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The decline of the Netherlands - what's went wrong?

The national side's failure to reach Russia is raising some serious concerns.

Once the darlings of the beautiful game, Dutch football is on its knees after failing to qualify for a second successive major tournament. The late Johan Cruyff would be turning in his grave, as a nation so associated with style and swagger, limps out of another qualifying group. It is easy to forget that only three years ago, Holland took a podium place with third spot in Brazil and were only minutes away from a penalty shootout in the final in South Africa before that. So, it begs the question – what has gone wrong for Dutch football?

At first glance, the problem seems quite obvious. The current squad lacks any elite talent outside Arjen Robben, who announced his retirement immediately after the teams World Cup fate was sealed. That fate was of course that the dream was over, and it was game over for their captain Robben – arguably the talent of a generation for the Netherlands. Robben follows Wesley Sniejder and Robin Van Persie closely out the door, Holland’s most capped player and top goalscorer, respectively. Before that there was Rafael Van Der Vaart, Mark Van Bommel and Dirk Kuyt, players who consistently plied their trade in Europe’s premium competitions. Take that and compare it with the current squad, only Daley Blind and Georginio Wijnaldum can stake claim to be part of Europe’s larger sides. You could add Jasper Cilissen in to that, but the keeper is yet to play a minute for Barcelona this season. To underline this issue, statistics show exactly how far the once highly acclaimed Dutch attack has fallen; no Dutch forwards in Europe’s top five leagues have assisted so far this season, and only one has scored (Robben, obviously.) The national team has turned to Spurs flop Vincent Janssen to lead the line in the last handful of qualifiers, a player that has never proved prolific outside the Eredivisie.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t any exciting Dutch talent in the system, but the national team has a serious problem in bridging the gap between the old and new generation. The academies of Ajax and PSV are world renowned, and have consistently churned top talents that have made their mark on the game. However, the players and indeed the national team are now suffering due to the decline of the domestic league. Next season, for the first time, Dutch clubs will not have an automatic place in any of the UEFA tournaments, instead having to qualify. It’s becoming a dangerous and vicious circle for young Dutch players, who juggle the choice of whether to leave for the glitz and the glamour of the Premier League at your own risk (look up: Memphis Depay, Marco Van Ginkel and Jordy Clasie) or stay in the domestic leagues, where a slower and less challenging standard may stall development.

However, the problems of the Dutch appear to go back further than you may think. Despite, what most may have seen as successful campaigns at both World Cup 2010 & 2014, there was a lingering feeling amongst the natives that both were far attached from what Dutch football should be. An aggressive approach by then-coach Bert van Marwijk was seen as the total opposite of what Dutch football stood for, in South Africa. The team had undoubted talent but were limited in areas that were ultimately exposed by Spain in the final, with the boisterous midfield duo of Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong only motive to intimidate and unsettle their superior opponents. Once van Marwijk moved on, it was Louis Van Gaal who took the reins. LVG’s side were successful, but there was still that lingering feeling of ‘anti-football’. The style of play is precious to the Dutch and most of Holland's best moments of the last decade have come from packed defences and rapid counterattacks, usually involving Robben. Fans reluctantly supported the 5-3-2 of van Gaal, but affirmed normality had returned when he left for Manchester United and Hiddink was reinstated. Yet, is it now that Dutch normality is an outdated approach, rather than the direct style of Hiddink’s predecessor’s?

You’ll know by now that Hiddink failed in the role, and then-so Danny Blind. So, you reckon they’d need a change in approach? No, stick to your guns, invite back Dick Advocaat to Holland’s coaching carousel. The team were doomed with humiliations away to France and Bulgaria; the national team has been declining for a while and their next move that is their most important. There of course, remains a future for possession based 4-3-3 style football that is so precious to the country, but the cracks are appearing around the continent in implementing such an approach and managing to align it with results. We have previously spoken of Frank De Boer and his struggles in England, and Ronald Koeman is bookies favourite to go next. It may no longer be sustainable for the Dutch to find success through the dear ‘Dutch way’.

Ajax Amsterdam are always closest associated with the successes of the country as a whole, and that is possibly why this campaign it is so bewildering when Ajax had relative success in Europe; reaching the Europa League final in May. The young side were graciously defeated by the pace and power of Mourinho’s Manchester United side. Ajax’s campaign is their most notable on the continental stage since their Champions League win in 1995, yet, their coach Peter Bosz done so by making the player’s super-fit and playing a pacy, German style of football. This unfamiliar style was the most successful in years for the team, despite the fact they lost out on the title. Head-hunted by Borussia Dortmund, Bosz style was abandoned by Ajax under newly appointed Marcel Keizer, who has reverted to the contemporary Dutch slow sideways game. This year Ajax were eliminated from the Europa League before they even reached the group stage, by Rosenborg of Norway.

Circumstances such as these often point towards the notion that, at times, football needs to move on; adapt and experiment, rather than cling on to the nostalgia of past glories. Holland could learn a lesson from their neighbors Germany, who undertook a radical shake up in style and approach after their embarrassing exit at EURO 2002. The Germans now lead the line in terms of playing and coaching talent, which notably may not always be played with the most grace and beauty, but it’s effective (of course, it’s the Germans!)

Change does not always have to be massive, nor scary. Plenty of the biggest clubs in Europe have adapted in order to keep up, or nullify their opponents. You only need to look at the Premier League last year and the influence Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 has had across a number of teams. It then sparks the question whether international teams have the time to pick system over player, rather than utilising the best players over a system. There are plenty questions to be asked, and of course Dick Advocaat remains in the hot seat, for the time being.

There are exciting players in the system, learning from some of the best talents the country has had to offer. However, it is finding that right blend for them to enter the national team fold, and it has never been more important to do so with Robben’s exit signifying the end of an era. Holland, a country of only 17 million people, has always been a pioneer in world football – and they have often done so with limited resources. There are new philosophies and ideas to experiment with, and it will take time to decide what direction they intend to go to. ‘Total football’ may have won the hearts of football fans around the world, but it is yet to win trophies for the Netherlands.

Published by Lewis McKenzie