As per usual, the Big Interview with the Team Manager. Danny Blind (54) – former world class libero of Ajax – took over from Guus Hiddink at the end of the abyssmal qualification series for the Euro 2016 campaign.
What word best describes 2015 for you?
Danny Blind: “Disappointment. Our goal was to reach the Euros in France and we failed.”.
Did Oranje overachieve at the World Cup 2014, reaching the semi finals, or did Oranje underachieve in this campaign?
DB: “We cannot compete structurally with the world top nations. We need to be realistic. We had two great World Cup campaigns, but inbetween we got cleaned out at the 2012 Euros. If it all clicks into place, we can compete, but if we run into trouble, with injuries or form issues, we suddenly become average. This is why we decided to build in some more security for the WC2014 tactics. We have vulnerable spots in our team and even Bert van Marwijk acknowledged this by fielding two holding midfielders in his team. These were conscious decisions to make the team stronger. In European terms, our clubs are getting weaker. The best players leave earlier and our development methods are lacking in certain areas. We were not able to produce a new generation of Robben/Sneijder/Van Persie quality players in the age group 24-28 years old. It might be partly the typical cycle in football as we experienced before, but we also need to look critically at our development process. This discussion we are having now is vital. We are a small football nation and we need to remain on our toes.”
And our identity. How realistic is the Dutch School of football as a foundation?
DB: “So what is this Dutch School exactly? Some people try to stick to this mythical thing. I didn’t make it up. I don’t know what it means. It’s not a black and white 4-3-3 vs 4-4-2 debate. You can play very attacking with 4-4-2 and very defensive with 4-3-3. It’s about the intent. Even PSV plays 4-3-3 but differently than Ajax’ 4-3-3. How do you position? Where do you put pressure on the ball? What are your actions in possession? What do you do when you lose possession? Do you press high or do you press at the halfway line? These are things that determine how you play. Not where players stand at the start of the match. And don’t forget, we won our one and only trophy playing 4-4-2. We didn’t use wingers. Koeman played as a wide left midfielder, Gerald Vanenburg on the right. No one criticised us then? No one came up with “What’s with the Dutch School??”. We can not play like we did in 1974 anymore. Every nation now can play like this. Back in 1974 we surprised the world with our total football but it is not unique anymore. And in Holland, it seems it is never good enough. If you lose with wingers, people criticise. If you win without wingers, people criticise. We have become vinegar pissers in Holland. I read everywhere that our clubs are not good enough to survive in Europe but if we want to pay realistic football, the same people blast us for abandoning our identity… Hello!! But as a coach, you need to be immune for all this. As a coach, you need to analyse and adapt your football tactics to what is needed to win games. And you can’t win without scoring, so most coaches do look at the best way to score goals.”
Is Phillip Cocu with his pragmatism at PSV an example? Seeing how he got through the CL group stages?
DB: “Absolutely. In the home game vs Wolfsburg, Cocu played 5 at the back. To make sure they’d win that game. That is what counts. PSV likes leaving the initiative to other teams at time, to score in the turn around. Some people say it’s blasphemy, but I applaud it. You cannot play like Bayern or Barca if you don’t have the players for it or the time to mould those tactics into the team. A young team like Ajax is not able to do this. I think we have gone too far with our wish to play attractive and dominant and with possession. What good does 65% possession do if you can’t use the ball to score goals? Do you actually believe people in Italy or Spain care about the system their national team plays? They cherish their titles. And rightfully so.”
What was your role in changing the Oranje 4-3-3 into 5-3-2 towards the WC2014?
DB: “That was Louis van Gaal. He asked me to analyse the way Juventus and Italy played, right after our friendly against France. They played 5-3-2 and he wanted to know what it would take for us to adapt to this system. The best example was Spain vs Italy at the Euros 2012. They drew 1-1 in the group and Italy played 5-3-2. In the finals, Italy went to 4-3-3 and got hammered by Spain, 0-4. Juve played with three in midfield but Pirlo plays deep, just in front of the defence. We prefer our central midfielder to be a number 10, close to the striker. We want to use wing backs in attack and we like to see one center back move forward as well. We decided that by tweaking the Italian style, we could make it work. But we also wanted the players to be able to switch back to 4-3-3 in case we needed to. We selected our players on the basis of these two systems.”
How different is it working for Louis van Gaal or Guus Hiddink?
DB: “It was basically the same. I did most of the tactical talks re: future opponents. I did a bit more under Guus. I used to do the match preparation talk for him, in part as well. But Louis and Guus are very different. Guus likes to give his staff and players freedom to find their own solutions. Louis is a bit more dominant. They both had tremendous success with their approaches and I worked well with both.”
