“I have no words, I just have to thank Real Madrid because they sold him to us … he is absolutely crucial.” José Mourinho was emotional in his praise for Wesley Sneijder in April 2010. Mourinho’s Internazionale side, essentially defined by the Dutchman during their record-breaking 2009/10 campaign, had just famously defeated Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in the semi-final of the Champions League.
The admiration Mourinho had for Sneijder was reciprocated later in 2010 when the playmaker declared Mourinho “the best coach in the world”, bringing a tear to the Portuguese manager’s eye. By this time, Sneijder had cemented himself as one of the best players in football. Despite failing to win the World Cup that year, Sneijder was, according to Patrick Barclay, already “the best player of that European season”.
In many ways, 2010 could have been the year in which the Dutch finally conquered the world. Aside from Sneijder, the Bayern Munich trio of Arjen Robben and Mark van Bommel, coached by fellow Dutchman Louis van Gaal, won the Bundesliga title and DFB-Pokal, as well as reaching the Champions League final where they were ultimately defeated by the obstinate Inter.
Mourinho was asked by Dutch television before the final how significant it was to be facing off with Robben and Van Gaal. The Inter boss replied: “I love them. One was my player, one was my teacher.” Although Mourinho defeated his teacher, Van Gaal, the Dutch influence over European football during the 2009/10 campaign inspired optimism for Oranje and their hopes for World Cup glory that summer.
However, how the Netherlands combatted Spain in the 2010 World Cup final was extraordinarily detached from the classic Dutch principles of the beautiful game. To Johan Cruyff’s dismay, Bert van Marwijk’s team confronted Spain with a belligerence that represented a fundamental betrayal of the sacred Totaalvoetbal philosophy. Mark Van Bommel’s firm midfield presence was typified by a desire to rarely play football, targeting Spain’s most dangerous players, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi, with cynical fouls in an attempt to interrupt the flow of the game.
In winning the World Cup final courtesy of Iniesta’s stirring extra-time winner, Spain had shown that playing sumptuous possession-based football was a winning formula. It was a style inducive of Cruyff’s own gospel. Cruyff himself had come agonisingly close to World Cup glory with Oranje in 1974, but the Netherlands’ beautiful playing style was superseded by an innate arrogance and desire to humiliate West Germany during the final in Munich.
Before the World Cup in South Africa, Van Bommel spoke openly about Dutch football moving away from the replication of Cruyff’s 1974 vintage. Instead, the midfielder advocated a win at any cost mentality. Van Bommel spelt out: “We need to stop people talking about what happened in 1974.”
On the way to the final in 2010, the Dutch had relative success with a new, pragmatic style. Van Marwijk’s men defeated Brazil 2-1 in the quarter-finals with a clinical edge, both goals scored by the brilliant Sneijder; one a 40-yard free-kick which drifted past Brazil goalkeeper Júlio César, another a close-range header after Dirk Kuyt glanced Robben’s corner into the playmaker’s path. The latest version of O Jogo Bonito, spearheaded by Kaká and Robinho had been beaten by Dutch expediency.
The significance of the victory, according to Paul Scheffer, was that it revealed the morphing of the Dutch side into an entirely different beast in comparison with the past. Scheffer claims: “The way Brazil lost to Holland was the way Holland used to lose.” The Netherlands operated with more efficiency than ever before, with an acute balance between midfield stringency and attacking power.
However, the way in which Van Marwijk’s Oranje played against Spain was not pragmatic. It was quite the opposite; a foolish attempt to disrupt the match in a highly impractical manner. Cruyff was asked in the days leading up to the final whether the Netherlands could learn from how Mourinho’s Inter defeated Guardiola’s Barça. Cruyff initially dismissed the idea and, after the disgrace of the final, he sombrely admitted: “I thought my country would not dare to renounce their style.” Conclusively, David Winner poignantly noted in Brilliant Orange: “The father of Dutch football disowned Dutch football.”
Whilst Cruyff’s objection with the modern Dutch playing style was on the basis of principle, it is also clear that Van Marwijk could not have feasibly led the Netherlands to World Cup glory based on the Inter model. This is for many reasons.
Firstly, whilst the Dutch boasted players of great quality in Sneijder and Robben, the team was not as complete as Inter. The defence was incomparable with Inter’s. Lúcio and Maicon were two of the best defenders in the world during the 2009/10 season, both featuring in the FIFPro World XI in December 2010. Inter’s two anchoring midfielders, Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso, were superior technically compared to the more defensively minded Van Bommel and Nigel de Jong.
