The Dutch national team: Tickets booked, what next?

Despite sealing qualification for the World Cup in Brazil with a win against Andorra (0-2) and keeping their unbeaten status intact, the past international qualifiers were hardly a breeze for the Dutch and especially for manager Louis van Gaal. A late equaliser through a soft penalty for Robin van Persie ensured they were saved from the embarrassment of suffering a defeat at the hands of Estonia and, with Dutch football giants Johan Cruijff and Willem van Hanegem quick to jump onto the situation, the critique on the squad and staff of Oranje. Cruijff said he was happy with the 2-2 draw against Estonia, as it was a good reality check, emphasising that the Dutch arent’ actually as good as they think they are. Van Hanegem meanwhile stated he had nothing against Van Gaal, but thought the national team coach looked unsure and shaky at the moment. Van Gaal kind of brought the latter on himself, as he made some odd decisions during his second reign as Netherlands manager.

Shifts in the hierarchy

When Van Gaal was appointed Oranje coach, Wesley Sneijder became captain, Dirk Kuijt vice-captain and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was named first-choice striker. Van Gaal, looking confident, preached a wide 4-3-3, making his mark by stating Arjen Robben should adapt to the left flank and a genuine right winger should occupy the other flank. Luciano Narsingh, a pacey winger who had impressed at SC Heerenveen, earning a transfer to title contenders PSV, became the first to have a go at fulfilling said role. In the first game played under Van Gaal (4-2 loss against Belgium), John Heitinga, Joris Mathijsen, Nigel de Jong and Maarten Stekelenburg started. A quartet that spells ‘experience’ more than the guy in those awful ‘Just for Men’ hair paint commercials.

The new and the old captain.

The new and the old captain.

Fast forward 13 months and against Estonia and Andorra. Robin van Persie is the undisputed captain and main striker, Arjen Robben the vice-captain playing from the right and on the left, the right-footed Jeremain Lens is cutting in as an inside forward. Meanwhile, Joris Mathijsen has been pushed out to the bench and John Heitinga is nowhere to be seen.  Maarten Stekelenburg and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar are both out due to injury, but have been in and out of the squad of late. Wesley Sneijder wasn’t selected for the squad until Rafael van der Vaart and Georginio Wijnaldum declined their invitation for the Dutch team due to injury. Nigel de Jong didn’t receive a call-up at all.

The willingness of Van Gaal to be critical towards his initial pickings is admirable. But there’s a small line between being critical and depleting your current squad of any confidence and the 62-year-old has been walking that line ever since he took over the Dutch team.  The changes cited above aren’t even telling half of the story. In the World Cup qualifiers, the former Barcelona boss has used 34 players, including four keepers. While injuries might have skewed the number a bit, it’s an astonishing figure in a build-up to a tournament, especially considering there have been only eight games played thus far.

Finding the right XI – The easy part

Robben about to score.

Robben about to score.

Of all players eligible to play for the Netherlands, there are only two that can be identified as world class in Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben.  The other nine positions have several players of a similar calibre fighting for their place. As things stand, and that’s always a thing with Van Gaal, the centre back pairing of Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij seem fairly certain of their place in the starting line-up. The same goes for right back Darryl Janmaat and central midfielder Kevin Strootman. This basically leaves Van Gaal with three defenders, one central midfielder, one winger and one striker he will definitely use. Six fine players, but how will he fill in the rest of the positions? Will the experienced Maarten Stekelenburg become the undisputed number one? or will it be the younger Tim Krul, the agile Michel Vorm or the athletic Kenneth Vermeer? Will he prefer the more creative left back Daley Blind, who lacks pace and power, or will he use the powerhouse Jetro Willems, who lacks some attacking creativity?

How will Van Gaal set out his midfield? Is Strootman going to be the most defensive player of a three man midfield or will Van Gaal look at Stijn Schaars, Jordy Clasie or Nigel de Jong to play a deeper role and give Strootman some ‘marauding space’? Or will a set-up with two more attacking midfielders be preferred? Jonathan de Guzman has shone as a deep-lying playmaker for Swansea, while  Siem de Jong is used to being the less attacking midfielder of the two in front of a holding midfielder at Ajax. Early signs of Leroy Fer at Norwich City are promising and the powerful midfielder could well add some steel and stamina to the Dutch midfield. Marco van Ginkel is bench warming at Chelsea at the moment, but he has shown he can play behind an attacking midfielder and still be a threat. Adam Maher fulfils a similar role for PSV at the moment. All of the three mentioned are suited as a number 10 too, and all of the other options for that position offer something different.

