Last summer, an unfancied Netherlands team reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in Brazil, losing on penalties to Argentina before comprehensively beating the hosts in the third place play-off. 15 months on, the Dutch find themselves on the brink of failing to reach Euro 2016 after a dismal qualification campaign.

The Netherlands’ run to the last four of the World Cup in 2014 was a fine achievement for manager Louis van Gaal. Drawn alongside holders Spain, an up-and-coming Chile and difficult-to-beat Australia, many predicted that the Netherlands would not even make it past the group stage, but the current Manchester United boss succeeded with a pragmatic, counter-attacking approach and 5-3-2 formation that went against many of the traditional Dutch ideals.

Indeed, regardless of the third-place finish in Brazil, there was unease in some quarters at the style of play that had been employed to get that far; despite being home to only 16.8 million people, an attacking, proactive and entertaining way of doing things has always been seen as equally – or perhaps even more – important as winning in the Netherlands.

When Van Gaal departed at the end of the tournament to join United, the KNVB decided they would attempt to return to the days of 4-3-3 and possession-based football that the Netherlands became famous for in the 1970s. In hindsight, those intentions – while admirable – look to have been severely flawed.

Guus Hiddink, the veteran Dutch coach who has managed Real Madrid and Chelsea at club level and South Korea, Australia, Russia and Turkey in the international game – as well as a four-year spell in charge of his home country between 1994 and 1998 – was the man chosen to lead the project, with Danny Blind set to take over from the 68-year-old after the Euros in what seemed like a well-thought-out succession plan.

The Netherlands immediately ran into problems, though, losing to Czech Republic in their opening encounter before unconvincingly defeating Kazakhstan in Amsterdam and succumbing to a 2-0 defeat to Iceland in Reykjavik. As the months rolled on, it became increasingly clear that the current Dutch side is simply not good enough to play the style of football that the authorities wanted to reintroduce.

It would be unfair to claim that there is no talent in this Netherlands outfit. Memphis Depay, Jordy Clasie and Georginio Wijnaldum are all gifted youngsters with huge potential, while Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder have been among the best players in their position in the world at various points over the last five years.

In between those two groups, though, the pool is rather shallow: there are no real Dutch stars between the ages of 26 and 30, the theoretical prime of a player’s career.

There is no way of knowing whether a more pragmatic, counter-attacking approach would have aided the Netherlands in their attempt to reach Euro 2016; had they followed the template that got them to the World Cup semi-finals, though, it is likely that they would have been able to qualify automatically by finishing in the top two of Group A.

Instead, the Dutch have already passed up that chance and will now battle it out with Turkey for a place in the play-offs. Blind’s charges are two points behind the Turks with two matches remaining: the Dutch take on Kazakhstan on Saturday and Czech Republic on Tuesday, with Turkey facing the Czechs and Iceland on the same days.

The situation is thus out of the Netherlands’ hands. The increased format of the European Championship from 16 teams to 24 was supposed to make it even easier for the continent’s larger nations to qualify. After a disastrous year, the Netherlands look set to be the campaign’s biggest casualty.

About the Author – Greg Lea

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.

Twitter @GregLeaFootball




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