In attack, the Netherlands lacked a clinical striker. Although Sneijder was talismanic, Van Marwijk’s preferred striker Robin van Persie only managed one goal at the World Cup in South Africa. Inter’s Diego Milito, who scored 30 goals for the club in 2009/10, enjoyed his best ever goal-scoring season under Mourinho, and was a reliably lethal marksman.
Secondly, Spain were a fabulous team. Vicente del Bosque constructed a more forceful and astute unit than Guardiola’s Barcelona. Of course, Barça had Lionel Messi, but Spain had more steel, essential to their victory over Holland in Johannesburg. When Del Bosque’s team arrived in South Africa, the invaluable experience and virtuosity of their non-Barça players added another dimension to their power. Iker Casillas was peerless in goal, Sergio Ramos added vital aggression in defence, and Xabi Alonso was a phenomenon alongside Sergio Busquets in midfield.
Spain possessed all the hallmarks of a team designed to play Total Football, modernised and executed perfectly. Such was the team’s manipulative power, the Netherlands were unable to look up and assess game situations from an attacking point of view. For the Dutch, the sole focus was on the disruption of Spain’s rhythm. As Jon Townsend eloquently analysed for These Football Times in Philosophies, the most intriguing aspect of the style is that it maintains that “football is a mental game, not a physical one”. How the Netherlands betrayed this consecrated belief in the 2010 final.
Finally, Van Marwijk was an inferior coach to Mourinho. He did not have control over the team in the final. Although he would not admit this fact, his right-hand man, Frank de Boer, told FIFA TV: “We had absolutely no plan of playing physically … so it was very disappointing that we played that way.” The Netherlands committed 28 fouls in the World Cup final. Of course, they had to play extra-time on that occasion and Mourinho’s Inter did not, but the Portuguese’s pragmatism was more tactical, his team committing‘only 12 fouls.
World Cup failure in 2010 became a critical turning point for the Dutch players discussed thus far, with Sneijder, Robben and Van Bommel experiencing turbulent campaigns in the 2010/11 season. For These Football Times, Matt Gault wrote last year: “The memory of the ‘best Sneijder’ was the languid but devastating creator who struggled when he lost a mentor and leader in José Mourinho.” Furthermore, Patrick Barclay argued in his book Mourinho: Further Anatomy of a Winner that the 2009/10 Inter campaign was seminal for Sneijder.
Under Rafa Benítez, Inter started life after Mourinho positively, winning the Supercoppa Italiana at home against Roma. December of that season saw Inter lift the Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates, capping off a year of five trophies. However, Benítez was sacked in December 2010 after the club’s poor performances in Serie A.
Despite new coach Leonardo leading i Nerazzurri to the Coppa Italia title at the end of the season, they disappointingly crashed out of the Champions League in the quarter-final to Schalke, losing 7-3 on aggregate, a shocking contrast to the resolute defence Mourinho presided over the previous season. As Barclay solemnly concluded: “No longer did Sneijder, Milito and company carry all before them.”
The 2010/11 season for Robben, Van Bommel and Van Gaal was not much better. As James Kelly pointed out for These Football Times, Van Bommel clashed repeatably with Van Gaal at Bayern, with a heated exchange in December 2010 effectively ending the midfielder’s time at the club. Van Bommel was stripped of the Bayern captaincy and Luiz Gustavo was brought in from Hoffenheim in the January 2011 transfer window to replace the outgoing Dutchman, who signed for AC Milan.
However, the removal of Van Bommel was just the beginning of more turbulence at Bayern during the 2010/11 campaign. The Bavarian club was eliminated from the Champions League on away goals against Inter in the last 16. Even more damaging, the club were lagging behind Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and struggling to ensure qualification for the following season’s Champions League.
As a result, Van Gaal was sacked in April 2011. For Robben, he made only 18 appearances and scored 10 fewer goals than the previous season. His hamstring tear in August 2010 left him out for eight weeks, by then too late to save Bayern’s season as Dortmund stormed to the title by 10 points.
The Netherlands finished third at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a respectable feat despite the prevailing uncertainty surrounding the national team before the tournament. Louis van Gaal was the coach, with Sneijder and Robben still the key men. Holland’s first group match? Spain. Remarkably, Dutch football’s “weird uncle” Van Gaal, as Finley Crebolder brilliantly termed him for These Football Times, masterminded a footballing miracle as the Netherlands thrashed Spain 5-1. Robben was untouchable and Van Persie was in brilliant form, scoring a delightful acrobatic header past Iker Casillas.
