Netherlands left looking for answers with Euro 2016 place in jeopardy
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The same Netherlands team that humiliated Spain early in last year's World Cup is fading—and fading fast.
After losses to Turkey and Iceland over the last few days, the Dutch are on the brink of missing out on next year's European Championship in France—a tournament expanded to accommodate 24 teams.
The Netherlands lineup that lost to Iceland 1-0 at home on Thursday and then 3-0 at Turkey on Sunday is virtually unchanged from the one that overwhelmingly defeated the defending World Cup champions 5-1 last year in Brazil and ended up finishing third.
"This whole qualification campaign has been incredibly difficult," Netherlands striker Robin van Persie said after the loss in Turkey. "We still have a chance, but it is no longer in our hands and that is terrible."
These days, the 1988 European champions and three-time World Cup finalists are struggling to find the net against all but the weakest opponents. The team is even more inept at defending its own goal.
A tight defense was the foundation of the Netherlands' success in Brazil—apart from two penalty shootouts, the team conceded only four goals in seven matches at the World Cup. In eight Euro 2016 qualifiers, the Dutch have already allowed 10 goals.
Even Johan Cruyff, a passionate advocate of attacking soccer, has been left lamenting the lack of quality at the back.
In his column in Monday's edition of Dutch daily De Telegraaf, the former Netherlands great pointed to the penalty given away by defender Gregory van der Wiel that handed Iceland victory in Amsterdam as symptomatic of poor Dutch defending.
"Again, a defender who doesn't think enough about positional play," Cruyff wrote.
The long-term knee injury that sidelined center back Ron Vlaar has been a key problem in defense, just as Arjen Robben's injury-hit season undermined attacking options. Both players were standouts of the World Cup campaign.
But more than any individual absences, the Netherlands' team spirit appears to be missing.
"In Oranje, there are a number of players who are only concerned about themselves," former Netherlands player Willem van Hanegem wrote in his Monday column in the Algemeen Dagblad daily newspaper.
He singled out Memphis for criticism.
"He only lay on the ground," Van Hanegem wrote, overlooking the fact that the Manchester United winger supplied a number of crosses from the left that could—should—have led to Dutch goals.
The misfiring Memphis, out-of-form Van Persie and often-injured Robben have contributed to a shocking attacking impotence against all but the lowliest teams in Group A.
The Dutch have scored 11 goals in three matches against Kazakhstan and Latvia, but only two in five matches against Iceland, the Czech Republic and Turkey, the teams now above them in the group.
Many are blaming the coaching staff.
After his World Cup campaign, Louis van Gaal—known for ruling his teams with an iron fist—moved to Manchester United and was replaced by Guus Hiddink, an experienced and highly successful coach known for a more hands-off relationship with players.
But Hiddink's approach backfired immediately. In his first match in charge, a friendly against Italy, the Dutch conceded two early goals and lost 2-0, setting the tone for a short and unsuccessful second stint in charge.
Hiddink repeatedly saw his team give away early goals and then struggle to recover. His contract was soon terminated.
Danny Blind—with two losses in his first two matches since replacing Hiddink—has not been able to overturn the slide. He now has to rely on Turkey dropping points in its last two matches for the Dutch to stand any chance of securing third place in Group A and a playoff berth.