When you got the team manager’s job, what were the key elements in your first team meeting?
DB: “My key message was about the tactics, about how to play. We would play 4-3-3 with a defensive mid. We needed to get results and I chose to play the way most players are able to. All our players are developed with this system, more or less. We didn’t have time to do other things. It would have been a big risk. I did consider 5-3-2 in WC2014 style, but the key players of that campaign (Robben, Van Persie, De Jong, Vlaar, De Vrij) were unavailable or not 100% fit. It didn’t make sense to go that route. I chose clarity and a system we are all accustomed to.”
One of the main criticisms Hiddink received was his tendency to go from the 5-3-2 to the 4-3-3 and back again. Tinkering…
DB: “We wanted to start with 4-3-3. We felt this campaign would allow us to go back to a more dominant style of play. However, the Czechs play 5-3-2 with attacking wing backs. As we were playing away, we felt it was better to start with 5-3-2 as well to counter their playing style. We had a game before the qualifications game against Italy. A friendly, but the execution left much to be desired, so based on this and on the Czech tactics, we decided to use the 5-3-2. We lost that game, as you know, but I don’t think it was due to the tactics, really. We simply made too many defensive mistakes and we forgot to score our opportunities… No system would have remedied that.”
And against Wales, you went back to the 5-3-2 system?
DB: “We have had a horrible campaign for the Euros and we need to build security back into the system. A foundation to fall back on. We will play a series of friendlies now which we will approach as if they’re World Cup finals. And we decided to do this with a more fortified defence. We need to get more body, personality in the team, before we go back to the 4-3-3. The World Cup demonstrated that moving from 5-3-2 to 4-3-3 is easier than the other way around. Ideally, our teams need to be able to play both systems. This is how we were able to break open games in Brazil 2014 and that is going to be our vision towards the future.”
Your team selection was criticised heavily by some, like Willem van Hanegem, saying you preferred Ajax players over other club players?
DB: “Ridiculous. Total hogwash. I want to win. And I select players that give me the most chance to win. We see 35 potential Oranje players every week. I have scouts visiting matches and we get reports every week. It’s a very detailed process. Then I read media reports by so-called experts that believe player A or B needs to play in Oranje. And I think “really?”. Did you see them play? I am fine with people having an opinion but it is silly to say I prefer certain clubs over others. No coach will ever do this. What do I gain with this? It is stupid.”
But you did select some young Ajax talent for whom European clubs like Rapid Wien or Molde were too strong?
DB: “I make decisions based on the data and insights I have for certain positions. Sure, Ajax didn’t do well against Molde or Rapid Wien, but Karsdorp and Van Beek of Feyenoord, excellent players, didn’t play European at all! At least Tete and Riedewald had that experience in their backpack. And today, no one criticises me for selecting them. Every analyst on tv now say that Tete is one of our biggest talents. Riedewald made his debut against Turkey and played a good game. So suddenly everyone stops moaning about this. That is typical.”
Did you ever hesitate to take over from Hiddink? Did you consider to ask the KNVB to use an interim coach?
DB: “No. It would have been better for me personally, maybe. And make a fresh start for the WC qualifications, but it would have made things complicated. You can’t walk away from responsibility. There was more than enough positives to look for and I saw a good possibility to qualify still.”
Did you know that Bert van Oostveen and Hans Jorritsma were going to talk to Hiddink?
DB: “I did not. I was not involved in any way. I was only asked, earlier already, that should – for some reason – Hiddink not be available all the way, I would be willing and able to take the role. Ideally, I would have liked to have Guus finish the job, with success in qualifiying. For me personally, much better and for Oranje as well of course.”
Your personal coaching experience is comprised of one season at Ajax, some 10 years ago. Your predecessors have had decades of experience before they got the job.
DB: “I’ll have less credit than those coaches. That is logical. I can’t fall back on a long career as club coach. But the KNVB thinks I am the right man for the job and that is all that matters to me. I have gained a lot of experience as a player, captain of the team and I worked in numerous roles in football. I think I have the wherewithal to do the job and the KNVB thinks so too, apparently.”
Did you fear for your job after not qualifying?
DB: “No, that is not something I am concerned with. I have learned to put distance between me and the things I can’t control. If the KNVB wanted to make a change, my worying about it wouldn’t have made any difference, right? I want to do what I am passionate about. Should I don’t enjoy it anymore or should the KNVB not want to proceed with me, I’ll go and do something else. Of maybe do nothing for a spell. I am quite independent in that sense.”
