So it’s time again for the Euro 2008 qualifiers. We don’t have the privilege to watch live Oranje matches here as apparently Malaysian fans absolutely root for England with the EPL being the favourite league in this here parts. Not that if the Primera Liga is the league of choice, we’d all be banking on La Furia Roja with the same arduous favour. We have Serie A games here live and if we’re lucky; some Bundesliga action as well. Taking a break from the usual Werder Bremen v. Schalke 04 games are ok but is the standard of international games quite the same ones we grew up with and associate?
There was this Holland v. Bulgaria delayed match screened on tv. As an Oranje fan to my very depths of my soul, I won’t dream of missing it for anything in the world. The first 20 minutes of the game threatened to challenge this assertion. No, no – Holland played reasonably well. But the toad in the mud of the Bulgarians described succintly the negative aspects of the game we appraise for ourselves today.
Of course there is infinitely nothing wrong with playing the negative form of tactics known in football – counterattacking. Sure, these teams bottle up with a firm midfield, some utility players doubling up as centre-halves and fullbacks. They don’t need to park the team bus in front of goal as Mourinho described but they can employ all the gamesmanship ruses to stall for an opportunity to launch a quick and incisive attack to decisive effect. Exactly as Bulgaria would demonstrate how.
Many away teams go for these tactics with a sure reason – to avoid the pressure of home support and succumb to its smothering effects. In that, a deluge of goals may follow. Example in point is the Scotland v. Holland game for the Euro 2004 in Amsterdam ArenA where the Tartan Army attacked early, which is always very good; but the home support played its part when Wesley Sneijder opened the floodgates with a scorcher and the Dutch won handsomely 6-0. The scoreline flattered the Dutch, who lost 0-1 in Scotland and faced a certain exit from another major international tournament. Why I chose this match is because this is likely to be the most recent game the Dutch thrashed its opponents soundly. We need hardly recall that ‘smaller’ teams made the giants work harder for their victories these days and that’s where drubbings of 4-0 and above are events we can only reminisce about. But when teams of similar calibre fight it out with each other, it’s quite surprising when either one team decides to hold the fort and muster the time to make a quick break out.
Don’t get me wrong. I do support a team playing such football, notably in the European Champions League; PSV Eindhoven in the 2004/2005 season. In the Eredivisie, they played flowing football which FC Volendam and maybe RBC Roosendaal can only dream of in our lifetime. PSV angered Arsenal fans with their rather negative style of play, making the Gunners frustrated, not least Thierry Henry.
Bulgaria is quite a fallen dark horse of European football. The likes of Luboslav Penev, Zdravko Zdravkov, Trifon Ivanov, Krassimir Balakov, Emil Kostadinov, and the legend Hristo Stoichkov graced World Cup pitches and although their prowesses did not survive posterity for long, their contributions to the beautiful game is acknowledged. These days, we have Radostin Kishishev, the two Petrovs; Martin and Stiljan, and the powerful striker Dimitar Berbatov turning up for the Bulgarian Lions. At least these are the names which make for a familiar read.
Sadly, when the current Bulgarian team plays the negative aspect of football, it reflected most of the games we watch in the EPL; particularly where teams like Blackburn and West Ham enjoy camping in their half and making sure that the opposing team get worn of attacking before making them pay. If they don’t score against the bigger teams, so what. Remember the recent Manchester City against Man U game; it was one of the most unjustified scorelines but at least the Citizens made their victory look good with their forays into attack although their final product is hardly fit for purpose.
The Bulgarians tactical singular ploy made the Dutch feel blunt and uninspired. For the first time in years supporting the Dutch, I felt rather disinterested to watch this match going on 20 minutes. Their fault or the Bulgarians? Why point fingers – it’s not a crime is it? Not that the Slavs defended stolidly at their HQ. They played simply horrible football; happy to sponge the Dutch attacks. In turn, the Dutch were rather frustrated at the spanner thrown into their clockwork mechanism. They simply won’t find their answers with above average players like Demy de Zeeuw bossing the middle of the park. What Marco van Basten see in him remains to be seen, but he did nothing important for the Oranje. There is Clarence Seedorf on the bench, but Demy is primarily a defensive sort of player to complement the generally attacking-minded Wesley Sneijder.
