No nation is as good as the Netherlands at self-analysis. Whenever anything goes wrong, everybody knows whose fault it is – which is why Dutch dressing-rooms are such combustible places.
Rinus Michels, the coach who instituted ‘Total Football’ at both Ajax and the Dutch national side, called it “conflict principle” and tried to make the debates a virtue. Yet they often seem to undermine team spirit. With Holland coming off two losses and facing a must-win game against Portugal Sunday in Kharkiv, that principle has been as harshly questioned this week as the team’s spirit.
Even if Dutch players weren’t consistently pointing out each others’ flaws they’d have Johan Cruyff to do it.
Cruyff was Michel’s on-field eminence, captain of the Netherlands team at the 1974 World Cup, and the key player in the Ajax side that won three European Cups between 1971-3 before leaving to join Michels at Barcelona. Cruyff had moved following the 1973 success after one of those infamous debates led to him losing an election for the captaincy. These days he is an advisor to Ajax, the philosopher-king of Barcelona (where he holds no official title) and a perpetually disgruntled columnist in De Telegraaf.
After the Netherlands reached the final of the World Cup, Cruyff was scathing. He hadn’t liked the switch to 4-2-3-1 under Marco van Basten at the last Euros – during which the Dutch beat Italy and France impressively before being beaten by a Russia side that, under the Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, played something far closer to the Total Footballing ideal than Holland did.
Cruyff certainly didn’t like way the Dutch played in the World Cup with Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong, two cloggers, at the back of midfield. The Netherlands, he said, played "a nasty, vulgar, hard, closed game that wasn’t watchable and was barely football anymore".
At first nobody seemed much to care. "To be honest, I can’t take this seriously," said Wesley Sneijder, while 600,000 turned out to welcome the Dutch side on its return from South Africa. Reaching the final, beating Brazil and Uruguay on the way, was taken as justification for the pragmatic approach.
But a backlash began. The influential magazine Hard Gras’s first edition after the World Cup showed on its cover Nigel de Jong karate kicking Xabi Alonso in the chest with the ironic caption, ‘The Dutch School’. Many dismissed the magazine as canal-belt intellectuals, nostalgic for the old ways, but slowly a consensus emerged.
Kees Jansma, the Netherlands media officer, wrote a response to Hard Gras’s attack in which he said, "The KNVB [the Dutch FA] also believes that the play in the final was [too] hard." Then, TV station Sportfive struggled to sell the rights for the Netherlands’ first Euro qualifier, away against San Marino. Only 30,000 turned out for the first home qualifier, against Finland. And then, the next home game, against the Netherlands’ main rival, Sweden, also failed to sell out.
When a De Jong tackle broke the leg of the Newcastle player Hatem Ben Arfa while playing for Manchester City, the outcry was so great that de Jong was suspended from the national side.
For the last eight Euro qualifiers, de Jong and Van Bommel didn’t play together. One or other was fielded alongside either Rafael van der Vaart or Kevin Strootman, both far more creative, technically gifted players. The Netherlands rolled, scoring more goals than any other team in qualifying.
Come the tournament, though, and de Jong and Van Bommel were back in tandem. That created an immediate problem in that, with both men sitting deep and neither being great passers, it dislocated the defensive six from the attacking four. That can – just about – be accepted if de Jong and Van Bommel provide a defensive platform but in the Germany game in particular, they were dragged out of position.
Both German goals came from Bastian Schweinsteiger through-passes from just that position in front of the back four Van Bommel and de Jong were supposed to be protecting. They disrupt the attacking flow of the team and if they don’t even provide defensive security, what is the point of them?
In the World Cup the industry of Dirk Kuyt helped bridge the gap, but he hasn’t started either of the last two matches.
"Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong saw too much of the ball," Cruyff wrote. "That’s not their biggest quality. Other players should be the ones enjoying possession. The team was divided into two blocks, and that must change immediately. There was so much space between the two blocks that Sneijder had to drop deep, and was playing about 25 [yards] behind the attackers. And he then had to make long runs forward again to support the attackers. That’s very difficult. That’s exhausting for Sneijder, and the attackers don’t operate well, either."
Van Persie’s failing has largely been profligacy but the two wingers have struggled as well.
"There is no cohesion between our lines," said Arjen Robben. "There are gaps and we are not connecting. Then it is very difficult to recover the ball. At this moment we are not steady as a team in the way we were two years ago. There is not one line to blame but we failed as team."
Even the fact he speaks of lines, though, is telling. Dutch football historically was not about lines but about a compact coherent unit. It’s easy to blame de Jong and Van Bommel for breaking the team by not getting forward but at least as much to blame are Sneijder and Ibrahim Afellay for not tracking back.
Sneijder, also, seems to have taken his goals at the World Cup as an excuse to transform himself from attacking midfielder into dilettantish number 10. The classic Dutch style is a 4-3-3 (or perhaps, when Cruyff is at his most extreme, a 3-1-3-3); there is no place in such a shape for a playmaker such as Sneijder has become.
Perhaps Van der Vaart or Strootman will come in alongside de Jong for the game against Portugal – in which a two-goal win would carry the Dutch through so long as Germany beat Denmark. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar may start at centre-forward with Van Persie moving wide to accommodate him. With Sneijder playmaking and Robben on the right that is a potentially devastating front four. The question, though, is whether the Dutch can find the fluency to make the most of it.