End of an era? 2015 doesn’t seem like a Robben’s year anymore.
If late nineties taught me anything – it’s that Netherlands are a football powerhouse. Edwin van der Sar in goal; Frank de Boer and Jaap Stam in front of him; Edgar Davids with Philip Cocu safeguarding the midfield and, of course, one ridiculously strong attacking formation in form of Dennis Bergkamp, Partick Kluivert, Marc Overmars and Clarence Seedorf. With those players, Oranjes were all over the place: during the 1998 World Cup, they managed to eliminate Argentina and seriously haunt Brazil, who had to drag the struggle into penalty shootout. Two years later, the strongest Dutch team I’ve ever witnessed took out Czech Republic, Denmark, France and humiliated Yugoslavia 6-1. Then, the critical, semifinal game against Italy saw them playing with 1-man advantage for almost an hour and a half. To top it all off, they had two penalties given to them by Mr Markus Merk. The result? 0-0 draw and an embarrassing, 1-3 loss on (horribly taken) penalties.
Years kept going by and the Orange forge of talents seemed to endlessly spout formidable players. Ajax alone was responsible for Wesley Sneijder, Nigel de Jong, Rafael van der Vaart and several other players, who were though to be top-class talents (does anyone still remember Richard Knopper, Andy van der Meyde or Cedric van der Gun?). Meanwhile, PSV Eindhoven grew Arjen Robben, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Mark van Bommel; Feyenoord produced Robin van Persie, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Dirk Kuyt; couple other players – including Khalid Boulahrouz and Joris Mathijsen – managed to build their reputation from a scratch while playing abroad. 2010 World Cup in South Africa was yet another culmination of a successful decade by The Tulips. Led by recent Champions League winner Sneijder and future Champions League winner Robben, they finally managed to beat Brazil and advance to the grand final. And, if not for two, failed one-on-ones with Casillas – they would’ve won…
We’re only five years later and in a prelude to a tournament smaller, less prestigous than the World Cup. Also, it’s a tournament that’s been recently modified; expanded, so that almost any, moderately competent European team could qualify for it. And yet, Oranjes are still blowing their chances to go through completely. Seven minutes into their Thursday game against Iceland, they could and should’ve been already 0-1, after Böðvarsson was unable to hit a clear tap-in from the closest of ranges. It still didn’t stop the Icelanders (total country population: 323 002, lower than four largest Dutch cities) from snatching a victory in Amsterdam. Yes, that’s right: a team never to play in World Cup finals, a team that only now has clinched their first spot in continental finals – that team has won all three points in Dutch capital. Plus, those who watched that game will unanimously confirm: it wasn’t even hard to outplay Danny Blind’s side. And that feels just as wrong as it sounds.
Watching the first half of that game more or less summed up the current problem with Blind’s team. Against Iceland at home, in front of 47 000 fans, the best two goalscoring chances they created came from direct free kicks by Wesley Sneijder. Other than that, Oranje’s plan upfront consisted of Robben’s failed attempts to cut inside and shoot. Okay – few poorly executed crosses from Memphis Depay to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar were also in the mix. But that’s essentially it. The full-backs weren’t going forward, there was no control over the game on the opposition’s half whatsoever and all individual skills of Dutch stars looked so painfully stale, even a rookie footballers would’ve been able to read and anticipate them. Icelandic back four, with two players from Swedish clubs, one from a Danish one and one from a Russian side Krasnodar, held off the ‘flood’ quite comfortably. Bruno Martins Indi’s expulsion ain’t an alibi here: the team was frighteningly toothless.
— Score Soccer (@scoresoccer) September 4, 2015
On paper, lack of attacking strengths should be the least of Dutch’s problems. After all, one of their wingers is Manchester United’s fresh, £25 million signing who, at the age of 21, is a starter for Red Devils. On the other wing, there’s Robben – a living legend; guy who, when he’s fit, still remains one of the most feared Bayern Munich’s weapons. His fellow in the middle, Sneijder, has opted to cash in easy money in Istanbul but from the day he left Inter, he’s been frequently listed as one of the transfer targets for several strong European clubs. As of Huntelaar – he scored 15 goals in 37 games last season for Schalke, out of which five came in Champions League. Mediocre record? Maybe. But not if we take in account how ugly and boring football Schalke have been playing in 2014-15 campaign. Also, if Huntelaar or any of his first-choice partners fails, Danny Blind can always pick the veteran Robin van Persie or Jeremain Lens, who had a very promising start for Sunderland in Premier League.
But in reality, all those assets are more like the illusions. Robben’s blistering pace, he crushed Spain with in 2014, is gone. His recent remarks issued to Bayern’s new and highly successful signing Douglas Costa sound ironical. ‘Cut Inside Man’ said that the Brazilian is a good player, but should tame his natural inclination for doing ‘tricks that belong in circus’. It’s amusing, because Robben himself tamed his own temper so much, he’s become the king of a single trick. Everyone in the world, Marcel Schmelzer, Ari Freyr Skulason, Caner Erkin, your mother, everyone – knows that he will flick the ball to his left foot and try to score from just outside of the penalty area. And now, after so many years, everyone finally has learned how to stop him – by automatically challenging him with the right foot before he even makes his trademark turn. Without that ace in his sleeve, Arjen turns out to be just a selfish, overly-confident loose cannon. A cannon that is more prone to miss than to hit.
