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3/31/17

World Soccer: The Netherlands isn't very good at soccer anymore — and for now, that's OK - by Leander Schaerlaeckens

If you had assumed that the Netherlands would just always be good at soccer, this was an understandable leap in logic to make. After all, the Dutch had been good for so long – pretty much continuously since the early 1970s – that it seemed a given, in spite of sourcing their national team from a population that only recently reached 17 million.

If you had assumed that the Netherlands would just always be good at soccer, this was an understandable leap in logic to make. After all, the Dutch had been good for so long – pretty much continuously since the early 1970s – that it seemed a given, in spite of sourcing their national team from a population that only recently reached 17 million.

But as the noted analytics maven Michael Caley points out, what’s actually noteworthy isn’t that the Dutch are now no longer good. What’s remarkable is that they didn’t turn bad sooner.

And for the record, they are now bad. While Oranje reached the semifinals of the World Cup for a second time in a row in 2014 – placing third in Brazil, four years after coming second in South Africa – things have spiraled hopelessly out of control since. Manager Louis van Gaal, the architect of the World Cup success with a tactical scheme that masked the issues of a lopsided team – brilliant in the attack; full of liabilities in defense – left for Manchester United and was succeeded by Guus Hiddink, an inspirational coach but famously a tactical lightweight.

Under Hiddink, the Dutch made a halting 3-2-1 (W-L-T) start to Euro 2016 qualifying before the veteran manager was fired. His successor, Danny Blind, has somehow had a 12-year run as either head coach or assistant manager of his old club and the national team, without ever demonstrating any particular aptitude for it. The Netherlands missed the Euros under him – even though it was expanded from 16 to 24 teams — coming fourth in a six-team group, behind Iceland, the Czech Republic and Turkey, respectively.

Blind was allowed to stay on, for some reason, and the side kept on stumbling, getting off to a 2-2-1 start to World Cup qualifying. The Dutch again sit in fourth place, below France, Sweden and Bulgaria – who comfortably won 2-0 at home against the three-time World Cup runners-up on Friday. Blind was fired on Sunday.

But while there are five more qualifiers to play, it already feels like it’s too late to recover and make it to Russia next summer. The play has been so poor that it simply seems unrealistic to climb above Sweden and even Bulgaria – which hasn’t been to a World Cup since 1998 – a sentiment only confirmed by the sad display in Tuesday’s 2-1 friendly loss to Italy, which isn’t exactly a world superpower at the moment either.

Just as problematically, there is no apparently good choice to replace Blind – who was appointed not just to assist Hiddink in 2014, but to succeed him after the Euros, a succession plan that looks ridiculously premature and hubristic in retrospect. The two best Dutch managers currently out there aren’t interested. Ronald Koeman wanted the job in 2014 but was only offered Blind’s assistant-successor arrangement. He turned it down and has since thrived with Southampton and Everton in the Premier League. Frank de Boer wants to make amends on the club level after flaming out with Inter Milan, following a wildly successful spell at Ajax.

Louis van Gaal has demurred on a return – he’d rather run the entire federation instead. Which leaves the 69-year-old Dick Advocaat as the least uninspired of the Dutch options, although neither of his two previous spells as Holland manager lived up to expectations – a quarterfinal finish at the ’94 World Cup and a semifinal berth at Euro ’04, when more was expected.

Alternatively, the country that once consistently produced some of the best managers in the sport would have to go with a foreigner – in itself an indictment on the state of the Dutch game.

Either way, the material at the new boss’s disposal is limited in every line. And this is the crux of the problem. The golden generation that played from Euro ’96 through the 2006 World Cup was succeeded by the foursome of Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart, whose transcendent attacking talents compensated for the dearth of decent defenders.

The Netherlands isn't very good at soccer anymore — and for now, that's OK

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