The Netherlands went into the 2012 European Championships with two on-song strikers. Most teams would be lucky to go in with one. Some like England didn’t even have one for their first two games.
Robin van Persie had scored 37 goals for Arsenal last season, 30 of which were in the Premier League, making him the League’s top scorer. Fernando Torres, on the other hand, struggled to replicate the form which terrorised defences when he pulled on the red of Liverpool. Only towards the end of the season – which coincided with the arrival of Roberto di Matteo – did he begin to find his feet again.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who plays his football with Schalke in the Bundesliga, scored 47 with the Royal Blues, making him the Golden Boot winner, ahead of the likes of Bayern Munich’s Mario Gomez and Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski.
Fast forward the clock two months and swap the club jerseys for their orange and red shirts. Spain instantly seemed to shift up a gear when he came on against Italy, he netted two against the Irish and needed the constant attention of Gordon Schildenfeld and – at times – Vedran Corluka to keep him quiet when La Roja faced Croatia.
Van Persie and Huntelaar, however, have managed just one goal between them. Bert van Marwijk’s side let in five goals throughout the tournament, managing only two in reply. Like a broken pencil, they were pointless.
Both these sides were labelled as perennial chokers, Spain more so than the Dutch. At Euro 2008, the Dutch managed to negotiate the Group of Death with a perfect record. At the World Cup in South Africa, they matched Spain blow for blow until they were reduced to ten men in extra time. Spain went on to win both tournaments, while the Dutch failed to leave their mark on the world stage once again.
Both sides have extremely talented players, and many a manager at club level would love to have these players on his roster. Spain have once again sealed progress into the knockout stages, while the Dutch have fallen by the wayside after their worst performance at the European Championships
But why did the Dutch implode?
1.) Selfishness within the squad
Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder are some of the finest midfielders in the world. They are both accomplished, technically gifted players who have been tried and tested in some of Europe’s finest leagues.
But it is well documented that both players are extremely selfish. The best scenario to exemplifiy this would be the Champions League final. While Franck Ribery regularly tried to pick out Mario Gomez and his team-mates who were making runs, Robben, more often than not, ran the ball towards Petr Cech’s touchline and tried to cut in and score.
That characteristic was very evident during the Oranje’s games at Poland-Ukraine. Against Denmark, the Dutch enjoyed the majority of possession, but all too often did we see Sneijder and Robben take pot-shots from distance. What they failed to notice was van Persie – and when he came on – Huntelaar, in scoring positions.
The two playmakers cut even more frustrated figures against the Germans, and Robben’s displeasure was present for all to see when he was hauled off for Dirk Kuyt towards the end of the game.
On the other hand, Fabregas’ Spain always played for each other. Tiki-taka is about being there for your teammates, it’s about making space so that you and your teammates can find each other. The Spanish style of play is about collectivism, as was the Total Football model introduced by Johann Cruyff to the Dutch in the 1970s.
2.) Infighting within the squad
Ever since the Dutch took to the field against arch-rivals Germany, rumours were rife about conflict and ego clashes within the Dutch squad. Vice-captain van der Vaart was fuming at his role on the bench, and Huntelaar was questioning van Marwijk’s decision to start van Persie ahead of him when both frontmen had equal claim to the striking berth up front.
Although unfounded, there was also talk of van Marwijk favouring his son-in-law and team captain Mark van Bommel when it came to deciding the starting eleven. This is surely absolute poppycock, as it is well known that the Dutch play two holding midfielders in the former AC Milan man and Nigel de Jong. To further underline this fact, van Bommel was withdrawn at half-time against Germany when a more attacking change was needed, and didn’t start the Netherlands’ do-or-die game against Portugal.
Wesley Sneijder was well aware of these clashes, saying, “It is time we let these pathetic egos go. If somebody is creating a mess, I will stand up against them now. We don’t need a psychologist with the Dutch team, we are grown-up men. The ones who have a problem with other players or the manager should tell them face-to-face. That is the only psychology we need. We have to stop living on little islands. We must all go for the same goal, be united or face the consequences.” (source: 101greatgoals.com)
The Spanish side have some of the world’s best players. Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez are regularly nominated for Player of the Year Awards, Cesc Fabregas was playmaker in chief at Arsenal and the Real Madrid contingent just won La Liga. The on-field antics that ensue between Real and Barca during El Clasico is very well known, but when they play together, the Spanish players realise they are playing for a bigger cause, and all their egos are left at home, because there is no bigger honour than serving your country. Fittingly, the Spanish team’s motto going into Euro 2012 is ‘Unido por un sueno’ or ‘United for a dream’.
When the Dutch played against Denmark, there was a sense of ‘We are the best.’ Despite having several shots on goal, the only one that made a difference was Michael Krohn-Dehli’s strike in the first half where he sliced through the Dutch defence. Incredibly, the Dutch were in denial after that loss.
They failed to successfully win the ball back when they lost it, and paid for it dearly against the Germans and Portuguese. As was shown on TV several times, Nigel de Jong failed to track Bastian Schweinsteiger for Mario Gomez’s opener, while Portugal took advantage of mistakes made by the Dutch, with their counter-attacking brand of football carving the Dutch defence open, resulting in Cristiano Ronaldo scoring the winner.
Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, au contraire, were quick to close down their opposition, as were most of the Spanish players when the opposition had the ball.
Vincente del Bosque was quick to praise his opposition, in true sporting spirit.
4.) Van Marwijk’s squad selection
When the Dutch made it to the final in 2010, Giovanni van Bronckhorst was captain. He was modest, calm, and led by example. Moreover, he added more determination to a defence that was below par in comparison.
There were questions raised when van Bommel was given the armband, because it hinted at nepotism. Van Marwijk was entitled to keep his 4-2-3-1 formation which had worked well in South Africa, but I am of the opinion that the best formation would be the 4-3-3 with Robben and Afellay/Kuyt supporting van Persie/Huntelaar.
Van Marwijk stuck with Jetro Willems throughout the tournament, and while I respect him for sticking to his guns, he should’ve issued orders to his wingers to help out the Dutch fullbacks.
Spain employed the track-back feature with great success. Even Fernando Torres came back to defend against corners. While Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba overlapped in tandem with the runs of Silva and Iniesta, the midfield pair – alongwith Xavi, Alonso and Busquets – always came back to help their defenders.
As mentioned above, football is all about collectivism. Frank Leboeuf said that the Dutch must realise that that they are playing for each other. They will now know that there is no ‘I’ in team. Some might argue that there may be no ‘I’ in team, but there is a ‘me’. To them I say, the word ‘me’ has been scrambled so that the word ‘team’ can be formed.
The team always comes first.