What made it painful to watch is that the Dutch defenders; Heitinga, Melchiot, Mathijsen and van Bronckhorst realised that making passes to the midfielders would be a futile exercise and have decided to bombard long ball crosses to the ineffective forwards, Robin van Persie and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Curiously, the Dutch played one of their most defensive formation in years – 5 (usually) defenders are in the starting 11 and it’s hard to see where they fit in. Mathijsen and Heitinga should play CB, Melchiot is RB, van Bronckhorst is LB. So where does Wilfred Bouma fit in? We know that Bouma was a forward before (yes, I know him since his PSV days back in 1998) with his partner in attack, Arnold Bruggink. Both were rising stars for the Oranje in the heady days of Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert and Co. With this in mind, I realistically think that he plays left midfield. For Aston Villa, he is deployed at leftback. I can formulate an educated guess that the Dutch used the usual back four with 2 wingbacks and the central midfielder Sneijder. 4-3-3, but a very defensive one.
Perhaps the Dutch do lack a good left wing player and probably a right wing as well. During the World Cup 2006, van Persie played right wing whereas Arjen Robben do similar duties on the left. The midfield was one chunk of defensive minded players, with Mark van Bommel and Philip Cocu taking turns doing the defensive midfield role. When they did a rather bad job, van der Vaart and Denny Landzaat were called forward but they also performed poorly. Ryan Babel is fine at at left attacking role but van Persie largely played a poor game. Van Nistelrooy must have felt like Klaas Jan Huntelaar did not long after the World Cup when the centre forward took little liberty to provide scoring chances for himself.
Apart from the wonderful free-kick courtesy of Sneijder, large segments of the game alternated between passing amongst players to the back line to some usually uninspired play from both sides.
But it would be ridiculous to write of the Bulgarians. There were pockets in the match where Berbatov proved dangerous, especially from corner kicks and where the inexperienced Dutch defense were almost punished. Had Berbatov been Dutch and eligible to play for Oranje, he would make a more dangerous striker than either the now fluctuating van Persie and the ageing van Nistelrooy. The score is 2-0 at fulltime and Dutch fans went home happy but it was not a match where a neutral would enjoy; quite the opposite, this may warrant a quick look at the ferocity of American football.
At the end, 3 points mattered. The Dutch did win an interesting 4-1 against Guus Hiddink’s Russia in February 2007, so I guess there’s optimism within the Dutch ranks at this moment. At least, we don’t hear of the Edgar Davids-style spat with Hiddink of Euro 1996 nor the Winston Bogarde’s open confrontation with Arthur Numan and Edwin van der Sar. Morale within the team could be said to be excellent. There are no more fractious deals on wages, formation of camps aimed at politics within the squad and the bad behaviour usually associated with talented but unfulfilled Dutch teams of the past. In that, van Basten has done the ground work well.
Happy it is to note that there are no truly ‘star players’ in Oranje at the moment. There is a peace treaty between the lingering star quality of van Nistelrooy and van Basten but that is also for the good of the team which is simply hunky dory. Van Persie is hardly yet a star in the ranks of Bergkamp; and Sneijder, although fast garnering waves of support with his inspired form, is still young and has many more years to get arrogant. If Heitinga is a poster pin-up, one can feel how marketable David Beckham truly is. The big egos have been shoved out the door or told to toe the line and play the way the bondscoach wanted.
So, we have a happy Oranje side but a comparatively weaker one than previous generations. They won’t dazzle and may not likely win new fans with their style of football now but I’ll take it in stride. Better to win and make it for major tournaments rather than to have a team full of the finest talent but courting the most controversies. Luxuries were abundant for Louis van Gaal when he reigned but he got distracted from the delectable choices at his disposal and paid the price. Guus Hiddink fine-tuned a fractious squad in 1996 and almost became World Cup finalists in 1998. It’s probably far-fetched to say that 10 years after this revelation, such a similar evolution would be in the works as we don’t see it as yet. At least, Oranje fans can be satisfied that the squad is ‘one for the future’ and may dominate world football in South Africa 2010. Expect nothing sparkling from the Dutch for now but look out in less than 3 years time!