Holland have reached the World Cup final on three separate occasions in their illustrious history – 1974, 1978 and 2010.
Indeed, the 70s are rightfully regarded as the nation’s greatest footballing period. After failing to qualify in their four previous attempts, the Dutch reached back-to-back finals, only to fall at the final hurdle against West Germany and Argentina respectively.
That they didn’t win in ’74 remains one of the great injustices of the game, alongside Hungary’s defeat to the same nation in 1954.
The Dutch’s style in the period became known as Total Football, with playmaker Johan Cruyff leading the way as captain of his country. His skills had been developed at the now famed Ajax academy, and alongside Feyenoord the two clubs helped teach a philosophy of fast flowing, passing football not seen on the international stage in Europe before.
Cruyff moved to Barcelona in 1973; a switch that undoubtedly helped the Dutch over the next five years on the world stage. However, unrest in the national side played its part in the side not reaching it’s full potential.
Johan Neeskens, Johnny Rep and Jan Peters all added to the flare of the side, but six different managers in the decade suggests that something wasn’t quite right, and the side ultimately paid the price by not winning a major prize.
The period remains the most revered in Dutch history, but their run to the World Cup final in 2010 was anything but ‘Total Football’. BBC pundit Alan Hansen even described their efforts against Spain in the showpiece event as ‘Total Thuggery’.
One of the questions to ask is; does it matter? Van Marwijk has plenty of talented players at his disposal, but if they’d gone toe-to-toe with the Spanish in South Africa, what would the outcome have been. The general consensus is that Vicente del Bosque’s side would have run riot.
The truth is that Spain, like the Dutch in the 70s, are enjoying a period where they have changed the game. The difference is, they are winning tournaments.
Whilst it’s true that Holland have some talented individuals (Rafael Van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder), their success in Africa was built on a team effort that saw two players – Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel – sit in-front of the defence to protect.
Part of their current problem is that Van der Vaart isn’t guaranteed a start at Spurs, Wesley Sneijder’s Inter Milan are in dreadful form and Nigel De Jong is struggling to get into the Manchester City side. Dirk Kuyt is also a regular, but has found the going tough at Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish.
They do possess two quality strikers though, with Robin Van Persie and Klaas Jan-Huntelaar enjoying great campaigns in England and Germany respectively.
A talented young crop has also come to the fore in recent months, predominantly in the attacking positions. Luuk De Jong and Georginio Wijnaldum have just broken into the side, whilst Luciano Narsingh and Ola John are hoping to make their senior debuts at Wembley against England.
True, the names don’t strike fear into the hearts of an opponent yet, but all four have made solid progress in the Eredivisie and are deserving of their chance on the international stage.
Defence, as was the case in the 70s, is an Achilles heel. Joris Mathijsen and John Heitinga are senior campaigners. So is Khalid Boulahrouz, but the 30-year-old has always been in-and-out of the squad.
Gregory Van der Wiel is the rising star at the back, but he misses out tonight due to injury. A lack of depth in the position could see them field Jeffrey Bruma, who failed to make his mark at Chelsea and now plies his trade at Hamburg.
This weakness could explain the need for two holding midfielder, and were the De Boer brothers still plying their trade at the back, perhaps Van Marwijk would remove either De Jong or Van Bommel for a more attack-minded central midfielder.
With the current structure of the side, a return to Total Football isn’t on the cards. But, bare in mind that it didn’t bring success in the past, and probably wouldn’t either now or in the future.
The current generation, whilst extremely talented, aren’t able to brush aside more regimented national teams, as was arguably the case in the 70s. A more solid set-up on the pitch is needed as a foundation to build upon, allowing the more gifted players to do their thing where it matters at the top end.
Fingers crossed, we get to see this plan in action tonight.
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