We Need To Talk About Kevin StrootmanPosted: June 8, 2012
At the beginning of May, Bert Van Marwijk named thirty-six players in an enormous provisional squad that would travel to the tiny rural village of Hoenderloo to participate in a pre-tournament training camp upon the conclusion of the domestic and European competition. During the camp and the weeks that followed this squad was trimmed to twenty-seven players and on Saturday 26th May, hours before the Netherlands faced Bulgaria in the first of three warm-up matches and three days before deadline (Van Marwijk is something of a maverick, you see, a renegade.) the Dutch head coach named his final squad for Euro 2012. Vernon Anita, Adam Maher, Jeremain Lens and Siem de Jong were the four players that narrowly missed out; below are the twenty-three that would follow Van Marwijk off the plane that touched down in Krakow on June 4th.
1 Maarten Stekelenburg
Now undisputed number one for the Oranje, the 29 year-old former Ajax stopper has finally emerged from the intimidating shadow of Edwin van der Sar and also followed in his giant footsteps, moving from Amsterdam to Italy in the summer of 2011. After making nearly two-hundred appearances for Ajax, collecting two Eredivisie and three KNVB Cup winners medals along the way, Stekelenburg commanded a €6.3million fee upon moving to Roma last year. 2011/12 was a debut season of mixed fortunes for the Haarlem native which saw Roma narrowly miss out on Europa League qualification and exit the Coppa Italia at the quarter-final stage, while the 6′ 5″ goalkeeper also had to share the number one spot at the Stadio Olimpico with Bogdan Lobont (another former Ajax goalkeeper) as he settled into Serie A. Now entering the prime years for a goalkeeper, the commanding penalty area presence and shot-stopping ability of Stekelenburg will be vital for the Netherlands in a tough group filled with attacking threat.
12 Michel Vorm
A revelation for Swansea City in their first year in the English top flight, the goalkeeper whose surname means “form” has shown exactly that in recent seasons, making himself a firm favourite with the Liberty Stadium faithful since his move from Utrecht in 2011. With his keen agility and sharp reflexes, the 28 year-old has proved himself to be a shot-stopper of the highest order and although occasionally prone to errors in decision making, having a goalkeeper of this calibre as second choice is a rarity for any squad going into a major international tournament. Nicknamed “penalty killer” during his time with Utrecht such is the regularity with which he saves spot-kicks, it will be interesting to see if Van Marwijk is tempted to make a substitution between the sticks should the Oranje find themselves in the final minutes of extra-time with the scores level.
22 Tim Krul
At the age of twenty-four, the fledgling Newcastle goalkeeper arguably has far greater experience than the two ahead of him in the Dutch squad, clocking up 61 Premier League appearances for the Magpies in the past two seasons. Krul left his home-town club ADO Den Haag for the North-East of England in 2005, however as third choice goalkeeper at St James’ Park the seventeen year-old was soon loaned out first to Falkirk and then Carlisle United, during which time Newcastle were relegated to the Championship. Upon Krul’s return in that summer of 2009 Shay Given was sold to Manchester City and following promotion a year later, Steve Harper’s injury at the beginning of the 2010/11 season allowed the slender ‘keeper a sustained run in the first team. Due to Krul’s youthful confidence and a safe pair of gloves that has earned him the nickname “Baker’s Hands” back in Holland, Harper never reclaimed the number one jersey. In turns infuriatingly erratic and endearingly cocky, Krul is pictured below during a league encounter with Arsenal at the Emirates earlier this year, trying to keep the spirit of Euro ’96 alive with Arsenal captain Robin van Persie.
2 Gregory van der Wiel
A graduate of the Ajax academy at De Toekomst, at just 24 years of age Gregory “of the Wheel” has already made over one hundred appearances for the Amsterdam club, winning two Eredivisie titles and two KNVB Cups. In 2002 Van der Wiel’s apparent attitude problem saw him loaned out to HFC Haarlem, a spell which he has since described as “a wake-up call” from the “spoiled” treatment that the youth team received at Ajax. Upon his return the right-back was made captain of Jong Ajax and soon after manager Martin Jol handed the teenager his first team debut. Never far from controversy however, VDW sustained a head injury while playing for Ajax in 2009 that prevented him from travelling with the Oranje to Australia for a friendly international. While the squad was in the Southern hemisphere he attended a Lil’ Wayne concert and posted a picture of himself with the rapper on Twitter; although Jol defended his player, VDW was heavily criticised by the Dutch media, players and Van Marwijk who said “It’s rather strange that he was able to go to a concert, given that he told me that he was not allowed to fly by the Ajax medical staff.” Since the incident Van Der Wiel has been forgiven by Van Marwijk and has matured into a dynamic, attacking right-back who continues to attract interest from a handful of major European clubs as a result of his marauding runs, athletic recovery of possession and impeccable distribution.
