Nine Minutes In Ukraine

22:05 (local time)

The Netherlands are leading Portugal by one goal to nil in Kharkiv and as far as those of us back in the UK are aware, some eight hundred kilometres away the other final Group B match between Denmark and Germany in Lviv is still goalless, with nineteen minutes played in both matches. Eight minutes ago the Oranje had taken the lead; Arjen Robben gathered serious momentum for probably the first time in the tournament, purposefully driving down the right and checking inside Fabio Coentrao on the corner of the penalty area, with a trademark drop of the shoulder that took him inside the Real Madrid left-back and across the face of the area. When almost immediately faced with Miguel Veloso the Bayern winger laid the ball off to Rafael Van Der Vaart with the outside of his left foot, who took a cushioned touch to his left to set himself and caressed a curling left-footed effort from just outside of the box that found the bottom left corner, guiding the ball around the giant frame of Bruno Alves stationed just inside the area. Our reaction to this goal is perhaps more subdued than you might expect; although a truly beautiful strike that has given the Netherlands the lead, we are aware that not only does that lead still needs to be doubled but that Germany also have to find one over Denmark in order for the Oranje to get out of the group. So although this happened in the eleventh minute, over ten minutes later we still do not yet feel that our Euro 2012 has been reignited, although unknown to us it has been by events elsewhere.

22:06

Without warning, the television screen splits into two; something has happened on the other side of the country. We lean forwards expectantly as the time-delayed footage displays the ball bobbling loose in the penalty area to the left; it is unclear as to whose penalty area it might be, until Lukas Podolski arrives just outside of the six-yard box to lash a right-footed effort past Stephan Andersen, high into the Danish goal. We learn that around a minute ago Germany took the lead, through the Podolski goal that we have just seen replayed, a goal that is celebrated as if it were scored by the Netherlands themeselves. Our Dutch corner of the bar erupts, ironically far more than when Van Der Vaart found the net eight minutes ago, because for the first time this evening, possibly for the first time since the first quarter of the opening game against Denmark eight days ago, we start to genuinely believe that the Oranje could qualify for the European Championship quarter-finals. A message from a friend in Edinburgh sums up the mood: “NOW IT’S ON.”

22:07

With the Netherlands requiring a victory over the Portuguese by a two goal margin and then relying on Germany to beat the Danes, qualification still seems far from likely, despite the Oranje getting off to the best possible start. Although these results are possible, they are not necessarily probable and even though the Germans still need to win to ensure that they top the group and the Dutch have a team perfectly capable of beating Portugal by at least two clear goals on paper, we have not yet dared to believe that this might actually happen. Until now. With Germany leading Denmark by one goal to nil and the Oranje holding the same advantage over Portugal, provided that the German and Dutch defences keep the opposing attackers at bay, we know that the Netherlands will therefore have over seventy minutes to find the second goal that will clinch a quarter-final place.

22:08

However with Holland’s back four unable to cope with the pace of Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani on the break, Portugal are not only beginning to get back into the game but are now starting to create chances seemingly at will. Only seconds ago Ronaldo leapt highest to reach Nani’s whipped cross from the right and powered a header straight down the throat of Stekelenburg that the Roma goalkeeper beat away instinctively with both hands. Six minutes prior to this the Real Madrid forward was released down the left by a defence-splitting pass from Joao Moutinho; after cutting into the corner of the penalty area on his right foot and turning Ron Vlaar one way and then the other, Ronaldo clipped the left post with a driven, slightly dragged right-footed effort across the turf. A minute later Gregory Van Der Wiel’s woefully misplaced backpass from midway inside his own half fell to Helder Postiga just outside the Dutch penalty area, who never really had the pace to get clear of Vlaar and instead elected to shoot early; Stekelenburg got down quickly to his left to palm away the Zaragoza striker’s low, slightly scuffed side-footed shot. The Netherlands need to score the second goal of this match, but with their back four looking so fragile, right now it looks like the Portuguese are more likely to do so.

22:09

But rather than dampening our jubilant mood, this period of Portugeuse domination over the past ten minutes has oddly heightened it. Even though Moutinho and Veloso appear to be running the midfield with enough time and space to thread the ball through the Dutch back four towards the evasive runs of Ronaldo and Nani almost whenever they choose, in terms of the Portugeuse final ball it looks as though this might actually be our night; every shot seems to be scuffed along the floor or dragged slightly wide, each header is straight at Stekelenburg rather than a foot to either side of him and crosses are fractionally evading their target every time by the slightest of margins. Rather than causing anxiety amongst the Netherlands players, subtitutes, coaching staff and supporters, the inches by which these Portuguese chances are being missed appear as if they will add up to a Holland victory. Allied to the fact that the Oranje are creating half-chances of their own, albeit not as clear-cut as those that Portugal have fashioned, it seems that nothing can spoil our heightening sense of anticipation that Germany and the Netherlands will hold out and the latter will find that crucial second goal.

