- The Dutch followed consecutive deep World Cup runs by missing Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, but results are turning around under Ronald Koeman–even if the team's identity isn't close to what it once was.
It turns out everything looks better after a win over Germany, especially if you’re Dutch. Much has been written about the symbolic importance of the Netherlands’ victory over West Germany in the semifinal of Euro 88, and while their 3-0 win in Amsterdam on Saturday was clearly far less significant than that, it did perhaps help dispel the cloud that has settled over Dutch football in recent years.
The nation pulled together and, when it needed to, facing embarrassing relegation from Group 1 in League A of the new UEFA Nations League, a young team featuring two debutants from the start and another off the bench, turned in the most promising performance by a Dutch national side since the 2014 World Cup, recording the nation's biggest victory ever over its neighbor. The nature of the competition means that relegation is still a possibility, but Germany, unthinkably, is now the favorite to go down. The Netherlands battled to a 1-1 draw against Belgium on Tuesday, preserving the sense of well-being.
“We needed this result,” said manager Ronald Koeman, who has a modest 3-2-3 record after being appointed in February but has enjoyed a particularly more encouraging last two fixture windows. “Not just the head coach, not just the players, but the whole country. We can be very proud of ourselves.”
More than anywhere else, perhaps, Dutch football is always tied up with issues of style and identity. The Total Footballing revolution of the early 1970s still defines Dutch football, and memories of that continue to shape perceptions of what football ought to be. And as the Netherlands have gone through a grim few years, failing to qualify for both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, there has been much soul-searching. Dutch football has stopped feeling especially Dutch–and it’s far from clear whether that is a bad thing.
The doubts have been swirling for some time. Marco van Basten’s national side beat France and Italy at Euro 2008, but when it lost to Guus Hiddink’s Russia in the quarterfinal, it was beaten on its own terms, by a side that pressed harder and held the ball better. What happened at the World Cup two years later was far worse. Bert van Marwijk’s side reached the final in South Africa, but in such a way as to draw condemnation from Johan Cruyff.
The questions were magnified after Louis van Gaal led the Netherlands to the semifinals four years later in Brazil, playing with three central defenders. He made a spirited defense of the system, insisting his values were still those of the classic Ajax school, but given how he had dogmatically insisted on a proactive 4-3-3 at Ajax and Barcelona, his preference for a counter-attacking 5-3-2 only provoked more questions about precisely what those values were. Subsequent disastrous qualifying campaigns under Guus Hiddink, Danny Blind and Dick Advocaat, tended to vindicate Van Gaal’s new-fund pragmatism.
And Koeman? He laughed when asked at his introductory press conference whether he would revert to the classic 4-3-3 and, while he praised what Pep Guardiola–the closest adherent of Cruyffian values currently working–was doing at Manchester City, nothing in his early friendlies, when he tended to operate with a back three and little intention of controlling possession, suggested a re-imposition of traditional values.
It was not entirely clear whether style was cause or effect. After all, the Netherlands has a population of just 17 million; it is inevitable that there will be fallow generations. Ryan Babel, enjoying an unexpected late flourish to his career, points out that the economics of modern football exacerbate the problem.
“They are making their debut much earlier,” he told SI.com in a conversation in Istanbul last October. “In my time if you made your debut at 17 or 18 it was like, ‘Wow! Miracle!’ But now it’s normal. They have to be more responsible earlier. That’s why some players now are not in their best shape and getting criticized already.”
No matter the finances, replacing a talent like Arjen Robben, who retired from international football a year ago at the age of 33, was never going to be easy. In the previous four years, the Dutch scored almost a goal per game more when he played than when he didn’t. In Robben are bound up many of the questions about style. As journalist Simon Kuper pointed out in an article in Der Spiegel, Robben, having grown up in Bedum in the northeast of the Netherlands, hadn’t really had a Dutch footballing upbringing. If had been brought up in Amsterdam, the Ajax school would probably have coached his dribbling and individualism out of him.
“The Dutch game,” Kuper wrote, “has fallen into the hands of an old boys' club of former players who don't even want to keep up with the best foreigners.”
Koeman is far from being a zealot for the old school. He was using a back three with Feyenoord before Van Gaal adopted it for the national side. And yet the victory over the Germans was achieved with a 4-3-3. Perhaps it was still a little more pragmatic, a little more reactive than the purists would like. Nobody could seriously claim, on the back of one game, one good result, that Koeman has magically found the right balance. But after the past week, the future for Dutch football suddenly looks a lot brighter.