Monday, June 18, 2012

What happened to Holland?


The Netherlands whimpered one final time, threw up their hands and now stumble away from Northern Europe. Three losses in a tough group has left the Dutch with fractured egos, a burnished reputation and questions as to the continued viability of employing manager Bert van Marwijk. Eviction from the tournament was always a possibility, especially in a group in which they were drawn against three other top-ten teams. However, the manner of their dismissal should be cause for extreme conern.

A constant tone of discontent undermined the tenuous harmonies of South Africa, goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg played all three matches despite poor play and two quality replacements, the Dutch defence showed as much resilience as a wet rolling paper and key players like Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder showed only a fraction of their full qualities.

Should he have any hope of retaining his position, van Marwijk will have to talk very hard – and potentially very quickly – to justify his creation: a dysfunctional iteration of the Dutch national team. Under his watch, Holland have displayed sublime talent, occasional violent streaks and a penchant for restlessness.

Any hopes of the Oranje making the same impact as in the 2010 World Cup was improbable almost as soon as the tournament began. Starting left-back Erik Pieters withdrew because of injury, while central defender Joris Mathijsen appeared unable to recover from an injury suffered playing for his club side. Despite a strong qualification campaign, Dutch achievements from two years ago appeared an effort of overachievement.

As it is presently constituted, the Dutch team doesn't look anything like capable of reproducing that form. Part of that comes down down to bad luck; however, it is also due to the formulaic nature of the Dutch football system.

Unlike most other teams in world football, national or domestic, the Dutch national team values a philosophy above all. Like Barcelona – who are also heavily influenced by Johan Cruyff – and their English derivative, Swansea City, the Dutch favour a system that minimises each manager's personal tactical preference.

Holland plays Total Football, capital-T, capital-F. This is a system that values the interchangeability of players and tactical formations which bears as much resemblance to a PhD in fluid dynamics as to your bog-standard 4-4-2. This overarching worldview is applied in one form or another, throughout the junior Dutch representative sides. Total Football has been a stanchion supporting the triumphs of the Dutch national football side; it has also played a part in its self-evident flaws.

The Netherlands' football culture is so tightly wrapped in a policy of zenlike on-field utilitarianism that often juniors make the step up to the national team as soon as they are able. This eases the transition from junior to senior international football and means the Dutch squad's average age is only 24.7 despite what appears to be a so-called “golden generation” of 27 to 31 year-olds.

However, the system also creates a multiplicity of talent. For years, the best Dutch players have played the same roles: defensive midfielder, withdrawn forward or centre-forward, with the occasional wide player. Very few “classical” central midfielders have cracked the Dutch starting XI of recent times and their best central defender since Jaap Stam has probably been John Heitinga, a converted right-back. Alongside Heitinga has been veritable journeymen like Mathijsen, Khalid Boulahrouz, Andre Ooijer and Wil Bouma.

Part of the Dutch collapse at Euro 2012 is the result of infighting – that much is clear. This infighting comes from true World's Best candidates such as Sneijder, van Persie and Arjen Robben failing to fully subjugate their egos for the good of the team. Although squad depth can galvanise a team and secure improved performance from competing players, in the case of the current Oranje unit such competition detracts from their performance.

This not to criticise the strategy of nailing patriotic colours to a football philosophy. Over the past decade we've seen both Spain and Germany institute similar policies throughout their football hierarchies. An all-encompassing “method” allows certainty in many aspects of development: youth players are more easily matured, selection consistency is ensured and certainty is afforded when managers (and therefore messages/training/selection policy) change every couple of years.

Slavish reliance would be foolish, but the guidelines the Dutch have laid down should add more than they subtract – despite their misstep at this tournament, can you imagine the Oranje falling out of the FIFA's Top Ten World Rnakings? However, it's obvious that the current crop of players boast a duplicity of talent. Van der Vaart or Sneijder? Huntelaar or van Persie? Van Bommel, de Jong, or both?

Bert van Marwijk has decisions to make before qualifying for Brazil 2014 begins – assuming the KNVB decides to keep him on.

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