately, it wasn't just unsuccessful but by doing so, they dug the grave of Dutch football as well. Giving a veteran like Guus Hiddink another crack at the helm of the national team affairs was in itself a step backwards down to his lack of tactical evolvement. Surely Hiddink gained tremendous success with national teams of South Korea, Australia and Russia previously (not to forget his first stint with Netherlands) which more than verified his credentials for the hot seat, what the Dutch actually needed was a manager who could help the upcoming generation of players make a seamless transition into the squad and devise a system to bring the best out of them – something Van Gaal did perfectly.

 

 

Hiddink didn't adjust to the novel demands and he reaped what he sowed as a consequence. He disbanded Van Gaal's 3-5-2 and returned to the 4-3-3 Total Football blueprint. However, what he failed to realise was the flaws of the personnel available to him. A vast majority of them are a workhorse by nature, not the flair players who are needed to execute this system to perfection. Hiddink overlooked the limitations of his players and except for the win over Spain in a friendly match, Netherlands in the other 9 matches under him looked devoid of causing any serious threat to their opponents. By abandoning a system which worked on bringing the qualities of the personnel available to the fore, Guus' return to the old style laid bare the frailties of the Dutch team.

 

 

Blind, who was handed over the reigns a year earlier than supposed, failed to rectify those mistakes of Hiddink. The Ajax legend lacked managerial experience which was evident throughout his 21-month tenure. His previous and only major managerial assignment came with his old side back in the 2005/06 season where he, although led Ajax to Johan Cruyff Shield and KNVB Cup triumphs, also oversaw the Lancers finish the Eredivisie season in fourth place – the lowest finish achieved by Netherlands' most successful club in the 21st century so far. Friendly wins away at England and Poland raised hopes ahead of the World Cup qualifying campaign but once it began, the Oranje continues to remain the pale shadow of their former self. A partnership which KNVB thought to take Netherlands to unparalleled heights is now the cause of disgruntlement among the Dutch.

 

 

Last time KNVB appointed a foreign coach was the legendary Austrian Ernst Happel in 1977 and he led the Oranje to a second successive World Cup final appearance the following year. It remains highly likely that the Dutch football administrators would remain loyal to the roots and appoint from within, but a foreign coach could well provide them with a solution to their misery which no Dutch manager seems capable enough to provide at the moment.

 

2) Dearth of Quality and Experience

 

The Dutch teams of various eras have been blessed with World-class talents. From Johan Cruyff to Wesley Sneijder, Netherlands always had some of the best football players in store for every big tournament they embraced. Irrespective of whether the Dutch failed or succeeded, there was never a dull moment with those teams. Unlike their European counterparts, Netherlands had an unusual knack of producing players who played the game in an artistic manner, bearing a canny semblance to the way Latin American players went about football. And much of that credit goes to the Dutch's 'Total Football' philosophy whose success always hinged on players with flair and tactical awareness. This quote by Brazilian legend Carlos Alberto sums up how unique the Dutch style was in comparison to the way other nations flaunted their football ideologies:

 

"The only team I've seen that did things differently was Holland at the 1974 World Cup in Germany. Since then everything looks more or less the same to me. Their 'carousel' style of play was amazing to watch and marvellous for the game."

 

 

But in present time, not only do they lack an identity in their game but there's an evident dearth of experience as well as quality among the current bunch of players. Despite being well over the 30s, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder still remains the go-to men for the Dutch. The Dutch FA might have sidelined van Persie from the national team selection scene for some time now but they are yet to find a viable replacement for the record goalscorer for the Oranje. In between three of them are 317 international caps and 111 goals for Netherlands – indeed a valuable experience any team would love to have. But apart from these three, the next person among all the active Dutch players with considerable international exposure is Daley Blind with 42 appearances. And this is where the problem with the current setup comes into light.

