The Dutch defensive dilemma

If Holland national coach Bert van Marwijk could travel back in time, he would most likely go back to 1830 to stop those damned Belgians from forming their own country. It would secure the defensive talents of Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen and add the required dynamic to the central midfield in Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini. Combined with either Stekelenburg or Krul on goal, one of Europe’s most sought-after defenders Gregory van der Wiel on right back and an attacking quartet of Sneijder, Robben, Van Persie and Huntelaar,  an irresistible team could be formed, striking fear in every opponent and earning praise of every pundit, a true footballing machine, comparable to the greatest teams that ever graced the globe!…

Unfortunately for Bert, he doesn’t have a time machine (that I know of), so he will have to make do with the likes of Jethro Willems, Wilfred Bouma, Joris Mathijsen and John Heitinga.

Ever since Jaap Stam and Frank de Boer retired from international football in 2004, the Oranje has struggled to fill in the central defender-role. The same can be said of the left back position. Even though Giovanni van Bronckhorst did a terrific job there the last eight or so years, he wasn’t a natural left back. It has made the back line defensively prone for the last eight years. Glimmers of hope occurred in Khalid Boulahrouz, John Heitinga and more recently Jeffrey Bruma, but nobody has reached the dizzying heights of former Dutch greats like Wim Rijsbergen, Rinus Israel, Ruud Krol, Ronald Koeman or the aforementioned Jaap Stam and Frank de Boer. All Champions Cup-winners, by the way. It’s no coincidence the current defenders are struggling to even make it into a Champions League-side. Bar Gregory van der Wiel none of the selected defenders have been in a Champions League-game for over four years.

The Dutch have long been a neutrals’ favourite because of its creative playing style. It is mainly known for its longstanding tradition of delivering creative, attacking players.  But the unsung heroes of the teams that entertained the world in 1974, 1988 and 1998 were all close to world class as well.  And while the attacking quality of the current team is as good as any (although no one is near the level of Cruyff and van Basten), it is a tough call to gamble on them to outscore the opponent game after game.

Van Marwijks predecessor Marco van Basten did favour this approach, but only took Oranje past the group stage before stranding against respectively Portugal (WC ’06) and Russia(EC ’08). The more pragmatic approach of van Marwijk seemed to have taken them further than that: In South Africa they managed to get to the finals with a quite  robust and rigid style of play. While relying on the individual class of Robben, Sneijder and Van Persie, the game plan included Kuijt, Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong, to various degrees, continually shielding the defense to fence off attacks of the opponent.  It made sure the backline with Van Bronckhorst, Mathijsen, Heitinga and van der Wiel was rarely exposed.

However, the attacking talents of especially van Persie were never truly shown during this tournament as a consequence of this immobile game plan. The playing style fell under a lot of criticism, but as the results merited the method, they were tolerated for the time being.

With van Bronckhorst now retired and his successor Erik Pieters out injured, the puzzle has gotten even tougher. Eighteen year old  PSV-defender Jetro Willems is considered for the left back position, but has a clear lack of experience at the highest level. Wilfred Bouma has had a torrid few seasons and Stijn Schaars is a holding midfielder willing to alter his game for his country. The central defensive duo (Mathijsen-Heitinga) still lack pace, strength and, to be frank, quality. Only van der Wiel seems up for the job, but he has his flaws too.

There is hope for the future in young talents like Stefan de Vrij (Feyenoord) , Ricardo van Rhijn (Ajax), Virgil van Dijk (FC Groningen) and Jeffrey Gouweleeuw (SC Heerenveen), while Brazilian-born FC Twente-defender Douglas already gained Dutch citizenship in order to play for the Netherlands in the upcoming years. They may be exciting prospects, it is in no way certain they will reach the status of world class defender.

Van Marwijk now has a big call to make. Will he try to implement the beloved Total Football that has made the Dutch team so beloved or will he continue to protect his back line by bringing in defensively disciplined midfield players in the hope one of the gifted players up front will do the scoring? With the aforementioned Belgians in the team it wouldn’t be such a dilemma.

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