Five conclusions on Oranje’s Asia trip
With two solid if unremarkable victories over Indonesia (0-3) and China (0-2), The Netherlands concluded their season. Against Indonesia, all goals were scored in the second half through Siem de Jong (’57, ’67) and Arjen Robben (’90). Against China, Robin van Persie opened the score (pen. ’11) and Sneijder completed the rout in the second half (’66). Nikos Overheul and Michiel Jongsma look back at the journey trough Asia and wrote five conclusions that can be drawn from the trip.
Change of the guard; Van Persie is now officially the Dutch superstar
The core of the ‘06-‘12 national team consisted mainly of players who made their debut between ’01-’05. From that period on, players like John Heitinga, Joris Mathijsen, Nigel de Jong, Khalid Boulahrouz, Maarten Stekelenburg, Dirk Kuyt and the so-called ‘big four’, an attacking quartet consisting of Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie. While Heitinga, Mathijsen, De Jong, Boulahrouz, Stekelenburg and Kuyt were solid squad players, the big four were generally recognized as top players. Of the five, the last two have the fewest caps due to various reasons. But it’s now those two who Van Gaal is looking at to make the difference and carry the team. Robben ,when fit, was always certain of his starting spot and from that perspective his vice-captaincy is no big surprise.
Robin van Persie on the other hand was always a controversial pick, being shipped out to the right wing first, then getting a chance in the striker position with the constant pressure of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and others threatening his spot. Louis van Gaal even picked Huntelaar over Van Persie at his first game back in charge of The Netherlands. How things have changed. Van Persie was made main striker immediately after that first game and in what can be described as a ‘line-up for the future’ this February against Italy, Van Persie was the only starter compared to the first game of the European Championships only 8 months earlier. This summer, Huntelaar wasn’t even picked for the Asia-trip, because he wasn’t in form last season and, as Van Gaal put it ‘he wouldn’t have played anyway because I wanted to check out other options’, in this case Norwich City acquisition Ricky van Wolfswinkel.
The captaincy given to Van Persie was another testament of Van Gaal having faith in Robin van Persie’s abilities and the Dutch manager was full of praise about his new captain in the media. ‘We see that Robin cares about his surroundings and inspires other players’, he told Dutch paper Algemeen Dagblad. Where other managers left room for doubts about the Rotterdam-born striker, Van Gaal has squashed them resolutely a year before the Brazil World Cup takes place. Van Persie is a superstar and he has the backing of the manager to show for it.
Sneijder will have to fear for Brazil WC 2014
In 2010, Bert van Marwijk chose to make Wesley Sneijder the undisputed star player, the creative fulcrum of his pursuit to become World Champions. A logical move, the little playmaker had been marvellous for his club, aiding immensely to Internazionale’s treble. Two years later, Van Marwijk again put his money on the Utrecht-born, but this time around, the decision to give him a key-role was slightly more controversial.
In the two years between the tournaments, he wasn’t exactly setting the world alight. He failed to impress in the tournament, but was given the captaincy by new manager Louis van Gaal too. A year later, the perspective for Sneijder is worse than it has been for over six years. With talents emerging in Adam Maher and Marco van Ginkel and Van Gaal looking at Rafael van der Vaart and Siem de Jong as options more befitting the system Van Gaal eyes, Sneijder has more competition than ever. To add to the misery, he has hardly played for six months before making the switch to Galatasaray from Inter. At the Turkish club, he hasn’t found his top form yet, causing Van Gaal to cast doubts over his fitness. Handing the captaincy to Robin van Persie ahead of the Asia-trip was a sign on the wall to Sneijder and a very clear warning that the fourth best FIFA player of 2010 is anything but sure of a place in the squad of 23 that will be selected for the World Cup next year.
The loss of the captaincy was quite a slap in the face for Sneijder, even though he has already stated he won’t consider accepting a call-up for the World Cup if he feels he is not 100% fit. Van Gaal has said he has doubts Sneijder will become the world player he ever was, but has also said he reckons that everyone will help Sneijder out wherever they can. Not starting against China might have been discouraging, but the second half performance was a joy to behold and although the opposition wasn’t of a sufficient level to really test the two-footed midfielder, a goal like this should be enough to encourage belief in everyone that he still has that special spark.
Experiments in defence
One of the more interesting aspects of this trip was the fact that van Gaal took the opportunity to experiment with his back four. Daley Blind, Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij – all regular starters – were away in Israel with the U-21 team which meant van Gaal had to improvise. Instead of choosing a like-for-like replacement, he decided to try some tactical experiments. Van Gaal consideres both Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat to be attacking full backs. Almost all other options for those two positions are of a similar attacking bent, which meant the manager had to pick some surprising names. Feyenoord’s Miquel Nelom and Swansea’s Dwight Tiendalli both got their first cap against Indonesia. Neither of them are automatic starters at club level nor are they good enough for the Dutch national team against serious opposition. Nelom was exposed in the opening stretches of the match against China, often allowing them to pick out an easy cross into the box.
Erik Pieters was played out of position against Indonesia by van Gaal. The PSV left back partnered Ron Vlaar in the heart of defence, but was unconvincing, at one point misjudging an easy long ball which allowed the Indonesian striker a run at goal. Neither the defensive full backs, nor Erik Pieters at centre-back worked well and it would be a surprise to see a reprise of them.
Summer trips in non-tournament years are traditionally an occasion to give international debuts to talented young players. This time around Jasper Cillessen, Miquel Nelom, Dwight Tiendalli and Jens Toornstra were given the chance to impress Louis van Gaal and his staff. Second choice Ajax goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen played the first half against Indonesia before being replaced by Kenneth Vermeer. As was to be expected, Cillessen was hardly tested by the Indonesian strikeforce. What he did, he did well, but his contribution was minimal.
As mentioned, Nelom was a disappointment and it would be a surprise to see him get called up again anytime soon. Tiendalli played fairly well in his limited time on the pitch – a little over an hour in total – but his attacking contributions were non-existant.
FC Utrecht’s Jens Toornstra has been called up to the national team before, but he had not yet made his debut before the match against Indonesia. His performances were solid, but unspectacular. Essentially a replacement for Kevin Strootman – away at the Euro U-21 championship – Toornstra acquitted himself well. He made no big mistakes, but also didn’t make any important contributions to attack or defence. All in all, Toornstra did the best job of all four debutants and it looks likely he’ll be given more chances en route to the World Cup next year.
Was this Asia trip really necessary?
All in all, this trip may not have been worth the hassle of two trips halfway around the world, especially with at least four of his expected starting eleven next year on national duty with the under 21’s at the European Championships in Israel. Van Gaal made the best of it by experimenting tactically, particularly with the defence. Siem de Jong is a different kind of attacking midfielder than Wesley Sneijder, Adam Maher or Rafael van der Vaart and Van Gaal is to be commended for using this trip to try something different. The main benefit, however, will have been financial. The KNVB received a sizeable sum of money (1.5 million euros) for the matches and promoting the Dutch national team in two lucrative markets will likely earn Dutch football some additional cash. However, the Dutch team might have been better off going to Brazil to prepare for the World Cup. Scouting out locations and getting used to the environmental conditions would have been an important step in the road to the World Cup and this was likely the last chance to try this. Furthermore, the lack of real opposition meant the squad wasn’t properly tested and even though a few options can be shut out now as they had trouble against these, with all respect, mediocre teams, it is hardly a guarantee that the ones that did leave a good impression will do the same against stronger countries.