Marking the end of an impressive campaign, the Netherlands were eliminated from the World Cup in Brazil after losing the semi-final against Argentina last week.
On Saturday, the Dutch said their final goodbye, beating Brazil 3-0 in the third place playoff. Having narrowly missed the final, it was perhaps of some comfort for Dutch fans to at least see their team depart with a victory.
Ahead of the tournament, nobody expected the Netherlands to finish third. The defence was too inexperienced, it was said, and besides, there wasn’t enough quality in midfield and up front.
Indeed, it was difficult to disagree with this sentiment. With a back line comprised almost solely of players from the Dutch Eredivisie, and with Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben as the only obviously world-class players, it didn’t seem likely the Dutch would do as well as they did against teams like reigning world champions Spain and potential dark horses Chile.
Perhaps, though, the influence of manager Louis van Gaal over his squad had been underestimated. As it turned out, the Dutch would do surprisingly well, in no small part thanks to their boss, who continuously made the right substitutions and tactical switches during games. What’s more, team discipline and harmony seemed excellent—at least from the perspective of an outsider.
More than anything, then, 2014’s Dutch campaign showed how far a team can get as a motivated and well organised collective. This Holland team wasn’t about a superstar or about groundbreaking, fast-paced football. It was about intelligence, discipline and pulling together.
Some critics have classified Van Gaal’s Oranje, and especially the 5-3-2 formation, as thoroughly “un-Dutch”, but in this regard, Van Gaal’s Oranje fitted into Dutch football’s tradition of versatility, multiplicity and collectivity.
Granted, perhaps it wasn’t as beautiful as the “Total Football” manager Rinus Michels and playmaker Johan Cruyff put on display in 1974, when the Dutch finished second after narrowly losing against West Germany. But just like Cruyff’s Total Football, this Dutch campaign was all about the team.
As such, 2014’s Dutch campaign was perhaps more in line with Dutch tradition than Oranje’s effort in 2010, when the Netherlands reached the final but ultimately lost against Spain during extra time. That Dutch squad, good as it was, was largely about a ruthless defence and the might of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder up front.
In some regards, Van Gaal’s Oranje has designed a blueprint for a type of modern day Total Football. Gone must be the days of naive, all out attacking. Welcome back to the Dutch collective that had always been so admired by the world.
It must become more attacking, it must become more proactive. But that’s a matter for the future. As we’ve seen in Brazil, the notion of synergy will return to the forefront of the Dutch footballing mind, and that’s a very good thing.
If Guus Hiddink, who will soon take over from Van Gaal as Dutch boss, can expand on the base put in place by his predecessor, 2014’s Dutch campaign may well turn out to be a historic one.
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