The Dutch had been in a long cycle of decline before the 55-year-old took over the reigns of the national side.
It was full time at the Johan Cruijff Arena on a chilly night in October 2017. The drooped shoulders and grimaced faces told you everything you needed to know: Netherlands National Football Team had failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
In a game where they needed to beat Sweden by 7 goals to qualify, they could only muster 2, both coming from the magical left foot of Arjen Robben who marked his last display for the Oranje with a masterclass. The nightmare and pain of not qualifying for the Euros in 2016 lived on for the Dutch and it signalled something strong and long overdue – a change of guard.
Weak performances and off-field unrest marked the dark era but what truly hurt their nation’s seniormost team was the fact that they had no successors lined up to ease and replace the aged core of the generation that famously took them to the final in 2010 and pushed mighty Spain to extra time – Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, Nigel de Jong, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar were all on the wrong side of 30.
Ronald took the reigns in March 2018
This cumulated with the fact that the Netherlands, the very nation that gave the world of football its holy grail in Total Football was going through a decade-long period of loss of identity and playing style. “For too long, the rest of the world peeped into our kitchen to try and copy ideas and now we go looking for ideas in others’ kitchens”, admitted Arjen Robben in an interview.
This was true even when Bert Van Marwijk took them to the final in Johannesburg and the Cruyffian principles of Totaal Voetbal were laid bare and abandoned altogether in an act of foolishness and betrayal.
Totaal Voetbal was born out of a simple necessity that has been inherent and deep-rooted in Dutch culture since time immemorial, the optimum utilisation of space. Cornelis Lely whose idea of altering the physical dimensions of Holland in the nineteenth century and creating giant new polders by building a dyke and harnessing the power of steam was centred around the concept of space, or lack of it to be precise owing to Netherlands’ bizarre topography. This architectural paradigm shift followed a cultural revolution that found its way to the nation’s art and literature and of course, its football pitches.
Therefore, it came as a sad revelation when after the disgrace of 2010 final, Johan Cruyff grimly admitted that he could never imagine the Netherlands renouncing its style in the way it did. “The father of Dutch football disowned Dutch football”, wrote David Winner in his famous book Brilliant Oranje.
Tactical analysis of Netherlands 2-0 France
And now 8 years later, one of Johan Cruyff’s students has been responsible for the Dutch renaissance.
Ronald Koeman was appointed as head coach in March 2018, having been in contention for the role since 2014 in an effort to make things right and avoid further mismanagement by the KNVB and it’s fair to say, the change has paid off so far.
Koeman has had a glittering career as a professional footballer – he played alongside the likes of Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard and was an integral part of the team that won the Euro Cup in 1988 in Germany, the only international trophy in Netherlands’ otherwise glorious footballing history.
What followed next has been cathartic.
Not only has the Netherlands team discovered a fresh crop of super-footballers that are more than capable of shouldering the role vacated by the golden generation, they are also getting closer to the model that inspired the fascination among football romantics for Dutch football in the first place with every passing game.
This Dutch team is now capable of playing both proactive football as was clearly visible in the statement 2-0 victory over World Champions France in the Nations League and reactive football- which brought them a great and late dramatic comeback against the winners of 2014 World Cup, Germany.
Netherlands: Now and Then
Led by the brilliant and decisive Virgil van Dijk who is partnered by the immaculately talented and mercurial 19-year-old Matthijs De Ligt, the Oranje have found not only two strong leaders on the pitch, but also two excellent ball-playing centre-halves (a role that Koeman himself used to excel in) who are very strong in positional play and in their reading of the game.
Shadowing them in midfield is Frenkie De Jong, a player that makes football look less like sport and more like art. The verticality and minimalism that the 21-year-old effuses on a football pitch would make even Piet Mondrian envious. And just like Mondrian, Frenkie is being labelled as a generational talent that is obsessed with space and geometry and has an unnatural talent in reducing those concepts to their most effortless and simplest interpretations.
Denzel Dumfries and Bergwijn are unstoppable on the left flank – stretching and expanding the shape of the team and providing pace and directness while Wijnaldum and De Roon have been more than reliable in midfield.
Ryan Babel’s red hair stands out and so does his sharp, swift feet and Memphis Depay seems like he’s finally on his way to earn the plaudits that his talent and potential deserves. Quincy Promes scored the superlative strike that instigated the Dutch comeback in Veltins-Arena and at 28, Daley Blind is the most senior outfield player, a far cry from the disaster that the Oranje were even two years ago when it came to squad management.
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So, what’s next for the Oranje?
I think it’s fair to say that when the Netherlands were drawn with France and Germany, the last two World Cup winners, not even the most passionate and optimistic Dutch supporters would have expected the events that have transpired since then.
Having qualified for the finals as group leaders and after two massive statement victories against France and Germany in 2-0 and 3-0 footballing lessons, the Dutch can certainly dare to dream.
Sure, trophies are still a long way to go but the Oranje now has one of the most exciting pools of talent to rely on and Koeman’s tenure is marking a closure of the long overdue departure from their root philosophies that had been abandoned for the pursuit of efficiency. And what better compliment can be issued to this Dutch team other than the fact that the late, great Johan Cruyff would be proud of the path they’re currently on.