Tough World Cup draw for the Netherlands as 2010 Final repeat with Spain beckons
As Jerome Valcke drew the Netherlands from Pot Four and placed them into Group B, large breaths were drawn from the watching audience. Suddenly, there were flashbacks of that scrappy, gruelling evening in Johannesburg in the World Cup Final of 2010. The Dutch were going to face the Spaniards in the first week of the tournament, kicking off the next tournament against the side they ended the last one.
Horrifying images immediately started to roll before the very eyes of all Dutch natives. Robben’s failed one-on-ones with Iker Casillas; the red card of John Heitinga in extra-time; the subtle movement of Andres Iniesta to receive the well-timed and weighted pass of Cesc Fabregas just minutes before the final whistle; the ball bouncing perfectly in front of the Barcelona wizard following his neat first touch and then that definitive blast beyond Maarten Stekelenburg. Hopes dashed, dreams shattered, a country left crushed after seeing the sport’s most valuable trophy slip out of their reach at the final hurdle for the third time.
As the flashbacks faded though, a wry smile would have crossed the face of many Oranje supporters. Finally, a chance to get revenge on the Spaniards and show the world that the Dutch can once again play football. They have come a long way from the aggressive, nasty and negative football which saw them vilified throughout the tournament in South Africa. They’ve even come a long way since the humiliating turnout in Euro 2012.
“It is extraordinary that we start the World Cup against the opponent we ended it with four years ago in the final,” said Robin van Persie following the draw. “I like the fact that we get the chance to make amends at the first opportunity. After that, we immediately know where we stand.
“I think it’s a nice group and I look forward to it.”
Coach Louis van Gaal, however, was not so upbeat. “Give me a group of death,” were his words before the draw was made. “It’s fair to say that it’s not a good draw for us,” he admitted afterwards.
“We will play Spain, the reigning world champions; Australia, who we have never beaten; and Chile. The Netherlands are ninth in the FIFA Ranking and Spain are first, so who do you think are favourites? Of course, it’ll be a replay of the 2010 Final. Chile will be difficult, they’ve got players like Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal. They’re a very tough team to beat. I saw them play against Colombia when they went 3-0 up and they showed that they are a good team.
“If we qualify we could end up meeting Brazil, the tournament favourites, [in the Round of 16] which makes the task even more difficult.
“So, it’s not the best of draws from a Dutch perspective: I would have preferred Group H. We do not have a lot of time to prepare either after arriving in Brazil, so it’s also a bad draw in that respect.”
Van Gaal’s team were the final nation to be drawn into the group alongside with World and twice European Champions as well as Australia and Chile. While it is a very tough group, Netherlands should be more confident of making their way through to the knockout stages of the sport’s most prestigious competition than Van Gaal suggests.
Kicking the tournament off on the 13th of June with a repeat of the previous edition’s final, Oranje then meet Australia on the 18th before facing Chile on the 23rd.
For Van Gaal’s side, it is somewhat more convenient that they face the World number one team first. A team consistently shattering records and achieving the seemingly impossible with the likes of Iker Casillas, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Fernando Torres, Sergio Ramos, Pedro, Cesc Fabregas and, well, the list goes on, it is hard to see anyone beating them. Even for a team like the Netherlands, a draw would be considered a bonus.
From then on they can see what shape the group is taking and prepare for the games against Australia (59th in the FIFA rankings) and Chile (15th). While there is no such thing as an easy game for the Netherlands, there is certainly enough in this team to see them beyond these two teams and thus the group stage. The biggest worry is that whoever finishes second in Group B will meet the winners of Group A in the second round, which one would expect to be the competition’s hosts and one of the favourites, Brazil.
The Dutch team that will travel to Brazil has a good mix of youth and experience, but it is certainly not in perfect shape and has some clear weak points. Van Gaal is lucky to have various options for all positions in the team, however, he is yet to settle on a starting XI as the finals looms.
There are, though, some figures whose places in the first-team are cemented and will only be removed by a serious injury between now and the opener against Spain.
In Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, the tree-time World Cup runners-up have two world class forwards. The Bayern Munich star has been one of the world’s standout performers in 2013, while the Manchester United talisman remains one of the world’s best strikers. In recent matches, Netherlands have fielded the two icons of the current side and Jeremain Lens on the left, however, it seems more likely that Luciano Narsingh or Memphis Depay will take the place of the inconsistent Dynamo Kyiv player. There are several other options as Jean-Paul Boetius, Memphis Depay, Luciano Narsingh, Dirk Kuyt and Ola John can play on the wings while Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (should he recover from his injury), Bas Dost and Ricky van Wolfswinkel can fill in as the pinnacle of the attack.
