Pre-tournament favourites, the Dutch, went home with three losses out of three games and exit Euro 2012 along with the Irish as the only teams to have gained zero points for their efforts in Poland & Ukraine. The question has been on everyone’s lips since their opening match loss to Denmark: where did it all go wrong? Players, coaches and pundits alike have been attempting to assess the damage and wading through the garbage that was the Netherlands’ display at the tournament – it was never going to point to one conclusion. We will start from the beginning.
The team selection by Bert van Marwijk was a solid one considering the players available for selection, Siem de Jong the only “big name” absentee after the roster was trimmed down to the final 23. The glaring problem for the Dutch from the beginning was although they had good goalkeepers in Maarten Stekelenberg, Michel Vorm, and Tim Krul, the defence that stood directly in front of the net-minder was considered shaky at best. This was the reason I had predicted an earlier elimination for Holland than most others, because, looking at their defensive options, I just couldn’t see them doing a repeat of their final appearance two years ago at the World Cup in South Africa.
Gregory van der Wiel is a good right back who can make marauding runs forward, but the center backs left much to be desired. Johnny Heitinga is probably the best of the lot, which included Khalid Boulahrouz, Joris Mathijsen and Ron Vlaar, but that isn’t saying too much – the Everton defender is good but not great. Vlaar started the first game as the regular Mathijsen was out injured and he did alright for someone who has rarely represented his country. When Mathijsen was deemed fit, he was immediately brought back into the side but I do not know why, other than his experience perhaps. Since his move to Malaga it has become more apparent that Mathijsen is past it and very slow, while the adaptable Boulahrouz would have been a much better choice, but didn’t see a single minute of action at the tournament.
The left back position has been something of a nightmare since Giovanni van Bronckhorst retired and although Wilfred Bouma would have been the most likely replacement, Van Marwijk went with the uncapped 18-year-old Jetro Willems, which time-and-time again looked like a terrible decision by the Dutch manager. Young and was thrust into a starting position that he was not prepared for, he was the weakest link in orange and was repeatedly beaten by players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Thomas Muller. The idea of playing defensive midfielder Stijn Schaars at left back came and went as the tournament started and now upon reflection may have been a better option.
Regardless of how good their attack is or any poor coaching decisions that may have taken place, Holland were never destined to win this tournament with such a lacklustre backline -not progressing from the first stage and losing every match however is unacceptable for a team of such talent. Since the defenders available for selection were not very good to begin with, the press could not be too hard on Van Marwijk for selecting the four he did, while it was in midfield that the major debate raged. Playing a single striker with Wesley Sneijder right behind the front man, there were strong shouts to play a deeper creative midfielder such as Rafael van der Vaart alongside Nigel de Jong or the aging Mark van Bommel.
Playing with both Van Bommel and De Jong in midfield stifled all of the creativity coming out of the back for Holland and left Sneijder and Robin van Persie too far upfield to gain any momentum in attack, which often had the Dutch searching for ways to get out of their own half other than hoofing it forward. Arjen Robben on the right wing was an automatic choice as one of the stars of Dutch soccer, but he was by and large a disappointment in all three games, perhaps suffering a hangover from his Champions League final loss. Dirk Kuyt will have felt slighted by not getting a look in with the poor play of Robben.
The choice of Ibrahim Afellay on the left wing was a bit more more curious though – a player of undoubted quality, but one who had only played a few minutes all season due to a knee injury. Unfortunately for both the Netherlands and Afellay, he may not have been fit and had a hugely unsuccessful tournament as well. With the Oranje having poor play from both of their wings, they were bound to suffer. The same would be expected if there was poor play from other winger-dependent countries such as Portugal (where Cristiano Ronaldo was highly unimpressive in his first two matches, but coming good against Holland in the final game of the group stage). This is where the Netherlands missed the dynamism and tricky feet of Eljero Elia, who was not selected for the squad because of his lack of game time at the less wing-based Juventus.
Up front it was a choice between Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, with Luuk de Jong as back up. After the season Van Persie just completed with Arsenal where he scored at will, no one would have anticipated how useless in front of goal this striker was going to be in a Fernando Torres-esque loss of talent and composure. From the beginning, I believed the best decision was to play Van Persie pushed to the left side and Huntelaar as the central forward even though van Persie prefers to play down the middle. This would have maximized their on field talent, but considering the poor play of nearly every important attacking player for the Dutch, which was supposed to be their strong point, one can’t point the finger too much at Van Marwijk and generally speaking he made good decisions about his starting XI, they just couldn’t perform. The one thing he got terribly wrong was playing the central pairing of Van Bommel and De Jong.