Did you do an evaluation with Bert van Oostveen about the first months of your managerial role?
DB: “We discussed this, yes.”
Johan Cruyff said, it doesn’t make sense to evaluate with someone who “knows shit about football”…
DB: “The evaluation was more about the process of this qualification campaign, decisions made and not made and how to move forward. I don’t discuss football matters with Van Oostveen really. We don’t go into detail about right footed left wingers or defensive mids vs offensive mids and all that. I have my staff to do that with. The KNVB does not have a technical director and therefore there is no one with football knowledge to correct me.”
The KNVB has said they will not enter into a structure as the one with you and Hiddink again. What does that tell you?
DB: “I don’t think about that. I can only judge my own situation. The KNVB knew I could make the move to Man United with Louis. My contract didn’t end and they gave me this option. I made my choice. I didn’t come up with this structure, they did. I don’t know why and I also don’t know why they don’t want to do this in the future. You should ask them.”
As you said, we lack strong players in the age category 24- 28 years old. Why is that and is it a problem?
DB: “It is how it is. Our veterans Robben, Sneijder and Van Persie are still the leading players in this squad. Younger players need to present themselves as such in a natural fashion. You can’t just force it. Most players younger than 24 are still more focused on their own game. They start to expand their horizon on the pitch when they reach their mid 20s. They see more, they see solutions on other sides of the pitch and they can support other players with coaching. Kevin Strootman is in that stage of his career but obviously he hasn’t been playing for a while. Ron Vlaar is a player who can do this and Gini Wijnaldum will get there. I expect Daley Blind to start becoming that player. We need those players to coach and guide the youngsters. Davy Klaassen is forced in that role at Ajax and it doing it well there but he’s not ready for it in Oranje of course. But you can see players making the right steps. I think we lacked some real talent in that age group. We had good players but it takes more. Mentality, physical strength… We had players who couldn’t cope with the physical demands and there were players who sadly got lost in their careers like Royston Drenthe. But, we do have tremendous talents at the moment… Willems, Tete, Bazoer, Karsdorp, Memphis, Van Beek….but these players will still be inconsistent. It is how it is…”
As you said, mental issues. It seems a lot of youth players wearing the orange jersey are getting into disciplinary trouble. Is there enough focus on this aspect?
DB: “This has my special attention. I am part of a working committee focused on this and on defending. Our development programs are still world class in the field of technical ability and tactics but we have lost ground in the mental and physical side of things. It is crucial. In every sport, very professional methods and programs and coaching is introduced, years ago already. Rugby, hockey, athletics, baseball, American football…you’d be surprised. But not in football. In Holland, people still ridicule mental coaches, we need to make some big steps here.”
The German national team uses mental coaches. When will we see this with Oranje?
DB: “It’s a very current debate. I believe in mental coaching, but in individual cases. I don’t think you want to create a one-size-fits-all culture. You need to work with the individual. What does it take to perform 100% twice a week. It’s tough. How do they process setbacks? Can they do a critical self analysis, etc etc. Now, this process is hit and miss. We hope it all works out. The best will float to the top, etc etc but we lose ground. There are many things we can do to streamline this.”
With today’s knowledge, what would you have done differently in the past year?
DB: “It’s easy to talk with hindsight. I do still support all my choices in player selections and substitutions. I subbed Huntelaar against Iceland, when Martins Indi got redcarded. We had to play with 10 man, we wouldn’t be able to dominate, so Huntelaar would be less relevant. I preferred fast players with depth. I still think that was the way to go, but obviously, if you don’t get the result, as a coach, you failed. Whatever your decision making. But if we would have turned the game around, people would have said “Great coaching!”.”
What needs to be the key word for Oranje in 2016?
DB: “We need to become a team again. We need to cover up our vulnerabilities and perform in unity. This needs to happen off and on the pitch. With the conduct and responsibility and accountability that goes with it. At home against Iceland, that team spirit was there. I was quite happy, despite the loss of course. But against Turkey, we lost that unity, that spirit. We lost against Iceland due to the red card of Martins Indi, the injury of Robben and the mistake by Van der Wiel. But from a team perspective we did a lot of things right. Against Turkey, some players were more concerned with themselves. Now, we need to find that unity as we are in a tough qualification group. Sweden and France are very strong and both going to the Euros. We are not. Considering our current status, France is favorite for top spot. People see us as the number 2, but we will need to reposition ourselves internationally. And we need to abandon that Dutch School nonsense. We need to be pragmatic and realistic. As it will be tough enough without all that to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.”