Saturday 24 February 2018

How Hiddink turned Holland into losers in just 10 months

Guss Hiddink turned a team that finished third in the World Cup into one unable to negotiate the most generous qualifying format in history Photo: Koen van Weel/AFP/Getty Images
Guss Hiddink turned a team that finished third in the World Cup into one unable to negotiate the most generous qualifying format in history Photo: Koen van Weel/AFP/Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

Guus Hiddink was unveiled as the new Holland manager in August 2014. As part of the event, the Dutch football association (KNVB) organised a photo shoot on a park bench, with Hiddink flanked by his assistants Danny Blind and Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The trouble was - and this becomes immediately evident when you look at the photos - that the bench was not quite wide enough to accommodate all three men in anything approaching a dignified pose. Hiddink is forced to tuck his elbows into his stomach like a squashed commuter. Blind and Van Nistelrooy are leaning askew. And in many ways, the three men's visible discomfort was an appropriate visual metaphor for the excruciating 10 months that were to follow.

With hindsight, the decision to appoint Hiddink to succeed Louis van Gaal can now be regarded as one of the worst in the history of Dutch football.

Hiddink turned a team who had finished third in the World Cup into one unable to negotiate the most generous European Championship qualifying format in history. There was even an eager alternative: Ronald Koeman, who in his chagrin at being overlooked, flounced off to Southampton and did not do so badly. Instead, Holland plumped for the man known as "Lucky Guus" and ended up stuffed.

Hiddink's sales pitch - and presumably the pitch that has again piqued the attention of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea - is that he offers a short-term tonic. A safe pair of hands. It is a reputation forged over two decades at Real Madrid, South Korea, Australia, Chelsea themselves, and other places. But his disastrous 10 months as the Holland coach have left that reputation hanging by a thread.

"With all due respect to Hiddink, he's 67 years old," said former Dutch player Ronald de Boer. "I think he's done, in my eyes. His ideas are now old-fashioned." That was two years ago. Hiddink is now 69, occasionally walks with a stick, and the modern game is threatening to pass him by.

Never mind 10 months, it took 10 minutes for things to start going wrong. That was the time it took Italy to go 2-0 up in Hiddink's first game in charge, with Holland also a man down. Defeats by the Czech Republic, Iceland and Mexico followed. Hiddink arrived promising continuity from the Van Gaal era. Instead, he had ripped up Van Gaal's pragmatic 5-3-2 system and replaced it with a 4-3-3 that Holland patently lacked the personnel to play effectively.

Hiddink's laissez-faire management style - Wesley Sneijder described him as "the friendly uncle" - backfired, too. The Dutch squad contained plenty of ageing players, such as Robin van Persie, and plenty of raw young players, like Memphis Depay, but no governing character to knit them together.

Rumours began to emerge of a feud between Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Full-back Daryl Janmaat was publicly criticised after a mistake against the Czech Republic and dropped without explanation. After an injury to Arjen Robben, Hiddink claimed the team would lose "30 to 40 per cent of its quality" - hardly a vote of confidence in the other players.

Meanwhile, the alarming decline of Van Persie and Sneijder led results to go further south. A 4-3 defeat by the United States was the final straw.


Hiddink finished with just four wins from 10 games, of which three were against Kazakhstan and Latvia. In June Bert van Oostveen, head of the KNVB, flew to Hiddink's holiday home in Provence, and the pair agreed that the end of the road had been reached. "Unfortunately the rewards of Guus's work weren't immediately visible to everyone," the KNVB said in the statement announcing his departure, "but we thank Guus for his commitment." Talk about damning a man with faint praise.

And though the inexperienced Blind failed to arrest the slide, Holland's failure to qualify for Euro 2016 is still predominantly regarded as Hiddink's debacle. The question now is whether, following his failure to get Russia to the 2010 World Cup or Turkey to Euro 2012, his reputation is tarnished beyond repair. Evidently not, as far as Abramovich is concerned.

Yet Hiddink does not arrive with the same credit in the bank he enjoyed last time he was hired in 2009. Then, his successes were still fresh: three titles in four seasons with PSV Eindhoven, the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup with Australia, the semi-finals of Euro 2008 with Russia.

Since then, much has changed. Only Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry and John Obi Mikel remain from Hiddink's first spell. Most of the rest have never worked with him. His last relegation battle, with Real Betis in 2000, ended in failure. Chelsea's underperforming players, in short, are not the only ones with a point to prove.

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