22:10

Except for this. Again the television screen halves and as soon as we see that this time the action from Lviv is centred around the goal to the right, that familiar sinking feeling forms in the pit of our stomachs. Christian Eriksen’s deep, outswinging corner from the right is headed back into the danger area by Nicklas Bendtner and on the edge of the six-yard box it is yet again it is Michael Krohn-Dehli that snatches away the prize that only seconds ago was dangling right in front of our very eyes, swivelling to nod the ball past Manuel Neuer and into the top left corner on the turn.

22:11

No sooner have we begun to believe that the Oranje might somehow miraculously qualify for the last eight than that belief begins to slip away once more. If Van Der Vaart’s goal after eleven minutes gave us a chance, a glimmer of hope, then eight minutes later Podolski’s strike stirred an emotion that we had not really felt since the 11th July 2010, when we had watched a Holland that looked like they might genuinely be able to keep Spain at arm’s length in Johannesburg and find a chance that would win them the World Cup. But that compound of hope and belief, that combination of excitement and anxiety, has started to ebb away exponentially with a single flick of Krohn-Dehli’s forehead.

22:12

At this point begin to fear the worst, that this evening will follow the same pattern as the previous two in this tournament and after everything going our way for twenty minutes, it is all going to fall apart. In an attempt to find some humour and at least comfort ourselves in such a bleak situation, talk begins of the next friendly against Belgium in Brussels on August 18th, the first World Cup qualifier against Turkey in Amsterdam on September 7th and, rather desperately, the opening match of the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil that will take place on June 12th 2014. Although the curtain has far from fallen on the adventures of the Oranje in Poland and Ukraine, from the body language and tone of voice of those of us back here it is clear to see that we no longer believe. Our perspective has changed and all of a sudden we are acutely aware that our Euro 2012 will most likely be over this evening, as if a bucket of freezing cold water has been poured over each of our heads or like we have awoken from a deep sleep; our defence looks fragile and disorientated, those Portugal chances suddenly seem to be threatening the Dutch goal rather than teasing it and it appears that it will only be a matter of time before one of them finds it’s intended target.

22:13

And sure enough, from the likeliest source on the pitch, one does. A rushed clearance from Jetro Willems, who seems unable to cope with the mounting Portuguese pressure and such limited time in which to take a first touch and pick a pass, gifts the ball straight back to the opposition. It is shifted right to Joao Pereira and the Valencia defender checks inside and drifts unchallenged across the face of the Holland back four, assessing his options with plenty of time and waiting for the run of Ronaldo before slipping a ball in between the two centre-backs with the outside of his right foot. With Vlaar flat-footed, the Real Madrid forward bursts into the penalty area and collects the pass with a single touch, before firing the ball with the side of his right foot past Stekelenburg and into the bottom left hand corner from around eight yards out. The net ripples emphatically, sending out a clear message to all of us back in the UK; even though technically the situation is not beyond salvation and it has been over a week since the Oranje played their first Group B match, in reality our 2012 European Championships has lasted for just the nine minutes, between when Lukas Podolski gave Germany the lead and just moments ago, when Cristiano Ronaldo equalised for Portugal.

 

I am sure you know the rest of this story by now. Portugal went on to create chance upon chance in a second half that washed over our small group and with the Dutch again collapsing after conceding a goal, Ronaldo found a winner fifteen minutes from time. An aimless Holland attack once again broke down and Joao Moutinho picked the ball up just outside the centre circle before slipping the ball to Nani in acres of space on the right. With the remaining Dutch defenders struggling to keep up, the winger ran thirty yards unchallenged before sliding a curving pass along the deck that found Ronaldo level with the penalty spot and left post; the Real Madrid forward shaped to shoot and then took a touch inside with his left foot that left Gregory Van Der Wiel sliding past him, desperate to block a shot that never came. Faced with only Stekelenburg, Ronaldo steadied himself and thumped the ball into the bottom left corner from the edge of the six yard box. Even though Germany held up their end of the bargain, Lars Bender providing a goal ten minutes from time that would ultimately give them victory over the Danes, the Netherlands never really looked as though they would score three in the final ten minutes in Kharkiv, despite Rafael Van Der Vaart hitting the post with a similar effort to that which he had scored with after eleven minutes, a goal that now seemed as far away as Johannesburg. Ronaldo could have sealed a first ever hat-trick in an international tournament finals however he again hit the base of the post with a rasping right-footed drive across the floor from outside the area, but it ultimately would be of no consequence as minutes later the final whistles sounded almost simultaneously in Kharkiv and Lviv.