Finding the right XI – The hard part

While deciding whether you want an additional midfielder who adds a bit of defensive balance or more of an attacking one next to Strootman is quite a basic decision, especially since there are a few players who can fill in both roles. The real trouble decision wise is a bit further up the pitch. While Robben and Van Persie are exceptional and thus guaranteed a place, it doesn’t solve the puzzle entirely. Assuming the 4-3-3 system won’t be touched, will Van Gaal field Robben and consequently his counterpart on the other flank as an inverted winger (Jeremain Lens) or does he expect Arjen Robben to occupy the left flank and will he be looking for a right-footed winger  (Luciano Narsingh, Ruben Schaken) on the opposite end? Or will Ola John be used as a traditional left winger while Robben gets the chance to cut in from the right?

The same problem surrounds Van Persie. Currently renowned for being lethal in front of goal, the 30-year-old is surely one of the most creative and complete forwards to walk the planet. At Arsenal he revelled when he had the space to drop deep every once in a while, at Manchester United he also enjoys the occasional roam. In the national team though, he has never been used as the main focal point in attack and just as Van Gaal looked set to accommodate his star man in his preferred role, he brought the previously dropped Sneijder back in the 10-role.

The 10 role

The number of flavours for this position are endless and it’s hard to pick your favourite.  Not only because of the quantity, but also because of the lack of one flawless, outstanding player and the difficulty of fitting him right into the team. Your ‘chocolate-vanilla’, sort of speak. A flavour recognised as one of the best and most likable, one that doesn’t offer up a debate.

Maher shone against Italy.

Maher shone against Italy.

Wesley Sneijder has never been that flavour, but once was at such a level that the uncompromising attacking midfielder, who has a poacher-like eagerness for goals and a fear of fulfilling defensive duties, could warrant to be included anyway, despite taking up a lot of space in which Van Persie likes to operate. Rafael van der Vaart lacks the passing ability and two-footedness of Sneijder, but ironically scores easier and is a rather selfless 10 with a lot of subtlety. Even though Van der Vaart is an accomplished player and seems to link up well with Van Persie, he never really became the football superstar he promised to be and he has lost a yard of pace the last couple of years. Another option is Georginio Wijnaldum, who once looked to become the next big thing and at 22, there’s still a chance he can become a class player. Not the most creative player, Wijnaldum is a player who likes to work the channels and is more of a goalscorer than an assister. Furthermore, despite being pacey and able to take on a man, there is the doubt about Wijnaldum, who has played an astonishing 181 league games already, has the intelligence to play as a 10.  Adam Maher is ranked amongst the most talented young players on the planet, but is only 19. He does seem quite an all-round option and impressed hugely against Italy this February, but he has started the season stuttering at PSV.  Siem de Jong might be less of a natural talent and isn’t the ‘tiki-taka’ type of player you’d expect in that position, but the captain of Ajax has been instrumental for his club the last couple of years, weighing in with his fair share of goals and assists.

So what’s it going to be?

The options presented are not just the options the manager has, but more the options Louis van Gaal is considering. And these things are always open to change, especially since there are only a few standout players at the moment. For example, an excellent season of Dico Koppers at FC Twente could make him a contender for the left back spot. Virgil van Dijk could impress in the Champions League with Celtic and give De Vrij a run for his money, not to mention the young boys of PSV in the centre of defence, Karim Rekik and Jeffrey Bruma. Will Memphis Depay’s talent be unearthed by Philip Cocu at PSV and can the young forward impress enough to make a stance for a place in the squad?

Van Gaal and his disciples.

Van Gaal and his disciples.

The problem is not so much that all these options are available; the problem is that Van Gaal is seemingly struggling to make decisions when it comes to developing a style and picking his players. Sneijder has been ignored for months in favour of ‘team players’ Van der Vaart, Wijnaldum and Maher, but all of a sudden gets the nod when two of the options fall away through injury, drastically changing the focus of the attack from the striker to the number 10. In attack, Van Gaal played an inverted winger against Estonia in Robben, but chose to use Schaken, a traditional right winger against Andorra. Stijn Schaars was brought into midfield after an absence of over a year to accompany his predecessor at PSV, Strootman. As a consequence, the balance of a right-footed player next to the left-footed Strootman was all of a sudden changed, with De Guzman dropped to the bench. Vorm continued in goal after a surprise starting spot against Portugal (1-1) the previous month. No keeper has played in more than three of the qualifiers so far.

While qualification has been sealed, the Dutch team is looking far from fluid at the moment and lately, the team looks bereft of any creativity despite some outstanding talents available in the squad. More worrying, against Estonia and Andorra it was Robben (1) and Van Persie (3) who took care of the goals and were responsible for most of the danger. Apart from the fact that it’s quite clear who the opposition should mark, these aren’t two players renowned for their fitness. Both are unique talents, but have the term ‘injury prone’ pencilled behind their names. If one of the two would pull out of the squad through injury, on who can Van Gaal rely to make a difference?

It is time for a game plan, time for clarity. Van Gaal is in a paradox of trying to be uncontroversially controversial. Something that is bound to end bad. A team performs with eleven players and a 23 man squad. Not with the other 80 or so options available.

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