3 John Heitinga
It is perhaps no surprise that Heitinga was sent off during extra-time of the 2010 World Cup Final, given that his name translates (very) roughly into English as “not safety”. Although a sometimes volatile presence, the centre-back’s errors of judgement seem to have always been borne out of passion and seldom out of malice. Following his debut for Ajax in 2001, the Alphen aan den Rijn native won two Eredivisie and three KNVB Cup winners’ medals during several successful seasons with the Amsterdam club before departing for Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2008. Despite an encouraging first season at the Vicente Calderon during which Heitinga made 28 appearances as Atletico qualified for the Champions League, the 5′ 11″ defender who can also play right-back never appeared to settle in Spain and just a year later moved to the Premier League with Everton, where he has since played nearly one hundred times for the Goodison Park club. A veteran of four major international tournaments, Heitinga played in every match in South Africa and his wealth of experience, positional intelligence and strength of character will be invaluable in Poland-Ukraine.
4 Joris Mathijsen
Now enjoying an almost semi-retirement in the Spanish holiday resort of Malaga, Mathijsen has been a dependable presence in the Dutch defence for the best part of a decade. By far the most cultured of the defenders included in the squad, the Goirle-born centre-back has always displayed a composure on the ball and dominance in the air that has seen him collect close to a hundred caps for the Netherlands. Named as 3rd captain for the upcoming European Championships, the 32 year-old enjoyed lengthy spells with Willem II and AZ Alkmaar in Holland and SV Hamburg in the Bundesliga before departing for warmer climes last summer.
5 Wilfred Bouma
Another of the veteran members of the squad, Bouma’s professional career has been largely tarnished by injury, particularly his disappointing spell at Aston Villa during which he made only 83 appearances across five years. Either side of his time at Villa Park the Helmond-born defender has been a stalwart at PSV Eindhoven, winning four Eredivisie titles in his first spell and returning in the summer of 2010 as PSV repaid his service to the club by offering Bouma an attempt to revive his career. Despite his injury problems and fractitious club career, the hulking centre-back with an absolute hammer of a left foot has played at two European Championships for the Netherlands and is just as comfortable in the left-back position that has proved so problematic for Holland in the past couple of years.
13 Ron Vlaar
Due to an injury-plagued club career and the established partnership of Heitinga and Mathijsen, Vlaar’s international career has been somewhat intermittent since being handed his debut by Marco van Basten way back in 2005. An immense presence, the centre-back played a single season under Louis van Gaal at AZ Alkmaar before moving to Feyenoord in January 2006 and has remained at De Kuip ever since, collecting a KNVB Cup winners’ medal in 2007/08. His enormous 6′ 2″ frame, deceptive speed over five yards and imposing aerial ability inevitably prompted comparisons to Jaap Stam in his younger days however a succession of injuries, including an entire season on the sidelines in 2008/09, has meant that his vast potential remains largely unreleased. Still only 27 years old, the Hensbroek local has plenty of time on his side and could emerge as a key player if he gets his chance, as he proved with a powerfully headed goal against Northern Ireland in the last of the three warm-up matches in Amsterdam last Saturday, his first at international level.
15 Jetro Willems
It is perhaps demonstrative of the headache that Van Marwijk has regarding the left-back position that 18 year-old Willems has even been included in the squad. Willems’ PSV team-mate Erik Pieters has made the position his own since Giovanni Van Bronckhorst’s decision to retire after World Cup 2010, but following a foot injury towards the end of the 2011/12 season Pieters has been unable to recover in time for the European Championship finals. Even though Rotterdam-born Willems has appeared twenty times for PSV following a move from Sparta Rotterdam last summer, he has only made two appearances for the Oranje at senior level and these were both in warm-up matches played in the last fortnight. The youngest player included in any squad at the finals, it can only be hoped that the experience of the other defenders will aid the young left-back and that he will come of age if played.
21 Khalid Boulahrouz
Somehow, despite indifferent performances for both club and country over the past decade, Boulahrouz continues to be selected in the squad for international tournaments – this will be his fourth. Again his inclusion is maybe emblematic of the defensive problems that the Netherlands have; whereas on paper Boulahrouz is an aggressive, versatile defender who has played for some of Europe’s top clubs, the reality is very different indeed. After being handed his professional debut for RKC Waalwijk by Martin Jol, the Maassluis native of Moroccan descent moved to SV Hamburg in the summer of 2004. It was during his time in the Bundesliga that he earned his nickname “Khalid Der Kannibal” for his ability to “eat up the opposition” – a philosophy which he sometimes took too literally, earning sixteen yellow cards and three red during two seasons in Germany. Jose Mourinho then inexplicably signed him for Chelsea in 2006, paying a ludicrous transfer fee of €12million and handing the number 9 shirt to the right-back, but Khalid would play just thirteen times in two years at Stamford Bridge before being loaned to Sevilla during the 2007/08 season. After only six appearances in La Liga, Boulahrouz moved back to Germany with Stuttgart, where he enjoyed a rare prolonged spell of first-team action before the club decided not to renew his contract in May 2012.
