Blind looks to youth to get Dutch flying high
Holland struggling to build a squad to take them back to glory days
Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30
Wesley Sneijder put his finger on the national pulse in Holland. "This summer I will go as far away as possible," the midfielder said. "I'll go to a place where I cannot watch any of the matches, none of them at all." The European Championships in France was supposed to be the tournament that was impossible for the established nations to miss. Enlarged to 24 teams, the safety net had been spread far and wide - but Holland still found a way to slip through it.
For the first time since 2002, when Louis van Gaal failed to take a squad that featured Edwin van der Sar, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert and a host of stellar names to the World Cup in South Korea and Japan, Holland will be absent from the cast list at a major finals.
The Dutch are the most glaring of absentees and the fall-out and soul-searching from their botched qualification campaign, which began badly under Guus Hiddink and tailed away under Danny Blind, is likely to cease only when the championship has ended.
In the meantime Holland have been reduced to providing the tune-up opposition for England at Wembley on Tuesday night, having fulfilled a similar function against France at the Amsterdam Arena last Friday - a game that they lost 2-3.
It was surely not meant to be this way and it says much that the ratings-pulling Dutch sports stars of the moment are not footballers but the Formula One driver Max Verstappen, the sprinter Dafne Schippers and the women's handball team. Schippers and the handballers will go for gold at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in August.
It feels like a trick of the mind that as recently as July 2014 Holland were denied a place in a second successive World Cup final after a semi-final defeat on penalties to Argentina. That was the summer of Van Gaal, in his second stint in charge of the national team, pulling his confidence trick before the quarter-final penalty shootout defeat of Costa Rica, when he brought on Tim Krul for Jasper Cillessen in goal, and of Arjen Robben striking fear into opposing defences.
For the record Holland finished fourth in their European Championship qualifying group, behind the Czech Republic, Iceland and Turkey, having lost five of their 10 ties. Moreover, they were well beaten on each occasion. The unravelling was as traumatic as it was unexpected.
Blind will oversee the 2018 World Cup campaign and his priority in the short-term is to stabilise and inject confidence, flickers of which were evident in last November's 3-2 friendly win over Wales in Cardiff when Robben made the difference with two goals. The squad leans heavily on the captain but he is currently unavailable because of a thigh problem.
Blind has been forced to contend with injuries; the defenders Ron Vlaar and Stefan de Vrij are among those out while Robin van Persie has been deemed lacking in sharpness by Blind. Van Persie, now 32 and at Fenerbahce, has been left out of the squad.
Sneijder spoke to the media earlier in the week at Holland's base in Noordwijk and the Galatasaray player made the point that, of his peer group, only himself and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar remained around for the France and England games. "I was chatting with Klaas-Jan and we realised that we were the only guys left," Sneijder said. "We see only young guys around us."
Sneijder and Huntelaar were a part of the squad that reached the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa, when they lost to Spain, together with Robben, Van Persie and Ibrahim Afellay, the Stoke City winger, who was a late call-up after a clutch of injury withdrawals.
But it is a measure of Holland's changing face that Blind has chosen or been able to choose only four of the team that started the semi-final against Argentina at the last World Cup - Sneijder, Cillessen, Gini Wijnaldum and his own son, Daley.
Sneijder, 31, and Huntelaar, 32, are the oldest members of Blind's selection and, at times like these, it is tempting to lament the age group that Holland seemed to lose. In 2007 they were the European under 21 Championship winners but, from that squad, only Vlaar and, to a lesser extent, Krul have gone on to be successes at senior international level.
Royston Drenthe, Ryan Babel, Daniel de Ridder, Ryan Donk and Hedwiges Maduro were tipped to become mainstays for their country but, for various reasons, it has not happened.
The focus, inevitably, during a period of renewal has turned to the nation's young talent and there is a particular buzz about the Ajax midfielders Davy Klaassen and Riechedly Bazoer. Klaassen, a naturally creative player, is the club captain at 23 while the 19-year-old Bazoer, who is fast and powerful, has been likened to Patrick Vieira by the former Ajax youth coach Fons Groendijk.
Bazoer could have gone to Manchester City at 16 only to move, controversially, from PSV Eindhoven to Ajax and almost all Europe's biggest clubs are tracking him. It will be interesting to see whether he is involved against England.
The 21-year-old AZ Alkmaar striker, Vincent Janssen, who is the Eredivisie's top scorer this season with 20 goals, is a part of the squad for the first time and then there is Memphis Depay.
When the 22-year-old winger swapped PSV for Manchester United last summer, there was the hope that he would take the Premier League by storm. Instead he has struggled and there has been criticism in Holland that he is more preoccupied with his fashion choices than football. Depay reported for international duty earlier in the season wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a big, red Louis Vuitton scarf, a look that was lampooned. Clearly Depay could wear what he wanted without complaints were he to routinely cut a dash on the field.
Blind named seven PSV players in his original squad, before withdrawals, and the club impressed during this season's Champions League, taking Atletico Madrid to penalties in the last 16 before going out. But there is a general lack of top-level experience and it is noticeable how few of Blind's players are at the very biggest clubs.
Apart from Robben at Bayern Munich there are Daley Blind and Depay at an uninspiring United and that is pretty much that. There was once a time when there were six Dutchmen at Real Madrid - Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Sneijder, Robben, Rafael van der Vaart, Huntelaar and Drenthe. Today only Van der Vaart and Ricky van Wolfswinkel are at clubs in La Liga - both with Real Betis - and neither is close to the Holland squad.
There is a feeling in Holland for the Belgium team at the European Championship, largely because some of their squad have played in the Eredivisie and Sneijder referenced them when he assessed Holland's state of transition, in which the youthful prospects need time and the old guard are largely gone or going. "Belgium are now contenders for the title at the Euros but they had some rough years," Sneijder said. "That's what we have had now."
Sneijder used the past tense to describe the side's woes, in that optimistic manner so beloved of footballers, but he is not blind to the reality. Holland must take the long road back to the top.
Young Dutch talent
A product of Ajax's fabled De Koekomst academy, attacking midfielder Klaassen is already the club's captain and has been working with Dennis Bergkamp to evolve from an orthodox goalscoring No10 into a more creative midfield force. Klaasen still knows where the net is, marking his first Holland start with a goal against Spain.
It would be no great surprise if defensive midfielder Bazoer were to join Pep Guardiola's Manchester City revolution this summer; he fits the Sergio Busquets mould with his impressive passing range, and City almost snapped him up in 2012. Bazoer has shown an ambitious side before, leaving his first club PSV to join Ajax at the age of 16.
Janssen didn't look the part this season, failing to score in his first seven league games for AZ Alkmaar following a summer move from second-tier Almere City. He had wound up in Almere after being released by Feyenoord, with the striker admitting to an attitude problem as a youngster. Now, after a run of 20 goals in 21 games, the 21-year-old is being touted as the next Ruud van Nistelrooy.
In his very first Eredivisie game, Riedewald came on with 10 minutes to play and scored twice to snatch victory over Roda and become an instant fan favourite. As a skilful centre-back, the teenager's best work happens at the other end of the pitch; this season, he was a mainstay in a defence that has conceded just 18 league goals, earning an international call-up before suffering an ankle injury in February.
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