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) August 31, 2015
Having no trouble spotting these problems, Blind felt obliged to react. In Istanbul, he shuffled his cards once again and went for a poker-like, Orient-Express all-in at Konya Büyükşehir Stadium. Instead of the veterans that failed him, he played 23-years old Jeffrey Bruma (PSV), 19-years old Jairo Riedewald (Ajax) and 24-years old Luciano Narsingh (PSV). Yeah – in what’s likely the hardest away fixture an European team can imagine, the Dutch manager put his faith in young, inexperienced players from his homelands’ domestic clubs. An although this strategy might’ve paid off if Netherlands were able to survive longer without conceding a goal, it’s clear that three players with the combined tally of 27 caps for Oranje team didn’t improve the squad’s performance. Just like few days earlier, the team was moving the ball too slowly and took the shots too predictable not to be blocked. 68% possession and 13 shots to Turkey’s 7? Sure – only that the quality of those looked painful.
To me, it was a classical case of an overreaction from the manager who’s desperate to stun his players out of the complacency. If we rewind the clocks back to the final hour of Iceland’s game, we’ll see that the Dutch actually improved their play. The siege around Halldórsson’s goal ended up ineffective, true, but the attacking mentality and some variety of offensive techniques were both there. Had Netherlands repeated last 30 minutes of that game in Konya, they would most certainly have at least a fighting chance against Turkey, especially considering the fact that there would’ve been no red-card predicament anymore. Sadly, in a knee-jerk reaction to an embarrassing defeat, Danny Blind went few steps too far, sacrificing few last drops of quality for sake of a dubious innovation. I’m not even going to exaggerate: 30-years old, club-less for two months Ron Vlaar would’ve been surely better choice out there than a débutante youngster noone really knew for any particular ability or potential.
Just a slim, slim chance left: Wijnaldum is devastated with the loss.
In the end, it all came down to the weight of individual mistakes. First goal was basically Jeffrey Bruma’s fault, as he found himself marking noone and ruining the chance for an offside trap de Vrij was hoping for when he gave up the marking of Özyakup. About 20 minutes later, it got even more embarrassing. Arda Turan, ruled out from playing for Barcelona until January, has found so much drive to succeed for his national team, he actually managed to dribble through the corner of a penalty area before placing a shot at the near post. It was a powerful and surprising effort, but a goalkeeper of Jasper Cillessen’s stature should’ve saved it. Still, he didn’t. Why there was no place for Tim Krul, who just recently played one of the best games of his career against Manchester United? And why exactly a stand-out player like Arda gets a chance to score when there are still three defenders in front of him? We’ll never know. But that’s what killed Oranje’s qualification chances for good.
Some are still trying to make the best of a bad game. The KNVB director Bert van Oostveen insists that the team’s recent results “are not a crisis” and that he “still has a complete faith in Danny Blind”. Wesley Sneijder, heavily responsible for the lack of cutting edge upfront, said: “Maybe it’s bad luck, maybe it’s a lack of confidence…” At least one statistic seems to support the views of the optimists: believe it or not, but while being #4 of their group, Netherlands still have the joint-highest pass success of all teams competing for Euro 2016 qualification (92%, ex-aequo with Spain). Is it possible that we’re simply witnessing one more death of a tiki-taka, only in a Dutch version? For La Roja, it was World Cup 2014 that taught them about all drawbacks of a possession-based football – especially the game against… Netherlands. At the same time, Van Gaal’s team has won a bronze medal by playing with lots of width and pace. Is it possible that the success delayed an inevitable crisis by a full year?
1 – The Netherlands have the highest passing accuracy (91.1%) of all teams in the Euro 2016 qualifiers- Turkey are 17th with 82.3%. Traffic.
— OptaCan (@OptaCan) March 27, 2015
The actual explanation might be a lot bleaker, though. As it was pointed out by a former Van Gaal’s backroom staff member, Raymond Verheijen: “The whole generation of players born between 1984 and 1989 is missing”. Verheijen refers to the fact that Dutch team basically consists of 30+ veterans who peaked at South African 2010 World Cup and now were expected to guide much younger players into some decent results. Not only Robben, van Persie, Sneijder and de Jong are slowly declining as footballers: they also don’t have anyone to directly replace them as leaders; nobody in ‘the ideal footballing age’ of 26-28 is there to take their role. Because frankly, who are the players in that ‘missing generation’? Erik Pieters? Jonathan de Guzmán? Eljero Elia? Daryl Janmaat? Yeah – apart from maybe Bas Dost, who has just recently started to perform well for Wolfsburg – four or five years in the late 80’s simply failed to provide Oranjes with enough of a footballing talent.
Now, it may be too late to patch all bleeding wounds. The prospects of last two games in Group A are rather bleak. Dutch team will first visit Kazakhstan and then face Czech Republic at home. At the same time, Turkey, who are two-points ahead and eye the play-off round chance – they’ll be visiting Praha and later, hosting Iceland. Unfortunately, with the two top spots in the group decided already, none of those four games seem like a huge obstacle between Fatih Terim’s boys and the third-place finish. As it’s been pointed out by the press, the fate of Netherlands isn’t in their own hands anymore. And, what is? Well, for one, they could either a) enrol Bas Dost as a target man for good or b) stop playing so many goddamn useless crosses in the penalty area. Still, even with this adjustment, it’s quite desperate: so desperate, the Dutch press actually, unironically suggested the callups for utterly unproven players like Hakim Ziyech, Riechedly Bazoer or Anwar El Ghazi…