6 Mark van Bommel
Regardless of the fact that he is the son-in-law of Van Marwijk, there is no doubt that the Dutch captain is included in the squad on merit following a stellar career that has seen the defensive midfielder turn out for some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Van Bommel translates fittingly into “of bombs” and the 35 year-old veteran has been destroying attacks all over Europe for almost two decades now. After beginning his career with Fortuna Sittard, Van Bommel joined his future father-in-law at PSV Eindhoven where his midfield partnership with Swiss international Johann Vogel was the fulcrum of a team that won four Eredivisie titles. Following the 2004/05 season in which PSV reached the Champions League semi-finals, Van Bommel signed for Barcelona on a free transfer and spent a single hugely succesful season at the Camp Nou in which Frank Rijkaard’s team won the La Liga title and beat Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League Final at the Stade de France. That summer the holding midfielder left Catalunya for Germany, with Bayern Munich paying €6million to secure his services and five succesful seasons in Bavaria later, in which Bayern won two Bundesliga and DFB Pokal doubles, he was again on the move, this time to Italy where he joined AC Milan and won the Serie A title after just five months with the Rossoneri. A starter in the World Cup Final in Johannesburg, it was announced in May that Van Bommel would rejoin PSV after Euro 2012 on a one year contract. With his ability to patrol in front of the back four, nullify attacking threats and distribute the ball effectively allied perfectly with a varied array of passes and a powerful shot from distance, the highly decorated midfielder is still as vital as ever to Oranje hopes.
8 Nigel de Jong
Another product of De Toekomst, Nigel “the Young” is a hugely under-estimated footballer. Despite his tireless running, excellent distribution and intelligent positional sense, De Jong is better known for his aggressive style of play; in the World Cup Final he delivered a kung-fu kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso and four months earlier he had fractured the leg of Stuart Holden with a late challenge on the Bolton Wanderers midfielder in a friendly against the USA. Later that year he broke Hatem Ben Arfa’s leg in two places while playing for Manchester City in a Premier League game against Newcastle at the Etihad Stadium, a reckless challenge that saw Van Marwijk drop him indefinitely from subsequent national squads including the majority of the qualifying campaign for Euro 2012, remarking that ”It was a wild and unnecessary offence. He went in much too hard.” Despite all of this it seems that the former Ajax and SV Hamburg midfielder is prone to lapses in concentration and timing rather than any substantial malicious intent and it is a shame that these incidents have overshadowed the more constructive aspects of his game – De Jong had a higher pass completion rate than any other Premier League player during the 2010/11 season. Another of the starting eleven in the 2010 World Cup Final, perhaps De Jong will flourish and mature once Van Bommel retires, but with the captain increasingly short on legs and the defence stretched, the energy and awareness of the Amsterdam-born 27 year-old will nevertheless be invaluable over the next month.
10 Wesley Sneijder
When Johann Cruijff said “Sometimes something’s got to happen before something can happen” he was talking about Wesley Sneijder, even though he had not yet seen him play; the main creative force in the squad, the 27 year-old has an intelligence and vision that is responsible for so many subtle passes or unassuming off-the-ball runs that later result in something bigger. Born in Utrecht in 1984, the ambidexterous Sneijder graduated from the Ajax academy and went on to make over one hundred appearances for the first team, winning an Eredivisie title and two KNVB Bekers in five seasons at the Arena. In the summer of 2007 the diminutive midfielder then became the second most expensive Dutch signing of all time, joining Real Madrid for €27million; despite a succesful first season in which Los Blancos won La Liga, Sneijder endured a largely frustrating time in Spain as Real threatened to decimate Dutch football (along with Sneijder, various managers at the club including German coach Bernd Schuster signed Robben, Van Der Vaart and Huntelaar, then subsequently left them all on the bench) and left for Internazionale in 2009 for a fee of €15million. In his first season with the Nerazzurri, Sneijder completed a historical treble, winning the Serie A title, the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Champions League under the management of Jose Mourinho. Small, quick and strong on the ball, Sneijder’s range of passing, flawless delivery from set pieces and ability to shoot from distance while off-balance are capable of unlocking any defence in Poland-Ukraine.