As mentioned before, Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong offer very little creativity going forward. De Jong is simply out there to break legs and play basic square balls and Van Bommel’s scoring touch is long gone, now too old and cynical to do anything creative other than theatrical falls. Van Marwijk went with “the people” and the press by introducing Rafael van der Vaart as a super sub for Van Bommel when the Dutch needed goals, rewarding him with an early goal against Portugal. Still, although Van der Vaart offered more creativity and goalscoring going forward, he was terrible in his position, essentially trying to play the same role as Wesley Sneijde. This left huge gaps in the Dutch midfield that De Jong had no chance of covering on his own, ruining their shape and exposing their poor defence even more.
The man who should have started instead of the old Mark van Bommel and the anarchic Rafael van der Vaart, is the perfect combination of the two in PSV Einhoven’s Kevin Strootman. Defensively sound, positionally aware at all times and creative going forward, he could have provided the passing out of midfield needed and helped out De Jong defensively.
The beginning of the end for the Netherlands truly began in the game against Germany, where Bert van Marwijk decided not to make any changes to his side other than reinstating Joris Mathijsen to his center back role in place of Ron Vlaar. Obviously the manager thought that the way his team were just unlucky against Denmark, but the Germany game suggests he was very wrong.
Afellay and Robben were marked out of the game by Jerome Boateng and Philipp Lahm. Perhaps because Lahm is teammates with Robben at club level he knew the flying Dutchman’s preferred moves, but, not to take anything away from the considerable defensive work done by Lahm, Robben was very predictable. Always looking to cut inside and shoot on his left foot, while never looking to play a pass to his teammates, the skillful yet occasionally dense and continuously selfish Robben was disappointing, just as he was against Denmark’s excellent Simon Poulsen. From a defensive perspective, Van der Wiel did a solid job against Lukas Podolski, but Thomas Muller got the better of Willems at left back for Holland, despite probably his best match of the three.
It was in the center of the park where Germany won the match. Sneijder pushed high up the pitch behind Van Persie, leaving Van Bommel and De Jong facing off against Germany’s Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Mesut Ozil would regularly make runs to the right, joining up with Muller in overloading the young Willems at left back. With Nigel De Jong playing as the deepest lying Dutch midfielder, Ozil was able to regularly pull him over to the right, which would leave Mark van Bommel alone in the center to stop the runs of the German midfielders, both of whom getting forward to exploit the lack of cover. The first German goal came from exactly these points: De Jong was dragged to the left back position by Ozil, Van Bommel was marking Khedira, and with Wesley Sneijder pushed way up field, Bastian Schweinsteiger had the whole center of the pitch to play in Mario Gomez for the goal. The second goal was the same – Van Bommel strangely marking Khedira, even though Schweinsteiger was in a much more advanced position, letting him play in Gomez again.
Needing goals, Van Marwijk brought on Van der Vaart and Huntelaar for Van Bommel and Afellay, with Van Persie wide left to make room for Huntelaar. For the first chunk of the second half this didn’t seem to change too much, and it was a strange “what the heck, we’ve tried everything else” decision of moving Van Persie into the middle and Sneijder out wide that seemed to do the trick. Holland pressed for a goal, which was more of an individual success than a team effort, and managed to have Germany on the back foot for the last 15 minutes of the game.
This was mainly because Germany weren’t defending as well, allowing too much room on the flanks, and their manager Joachim Low not using any of his substitutes to remove tired legs until late on. The Dutch forwards only pressed the Germans on the edge of the German box and then there was no further pressure until the Germans reached the edge of the Dutch box, where De Jong and their defenders sat, leaving much of the center of the pitch uncontested. Germany just needed to get into those spaces and run the clock down for a surprisingly comfortable victory.
In the final and deciding game against Portugal, the Dutch simply played like a bunch of individuals against Paulo Bento’s well-organised side. This is regularly a problem for the Dutch: too many star players who don’t get along and don’t play well as a team. Bert van Marwijk decided to stick with the team that finished the game strong against Germany (other than Vlaar in a straight swap with Heitinga at the back), with Van der Vaart in the place of Van Bommel, Huntelaar up front, Van Persie right behind him and Sneijder confused out on the left.
