Call me a hopeless romantic, but there are times when one will long for a piece of history which have inspired them immeasurably.
I was only a true and crazy, madly Dutch football fan after the World Cup 98 in France. I’d admired and wowed at Marco van Basten when he was a superstar at AC Milan and Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit were no pushovers even when the action was halfway across the entire world; Euro 96 didn’t catch on my imagination as I thought that the PMR exams meant everything in the world then; and I did watch the USA 94 World Cup where I though that the Dutch team played some awesome football although I secretly favoured Italy back then as I was a huge fan of Roberto Baggio whom I might even rank on par with the incomparable Dennis Bergkamp.
In short, I’m just a plain football fan in the 1980s and could hold no torches for any teams and would not forge any form of support for any entity which called for 22 men in the field chasing a piece of sphere-shaped leather made by a German or British sports-manufacturer of whom back in the 1980s is not frequently equated with style or sophistication.
So it was only Arsenal back then and with it, the ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ and ‘1-0 Arsenal’ chants during the pre-Wenger years. Hell, I’ve heard of PSV Eindhoven back then but there was no Dutch football in Malaysian tv!
Anyway, the Oranje in the 2000s have gone through rather uninteresting times.
With Louis van Gaal’s failure at leading the talented Dutch team to 2002 World Cup, I reckoned it the beginning of the Oranje slump of recent memory. We Dutch fans have near impossible dreams of the Oranje lifting major titles come the start of every top-level competition only to nurse a torn and devastated heart at the end of any impressive run to the zenith of the tournaments.
I’m sure that England fans would feel the same way; but I’d rather talk about the Oranje and only the team I dearly love. So, when Dick Advocaat manned the reins to lead the team to avoid a similar pit-fall for Euro 2004, I though that was one of the most astute choices the KNVB had made in light of the poor and unexciting football. Gone were the enigmatic performances of Patrick Kluivert, Frank de Boer, Philip Cocu et al and in place, the new era was dawning with Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart to lead the fresh, young team.
To be fair, Euro 2004 was utterly disappointing for Oranje fans everywhere. We qualified in style; hammering the hapless Scots at home in Amsterdam ArenA and with Sneijder scoring an absolute rocket from midfield which I’d rank as the best goal from the Oranje post-2000. But when the tournament proper went underway, all doubt fell out of the boots of the players as they played football fit only for the tag so befitting the German Mannschaft. Or maybe worse…
Euro 2004 Dutch team played boring football with a curious 4-3-3 system which prevailed through to today. I’m not a huge fan of the system but I’ve seen the 4-3-3 formation being played to great effect courtesy of Guus Hiddink’s 2005/2006 PSV Eindhoven champions who made me rethink that this system might work, but as usual, requiring the right personnel.
When the KNVB roped in Marco van Basten in for the top job, I had my own reservations but I thought no less of San Marco. His fate may not be synonymous with born losers everywhere although fate might have been slightly indifferent to him during his last playing years. But, he knows what it takes to win. Or so I believed…
He led the revamped Dutch team through a unspectacular and sparkless World Cup 2006 campaign, undefeated and also notching good wins over the old, perennial rivals – the Czech Republic. I also watched as the Oranje made Andorra and the other smaller nations looked competent while they looked geared up in the tougher games. By my reasoning, there appeared to be no more ‘easy teams’ any longer. Philip Cocu said so. But I don’t believed a word he said. Maybe I expected too much from my beloved Oranje and hoped that they hammered Andorra a whopping 11-0 away from home so that the puny Andorrans won’t even dare to take to the field at the Amsterdam ArenA or whatever Dutch home stadium for fear of losing further face.
Truth is: the Oranje are no longer inspiring.
Take a look at the English team during the World Cup 2006. Their league is the strongest in Europe and the world and is the most fascinating to watch and to appraise critically. But their performance at Germany is hardly termed ‘exciting’. So are the Dutch. They struggled against the Serbia-Montenegrins, they almost threw it away against the Ivorians and they looked frightened at the sight of the Argies.
Blame it all on the youth and the lack of winning mentality in the current team. I’d be surprised to see the likes of Joris Mathijsen, Jan Kromkamp, Kew Jaliens and even Tim de Cler in the team during the 2004 Euro, let alone the qualification games for World Cup 2002. Yes, they are ex-AZ Alkmaar stalwarts which made them rise meteorically up the Oranje setup and I don’t take their achievements away from them. But what the squad lacked is the pure winning mentality.