And so on Sunday evening, the Netherlands’ Euro 2012 campaign ended with defeat to Portugal in the same muted, ambivalent manner as it had begun against Denmark eight days earlier. A far cry from the heroes’ welcome many of the same players had received two years earlier as they returned home to parade their World Cup silver medals along the Amsterdam canals, the Netherlands team were greeted by frustrated boos tinged with an odd indifference from supporters as they arrived at Schiphol airport on Monday, failing to bring even a solitary point back with them after a performance that ranks as the worst of any Dutch team at a recent major tournament. Even the disastrous 1990 World Cup and Euro ’96 campaigns, widely regarded as the lowest points in modern Dutch football, seem moderately successful by comparison and the plane had barely touched down before an inquest had begun into the multitude of problems facing the Dutch national team in the immediate future.

A tangled mess, many of the problems regarding the attitude and mentality of the players, the coaching staff and how to translate such a talented squad into a winning one are interlinked, however it is the question of whether Bert Van Marwijk should continue in his post as coach that seems to be the most pressing. Due to sit down with Dutch FA officials in the next couple of weeks to review the tournament (which shouldn’t take too long), many consider the former Feyenoord coach to have “lost the dressing room” however it must be noted that the same was said of Guus Hiddink following Euro ’96, who then took the same group of players to the World Cup semi-finals in 1998, where they only lost out to Brazil on penalties at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille. It is also worth considering that Van Marwijk is the same coach that took roughly the same squad to the World Cup Final only two years ago and that there hardly seems to be a clamour amongst the Dutch media or supporters for him to go, nor from the players, even those that have disagreed with his choices over recent weeks; Rafael Van Der Vaart was recently quoted as saying “He should remain in charge. He has not signed a contract for so long for nothing. I’m not going to kick a man when he is down.” Wesley Sneijder later echoed these sentiments: “We have all failed together and you cannot just blame the coach. I think he definitely has a future with the national team.” And so support from the players seems to be strong with the only real dissent coming from Arjen Robben, who told the Dutch coach to “Shut your trap” when asked to track back against Portugal, but then again that is most likely less to do with Van Marwijk and more to do with the attitude of Robben, which has been poor not only throughout Euro 2012 but also during last season with Bayern. Despite Van Marwijk himself remaining (perhaps wisely) tight-lipped on his future in the past week, there also appears to be plenty of support from the officials whom he will soon discuss his future with including Dutch FA director Bert Van Oostveen, who expressed his views in the immediate aftermath of the Dutch exit: “The performance was unworthy of the orange shirt in terms of results. But it is not for nothing that we recently extended his contract until 2016. I cannot get into it too much so soon after the game. But I have received no signal that Van Marwijk wants to stop. The question is whether Bert is the man who can turn this situation around.”

If it is decided that Van Marwijk is not the man to lead the Oranje towards the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, although many including myself will be sad to see the departure of a coach that we have all become very fond of during the past four years, there will be plenty of able candidates to replace him, many of them former Dutch international players. The favourite appears to be Ronald Koeman, the former Barcelona centre-back who was part of the European Championship winning Netherlands side of 1988 and captained his country at Italia ’90, Euro ’92 and USA ’94. The highest scoring defender of all time with 193 goals in 533 league matches, Koeman also turned out for Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord in his playing career before later managing all three clubs between spells at Vitesse, Benfica, Valencia and AZ. Hugely decorated as both a player and manager, Koeman won several Eredivisie titles, a handful of KNVB cups, four La Liga titles and twice won the European Cup with PSV in 1988 and Barcelona in 1992 (scoring in the final against Sampdoria at Wembley) as a player and as a coach has collected winners’ medals in the Eredivisie, KNVB Cup and Copa Del Rey. With a strong personality (he once famously wiped his backside with the Germany shirt he swapped with Olaf Thon following the Euro ’88 semi-final in Hamburg, an action he later regretted) and a coaching style that is considered to utilise a strong defensive platform upon which to base the Dutch attacking sensibilities, Koeman undoubtedly has the experience to sort out the fragile Dutch defence and the strength of character to deal with the egos within the dressing room, as well as being a proven winner both on the pitch and in the dugout.

