Better balance will benefit Dutch in tough World Cup group
A repeat of the last World Cup final, Spain versus the Netherlands, is undoubtedly the outstanding opening group game in Brazil. The Dutch are 13/5 to kick off this tournament by beating the holders.
There is, however, a very different look to the Clockwork Orange four years on. Bert van Marwijk was criticised for his methods in South Africa, which went against the grain of the ‘total football’ philosophy we associate with the Dutch.
Always the bridesmaid in World Cup finals – they have contested three without success – it was, to put it plainly, more about dirty defensive midfield work than delightful passing and all-out attack when the Netherlands last graced the global stage.
In the intervening period, Van Marwijk tried to placate his critics, ripping away the balance that had achieved so much in that run to the last final. This was nowhere more apparent than at Euro 2012, when the Dutch didn’t even make it out of the group stage.
Van Marwijk swiftly resigned, and successor Louis van Gaal was charged with restoring equilibrium. One of his first decisions was to ditch ageing defenders like Joris Mathijsen and Johnny Heitinga – a blunt instrument Everton and Fulham fans know only too well.
Holding midfielder Mark van Bommel, arguably a worthy candidate of the tag ‘dirtiest player in the game’ in modern times, has thankfully retired. Xabi Alonso must brace himself, however, as he could well renew a battle with AC Milan and former Manchester City destroyer Nigel de Jong.
Perhaps the Real Madrid and ex-Liverpool star will be allowed to wear a chest protector. De Jong has endured a dismal club season, but San Siro boss and compatriot Clarence Seedorf should encourage him to keep the Kung-Fu kicks under wraps.
That subplot aside, the Clockwork Orange have six or seven senior players supplemented by the odd late bloomer, but the bulk of Van Gaal’s squad is aged 26 and under. Names like Dirk Kuyt, Arjen Robben, Rafael van der Vaart and Robin van Persie are all more than familiar to English audiences.
We all know what that quartet, plus playmaker Wesley Sneijder and backup striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar are capable of. Four other current Premier League players, besides Van Persie, are also in favour.
Goalies Michel Vorm (Swansea) and Tim Krul (Newcastle) are competing for the number one jersey. Van Gaal has included six different keepers on his rosters, but Maarten Stekelenburg (Fulham) is out of favour despite being the most-capped option.
Erik Pieters (Stoke) missed out on Euro 2012, but looks set to compete with versatile Ajax youngster Daley Blind for the left back berth, as PSV Eindhoven’s Jetro Willems is injured.
Aston Villa skipper Ron Vlaar is now the senior man in the heart of defence, with the likes of Joel Veltman (Ajax), Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi (both Feyenoord), as well as ex-Chelsea youngster Jeffrey Bruma (PSV) also in contention.
Gregory van der Wiel (PSG) is the first-choice right back – a player in the best Dutch attacking tradition. He is injury prone, however, so Daryl Janmaat (Feyenoord) or the once-capped 30-year-old Paul Verhaegh (Augsburg) will also go as understudy.
Van Gaal has dealt with the Clockwork Orange midfield conundrum, their equivalent of England trying to fit Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard into the same XI, by simply starting either Sneijder or Van der Vaart off the lone striker.
Kevin Strootman (Roma) will be a major miss from the engine room, however, as injury has ruled him out of the World Cup, but the Dutch have Jordy Clasie (Feyenoord) and the experienced Stijn Schaars (PSV) to cover.
Neither Jonathan de Guzman (Swansea) nor Leroy Fer (Norwich) look likely to go to Brazil now, because both have been embroiled in the Premier League relegation battle. PSV skipper Georginio Wijnaldum may get a late call after recovering from a back problem, though.
Club teammate Memphis Depay is a talented, but raw winger aged just 20. The same can be said of Feyenoord counterpart Jean-Paul Boetius. Versatile forward Jeremain Lens offers more experience, but now plies his trade with Dynamo Kiev and the Ukrainian season has naturally been disrupted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Van Gaal has chosen to blend a proven forward line and midfield with a young defence. It is certainly bold, but the Netherlands are better for this, because there looks to be a renewed elegance, and crucially greater composure, to their rear-guard now.
Managing egos is always the toughest challenge for a Dutch national boss. Van Gaal’s own is equally as monstrous as any player he selects, but he must ensure his recent attitude about coaching his country cannot be allowed to rub off on them.
In a way, you could call him refreshingly candid to say that he has not enjoyed managing the Clockwork Orange. Van Gaal must keep his mind on the task in hand, not the vacancy in Manchester United’s dugout, or the links with Tottenham that appeared en masse beforehand.
Guus Hiddink, an equally distinguished and certainly more universally popular figure around the globe, is coming back to the Netherlands national job after the World Cup. This announcement, coupled with Van Gaal’s own insistence that he would never renew his deal anyway, could be counter-productive to the Dutch cause.
Group B is ‘no gimmie’ for them, let alone holders Spain. Chile look an impressive outfit, still adhering to Marcelo Bielsa’s principles long after he has moved on. Nonetheless, the Clockwork Orange are still 9/4 second-favourites to top the pool, and odds-on to qualify from it at 1/2.
Punters should rightly be wary of these prices, but there is value with the bookmakers too. Odds of 33/1 say the Netherlands will win the World Cup, while Van Persie, who was the European section’s leading marksman in qualifying and admittedly has struggled with injuries this term, looks decent at 25/1 to be top scorer.