Dutch left in wilderness without the iron fist rule of Van Gaal
Published 09/09/2015 | 02:30
Some of Europe's elite national sides are starting to get ready for Euro 2016 but for the Netherlands there can be no talk of tickets, bases, warm-up games and the rest.
The country who reached the World Cup final in 2010 are looking very unlikely to be in France next summer after two dispiriting defeats left them struggling to even finish third in Group A.
This 24-team format should be a safety net for the established names but the Dutch are managing to fall through it. They are fourth in their group, two points behind third-placed Turkey, with two games left, needing a dramatic turnaround in the remaining fixtures for them to make the play-offs in November.
It is some fall given their history, not just the Netherlands' glorious past but even from last year.
Fifteen months ago Louis van Gaal's side produced one of the great World Cup displays, shredding holders Spain 5-1 in Salvador, scraping through to the semi-finals and ending up one penalty shootout away from reaching their second successive final.
So what on earth has happened to one of the best teams in Europe?
The collapse has been shockingly swift. Guus Hiddink replaced Van Gaal after the World Cup - a flawed decision in itself - and the team lost their first game to the Czech Republic in Prague, and their third game to Iceland in Reykjavik.
After a home draw with Turkey, Hiddink was mortally wounded, stumbling on into the summer when he was quit and was replaced by his assistant, Danny Blind.
Any margin for error was gone by then and Blind needed two wins this month.
What he got, though, was a 1-0 home defeat to Iceland on Thursday before a 3-0 surrender in Turkey, which prompted some serious self-examination.
Sportwereld ran the front page 'Not good enough for the Euros', while Algemeen Dagblad bluntly told the nation: "We don't count any more".
The reason for this disaster is simple engineering: there is nothing holding the Dutch team together.
They have the golden veterans born around 1983 - Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben - and a new generation of players born in the 1990s. But the players who should now be leading the team, filling the space between young and old, are nowhere to be seen. That is certainly a gap that needs bridging.
One famous senior player has been known to goad the youngsters by telling them he earns in one month what they do in a year.
When defender Bruno Martins Indi was sent off against Iceland last Thursday, Robben (his captain) did not defend him, saying that it was "very stupid" and that he had "let his team-mates down".
Why, then, is there this hole in the team and not a single experienced outfield player in their prime?
The Dutch won the European U-21 Championship in 2007, but the stars of that team - Royston Drenthe, Ryan Babel, Maceo Rigters - are nowhere to be seen. It is a lack of long-term planning which goes back more than five years from now.
"There is an age gap between 24 and 28, roughly, the middle generation is missing," explained Raymond Verheijen, part of Frank Rijkaard's and Van Gaal's backroom staffs with the Dutch team.
"That has to do with the fact that Bert van Marwijk (coach at World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012) played the older players for too long. He is a very conservative coach, always playing with the same XI, and did not introduce the new generation."
When Van Gaal replaced Van Marwijk in 2012, he did not have many bedded-in youngsters and had to build a new team himself with the new generation of 18-22-year-olds. They were the perfect raw material for a coach like him.
"Van Gaal is a very strict 'teacher', rather than a flexible 'manager'," explained Verheijen. "This was difficult for the older players, but the younger players loved it.
"They played the World Cup semi-final with four, then five players from the Dutch league. Nobody was expecting Holland to reach the second round, but Van Gaal was very successful."
The problem was that the KNVB was not anticipating success in Brazil and appointed Hiddink - Van Gaal's philosophical opposite - to replace him.
"People expected that everybody would be fed up with the 'teacher', 'drill sergeant' Van Gaal," Verheijen said, "and the 'people manager' Hiddink would bring freedom and fresh air, save the nation and give us hope again."
But the youngsters - Danny Blind, Stefan de Vrij, Daryl Janmaat, Jordy Clasie and the rest - liked Van Gaal's educational style and when it was removed, the team disintegrated.
"From the first game, there were signals that after the very strict and clear 'teacher', the players did not know what to do," Verheijen said.
"They did not know what to expect, or what was expected from them, there was confusion. The transition from the ultimate 'teacher' Van Gaal, to the ultimate 'manager' Hiddink was too big, too drastic. In hindsight, Hiddink was not the ideal manager."
Of the Netherlands' great golden trio, only Robben is still playing at the top level, and he has been injured for much of this qualification campaign.
With their youngsters now struggling without the coach who taught them so much, and a generation lost in the gap, they will require some re-direction.
Independent News Service