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The Netherlands didn't make Euro 2016. Here’s why.

Things are looking bleak for the Oranje. Here's how they sank so low, and what they can do about it.

Julian Finney/Getty Images

Guided by a golden generation, the Netherlands pushed Spain, perhaps the best international team in history, to extra time in the final of the 2010 World Cup. In 2014, they took Argentina to penalties in the semifinal, then went on to win the third-place game against hosts Brazil. In 2016, they won't even play at the European Championships.

The expanded format of the Euros was supposed to make this kind of thing virtually impossible. When 16 teams qualified for the finals, group winners would make the tournament in qualifying, while second-placed teams went to a playoff. Now that 24 teams make the Euros, the top two teams in each qualifying group go to the finals, while the third-placed teams end up in a playoff. They finished fourth in their group, and won't even get the opportunity to play their way into the tournament via a playoff.

What happened to the Oranje? A combination of three things.

1. Group A is really good

No one thinks of the Czech Republic, Turkey and Iceland as world beaters, but they're all good teams. Depending on which groups they got dropped into, any of them could have been favorites to finish second and qualify directly for Euro 2016 without needing to go through a playoff. But they all got grouped together, along with the Netherlands, meaning that one really good team was always going to miss out on a top-three spot.

No one thought that would be the Netherlands, of course, but it would be disrespectful to these three teams to call this a complete capitulation by the Oranje. They're all really good, and they all have star players in their early-to-mid-20s. Iceland have slowly been getting better over the last few cycles and just barely missed out on World Cup qualification, while the Czech Republic and Turkey are underrated by UEFA's coefficients after undergoing a transition where they phased out old stars and blended in teenagers. In both cases, that transition is over because the youngsters that started getting chances last cycle are now approaching prime age.

Take a look at all three of those squads (TurkeyCzech RepublicIceland) -- they're mostly comprised of players in their mid-20s. They were all ready to outperform their coefficient, and they all got grouped together. That's a bad draw for the Netherlands.

2. The Netherlands' biggest stars are getting old

Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Nigel de Jong are all on the wrong side of 30. Robben missed the Turkey match due to injury, de Jong has been frozen out and the other three have looked their ages for club and country recently. This happens to a lot of national teams -- a golden generation gets old and they don't do a good job of blending in new talent while reducing the roles of those stars.

The Netherlands are actually doing a decent job of getting young players into their team, but there's a clear talent gap between the golden generation and the youngsters. They're really light on prime-age players.

3. A slow tactical transition that ignored central midfield

In the 1970s, the Dutch played what most of the world saw as an ideal style of soccer. Spearheaded by Johan Cruyff up top, they passed the ball and moved off the ball beautifully. When the same team made the 2010 World Cup final playing a rigid style anchored by the nasty, thuggish defensive midfield duo of de Jong and Mark van Bommel, they were widely derided for disrespecting their heritage in the name of winning a soccer tournament.

Van Bommel retired with no direct replacement, but de Jong remained as the anchor that held together a paper-thin midfield made up of converted wingers and attackers. Injuries and a lack of form have kept him out of recent teams, and he wasn't terribly effective when he played either. Louis van Gaal put him at the base of a diamond midfield at the World Cup, but Guus Hiddink -- who was fired this summer -- and new boss Danny Blind have opted for fewer numbers in the center, playing a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 throughout Euro qualifying. Without the right personnel, it hasn't worked.

In the Netherlands' match against Turkey, Sneijder -- an aging playmaker who never played much defense in his prime anyway -- was "protected" by Daley Blind and Davy Klaassen. Blind is a utility man who has spent most of his career at left back, but can play center back or at the base of a three-to-four man midfield. Klaassen is an attacking midfielder. Neither has spent much time in a two-man center, mostly because they're not real central midfielders. At this point in his career, Sneijder is a complete liability unless he's surrounded by good defensive players. A two-man center of Klaassen and Blind might get torched even if they had the world's best defensive No. 10 in front of them.

Danny Blind started a ridiculous, non-functional lineup, and it took just seven minutes for Turkey to expose it.

Credit: user Cambijao on r/soccer

Left center back Stefan de Vrij was widely derided for his play on this goal -- he didn't do well, for sure -- but this is hardly his fault. The center of the Netherlands midfield fails their defense on three occasions here.

The first failure is at the point where possession changes hands. Even if Daley Blind wins this 50-50 header, his team isn't in good position to recover the ball.


As Turkey recovers the ball and starts their attack, they have a big advantage in the center and there's not a lot that the Netherlands can do about it.


Right back Gregory van der Wiel should probably recognize the danger of the situation and step up to try and stop the ball, but he's afraid of getting torched down the flank, and rightfully so. He's asked to make a difficult choice between the lesser of two evils when both choices really, really suck. They were created by bad personnel choices.

Those first two issues lead to Arda Turan, a genuinely world-class player who just signed for Barcelona for €41 million ($45.6 USD), being given the time and space to do whatever he wants. Unsurprisingly, he picks out a perfect through ball.

This is a beautiful goal by Turkey that features some members of the Netherlands back line making poor decisions, but good teams don't even ask their defenders to make decisions like this. And it's hard to blame Klaassen and Daley Blind for getting torched here too. They were thrown into roles they're both unfamiliar with and unsuited to. Danny Blind did not put them in a position to succeed.

* * *

OK, so how do they fix for World Cup qualifying?

For starters, pick some real midfielders. De Jong is wearing down, while Jordy Clasie and Vurnon Anita aren't anything special defensively, but they're certainly an improvement over the midfielders that played in the last four matches for the Netherlands.

Besides that, there's a massive old guard that needs clearing out. While van Persie, Sneijder, Robben, Huntelaar and De Jong might give the Netherlands the best chance to win games in 2015, they won't in 2018. It's time for them to push some youth into big spots and let them fail a few times in the hopes that by big World Cup qualifiers, they'll be ready.

Are the Netherlands in trouble long term?

Probably not, though it depends on how you define "trouble."

Right now, they're going through the regular problems that come with the decline of a golden generation. Whether Danny Blind keeps his job or is replaced, they'll do away with old players, call in more young players and struggle through 2018 World Cup qualifying. Then, just as we're ready to lament the decline of Dutch football, they'll qualify for Euro 2020 comfortably and get out of their group.

Van der Wiel is the oldest player currently in the Dutch defense at 27. De Vrij, probably the best player in this group, is just 23. Memphis Depay is quickly emerging as a world-class superstar and is just 21. While their failure to qualify for the most recent European Under-21 championships doesn't look great, they lost the qualifying playoff to eventual finalists, Portugal, not some scrubs.

That said, they might be done challenging for world and European titles for a while. There are good young players getting first-team soccer in the Eredivisie, as always, but Ajax and PSV aren't as loaded with spectacular 18-year-olds as they were five or so years ago, when the current fringe Dutch national team players were coming through the ranks. There's going to be a lot of pressure on Depay, midfielder Riechedly Bazoer and attacker Anwar El Ghazi, because the talent behind them looks a bit thin.

* * *

Since that's a thoroughly depressing way to end this, let's watch a mixtape of Wesley Sneijder's Inter Milan highlights.

Oh no. That's set to a song about a king who fell from power, lamenting his downfall. Well then.


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