My friends, I would like to start this post with expressing my support and sympathy to the Greatest Football Player Ever, Johan Cruyff. The Catalan Salvador announced that he is battling lung cancer at the moment. Johan was a chainsmoker most of his active life and quit in 1991 after serious heart problems. Johan is a fighter and will do what he can to win this match as well, I’m sure. Still, our thoughts are with him and his family….
Historically, we have had numerous amazing quotes from famous people that were so completely wrong, it isn’t funny anymore.
In 1962, some Decca head honcho didn’t sign The Beatles. “Guitar bands are out. The Beatles have no future in music.”
Some banker in 1903: “The horse is here to say. The automobile is a fad. Don’t invest in Ford Motors.”
Variety magazine in 1955 on Rock & Roll: “It will be gone by June.”
Politician in England, 1969: “Never will we see a female PM in England!” (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?)
Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer in 2007: “The iPhone will not succeed. They will not get marketshare.”
William Orton of Western Union at Bell’s presentation of the phone, in 1876: “This telephone has too many shortcomings to be ever considered a serious means of communications.”
Now we can add: “This qualification group for Euro 2016: it will be harder for Oranje to not qualify, than it is to qualify…”
So let’s analyse…
1. Inheritance of Louis van Gaal
I think Louis is partly to blame. Halfway through the qualifications for Brazil he already said he didn’t like the job and basically only did it for his own ego and resume. He would only do the job for 2 years and when Oranje was done in Brazil he ran to the exit, which took him to Man United. He never did any knowledge transfer, neither has he taken the responsibility to hand over the team. Any team that worked and played under Van Gaal has been forced into a straight jacket. Any successor to Van Gaal will find a team that is used to being told exactly what to do. His club teams usually consist of mature players already fed up with him when he leaves (Barca, Bayern, Ajax) but this Dutch national team owed a lot to Van Gaal and his way of working. De Vrij, Blind, Depay and BMI all made lucrative transfers thanks to LVG. Some players will have had a breath of fresh air when he left (Robben, Sneijder, De Jong) others were probably a bit at a loss without Louis (BMI, De Vrij, Depay).
2. Installing Guus Hiddink as LVG successor
Bert van Oostveen is responsible for this decision. It would have been perfectly acceptable to pick a coach to follow up Louis van Gaal who understands the Van Gaal vision and can work on that basis. Co Adriaanse was an option. Danny Blind would have been a good pick as well. Unknown Joachim Low took over from Klinsmann after 2006 for Germany, in the same vein Blind could have taken the baton from Louis. But no, the KNVB selected the one and only Dutch coach who is totally opposite of Van Gaal. Van Gaal is in your face, intense, tactically disciplined and driven… Hiddink is arms length. Loose, not really strong tactically, “come on boys, enjoy!” kind of coach. No wonder Blind and Hiddink couldn’t see eye to eye. On top of that, Hiddink lost his swagger a bit. He became soft and a doubter.One match, Nigel de Jong was the “captain in midfield”, the next game Nigel wasn’t selected… The worst decision, picking Hiddink. Too big a change for a young and not so incredibly talented squad. What Louis did in Brazil worked, but somehow the KNVB wanted to break the trend…
3. Instructing Hiddink to play “Total Football”
The biggest joke. Total Football. What is it exactly? Bert van Oostveen doesn’t know… Is it playing a right footed player on the left wing? Probably not. Is it playing square balls in defence at a slow pace? Probably not. Van Oostveen describes it as “attractive”, “dominant”, “attacking” and “using wingers”. And it is being translated as “4-3-3”. Hellooooooo… If that is Total Football or Dutch School, it appears that many nations play this. And probably not because of some egotistical “Dutch School” brand, but because they 1) have the players to do so and 2) because all the other terms are subjective… The only time Holland won anything was playing 4-4-2. We tend to forget we had a lot of luck against the Irish, against the English (off side goal Van Basten), against West Germany (our penalty was not a penalty) and against the USSR in the finals (the first 25 minutes were for the USSR). It is being sold as if Total Football in 1974 was the result of strategy. It wasn’t. The center backs were picked by chance due to tremendous injuries (Hulshoff, Israel, Laseroms, Drost and Mansveld were all out) and we happen to have two amazing world class players in Cruyff and Van Hanegem. Oh, and in case you forgot: we played Total Football but we lost the finals… Playing 4-3-3 when you don’t have the players is silly and suicidal. Playing 4-3-3 for the hell of it with a right footer on the left and a left footer on the right is different from the 4-3-3 we played in 1974. Which may have been 4-3-3 on paper but one Johan Cruyff was always everywhere on the pitch, except for the center striker position. Van Gaal picked 5-3-2 for a reason. Finishing third at the World Cup did not change the reasons why he went for 5-3-2.
