Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Netherlands are in trouble. This is a growing narrative at this stage, with the Dutch having failed to qualify for Euro 2016 and not really ever impressing much since finishing third at the last World Cup. But despite earning a 1-1 draw against Sweden on Tuesday in World Cup qualifying action, it became more obvious than ever that the Netherlands national team have a big hole to dig out of.
They were hardly the only ones to struggle in qualifying action recently — France and Hungary both flopped their ways to unimpressive draws against teams they should have trounced, South Korea did the same, and Japan lost at home last week. Chile, the reigning two-time Copa América champions, sit seventh in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying. Even Portugal, riding high off winning Euro 2016, couldn’t get off on the right foot, losing 2-0 to Switzerland on Tuesday. With all those struggles in mind, it’s easy to look at the Netherlands’ lackluster performance and write it off as a similarly slow start to qualifying.
But it’s not.
The difference between the Netherlands and those teams is that those other sides aren’t starting deep down in a hole that they dug for themselves. Coming from where they are, this week’s setbacks are just that: setbacks that can be quickly overcome.
The Netherlands, though, are starting from a much worse place. Failing to qualify for Euro 2016 — a failure that was completely earned by their shoddy performances in qualifying — and dealing with the fallout from that has left the Dutch national side well below the standards we’re used to seeing from them. A traditional power in international football, the Netherlands should be a shoe-in during any qualifying, and then competing for tournament titles.
That hasn’t been the case since the World Cup, though, and while their core players growing older and their club academy systems not producing top talent at the rate it once did is partly to blame, the Netherlands national team management hasn’t made it any easier on themselves. When Louis van Gaal left to manage Manchester United, the national federation heads went to the same well of ideas, looking for a veteran Dutch manager with some trophies in his cabinet both in Holland and abroad. It’s a formula that’s worked for the Netherlands for a while, but even during Van Gaal’s reign, his second tenure in charge of the national team, the warning flags were starting to fly that maybe a change in direction would be needed.
Those warnings were ignored, and going with the same old idea ended with Guus Hiddink managing the Dutch, and he led that disastrous qualifying campaign that nothing could save the Netherlands from. That should have been the biggest sign that, just maybe, it was time for the national team to go in a different direction, to bring in a new vision who could take the talent that the Netherlands have and make it competitive again. Instead, they landed with Danny Blind, the former assistant manager to Hiddink and Van Gaal, and things haven’t really gotten any better.
Instead of new ideas and new vision, Blind is just doing the same old thing. Instead of challenging his team and experimenting with different players who fit the roles he’s trying to employ, he’s shoehorning the same old faces into spots that they don’t fit. That kind of thinking saw the Netherlands face Sweden using a three-man midfield made entirely of linking players, with little creativity and no one who can adequately play any kind of ball-winning role out of possession. Their most creative player, the aging and broken shell of Wesley Sneijder, was forced into playing on the wing, a role he hasn’t been any good at in years. The best striker on the pitch, Quincy Promes, was forced to play out wide as well because the only other decent striker in the lineup, Vincent Janssen, can’t play wide, and if Danny Blind can’t play his 4-3-3 with his available talent — well, he’ll play his 4-3-3 anyways.
Yes, the Netherlands came back to earn a second half draw with Sweden. But they only had to come from behind because their defenders were too busy protesting a handball that didn’t happen to actually defend, and their performance as a whole was gravely disappointing against a Swedish side that is average at best on the European scene, especially with Zlatan Ibrahimovic retired from the international game. If the Dutch can’t beat them -- and in fact have to rely on a little luck in the form of a parried save falling right to Sneijder just to get that draw — then what does that say about where this national team is going?
We’ll answer that for you: nothing good. And while other national teams are suffering hiccups of their own early in World Cup qualifying, the Netherlands are still trying to find a way to start climbing out of the hole they’ve dug themselves over the last few years. If they’re even going to find the their way to the top of that hole, much less escape it, the Netherlands are going to have to make some big changes to how they approach things as a national team. What worked for decades isn’t working any more, and now they need to find something new to guide them to the future.