The Oranje midfield is one of great athleticism and energy. Roma player Kevin Strootman will be crucial to their chances in Brazil next summer. His absence to the midfield in Euro 2012 was obvious. With two holding midfielders in Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong in behind attacking midfielder Welsey Sneijder, it meant the midfield in Poland and Ukraine was simply an illusion. All it did was divide the team on the field, which was already divided off of it. There was a seven man defence and a four man attack, nothing more. No unity, no fluency. The lack of an orthodox central midfielder in the team was obvious. There was a need, even then, for Strootman, who was injured and missed out on the competition, to bring it all together and run from box-to-box with his technique and speed.
Now, though, Strootman has developed even further and has been immense for Roma following his €19m move from PSV. Furthermore, Nigel de Jong looks likely to be an important player for the national team once again. The Milan player was brought back into the setup recently and looks a completely different player than the ultimately destructive midfielder with a penchant for fly kicks that he has resembled previously.
When paired alongside each other, Strootman and De Jong have more freedom to operate in their natural positions and seem to complement each other too, whereas De Jong and Van Bommel only restricted each other. Now, the positional excellence of De Jong shines through, while his tackling is more calculated and constructive than it is simply aggressive and sloppy and Strootman has the ability to take the ball forward and smoothen the transition of defence to attack.
In the absence of De Jong, however, Strootman has shown that he can also play alongside Stijn Schaars, currently of PSV, as part of a controlling duo which supports an attacking midfielder such as Rafael van der Vaart or Wesley Sneijder.
Crucially at this time, there is more depth to the Netherlands midfield than there has been in recent years. Jordy Clasie, Leroy Fer, Adam Maher, Sneijder and Van der Vaart are all available for selection and are of obvious talents. The former three are still developing this season while the latter two offer great experience as well as their creative superiority. Also, Jonathan De Guzman and Tonny Trindade de Vilhena are in contention, with Marco van Ginkel and Georginio Wijnaldum in with a chance if they recover from their injuries on time to persuade the coach they are worth a place.
When it comes to the defence, there are some things for Van Gaal to work out. The goalkeeper is yet to be decided. The coach has favoured the inexperienced Jasper Cillessen who recently took over as Ajax’s first choice shot-stopper in recent weeks, despite having Tim Krul, Michel Vorm and Maarten Stekelenburg at his disposal. Cillessen seems ahead of the others in Van Gaal’s estimations, but nothing is confirmed as of yet.
As for the back four, Feyenoord is the main theme the former Ajax coach is following.
The Rotterdam side’s Daryl Janmaat will take up the right-back position, with Ajax youngster Ricardo van Rhijn available as backup. Here, Janmaat’s relationship with his Feyenoord teammate Stefan de Vrij will be key. The 22-year-old centre-back is highly rated by Van Gaal and is a mainstay in his side. Ex-Feyenoorder Ron Vlaar could be the one to partner De Vrij, while current Feyenoorder Bruno Martins Indi will be on the left side, where he plays most often for his club. But Van Gaal could opt to put Maritns Indi in the centre with De Vrij, his favoured position, in which case it will be either Ajax’s Daley Blind or PSV’s Jetro Willems who acts as the left fullback. There are also several backup options for the central defensive places in Ajax youngster Joel Veltman and PSV’s duo Jeffrey Bruma and Karim Rekik.
Van Gaal, then, can count himself lucky to have so many defenders of a bright Feyenoord team who know each other and have developed a partnership which will follow onto the World Cup relatively smoothly.
Janmaat is defensively stable as a right-back, but is also strong going forward and keeps balance as well as width on the flank alongside Robben who prefers to cut in. The left side, however, is one of Oranje’s weakest points. Blind and Willems are rather negligent when it comes to defensive duties and they are not helped out by Lens who is inconsistent and doesn’t track back to help out. Thus, the stronger Martins Indi is certainly the more reliable option for Van Gaal if he wants to remain cautious against three teams he sees as very difficult opponents.
Many places in the squad are still to be decided by the current Oranje coach, but there is great belief that Van Gaal will put together a strong squad for the journey to Brazil in the summer. This is a side of technique, skill and pace. It is certainly one more capable of playing the type of football associated with the Netherlands than that which was on show under his predecessor. As the strength of the opponents is immense, seeing the Dutch make it to the final seems somewhat outlandish, there reason to be confident that they will put in a more respectable showing than they did in their previous international tournament.
The coach has taken the nation to a World Cup finals in his second attempt and will vacate the position at the end of the tournament. He should be more confident in his team as they look to get out of a dangerous group and into the late stages of the biggest competition in the sport.