11 Arjen Robben
It is odd to think that Robben, a player who seems to have been around forever and has won so many honours, is still only 28 years of age. After beginning his career with Groningen the winger soon moved to PSV, where he won a single Eredivisie title in 2002/03 before Mourinho took him to Chelsea for €18million in the summer of 2004. During three succesful seasons in West London, Robben won two Premier League titles, two League Cups and an FA Cup, however his final season in England was punctuated by injury and in June 2007 Real Madrid paid €35million to take him to the Santiago Bernabeu, where he would soon be joined by compatriot Sneijder. Despite a succesful season in which Real won La Liga and an apparent immunity to the selection problems that the remainder of the Dutch contingent suffered from, Robben was deemed surplus to requirements in 2009 by new president Florentino Perez following the signings of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka. Seeking refuge in Bavaria, the Bedum-born forward signed for Bayern Munich that summer where he has remained since, collecting Bundesliga and DFB Pokal winners’ medals and twice finishing as a Champions League runner-up. It has been a tough couple of years for Robben including various injury setbacks, the trauma of World Cup Final defeat in 2010 and vital penalty misses during injury time of the 2011/12 Bundesliga decider against Borrussia Dortmund at the Westfalenstadion and in extra-time of the Champions League Final at the Allianz Arena against former club Chelsea last month. Despite these disappointments Robben remains one of the most important and captivating players for the Oranje, lending each attack urgency and thrust due to his speed with the ball at his feet, an ability to deliver inch-perfect crosses and lethal accuracy when shooting from distance.
14 Stijn Schaars
Somewhat of an unknown quantity despite his 28 years, Schaars began his career at Vitesse Arnhem before leaving the GelreDome for AZ in 2005 where he played a major role in bringing the Eredivisie title to the AFAS Stadion in 2008/09, the first title the club had won since 1981 and only the second in their history. The following season the defensive midfielder turned down a move to Greek club Panathinaikos to play in the Champions League with the Alkmaar club, however last summer Schaars moved to Portugal with Sporting Lisbon where he enjoyed a solid first full season in the Primeira Liga. Quite aptly for a player whose surname means “scarce” his appearances for the Oranje have been limited considerably by injury, playing only 16 times since his debut in 2006 and being ruled out of Euro 2008 by an ankle injury. Schaars does however have a strong pedigree at youth international level, scoring possibly the best penalty ever for the Under-21 team and captaining that same side to European Championship victory in 2006, and although considered to be a holding midfielder can be utilised in a number of positions which, given his favoured left foot, makes him a strong candidate to fill the troublesome left-back spot.
17 Kevin Strootman
Born in Ridderkerk in 1990, Strootman spent his formative years at Sparta Rotterdam and broke into the senior team in 2008 as an advanced attacking midfielder. Following relegation in 2010 he remained in the second tier with Sparta despite reported interest from current Champions FC Twente, however the under-21 international eventually left Het Kasteel and returned to the Eredivisie with FC Utrecht that winter. With a change of clubs also came a change of position; coach Jan Wouters moved Strootman into a deeper-lying midfield role, the position which Wouters himself occupied during Holland’s 1988 European Championship triumph and in which he played for Utrecht, Ajax, Bayern and PSV. Here Strootman performed impressively with his ability to intercept, retain and recycle possession, and after only fourteen appearances at the Stadion Galgenwaard he followed in Wouters’ footsteps, making his international debut and moving to PSV in a deal which took both him and Belgian team-mate Dries Mertens to the Phillips Stadion for €13million. During an excellent first season in Eindhoven in which he made 30 appearances, the 6′ 1″ holding midfielder also scored his first international goal for Nederland in the Euro 2012 qualifier against Finland and quickly became a favourite of Bert Van Marwijk, who has praised Strootman for his vision and remarked “I think the boy can go a long way”.
