What can you say, this is a nightmare,” said Arjen Robben in the wake of his country’s latest footballing horror show: defeat at the hands of a fairly ordinary Bulgaria side which leaves Holland in fourth place in their World Cup qualifying group, three points behind second-placed Sweden with unbeaten France a further three clear. The oldest starter in the Dutch team, Robben refused to blame the youngest for Saturday’s defeat, although Matthijs de Ligt’s international debut is likely to prompt no end of night terrors for the youngster. Two mistakes from the 17-year-old Ajax defender enabled the comparatively wily journeyman Spas Delev to capitalise and give Bulgaria the two-goal lead that separated the sides at full-time.
This Dutch decline has been swift although some argue it has been a long time coming. Beaten finalists at the World Cup in South Africa, they went on to finish third in Brazil. Their subsequent failure to qualify for last summer’s expanded 24-team European Championship is now being compounded by the previously unthinkable prospect of missing out on a second successive major tournament. In an attempt at a short-term fix the Dutch football association, KNVB, has sacked Danny Blind as manager after a miserable 20 months in charge.
“We were on the right track, Bulgaria was as far as I’m concerned an incident,” said Blind, who was unable to mastermind competitive wins over any teams better than Kazakhstan, Belarus and Luxembourg during a reign in which his side lost Euro 2016 or World Cup 2018 qualifiers against Iceland, Turkey, Czech Republic, France and Bulgaria. So many “incidents” cannot be mere coincidence and these poor results make Blind’s parting shot sound delusional. Truth be told, his was an extremely unpopular appointment in the first place and few Dutch fans will be sorry to see him go.
“From day one Danny Blind’s appointment as Dutch national team manager was met with a scepticism that I can’t recall when it comes to announcing the Dutch national team manager,” says Michiel Jongsma, editor of BeNeFoot.net, a website devoted to high-end football in the Low Countries. “Where the Dutch used to be the great thinkers of the game and you’d always see some kind of influence from Louis van Gaal or Johan Cruyff or Rinus Michels before that, there’s now an absolute drought of talented coaches in the Netherlands. That affects the players because many of them are not used to international football.”
Jongsma cites De Ligt’s less than delightful debut as an example of Blind’s fecklessness, saying the selection of somebody with less talent but more experience – Ron Vlaar perhaps – was the obvious option. “It’s a prime example of the risks Blind has taken and it’s kind of sad a kid like that has become a symbol of his failure. This wasn’t a time for messing around or experimenting and even before the game had started people were saying that Blind had lost his mind, with some hoping De Ligt would fail.” Fail he did, in quite spectacular fashion, and it is to be hoped the boy can recover from a baptism of fire that ended in merciful if humiliating substitution after 45 minutes.The KNVB commercial director, Jean-Paul Decossaux, on Monday that contingency plans were in place as the search began for a new head coach, revealing that “all options are open” with regards to the prospect of appointing a foreign coach, something which the KNVB has not done since the Austrian Ernst Happel guided Holland to the 1978 World Cup final. “The list should include all kinds of names who can each take Dutch football forward,” he said. “It will not be ready in a week but we have a good idea of the profile. We have a short-term and we have a long-term aim, so it seems to me that by June would be useful for the appointment to happen.”
While there is no shortage of talent in the Dutch team that started against Bulgaria, the ageing Robben was their only established superstar. His presence, along with those of Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie in more successful Dutch sides of the recent past, appears to have masked a multitude of shortcomings since the turn of the century. “We have a lot of players like Kevin Strootman, Georginio Wijnaldum and Bas Dost who are perfectly fine at a decent level and some of the younger players might do something spectacular in the future” says Jongsma.
“We’ve been perennial overachievers as a nation for decades and decades. First it was tactics, then it was the players coming through our youth football structures. In the last decade there has been a huge acceleration in football becoming more scientific and more professional in general. The Germans and Belgians had their dip around the turn of the century and felt the need to adjust, whereas we had never encountered that need until recently.”
As for the future, Ronald Koeman remains a potential option as manager but may have bigger fish to fry, while Jongsma cites the Utrecht coach, Erik ten Hag, as the Netherlands’ big hope for the future. The 47-year-old coached Bayern Munich’s reserves under Pep Guardiola but has less than two seasons’ worth of experience as a top-flight manager and would be a risky appointment.
At grassroots level KNVB has implemented a Winners Of Tomorrow plan to revolutionise youth football that has come up against opposition from amateur clubs who claim its inherent joylessness will lead to kids quitting the game before they have had a chance to master it. “It will take time to implement,” says Jongsma. “The Dutch will probably need quite some years to get back to the level they were on originally.” Given their inability to beat all but the most mediocre opposition in the cauldron of competition, it is time they can scarcely afford.