 

 

 

The Dutch are brimming full of young prospects but none of them is experienced enough to shoulder the burden of expectations right now. To a great extent, KNVB must shoulder the blame as well. They over-relied on the 'Golden Generation' of players that saw them through to the 2010 World Cup finals and played a key role in 2014 as well with Netherlands finishing third. The trio of van Persie, Robben and Sneijder are past their prime and clearly, are embracing the ends of their respective careers. The Dutch, however, lack the replacements of the same calibre. Players like Davy Klaassen, Memphis Depay and Vincent Janssen are yet to prove their worth at the elite level. The fairly experienced squad members such as Bruno Martins Indi, Georginio Wijnaldum, Kevin Strootman and Bas Dost are in the mid-20s or above but still remain far from finished articles let alone being deemed as World-class players. This scarcity of quality and experience in the Dutch ranks is hurting them big time. Unless they find a manager who could expertly gloss these deficiencies, the Oranje are bound to struggle.

 

3) Declining Quality of Eredivisie

 

This issue remains largely untouched but behind every successful footballing nation is a domestic structure which provides a conducive environment for the youngsters to grow. Ajax Amsterdam have always been the hub for providing the best young talents while arch rivals Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven aren't far behind either in this regard. These three clubs have been at the core of the Oranje's success at international level over the years and to a certain degree, helped other European heavyweights like Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Manchester United assert their domination at both domestic and continental levels thanks to the exports provided by the three giants of Dutch football.

 

While these clubs evolved to become heavyweights of the game from a financial perspective as well by wooing in audiences from worldwide, Netherlands' three greatest clubs remained stuck to its roots all this while. In October 2016, Ajax director of football, Marc Overmars made a staggering assessment when he claimed Holland’s biggest clubs couldn’t compete financially with the top teams in the Championship. The lack of financial investment has finally begun to catch up with Dutch football it seems. In and around the time of the 90s, PSV Eindhoven commanded world-record transfer fees for allowing the transfers of Ronald Koeman, Romario and Ronaldo. Rivals Ajax too made substantial profits by selling Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp. Dutch clubs were providing solutions to their European rivals while simultaneously, had the ability to replenish from within and create another good squad. However, the aforementioned dearth of quality players has begun to ruin them. The only Eredivisie product in recent memory who has gone on to achieve greater things is Luis Suarez when he was sold to Liverpool in January 2011 for a very nominal fee of £15mn. Since then, many young players coming out from Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord have swapped Netherlands for Spain, Germany, England and Italy but none of them has gone on to make a significant impact over there.

 

 

The Dutch woes are encapsulated by their struggles in continental level football as well. Ajax were champions in 1995, finalists in 1996, semi-finalists in 1997 and then went rapidly downhill from there. Only once since then have they qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League back in 2002/03 season when they reached the quarter-finals. The last Dutch team to reach the semis of the competition was PSV Eindhoven in 2004/05 season where they agonisingly lost to AC Milan on the away goal rule. The last Dutch club to lift a European trophy was Feyenoord when they lifted the erstwhile UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League) back in 2002 by defeating Borussia Dortmund 3-2 at their home De Kuip. In short, it has been a barren spell for Dutch teams for more than a decade now as far as European club competitions are concerned.

 

 

 

Recently, Netherlands were demoted to 13th rank in the UEFA coefficient rankings for member associations following Ajax's draw with Legia Warszawa and AZ Alkmaar's defeat to Lyon in the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 first-leg. As a result, winners of the Dutch League won't be anymore guaranteed automatic qualification to the group stages of the Champions League. The top two teams of the Eredivisie would now have to play in the qualifying rounds from next season onwards in order to secure a group stage berth. Netherlands' own house isn't in order at the moment and unless they inject a new lease of life in the domestic circuit, may be providing the clubs with some financial boost or by encouraging them to be open to massive investments, the current scenario with the national team is unlikely to change.

 

Surely, allowing wealthy foreigners to take over Dutch clubs could lead to a breakaway from the tradition of grooming and developing prodigies. The focus then will be more on recruiting ready-made finished articles. But with finances playing a key role in the on-field success of a club nowadays, Netherlands must become open to change if they want to see not only the Oranje but the perennial giants of the Dutch game like Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV return to their glory days as well.

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