23 Rafael van der Vaart
It is quite unbelievable that at only 29 years of age, Van Der Vaart has already amassed a staggering 96 caps for Nederland; it is even more astonishing to consider how many more he may have won were it not for Sneijder. Born in Heemskerk, Van Der Vaart grew up on a caravan park before joining the Ajax academy at the age of ten; he was given his debut by Co Adriaanse in April 2000 and went on to make over one hundred appearances for the Amsterdam club, winning the Eredivisie and KNVB Cup double in 2001/02 and picking up another Eredivisie winners medal two years later. After impressing as a creative attacking midfielder despite a series of setbacks including several serious injuries, Van Der Vaart made a shock move to SV Hamburg in 2005, a transfer said to have been prompted by a falling out with coach Ronald Koeman and one that induced Johann Cruijff to comment “I don’t know what to say about it or what Rafael van der Vaart is doing in Hamburg.” It was felt that VDV was selling his precocious talents short and after the last of three satisfactory seasons at the HSH Nordbank Arena in which HSV finished fourth in the Bundesliga, he joined Sneijder and Robben at Real Madrid for €13million. The man whose name means “Of The Speed” made a flying start at the Bernabeu, marking his debut with a goal and scoring a hat-trick a month later during an impressive run of form that saw him nominated for the Ballon D’Or. However after the turn of the year VDV began to suffer from the notorious club politics and constant managerial changes, first falling out of favour with coach Juande Ramos and then being told in the summer of 2009 by replacement Manuel Pellegrini that he would not be part of his plans for the coming season. VDV remained in Madrid despite this, spending six months on the bench as his wife Sylvie was undergoing cancer treatment and he did not want to jeapordise her health by leaving Spain, but following her recovery later that year moved to Spurs for €7million in the January 2010 transfer window. With his urgent, expressive style well-suited to the Premier League, this veteran of two European Championships and World Cups has thus far enjoyed life at White Hart Lane, finally demonstrating his ability on a consistent basis and helping the North London club to a top-four finish last season. A firm favourite with fans of the Oranje and an all-round great with a genuine ability to change games, Van Der Vaart can finish like a striker, run or pass like a trequartista and tackle like a midfielder.
7 Dirk Kuyt
Another Oranje favourite, Kuyt has endeared himself to fans since his debut in 2004 with his tireless work ethic and tendency to score vital goals, such as the second to seal victory over Denmark in the opening game of World Cup 2010 at Soccer City and the first goal of Holland’s Euro 2012 qualfying campaign against San Marino. After beginning his career at FC Utrecht, the Katwijk aan Zee-born striker won the KNVB Beker before earning a move to Feyenoord in 2003, where his continued impressive goalscoring record of 71 goals in 101 league appearances caught the attention of Liverpool and in the summer of 2006 Rafa Benitez took Kuyt to Anfield for an undisclosed fee. Adapting quickly to the Premier League as a ‘defensive striker’, Kuyt quickly became a favourite with the Kop for his commitment and helped the Merseyside club finish as runner-up in the 2006/07 Champions League and 2008/09 Premier League. Last season the 31 year-old finally collected a winners medal in his final season with Liverpool in the League Cup and also finished as a runner-up in the FA Cup before agreeing a pre-Euro 2012 move to Turkish club Fenerbahce. After accumulating 85 caps for the Oranje and being included in squads for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and Euro 2008, Kuyt remains an integral part of the squad due to his positional versatility and strength of character; although not the most technical gifted player, what Dirk lacks in ability he more than compensates for in sheer effort and it is noticeable how much more difficult Holland are to beat when he is employed on either side of the front three.
9 Klaas-Jan Huntelaar
Former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach Louis Van Gaal once said of Huntelaar: “in the penalty area, he is the best player in the world, bar none.” Although the facts have since proved this claim, the Gelderland-born centre-forward had a somewhat auspicious beginning to his career; after a false start at PSV, where despite scoring 26 goals in 23 reserve appearances his progress to the first team was blocked by Mateja Kezman, Arnold Bruggink and Jan Venegoor of Hesselink, the centre-forward was loaned to De Graafschap, but after failing to score in 9 appearances for the Doetinchem club returned to the Phillips Stadion. In 2003/04 the Eindhoven club once again sent Huntelaar on loan and it was during this season at AGOVV Apeldoorn that the 6′ 1″ striker came of age, scoring 26 times in 35 starts for the Eerste Divisie club. Upon the completion of his loan Huntelaar turned down the offer of a new contract with PSV, opting instead to move to SC Heerenveen in the summer of 2004, where an average of 0.72 goals per game over two seasons secured him a €9million move to Ajax. Again he displayed an impeccable goalscoring talent at the Arena, netting an astonishing 76 times in 92 matches and helping the Amsterdam club he had supported as a boy to successive KNVB Cups in 2006 and 2007. His instinctive movement, athleticism and finishing ability drew inevitable comparisons to Marco Van Basten and Ruud Van Nistelrooy as well as the attention of Europe’s top clubs, and in the 2009 January transfer window Huntelaar joined Robben, Sneijder and Van Der Vaart at the Santiago Bernabeu for €20million. “The Hunter” would ultimately stay at Real Madrid for just six months due to limited opportunities and the well-documented instability at the club, and moved onto AC Milan that summer for €15million. However in Italy the striker once again struggled due to coach Leonardo’s inexplicable propensity to leave him on the bench and he would only stay at the San Siro for a single season, leaving for Schalke 04 in August 2010 for a fee of €12million. Huntelaar finally seems to have settled on the banks of the Rhine, netting 37 times in 56 appearances over two seasons for the Gelsenkirchen club, including two strikes in the 2011 DFB Pokal Final to secure a 5-0 victory over MSV Duisberg. It feels like the time is right for the 29 year-old to prove Real Madrid and AC Milan wrong on the international stage and to display to the world the positional intelligence, anticipation in the box and lethal finishing that Ajax and Schalke fans, as well as Louis Van Gaal, know that he has in his locker. With an incredible record of 0.6 goals per game for the Oranje, it is remarkable that his appearances for the national team have been so limited.