However, any hopes that this redemptive victory over Spain would spur the Netherlands onto World Cup glory in 2014 were dashed in the semi-final as an old Dutch demon came back to haunt them: the penalty shoot-out. Indeed, Oranje won their quarter-final penalty shoot-out against Costa Rica after a drab 0-0 affair. Van Gaal’s decision to substitute goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen for Tim Krul was down to his belief that the second choice ‘keeper was a superior penalty stopper. Van Gaal’s choice paid off as Krul saved twice, whilst the Dutch takers scored four of their penalties in an atypical Dutch victory.
Their semi-final meeting with Argentina witnessed starkly contrasting scenes as the crowds of orange fans inside the Arena Corinthians in São Paulo, so jubilant from the victory over Costa Rica, cut crestfallen figures. The penalty shoot-out against Argentina was another Dutch disaster. Bizarrely, Aston Villa centre-back Ron Vlaar stepped up to take Holland’s first penalty, which he tamely struck towards Argentina’s Sergio Romero. In-between Robben and Kuyt’s well-converted penalties, Sneijder’s was saved by Romero.
It was curious that Vlaar was nominated to take the first penalty for the Netherlands having not taken one in the previous shoot-out against Costa Rica. The decision to send forth a defender for one of the first four penalties was reminiscent of Frank Rijkaard’s decision to allow Frank de Boer and Jaap Stam to take penalties against Italy in 2000. On that occasion, 14 years previously, both defenders had missed, and in Brazil, Van Gaal ultimately failed to expunge the Dutch penalty hoodoo.
As the likes of Kuyt, Sneijder, and Robben gradually faded from the international stage, the Netherlands had to quickly find their replacements. Yet, as David Winner has argued, the last “generation of greats” retired from the international stage and there were “no new stars to replace them”. The result of this has been even more damaging than previously expected.
The Netherlands failed to qualify for the European Championship in 2016 and the World Cup in 2018. Regrettably, the demise of the national team has become characterised by a sense of complacency that pervaded from the experience of 2010.
Tactically, the Van Marwijk and Van Gaal eras were typified by a lack of adventure in key areas of the pitch, with the team becoming cautious by nature. This element is inextricably linked with the corresponding progress made in Germany and France since the 1990s. Winner argues that the successes of Germany and France in “revamping their systems profoundly” after humiliations in the early 1990s and early 2000s highlighted the validity of Cruyff’s post-2010 criticisms.
Winner argues that Cruyff’s point was “borne out by the far more effective tiki-taka or German variant of the Dutch game that won the previous two World Cups and European Championships”. Robben echoed Winner’s sentiment in an interview with FourFourTwo in May 2018: “Around 15 years ago, it was other countries coming into our kitchen to see how we did it. But now we need to be more open and look at other teams and countries ourselves, to learn about them and their tactics.”
The search for the soul of the contemporary Dutch national team has thus been a painful quest since the World Cup final defeat, and it seems that only now has responsibility been taken to make changes to the national setup. The KNVB has taken steps to respond to the identity crisis of the national team. It is promising that there has been a universal recognition for a subversion of the old set of beliefs. Winner concludes his recent piece with a clear message: “For decades, the Dutch saw themselves as teaching the world how to play football. Now it seems they will have to learn from others.”
On a positive note, there is an encouraging vigour to new Oranje coach Ronald Koeman’s squad. He is excited by the Dutch prospects of today, namely Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Virgil van Dijk and precocious left-winger Steven Bergwijn. For the more senior players, it is now vital that they guide the young Dutch stars towards qualification for Euro 2020.
Daley Blind has the most caps of any other player in the current squad, by no means a veteran of the national team. Others with similar numbers of caps, Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay, also must recognise their value as role models within the national team setup. Captain Van Dijk is playing his best football with Liverpool in the Premier League and possesses the leadership traits required to successfully execute Koeman’s progressive vision.
Koeman himself was part of the famous Oranje team that won Euro 88 in Germany, the only international trophy the Netherlands have ever lifted. He also recorded 78 caps as a player and, having witnessed the slow demise of Dutch influence across Europe since 2010, he is the perfect man to take the national team forward.
Under his stewardship, it appears that Oranje finally have closure from the failure of 2010, a legacy which festered for far too long. Of course, the team is by no means complete, but Koeman and his players have the opportunity to make a defiant announcement in the next 18 months: the Netherlands are back and are ready to revert to type.
By Charlie Pritchard @CPritchard96