4. Overestimating our qualities
We beat Spain at the World Cup, but not because of our great play, but because they let themselves down. Re-watch the first half. They were cutting through our defence like a hot knife through butter. We got lucky with that super goal by Robin van Persie. Spain only has one game plan, so they kept attacking and we kept counter attacking. Australia deserved to win against us. The Chile game was less relevant and Mexico was hard done by. A close game, if there ever was one. Costa Rica simply lacked quality but held us at 0-0. Argentina tried hard but didn’t succeed. And Oranje was putting it all towards Robben who couldn’t find the gap between Argentina. Obviously, by then, Brazil was already in severe depression and it wasn’t hard for Oranje to rob it in, nicely. But it didn’t mean a thing. But we came back with Bronze. We silenced all criticasters. Some of us went to play for big EPL or Seria A or Portugal Liga clubs. And we were the Kings of Europe (Germany was the Emperor).
5. Frail Foundation of Players
After finishing third it can’t be helped that players (and staff, and fans, and media) believe we are really something. The start of the campaign – seen as an easy one – was devoid of real desire. It took two games or so for people to slowly “wake up”. In the meantime, trouble had hit the squad, in the form of injuries and form issues (Vlaar, Van Persie, Robben, Janmaat). We suddenly realised that without the 5-3-2 and without some players in top form (Vlaar, De Vrij and Robben in particular were outstanding in Brazil), we are not that great. During the qualifications, we lost a number of important players to injuries, and the frail foundation of Dutch talent came to light when others didn’t get the playing time we hoped (BMI, Huntelaar, Van Persie). The tremendous gap between 30+ year old top class players (Sneijder, Robben, Huntelaar, De Jong, Van Persie, Van der Vaart) and the potential top class players of around 20 years (Depay, Rekik, Willems, Klaassen, Berghuis, Veltman, Van Beek) wasn’t filled with leading players in the age-group 24-28… Daley Blind, Georginhio Wijnaldum and Darryl Janmaat are probably the only ones fit (Strootman being the only real top class midfielder, and his return to that level is questionable) and they are probably nothing more than good team players, nothing more, nothing less.
6. Defensive qualities
LVG noticed it in his qualification campaign. The Dutch don’t have strong defenders. The problems started already in 2008. Ooijer, Mathijsen, Heitinga…they were criticised from the off and a lot of people never expected Holland to do well in the WC2010 with those defenders. Van Marwijk needed Van Bronckhorst as left back and replaced him with 18 year old Jetro Willems for the Euro2012. We used to develop good ones. From Krol and Israel and Laseroms, to Spelbos, Van Tiggelen,Wijnstekers to Jaap Stam, Michael Reiziger and John de Wolf but around 2004 the qualities started to fade. We do develop them. In spades actually. Bruma, Vlaar, Rekik, Veltman, Denswil, De Vrij, Martins Indi, Gouweleeuw, Viergever, Kongolo, Van Dijk, Van der Hoorn, Van Beek…. but none of them (maybe Van Beek) has the ruthlessness and commitment we see in Italian and English defenders. Is it lack of defensive DNA? No, it is not. It is lack of development.