16 Robin van Persie
And this man is surely the reason why; Van Marwijk’s preference for an attacking 4-2-1-3 or a defensive 4-2-3-1 leaves room for only one conventional centre-forward and despite Van Persie having a slightly worse (but by no means terrible) record of 0.43 goals per game for the Netherlands, it is clear that the coach regards him as the more complete footballer due to his superior link-up play (which is not surprising – his name means “Robin of Dispersion”) and therefore the Arsenal captain plays more regularly. Born in 1983 to a family of artists, Van Persie developed as a left-winger for SBV Excelsior at youth level but left for Feyenoord at the age of 15, due to a relationship between his mother and the coach. It was actually Bert Van Marwijk who gave Van Persie his Feyenoord debut at the age of seventeen but in spite of his impressive performances between 2001 and 2004, including picking up a UEFA Cup winners’ medal even though he did not play in the 2002 final against Borrussia Dortmund at De Kuip, the temperamental winger clashed regularly with his boss, who seemed frustrated with the poor attitude of his young talent more than anything else. After being dropped to the reserve squad due to indiscipline, the relationship between coach and player deteriorated to the extent that RVP was sold to Arsenal for a cut-price £2.75million in May 2004. Under the nurturing guidance of Arsene Wenger, Van Persie was converted from a left-winger into a centre-forward in the same way as Thierry Henry before him and matured as part of an experienced squad that won the 2005 FA Cup. Despite initial injury setbacks during his time in North London, over the past eight years Van Persie has become evermore prominent at the Emirates and has matured into a fine club captain following the sale of Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona last summer. Due to his deft first touch, array of instinctive first-time finishes and an absolute hammer of a left foot, the Rotterdam native has scored 96 times in 194 appearances for the Gunners, a tally that has included some truly memorable strikes such as this acrobatic effort against Charlton at The Valley back in 2006 and a beautifully controlled volley against Everton at the Emirates last year. With his best season yet just gone, in which he scored 37 goals for Arsenal (30 in the Premier League saw him finish as top goalscorer) Van Persie is a scorer of every conceivable type of goal and the most in-form striker in Europe going into the finals.
18 Luuk de Jong
Brother of Siem, the creative Ajax attacking midfielder who narrowly missed out on a place in the Euro 2012 squad, the Swiss-born centre-forward plays his football for FC Twente Enschede in the Eredvisie. The son of two professional Dutch volleyball players, Luuk was born in Aigle in 1990 before the family moved to the Netherlands when he was just four years old, where the two brothers began playing together for amateur club DZC ’68. Both Luuk and Siem were then recruited by professional club De Graafschap however Siem was soon scouted by Ajax and while his older sibling moved to Amsterdam, the younger De Jong remained at De Vijverberg. Despite a promising start to his senior career in which the 6′ 2″ striker scored his first goal against Twente, the club that he would later join, Luuk sustained an ankle injury that would restrict him to just 14 appearances in a poor season for De Graafschap that would ultimately see them demoted to the Eerste Divisie. Although he returned to score against RKC Waalwijk in the relegation play-offs it was not enough to keep De Graafschap up and following relegation Luuk sealed his move to Enschede. Following an impressive first season at De Grolsche Veste in which he helped the club win the 2009/10 Eredivisie title, Luuk made his debut for the Oranje against Austria during the 2010/11 season in which his club also won the KNVB Cup. At just 21 years of age, De Jong already has an incredible record of 39 goals in 76 games for Twente and also scored his first international goal against Finland in Helsinki during Euro 2012 qualification. Not entirely dissimilar in playing style although they technically play in different positions, the De Jong brothers are two players that are genuinely capable of greatness in the future and due to his innate finishing ability, physical presence and intuition for finding space, for Luuk it may come much sooner.
