Crisis brewing, egos clashing and a deference to arrogance. That has always been the story told of the Netherlands. An international football team which is prescribed on its own philosophy rarely lives up to the expectations demanded. The ambitions have only ever been met in 1988. Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten added international glory to Rinus Michels’s CV at the European Championships in Germany.
They have never gotten as close again.
Indeed, maybe they have. At the 2010 World Cup, they were in the final and were four minutes away from a penalty shoootout. Outplayed and out-thought, they literally resorted to out-fight their opponents. Johan Cruyff — the man at the center of Michels and his philosophical creation — had been disgusted. This was not Holland. Many agreed.
Prior to 2010, an established notion of the Netherlands as glorious losers was established at the 1974 and 1978 World Cups. Brilliant displays of football and escalated levels of technique were defeated by the hosts on each occasion. It set the narrative for Dutch football. Way would ever be glorious, winning would ever be elusive.
All that came to a grand halt at Euro 2008. Such style seemed to have substance. Marco Van Basten’s team eviscerated both Italy and France, and seemed well on course for a collision with Spain — maybe even the final at their expense. But the quarter-finals saw an organised Russia restrict the Dutch parade, and end it. Glorious defeat once more. It was then that they probably decided no more.
The stakes changed and a win at all costs mentality came in. The result is all that mattered. That was Bert Van Marjwik’s Holland side that became runners up in Johannsburg. But then, that pragmatism failed at Euro 2012. A return to ideology was called for — it seemed to get it in Louis Van Gaal.
Except that, Van Gaal has not been all about ideology at the 2014 World Cup. His style of old never reared its head. The total recall he had made to Ajax’s total football in 1995 was somewhat missing. Van Gaal only wanted to win.
To do so with a limited squad was always going to be a challenge. While previous squads have boasted quality in all areas, this was a squad with more potential than accomplished quality. The three muskerteers up front — Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and captain Robin Van Persie — thus had a lot to carry on their shoulders.
Holland’s squad was populated by youngsters lacking experience. Another top quality midfielder in Rafael Van Der Vaart missed through injury while the same fate fell on Kevin Strootman — the leader around whom the youngsters congregate. It thus meant that Van Gaal had to adapt.
Adapt he did. For starters, he went with a different formation. There is an unwritten rule in Dutch football that teams must play 4-3-3. Van Gaal implemented a 3-5-2, that became 5-3-2 in the defensive phase. It could be that Van Gaal was willing to make this switch, having already favoured the 3-4-1-2 in other jobs throughout his career. But those other times, his teams played with fluency and fluidity. This team however had compactness and solidity to prevent it from being run over.
And while teams tried to break down this structure, they would find themselves exposed to the quick transitions that usually involved Robben’s lightning pace. That was the plan — get the ball to Robben as quickly as possible and watch the charge. Most famously, this strategy ran all over Spain.
It however meant that against similarly well set up structured teams, the Netherlands struggled. Against Mexico and Costa Rica ( whom had conceded one goal and two goals respectively prior to meeting Holland), they seemed to have been cancelled out.
In the semi-final, it was the weary threat of Lionel Messi — the overcrowding around him to prevent him from playing — that restricted the time and space to make those passes into Robben. Indeed, that the Dutch got their first shot on target in the 99th minute — having not particularly played poorly — showed just how important transitions were to them. Messi alone denied them that chance. Then again, Messi does that to many teams who fear him.
The third place playoff against Brazil at least restored some pride. Three goals and a return to those devastating transitions were enough to upstage (a poor) Brazil. With a team that was filled with Eredivisie players, and one where all 23 players got a chance to play (even if it was only two minutes or coming on to save penalties), this was some achievement.
Before the tournament, few would have predicted a third place finish. Fewer would have known of such players as Daley Blind, Bruno Martins Indi, Memphis Depay, Jordy Clasie, Daryl Janmaat, Stefan De Vrij or Georginio Wijnaldum. Now, these players have gained valuable experience. Strootman is yet to return. Adam Maher may regain his form. And maybe — just maybe — fortune will favour the Dutch and either Luuk De Jong, Ricky van Wolfswinkel or Bas Dost will prove as prolific as they threatened to earlier on in their careers.
The prolific Van Persie, the ultimate quality of a Sneijder and Robben will be difficult to replace. These players are at their tail end. But 2014 is the year when a young group of Dutch players have emerged.
They have however not been forged in glorious defeat — their fire has included a furnace of pragmatism. It could be enough to see them become world beaters in years to come. Time will tell. But at least for now, the headlines surrounding the Dutch are not of one of a team where egos clashed. Or glorious defeat. Or Nigel De Jong’s kung-fu kick.
This is a new, brave Oranje. And the man taking over is Guus Hiddink. In 2008, it was he who masterminded Russia’s win over the Netherlands. Philosophy with a dash of pragmatism. It may very well have been him that led to Holland changing tact. It may very well be that he is perfect to continue it.