Once again it was very frustrating not to see Kevin Strootman play a minute in this tournament as Van der Vaart continued to play as only Van der Vaart can. Although he scored from an early curling shot, whenever the Dutch didn’t have the ball he was all over the place in a free running role like he has for Tottenham, causing the whole team to lose shape and not performing any defensive duties. He was also positioned on Cristiano Ronaldo’s side of the park and he was never going to even consider defending the most potent attacking threat in the tournament. Nigel de Jong would have made more sense on that side, and unsurprisingly this was the game where the real Ronaldo finally stood up after very disappointing displays against Denmark and Germany, posing a constant threat for Portugal.
Even though Holland were going to look worse at the back with this shape, they were supposed to be better going forward with more attacking options right? Well no, it was simply more of the same. Fabio Coentrao shut Arjen Robben out and Wesley Sneijder, unaccustomed to his left sided role, had his quietest game of the tournament. With Miguel Veloso always staying goal side of Robin van Persie and the other two Portuguese midfielders Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles forming a triangle in front of him, the Dutch were stifled moving forward and Huntelaar barely saw the ball. The Dutch looked poor at the back as always and now just as bad going forward.
Desperately needing a win, they did not use a normal game plan and just tried to throw players forward at their own demise. Bert van Marwijk tried restoring Sneijder to the middle with Van Persie going right and Robben switching to the left but that didn’t seem to do much. They finally went for broke with Jetro Willems coming off for Ibrahim Afellay, adding one more attacker and switching to a three man defence. Although rather than playing like it, Holland looked more like a back four with no left back, Mathijsen not shifting over much. With the game at 1-1 after Ronaldo had equalised for Portugal, Nani exploited this space at left back and played in the captain for another goal and a second consecutive 2-1 loss for the Netherlands.
Although there were coaching decisions by Bert van Marwijk that I truly disagree with, he did not do anything too crazy or wrong (like England’s not bringing Rio Ferdinand to the tournament) and it is more the Dutch players themselves who played themselves out of this tournament. Poor finishing from the strikers, mainly their star Robin van Persie, too many individuals in midfield, no creative hub in the center, and a poor defence meant the Dutch were going home early. Although I would have had Strootman in for Van Bommel and not started the fresh back from injury Afellay, it is mainly the players’ fault for this exit. Nevertheless, Van Marwijk is the most likely to face the Netherlands exit for his few poor decisions.
The Dutch media as expected began crapping all over the team with De Telegraaf posting the line “Oranje, Shame on You!”, Nieuwsblog stating “…no team has ever destroyed its reputation so quickly and so thoroughly as Holland have managed,” (France 2010, anyone?), while it was Chris Nijnatten at Algemeen Dagblad who got it half right half overboard with his comment: “The Dutch team now knows where it stands. In the pale regions of the margins of the world elite. The belief was based on an illusion. It was the belief in a disjointed group, full of misunderstanding and full of gossip. It was the belief in key players without enthusiasm (Robin van Persie) and without a future (Mark van Bommel).” All very dire straights for a team who made it to the World Cup final two years ago with basically the exact same players.
That was the tournament where the Dutch abandoned their fluid attacking instincts and went for the selection of players such as Nigel de Jong, who will remembered more for a karate kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso than for any footballing ability. I used to always support Holland in tournaments, but I decided in 2010 that I just didn’t like this group of players and sure enough the famous Dutch infighting wasn’t too far away. Denmark’s Christian Eriksen stated to the press that he believes the Dutch went out early of this tournament because of their success in the previous one and the players had become too arrogant and Arjen Robben hinted to the press that unrest in the dressing room is what undid the Dutch squad – sadly an all too familiar plotline for the team in orange, a team who lost legendary players such as Clarence Seedorf because of such infighting.
Wesley Sneijder has taken the stance that manager Bert van Marwijk is not to blame for the team’s early exit from the stage and that rather a player acting as a “mole” within the team is to blame, convinced that a player in the squad was leaking the Dutch team’s tactical plans to the press before matches. The players have started to stand up for their coach and take the blame, sort of, but Van Marwijk is very unlikely to be with his country as they look to qualify for the next World Cup in 2014.
You can read more from Jared on Field of View.