Desperate Dutch seeking ‘Winners of Tomorrow’
Controversial plan for change has deepened crisis facing Holland
The Dutch football federation (KNVB) still don't know whether the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam will be sold out for Holland's final World Cup qualifier against Sweden next Tuesday - when their faint hopes of reaching Russia may still just be alive.
One of the greatest football nations in the world, placed second and third at the previous two World Cup finals, is in danger of failing to qualify for the second major tournament in succession.
Having missed Euro 2016 when it seemed harder not to qualify, Dick Advocaat's team play Belarus in their penultimate qualifier tonight when they must match Sweden's result against Luxembourg to stay in contention.
They will then hope they can win their final game against the Swedes by a big enough margin to overturn a goal difference deficit that currently stands at six.
Next season, for the first time, Dutch clubs will not have an automatic place in any of the Uefa club tournaments, instead having to qualify.
The last of their great generation of players are old - like Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, who are both 33.
Sneijder is not included in the squad, while the recently recalled Robin van Persie is injured.
Ryan Babel has been recalled at the age of 30. The goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen is yet to play a minute for Barcelona this season.
Holland are losing out on dual-nationality players, like Hakim Ziyech, the Ajax midfielder who now represents Morocco, and there is now a chance that Feyenoord's new signing Sofyan Amarabat will go the same way.
The country has tried to reset its own course with the controversial blueprint 'Winners of Tomorrow' to transform the domestic game but that KNVB initiative has also deepened divides.
Casting an expert eye over the situation is one of Dutch football's best imports and then, after his playing career, one of the game's finest talent producers.
Frank Arnesen was the man responsible for bringing through the likes of Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robben when he was technical director at PSV Eindhoven.
Having worked at Tottenham and Chelsea, where he established modern approach to youth development, he is now back on the PSV board.
Arnesen says that his own country, Denmark, has experienced the same cyclical problems, but he is blunt when he says that "Dutch football is in a crisis".
"They have lost a lot of good players like Rafael van der Vaart, Sneijder, Van Persie, Nigel de Jong and the new generation is not good enough."
One of the recommendations of the 'Winners of Tomorrow' report that caught Arnesen's eye was the absence of a "winning mentality" in young Dutch players.
"It was not the technical side - they thought they hadn't done enough to develop the winning mentality and the physical side.
"In youth development they are now playing lot of 2 v 2 games to address that. The strategy in the past was never to win games but to develop players."
While Cruyff might have invented modern football, there is much evidence that the Dutch have not stayed at the cutting edge of progress.
Arnesen cites the German adaptation of the Dutch 4-3-3 system into one that incorporates a No 10 playmaker and dispenses with the holding midfielder in favour of two box-to-box midfielders.
"It would have been impossible for players like (Mesut) Ozil and (Ilkay) Gundogan to come through in Germany 15 years ago. Their players had to be strong.
"Now other countries are ahead of the Dutch and Holland are now looking at other countries. They never did that before - it was a case of Holland ahead of everyone."
The declining standards in the Eredivisie have not helped those making the jump to bigger leagues in Europe.
The likes of Van Nistelrooy, Stam and Robben were all ready to make an immediate impact when they moved to England.
In contrast, Memphis Depay, one of Manchester United's worse value-for-money signings of modern times, struggled badly.
"Memphis was fantastic for PSV," Arnesen says. "They won the league because of his goals. At United, it was too much for him and it is obviously getting harder for Dutch players."
Arnesen would be too polite to say so but in the last 30 years there has been a recycling of managers for the national team.
Of the last 17 appointments going back to 1992, 12 have been the same five men - Rinus Michels, Advocaat (both three); Guus Hiddink, Louis van Gaal, Leo Beenhakker (all two).
Advocaat is proposing his assistant Ruud Gullit as his successor, despite him not having managed in European football for 12 years.
"Ajax, PSV, Feyenoord - they are all still producing good players, but the level of first team football is going down," Arnesen says.
"At the moment the switch from the last generation has not been good enough. But it can change quickly: you only need four to six top players." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
- Belarus v Netherlands, Live, ITV4, 7.45