Here’s where my wish that the World Cup 98 Dutch squad make a hypothetical return; or at least, for their inspired performances back then.
Dutch fans can lay blame to anyone and everyone in the KNVB; the coach, the selection of players which indicated lack of proper foresight, the formations, the tactics involved, the attitude, the youngsters, the lack of championship winners (how many of them even won the Eredivisie before, aside from the PSV players?), the absence of a inspiring captain at the back to whip up team morale, etc etc. So, what even went wrong from the powerful World Cup 98 team?
For van Basten’s part, he removed the truculent and unpredictable egos in the team; although he wavered at his stand when he painfully realized that the playing talent at his disposal are slightly above-average at best. Ruud van Nistelrooy at his best may not be near Dennis Bergkamp or even Patrick Kluivert in full glory but he proved a stealthy goal-poacher who can fashion goals out of crazy situations. Mark van Bommel has been on a downslide since his tremendous work for PSV before his Catalan adventure with FC Barcelona and thereafter to Bayern Munchen. At the World Cup 2006, his performances were fit for being a mere spectator. The powerful runs forward, the combative nature has all but gone. What van Basten has admirably done pre-WC 2006 was to form a team with no egos which have plagued Dutch teams of the past. Even the World Cup 1998 team was not spared when Winston Bogarde appeared to be a troublemaker after the Dutch won against the Yugoslavians (as they were back then) 2-1 in a pulsating match and celebrating Edgar Davids’ goal. But that was all San Marco managed to achieve.
It’s hard to picture the Dutch team winning anything of note, at least under van Basten. It’s difficult not because the team is incapable of winning but the manner of which they played football is shocking. There was hardly any urgency in their style of play. They were contented to sweep the ball around until they could release Robben or van Persie on the wings to cash in. The two centre midfielders were not much help either as they were either outmuscled or had no clear chances to pass a great ball to any of the 3 offensive players to even manufacture a chance to score.
I’d say that the 4-3-3 system is the current team’s undoing.
Robben is not a famous crosser of the ball. Van Persie rarely does it for the Arsenal. Both players take possession and tend to dribble and shoot for goal. That leaves the central striker VERY redundant since it’s highly likely that opposition defenders are marking him tightly. Remember Dirk Kuyt and Vennegoor of Hesselink playing confused roles in the shameful match against Portugal. (I’m really starting to get annoyed at Portugal these days although they won fair and square.) Rather than to waste the central striker, it’s better to commit another one to the centre of the park, or wherever the team may need. Slot it into the defense if need be, but don’t leave the team short of one player. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the recent Dutch team matches and see for yourself how many times the central striker scores. Of course there is Klaas Jan Huntelaar but he’ll need to take time to hone his skills like everyone else. There’s also Ryan Babel but San Marco rarely allows him a good run-out which amazes me no end.
The problem is not that the Dutch cannot play 4-3-3. They can play the shitty 4-5-1 or even 3-4-3 for all I care but the fact that they played lousy players in the wrong slots made it all so banal to explain. Gio van Bronckhorst (aka Donkey) is past his prime and not that there is much of a prime to actually speak of since he started playing leftback from his old central midfield role where he did reasonably well. Joris Mathijsen is also another misfit. His response to dead ball situations, his anticipation of the play and even his positioning on the pitch speaks for itself. Dirk Kuyt is industrious but it’s not hard to see him as another Fernando Morientes-style player who is not pacy to make much chances for himself. A 3-man midfield manned by 2 small-sized players way below 6 feet in height (Sneijder and van der Vaart) meant that the battle in midfield would hinge pretty much on a player with that size and build to win possession. Of course, tackling is done with the feet but long balls and goalkeeper punts would mean that vital ownership of the ball may be lost. So, shouldn’t the midfield be boosted with another player of 6 feet above stature? I recall Hiddink using Wim Jonk and Philip Cocu often in midfield to win possession while the 2 wingers take it up for Bergkamp or Kluivert. The pace at which it was done was fast and unpredictable to opponents. A 4-3-3 is far too predictable. Just send two tall midfielders to muscle up the two short men of the Dutch, gain possession, unsettle the Donkey on the left, make Mathijsen stranded in no-man’s land and outwit an ageing van der Sar to score a tidy goal.
Remember that Russia is under the guidance of Guus Hiddink now and Hiddink’s tactics are crafty and shrewd but the Russians are far from a major competitor. I wish the Oranje all the luck they may need.
Ik hou van Oranje!!!!