Another name in the picture is that of Frank Rijkaard, the former Ajax and AC Milan midfielder who won several Eredivisie titles, three KNVB Cups and the 1995 UEFA Champions League in two spells with the Amsterdam club either side of a successful spell at the San Siro in which he won consecutive European Cups in 1989 and 1990 as well as collecting winners’ medals in Serie A, the European Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup as part of a side that is largely considered to be one of the greatest club teams of all time. Another of the Euro ’88 winning squad, Rijkaard’s most famous moment for the Oranje probably came against West Germany at Italia ’90, when both he and Rudi Voller were sent off in the San Siro for spitting at each other. Although Rijkaard has already managed the Netherlands national side once before it was his first managerial appointment and he still managed to take the Oranje to the Euro 2000 semi-final on home soil. After a brief spell in charge of Sparta Rotterdam, Rijkaard then enjoyed five well-decorated seasons at Barcelona, bringing two La Liga titles and the 2006 UEFA Champions League to the Camp Nou, laying the foundations for the team that his replacement Pep Guardiola would then make into arguably the best ever. Even though it could be seen as a backward step to appoint a former manager, it has been twelve years since Rijkaard coached the Netherlands and during these years in between the fomer midfielder has accrued plenty of experience, including spells in charge of Galatasaray in Turkey and the Saudi Arabia national team. Following in the tradition of forebearers Rinus Michels and Johann Cruijff, Rijkaard’s reputation for playing attacking football as a cohesive unit makes him a strong contender.

An outsider to take the potential vacancy, Frank De Boer has also built a strong reputation as a coach since retiring as a player in 2006. The second most capped Netherlands international of all time with 112 appearances, De Boer won the 1992 UEFA Cup and 1995 UEFA Champions League with Ajax as well as five Eredivisie titles and two KNVB Cups before leaving for Barcelona in 1999, where he won the La Liga title during his first season. After spells with Galatasaray and Glasgow Rangers, the man who played the 40-yard pass for Dennis Bergkamp in the 1998 World Cup semi-final hung up his boots and moved into coaching with the Ajax youth academy. In 2010, after two years as Van Marwijk’s assistant with the Netherlands national team, the former left-back became caretaker manager of Ajax following the sacking of Martin Jol and after winning his first game 2-0 against AC Milan in the Champions League was offered the job permanently, after which he went on to win consecutive Eredivisie titles in 2010/11 and 2011/12. With a relaxed personality, De Boer could be a potential candidate in that he is a proven winner with the ability to relieve the pressure from an anxious Oranje and has an excellent team of coaches around him including Dennis Bergkamp. It has also been suggested that the departure of De Boer as Van Marwijk’s assitant after the successful 2010 World Cup is one of the reasons for the lack of success since, particularly in defence. He does however seem committed to his project with Ajax at present, turning down the opportunity to interview for the Liverpool vacancy this summer, of which he said “I am honoured by the request [from Liverpool] but I have only just started with Ajax.”

The undoubted long-shot would be Pep Guardiola. The former Barcelona midfielder won six La Liga titles, two Copa Del Reys, the 1992 European Cup (alongside Koeman of course), the 1997 Cup Winners’ Cup and two European Super Cups with the Catalan club as well as representing Spain at USA ’94, France ’98, Euro 2000 and the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona where the Spanish took the gold medal, before moving into management with Barcelona ‘B’. After replacing Frank Rijkaard at the beginning of the 2008/09 season, Pep won the La Liga, Copa Del Rey, UEFA Champions League, European Super Cup, Spanish Super Cup and FIFA World Club Cup in his first year with the club. He then built one of the finest sides in the history of the game including Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, a team that went on to win two more consecutive La Liga titles in 2009/10 and 2010/11, as well as another UEFA Champions League in 2011. After his first barren managerial season, Guardiola decided that it was best for the development of both himself and the club if they parted ways, leaving the post to be replaced by his assistant Tito Villanova. Possibly the greatest manager of the last five years and still with so much potential, Pep’s success and salary may put him out of reach of the Dutch FA, although with his immediate plans to take a ‘sabbatical’ from the game an international post could be an attractive option.

Whether or not Van Marwijk is replaced and who that replacement might be, any coach leading the Oranje into World Cup qualification will have plenty of issues regarding the attitude and mentality of the players to contend with. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar soured the mood in the camp before the squad had even left for Krakow, expressing his disappointment and anger at not being selected ahead of Van Persie. Although he later partially retracted his comments, Rafael Van Der Vaart then followed suit in claiming that Van Marwijk was perhaps too rigid in the players he would select to start matches. Add to this the problems in Robben’s attitude towards the coach and the suggestion that Van Marwijk has shown too much loyalty and preferential treatment towards son-in-law and captain Mark Van Bommel, and it is clear that there was much more than mere hand baggage that travelled back to Schiphol with the disgraced squad, however it might work in Van Marwijk’s favour that Van Bommel announced his retirement from international football immediately after the Dutch exit.