7. Lack of desire
It is a given that mental strenght, focus and desire can add a significant level of quality to any team. The Greek national team in 2004, the Germans in 1996, Atletico Madrid, Leicester City, Liverpool 2005… There are so many examples. Barca and Bayern have it. Last season, Chelsea had it. Oranje had it in 2010. It was mistaken for “ugly football”. You have to really really want it. Today, in modern football, football skills is not enough. Barcelona demonstrates the work ethics and discipline needed to really rise up. Our Oranje doesn’t have the football skill and finesse of Spain. If we do not match the desire of the opponent (yes, Iceland away, Czechs at home, Turkey away), our lack of quality means we will lose the game. It is again, something that needs to be added in the development of teams and talent. It’s youth development, but also scouting and selecting. Over the last years, Holland developed lots of tantalizing talents, who can play football, but don’t seem to have the desire, the iron will to succeed. Adam Maher, Royston Drenthe, Ryan Babel, Ricardo Kishna, Ibi Afellay, JP Boetius, Eljero Elia….
Wesley Sneijder said something telling, only a week ago. When a reporter asked an innocent question about Playstations, Wes said something profound. “In my time, when I came to Oranje, the older players played cards. As young players you were taken in to the game and you created a bond. Today, players come to the hotel with their PS4 and go to their rooms to play FIFA. A bit childish, I think. You won’t see me doing that.”
Who is responsible?
Obviously, the man who appoints the coach and the man who instructs the coach is end responsible. Going from LVG to Hiddink was a big mistake that someone with football expertise would have spotted. The decision to go back to “4-3-3” or Total Football was pedantic. A proud Dutch national team wanting to show the world that the rest of the world is doing it wrong. On what basis? Van Oostveen needs to be replaced by a more football savvie experienced CEO. Gaston Sporre (ex PEC Zwolle and ex Heerenveen) is an outstanding candidate. As would Ruud van Duyvenbode (former Ajax and Feyenoord defender and long time Ajax board member). Or Toon Gerbrands, former AZ Alkmaar and current PSV general manager.
Toon Gerbrands and Louis van Gaal
For talent development and overall KNVB football strategy, the KNVB need to appoint a Technical Director. Someone with extensive development and football management experience. Wim Jansen might be too old, but someone like Co Adriaanse would do. Foppe de Haan comes to mind. Martin Jol, maybe? Once the KNVB establishes the direction to take, the coach can be appointed…
I personally believe Danny Blind is a good man for the job. I don’t buy the “he lacks experience” rhetoric. Blind was captain of the best Ajax of the last 40 years and has worked in football in every role thinkable, incl head coach of Ajax and assistant to Van Gaal at Oranje. Joachim Low of Germany and Prandelli of Italy did not have big coaching jobs prior to their national coaching jobs. A national team manager coach is a totally different role than club coach. As Louis van Gaal blatantly put it. “I hate this job.”
Blind is a good builder, I think. Great with young players, a good and steady personality, strong communication skills and an eye for talent.
The two iconic Dutch football legends: your humble blogger and JC
In terms of development, the Dutch have always focused almost exclusively on ball skills. If you control the ball, you control the game, was a motto often heard. But these days, the game has changed. Every player on top level now has excellent ball skills. A workhorse midfielder these days can play like the best of them. Polyvalent players is the term. The Strootmans, the Pogbas, the Busquets, the Pastores and Modrices of this world can do it all. Score, assist, tackle, pass, run… Physical improvements have been made. Tactical improvements have been made. By all nations. The Dutch don’t lead on skill or tactics anymore. What will be a key differentiator, as said before, is the will to win. The ability to focus fully. These are elements that need to be brought into the development program. Venom on the ball and off the ball. The intensity that we see in C Ronaldo, Messi, Thomas Muller, Lampard, Eden Hazard and Yohan Cabaye. Furthermore, we need to focus more on playing without the ball. The Dutch grow up wanting the ball and when we do, we are not bad. But once we lose the ball, we are horrific and all over the place.