19 Luciano Narsingh
With only two caps to his name, Narsingh seems a somewhat curious selection by Van Marwijk however he has plenty of experience, having been included in the national squad many times. Although it is likely that he will be used sparingly during Euro 2012, the Dutch head coach has a history of taking potential future stars to major finals to gain invaluable experience, as he did with Ibrahim Afellay in 2010. Currently playing for SC Heerenveen in the Eredivisie, the Amsterdam-born winger of Indian-Surinamese descent can play either side of a front three and will offer able back-up to the likes of Robben and Afellay if called upon. Yet another product of the Ajax academy, the right-footed 21 year-old was released by De Toekomst in 2006 due to his perceived lack of strength and picked up by Heerenveen; during his time at the Abe Lenstra Stadion, Narsingh has developed into an incisive, dynamic winger capable of creating an abundance of chances and is now being monitored closely by clubs across Europe.
20 Ibrahim Afellay
An out-and-out left winger following a long tradition of Dutch wingers such as Robben, Marc Overmars and Bryan Roy, the Utrecht-born forward is a bright, inventive presence on the pitch, capable of creating and taking chances in equal measure. Afellay began his career at PSV and after making his debut in 2003 went onto make 159 appearances for the Eindhoven club, winning four Eredivisie titles and a KNVB Cup during eight seasons at the Phillips Stadion in which he impressed with his close control at speed, ability to cross well with either foot and an exceptionally controlled finish on the run. In the January of 2011 Pep Guardiola paid €3million to take Afellay to Barcelona and despite a slight restriction in his appearances due to injury and the presence of Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Villa in the Barca squad, he has since collected La Liga, Copa Del Rey, World Club Cup, UEFA Super Cup and Spanish Super Cup winners’ medals during his two seasons in Catalunya. At just 26 years ‘Ibra’ continues to develop at the Camp Nou – since his return from injury in April he has been played several times in central midfield – but despite his relatively young age he has already been to two World Cup finals and a European Championship. One of the most exhilerating players to be included in the squad and a clear favourite of Van Marwijk, Afellay’s ability to evade defenders, find team-mates and finish well are all potential catalysts for Holland in Euro 2012 and beyond.
And so these are the twenty-three that travelled to the team base in Krakow at the beginning of last week. The Oranje have obvious problems at the back due to injuries in central defence and a worrying deficit of quality at left-back, however for every negative headache that Van Marwijk has there are several positive ones, such is the wealth of attacking talent in the squad. Whether good or bad, the former Feyenoord and Dortmund coach has some vital decisions to make before the opening Group B match against Denmark in Kharkiv.
On the eve of the finals, the main debate in Holland is over who should partner Van Bommel in central midfield; throughout the majority of qualifying the Oranje have set up with the Dutch captain as a solitary holding midfielder and Nigel De Jong has been left out to accomodate an extra attacking playmaker such as Van Der Vaart or the more cultured, expressive Kevin Strootman. This has produced a more fluid attacking style of play compared to the fractitious counter-attacking style of two years ago, due to quicker circulation and increased retention of the ball, which in turn has allowed greater possession to the likes of Sneijder, Afellay and Robben. However, whereas this approach paid huge dividends during qualifying, not only in terms of results but in restoring the image and philosophy of Dutch football as a whole, it must be noted that this success came against far weaker opposition than the Oranje will face in the coming weeks. Although Strootman seems to be the perfect compromise between the ultra-defensive De Jong and such a forward-thinking option as Van Der Vaart, the young PSV midfielder lacks experience and this was evident during the 3-0 friendly defeat to Germany late last year, when Strootman and Van Bommel were completely overrun by the likes of Kroos, Muller and Ozil. It is likely that Van Marwijk will again look to De Jong in order to protect a back four that is looking increasingly depleted, a decision that will have consequences not only for the midfield but for the entire tactical ideology of the entire team, as Johann Cruijj explained earlier this year: “The problem with two holding midfielders is quite simple, but somehow many coaches don’t see it. The build up happens too slow – holding midfielders always need that extra touch, always need to have a look when they have the ball already. That takes time away. The opponent can position themselves to stop the killer pass and the forwards are all marked. Plus, having two holding midfielders means there is one less creative playmaker. It’s a double edged sword; we need one good controller in midfield and two creative players on the wide midfield spots, like Barcelona does. If our build up is slow, the effectiveness of our creative forwards will decrease significantly. Robin van Persie got a lot of criticism last World Cup, and I believe it was because we played too defensively and passively. We became a counter team. Our best players are up front, though. They need the ball, and they need it quick.”