It is obvious that many of the problems within the squad relate to team selection; with a plethora of attacking talent available, the Oranje have two world-class players available in each position from the midfield forwards, each with their own unique philosophies and interpretation of the position. A way to incorporate each these players into different systems according to the opposition, location and context of each match must be found, so that the wealth of attacking options is utilised to its maximum potential and that all of the players feel involved. It is true that, as much as we love his personality as a coach, sometimes Van Marwijk is too reliant on the same few members of the squad and seems to have little idea of how to introduce different players and alter the system accordingly. The former Feyenoord coach seems to have only two methods, one an overly-defensive system employing two holding midfielders against stronger opposition and the other an all-out attacking style of play that uses only one midfielder against weaker sides. It appears to be either total defence or total attack for Van Marwijk, but never total football, and the current coach has a tendency to bring players on out of position rather than change the formation to suit those players that are introduced. So perhaps the Oranje now require a coach that can vary the system to a greater degree; although 4-2-3-1 still has it’s place, 4-4-2 or 4-1-3-2 could be played to accomodate both Huntelaar and Van Persie, 4-3-3 could be used to give the team greater width and a more contraversial 4-2-2-2 could even be used to give both Sneijder and Van Der Vaart the freedom that brings out their best. But even if solutions can be found in this respect, the players will still need to realise that the team is more important than the individual. Even if a greater variance of systems can be utilised to use more of the players, the likes of Van Der Vaart, Huntelaar and Robben will still need to accept that they may not play all of the time and that supporting your team-mates from the subtitutes bench is part of being a footballer. Perhaps some of the Dutch squad should ask Juan Mata how he feels, having been behind Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas in the Spain squad for the last four years.

 

So the criteria would appear to be thus; a coach with the vision and ideas to integrate varying players into different systems, the ability to shore up a fragile defence and a strong enough personality to handle those within the squad, with experience of working with large squads of talented players with successful results. Guardiola would fit the bill perfectly however with his desire to take a break from the game and a preference for a Dutch coach, Koeman and De Boer seem to meet all of the criteria. With vast experience winning titles and playing in huge matches as defenders, the pair also both possess the experience required to solve the defensive problems that have been so evident for the Netherlands in the past few weeks. Although the Oranje have one of the most promising right-backs in the world in Van Der Wiel, a potentially strong centre-back partnership with plenty of time on their side in Heintinga and Vlaar (who Koeman works with at club level) and in Erik Pieters a left-back with bags of potential (if he had not been injured the defence would surely have been much stronger in Ukraine) there is a fragility and disorganisation at the back that must be attended to, so that a foundation can be laid from which to build attacks with the huge ability that the Dutch have at their disposal. With De Boer being Ajax through and through, an added bonus for Koeman is that having coached Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord he has no particular allegiance to one of the Eredivisie’s ‘big three’ clubs and is therefore well-placed to cure the divides within the squad, most of which begin at club level. No matter who is coaching the Oranje in a month’s time, there are plenty of problems to be solved psychologically, technically and tactically.

For ourselves there are also questions to be answered, in terms of the direction that this blog will take from this point onwards. Originally intended to be an account of the 2012 European Championships, Making Plans For Nigel kind of banked on the Oranje reaching at least the quarter-finals, which going into the tournament we genuinely thought they would do, and with Group A being so comparatively weak we thought that if they got that far they would most likely go on to reach the semi-finals. With such the tournament being cut short so abruptly for the Oranje, so has been the potential for us to write about it. We do however have plans to carry on the blog as an account of following the Oranje from the UK in some capacity, beginning with the friendly with Belgium in Amsterdam next month and then onwards into the World Cup qualifying campaign that will hopefully see the Netherlands reach the 2014 finals in Brazil. There are also plenty of tangents that we had hoped to explore during Euro 2012 but had not had chance to, due to the short periods of time between matches, such as “Why Ajax Should Have Won The 2012 Champions League”, so hopefully we will now have chance to explore these ideas. There are plans to look back to how this all started during Euro 2008, an attempt to cheer ourselves up with a retrospective look at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and I am also planning to write a series of articles exploring the series of Dutch disappointments at international tournaments between winning the 1988 European Championships and co-hosting Euro 2000 with Belgium. So there will be plenty for us to write and plenty for you to read; we hope that you have enjoyed following us following the Oranje during this ultimately doomed campaign and we sincerely hope that you will continue to do so.

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