Young talents at Varkenoord (Feyenoord)
We have been forcussing too much on playing with the ball. The youth teams of Ajax, Feyenoord, AZ, Vitesse, Sparta, NEC…they know how to win their games in the Dutch leagues. But as soon as the Bazoers, the Berguizen, the Klaassens and Vilhenas are confronted with international opponents (for instance in Europa League games, in CL qualification games or Euro or World Cup tournaments for rep teams), eventually they “run into the knife” as the expression goes.
Financial Fair Play
The situation at European / Global level has impacted football life in smaller countries. The Bosman ruling is another aspect. As long as Dutch clubs get a fraction of the tv income that other nations get (England, Spain, Germany) it will be hard for Dutch clubs to compete on quality. On top of that, in Spain and England, clubs can have negative equity on the balance sheet. Whereas Dutch (and German clubs) have to balance the books. This means that Ajax – Real Madrid is per definition not a game played on an even playing field. If the UEFA really aims to produce a “fair and equitable” European competition they should make sure the rules are the same pan European.
Johan Cruyff made a strong case, not just for Holland but also for Spain, England and other national teams to have a rule that forces clubs to field at least six homegrown players (as in: born and raised in the home country). This will put countries with strong development cultures on a more even keel. It will force countries with an overflow of import players (England!) to develop more “own” players and as a result strengthen their national teams.
Clubs, like the KNVB, will need to get off their high horse. Ajax in particular. They have the so-called Ajax house style. That house style is still held as sacred although it has been forfeited years ago. But no one wants to admit it. The Ajax style is: fast ball circulation, pass and move, wingers (Keizer, Swart, Ling, Van ‘t Schip, Roy, Overmars), a number 10 behind the striker (Bergkamp, Bosman, Litmanen) and a libero (Vasovic, Krol, Blind, De Boer) who moves up to midfield whenever possible.
That is not how Ajax plays today. Co Adriaanse was sacked for abandoning the “Ajax style” but every coach after him has done the exact same thing.
The Ajax Housestyle
Ajax (and the others) need to determine what their identity is. Do they want to dazzle and impress (which they fail to do in Europe)? Do they want to showcase great players and sell them with a fat profit (which they do)? Or do they want silverware? Because the way Ronald Koeman played with Feyenoord and copied by LVG for the WC2014, I am talking a fortified defence to deal with stronger opposition, might well be the only way for the weaker Dutch clubs to present themselves in Europe.
Lots of work to be done.
And it should be led by the KNVB. With a clear strategy for football identity and development. We need to stop allowing a lawyer to determine that. We need wise men to come together. We need to get a development strategy to support the clubs and we need to learn to use systems in our teams that are based on the player material we have.
In my view, we need to go back to 5-3-2. It worked. And with reason.
We have weak and inexperienced defenders, so we need some more bodies back there. We have good players for the flanks, good passers in midfield and some exceptional talents upfront.
Co Adriaanse suggests 5-3-2 with Groningen right back Hatenboer
No problem with goalies. I’m a Krul fan, but Cillesen, Stekelenburg, Vorm and Vermeer can do the job too. Zoet for me is too unproven.
At the back, I like De Vrij – Blind – Van Dijk. Bruma, Rekik, Van Beek, Veltman are candidates as well, as will be Ron Vlaar and Martins Indi, if they show their strength.
Wide on the left, Willems is key. But Pieters, van Aanholt, Kongolo and Riedewald normally should be able to manage as well.
Wide on the right, Janmaat is my man. But a Van der Wiel with rhythm or a Tete or Bacuna can play there too.
The three man midfield needs either Sneijder or Clasie. Great passers of the game. I’d use players like Wijnaldum, Strootman, Fer, Klaassen or Van Ginkel as the other two midfielder. Some length, some legs/lungs and some power is good to have. Upfront, I’d use Robben always, and pair him up with the man in form. Could be Van Persie. Or Memphis. Or Promes. Or El Ghazi. Or Berghuis. Or Sneijder even… (with Clasie behind him in midfield).