UEFA Nations League: Netherlands overcome directionless phase with newfound guile and revival of Total Football

Ten months ago, the Netherlands were a finished side – a set of players past their prime in a team that had certainly run into a cul-de-sac. The Dutch team had failed to qualify for the Russia World Cup and things were so grim all-around that many believed Holland were finished as a football superpower.

On Thursday night, a much-changed Oranje squad from 2018, will face Gareth Southgate’s English side for a place in the UEFA Nations League final. Surprisingly, the Dutch are favourites to win, despite facing an England team who reached the semi-finals of the World Cup last year in Russia. So what has brought about this massive transformation?

The Long decay

 UEFA Nations League: Netherlands overcome directionless phase with newfound guile and revival of Total Football

Netherlands' Georginio Wijnaldum celebrates scoring their first goal with teammates. Reuters

The failure to qualify for the Euro 2016 had already raised a few eyebrows in the Netherlands. The team had finished a dismal fourth behind Iceland, Turkey and Czech Republic, despite finishing the 2014 World Cup strongly. The lack of motivation in the team was also obvious – the likes of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder probably knew they had played their last World Cup. There was no new batch of players ready to take over their place either.

The lack of quality finally reflected in the World Cup qualification as they finished their group behind eventual winners France, and Sweden. The problem wasn’t limited to the main team players though – there was a lack of quality in coaches, in academies, in league structures. The quality of the Dutch Eredivisie had dipped so badly that even the country's champions were required to take part if play-offs to reach the Champions League group stages.

Other sides, including neighbours Belgium and Germany, had caught up with the sophisticated football training methods and youth development programs that emerged in Holland in the 1960s and later became Total Football, and worked on it to suit their style, while the Dutch remained dormant.

To put things into perspective, in 1989 four of the world’s top five footballers were from the Netherlands. Marco van Basten won the Ballon d’Or that year but Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, and Ronald Koeman were also part of the top five. In 2018, there was not a single Dutch player in the top 30. Anxiety had become despair for the Netherlands faithful.

A Renaissance

On February 2018, Ronald Koeman, the former Barcelona star and Everton coach, was appointed the national team coach on a four-year contract. The move wasn’t expected to bring a lot of changes to a decaying side – after all Koeman’s latest managerial stint as the Everton coach had been a disaster.

To rub salt to the wound, they were placed in a group with France and Germany in the newly formed UEFA Nations League. But surprisingly, Holland played their first match well though they eventually lost to France 2-1. The men in orange then went on to beat Germany 3-0 in Amsterdam, which was followed by a 1-1 draw against Belgium in a friendly. Suddenly the mojo was back in the team and new stars had emerged. The same team went on to beat France 2-0 in the Nations League with Ajax’s Frenkie de Jong announcing his arrival in the world’s biggest stage.

Holland went on to top the group and set up a semi-final date with England, but it was amazing how the infusion of fresh blood and ideology into the team had sparked this quick revolution. As always in the history of Holland, the key to success was their great football factory – Ajax FC. Apart from unearthing and developing the likes of Matthijs de Light, Donny van de Beek, and Frenkie de Jong, the club ensured Total Football was back in football and instilled the essence of what it meant to be a Netherlands footballer – to play fearlessly with the ball.

While not the exact same system, Koeman had the Netherlands playing the same – a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 – with players forming triangles for quick inter-passes. Koeman has got his Dutch team ticking, with a formidable defence, an adaptable midfield, and a pacy attack.

Leading from the back

Another reason behind the Dutch revival has been the emergence of Virgil van Dijk as arguably the world’s best defender. The centre-back has been mammoth this season and led Liverpool to Champions League glory with his heroics in the back.

With van Dijk and the ever-improving de Ligt in the centre, and de Jong guarding them in the midfield, it is safe to say the Netherlands have got the best protection to their goal in world football. Though Jasper Cillessen has struggled for match-time in Barcelona, he is still a very good goalkeeper and they also have the experienced Daley Blind, former Chelsea star Nathan Ake, Inter’s Stefan de Vrij who can all slot comfortably into any position in the backline.

Strangely for the Dutch team, its that attack that is a tad disappointing. Quincy Promes, Memphis Depay, Ryan Babel are all good, but they don’t offer the same efficiency Robben and van Persie brought to the team. Luuk de Jong has had another strong season for PSV Eindhoven but the striker still seems a cut below par, at best a second-half substitute when the team requires a target man.

England thwarted Netherlands 4-1 courtesy of braces from the forward partnership of Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham in a team that was orchestrated by the talented Paul Gascoigne when the sides last met in a match of importance. The Dutch team managed to finish second in the group despite the defeat in the Euro 2016 though they got knocked out by France in the quarter-finals. But what was dismay in 1996, became a surprise in 1998 when a new generation of footballers drove the side till semi-finals of the World Cup in France. History says the Dutch team works in cycles, a sine wave of ups and downs. If that is true, then watch out for this Netherlands team. They have all the makings of a champion side. They will first have to beat a strong England squad with Harry Kane leading the line first!

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Updated Date: Jun 07, 2019 12:18:15 IST