There are also problems to be solved in defence; with key players absent and a lack of real depth in this department of late, Van Der Wiel and Heitinga are assured of a place at right-back and central defence respectively however Van Marwijk must select the appropriate combination of experience and ability in the remaining two positions. The issue of who should play left-back is one that the head coach has been aware of since late last season when Erik Pieters, almost ever-present during qualifying, sustained a foot injury while playing for PSV. His options are Pieters’ PSV pacy 18 year-old understudy Jetro Willems, Stijn Schaars who although left-footed is a holding midfielder by trade and the hugely experienced yet sluggish Wilfred Bouma, another that would be playing slightly out of his natural position. With Willems lacking experience having only been capped twice and Bouma looking increasingly off the pace in recent years, Schaars has been selected in the majority of recent friendlies; at 28 the Sporting midfielder splits the ages of Willems and Bouma almost down the middle and although out of position he does possess plenty of experience at left-back. For Van Marwijk the position is yet another matter of delicate balance and the former Vitesse and AZ man appears to offer an appropriate compromise between experience and pace, allied with the positional sense and technical ability to nullify any threat coming from the right.
Whereas the Dutch head coach has had plenty of time to assess the situation at left-back, the problems in central defence have emerged more recently with Joris Mathijsen picking up an injury during the first warm-up match against Bulgaria just under a fortnight ago. It still remains to be seen whether the Malaga centre-half will recover in time and with questions surrounding mobility regardless of his physical condition, an alternative may have to be found. Bouma is again a candidate for this, his preferred position, however despite his experience there are similar concerns over his ability to get around the pitch at the age of 35 and Khalid Boulahrouz, another possible partner for Heitinga, can often be a liability due to his reckless nature and lapses in concentration. This leaves Ron Vlaar; a player relatively unknown outside of Holland, the 27 year-old has more than enough experience and were it not for a career plagued by injury would surely have made more appearances for the Oranje and secured a move to one of Europe’s larger clubs. Although Mathijsen will surely be selected if fit due to his experience in major tournaments and established partnership with Heitinga, if given his chance the Feyenoord centre-back could be one of the emerging talents of the tournament as a result of his athletic ability, positional aptitude and flawless timing of tackles.
If the headaches facing Van Marwijk in defence are of a throughly negative nature, those that he has in attack should offer the 60 year-old much consolation. With an embarrassment of riches going forward, the Deventer-born coach has plenty of options to change the shape and emphasis of the Oranje attacks over the next month. With the Dutch coach preferring to play with one striker at the head of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-1-3, the pressing decision is which of the two world-class strikers will act as the focal point of the front three. (First world problems eh, Bert?) Although Klaas-Jan Huntelaar finished as top scorer in both Euro 2012 qualification and last season’s Bundesliga due to his lethal abilities inside the penalty area, it seems that Robin Van Persie will be picked ahead of him; undoubtedly a more complete footballer, the Arsenal captain has a goalscoring record that is almost equal to that of Huntelaar however the former PSV striker is capable of scoring a wider variety of goals, creates more chances for those around him and offers superior link-up play, which could be vital if the Oranje set up with a deeper midfield. If either suffers injury or should the Netherlands be in desperate need of a goal there is also the additional option of the exciting young FC Twente striker Luuk De Jong and although Van Marwijk has seldom played Van Persie and Huntelaar together, the possibility remains that Van Persie could be moved to the left of the front three to accomodate the Schalke 04 striker.
Speaking of which, the other key decision that the Dutch coach faces regards who to play on either side of the front three; as mentioned previously, Van Marwijk has the option of playing Van Persie on the left if he wishes to make room for Huntelaar, however Arjen Robben and Ibrahim Afellay appear to be prime candidates to start against Denmark on June 9th. This pairing have started the majority of recent friendlies and offer an option within an option, as both are capable of playing on either flank and therefore can interchange at will with an ability to beat defenders by cutting inside or going outside. The explosive young winger Luciano Narsingh could provide a similar option however a more defensive candidate on either side that should not be under-estimated is Dirk Kuyt, whose tireless work ethic and ability to anticipate danger could be used to counteract the lack of experience at left-back or to cover for the marauding runs of Van Der Wiel on the opposite flank. Whether or not Holland have possession, Kuyt’s tactical aptitude and selflessness mean that he can also drop deeper and sit alongside the two holding midfielders to effectively form a midfield three, which in turn will allow Sneijder more freedom or enable Robben to act as a second striker. Finally there is the more advanced creative abilities of Van Der Vaart; the past confusion regarding the position of the former Ajax and Real Madrid man could be turned to the advantage of the Oranje, in that if there is uncertainty over where he is actually playing then the opposition will have a much harder time picking him up.
Following the much-criticised, practical performances of World Cup 2010, over the past two years Van Marwijk has attempted to develop a more fluid, open aesthetic while retaining the structured functionality responsible for taking Nederland to the final in the first place. With so many options in each position, the Dutch coach must use everything at his disposal over the coming weeks to find a balance that will nullify attacking threats from the opposition while still allowing the creative members of the squad the possession and freedom to flourish. As for how Holland will line up in their opening Group B match against Denmark at the Metalist Stadium in Kharkiv – what Bert knows right now, we too will know in a little over 24 hours.