It’s been a sobering few months for the Netherlands football team following the euphoria in Brazil. After the highs of reaching the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup when very few expected them to, came the lows of back-to-back defeats to Italy in a friendly and Czech Republic in their opening qualifier for the Euro 2016 championships.
Things were always going to be different under new manager Guus Hiddink, who took over from the departing Louis Van Gaal. But not this difficult. The Netherlands’ record under Hiddink reads L-L-W-L-L, the last of which was in a friendly against Mexico.
In a group consisting of Latvia, Turkey, Iceland, Czech Republic and Kazakhstan, the Oranje were expected to steamroller the opposition after their exploits in Brazil. But defeats to Iceland and the Czech Republic have seen the Netherlands struggling in third place with 3 points, already 6 points adrift of the table toppers. With just 7 more qualifiers remaining, each match has become a must-win encounter for them.
On Sunday, the Netherlands take on Latvia in Amsterdam. A draw or a defeat is simply catastrophic but not unimaginable. And it doesn’t help that manager Guus Hiddink has plenty of headaches ahead of the crucial qualifier.
How to fix a leaky defense
In the seven World Cup matches, the Dutch conceded just 4 goals as Van Gaal’s defensive preparations and team structure led to a resolute and sturdy backline.
Since then, the Dutch have conceded 10 goals in five matches, and it is the manner of the goals conceded that will grate with the manager and the supporters. The defensive solidity has been replaced by a nervous energy spreading through the backline and glaring individual errors.
Daryl Janmaat’s mistake allowed the Czech to score a last-minute winner, De Vrij and Van Der Wiel colluded to hand Iceland a 2-0 win, and Aston Villa defender Ron Vlaar, who shone at the World Cup, has suffered a loss of form and injury.
Against Latvia, Hiddink needs to ensure his team keep a clean sheet to prevent further embarrassment.
How to unite the dressing room
Netherlands have often been accused of digging their own grave with intra-team politics and bickering. So it was a pleasant surprise when the time came for the World Cup.
Under Louis Van Gaal, the Netherlands team seemed united and fighting for a single cause. The personal battles had been put aside, so that the team as a whole could progress.
But the bad habits have returned. On the field, communication and unity seem conspicuous by their absence. The images of Robin van Persie and Klass Jan Huntelaar having a public spat left a bad taste in the mouth and brought to memory horrors of the past.
Hiddink has promised to quit if the team doesn’t win against Latvia. If that doesn’t bring the players together, then Hiddink will need to find another way.
Reduce over-reliance on Arjen Robben
After abandoning Van Gaal’s 5-3-3 and reverting to the traditional Dutch formation of 4-3-3, a strange problem has cropped up. The attacking verve and unpredictability has been replaced by a slow, ponderous style of play that oppositions have found easy to counter.
Some of the big stars are not pulling their weight either, so the system is not the only problem. With fewer and fewer chances being created, over-reliance on Arjen Robben has become an issue. Robin van Persie is going through a loss of form, and Wesley Sneijder is no longer the same player he was.
Robben is the one carrying the team at the moment, and the one who looks capable of causing problems to the opposition. Hiddink needs to shift the creative burden from Robben to the rest of the team, otherwise stopping Robben could be the simple way of stopping the Netherlands.