With World Cup fever drawing closer and closer and the draw taking place today (the draw of the World Cup’s group stage is not yet known when I’m writing this), people are speculating more and more about possible candidates for the most sought-after trophy in international football.
Since I am Dutch, allow me to speculate about the strengths and weaknesses of the Dutch national team, a side which has a respectable World Cup record to boast with, reaching two consecutive World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978, but losing both finals to their respective host nations, West Germany and Argentina.
The Dutch are often amongst the crowd favorites, famous for their attractive and attacking style of football. At the peak of its success in the 1970s, the team was famous for its mastery of Total Football and was nicknamed Clockwork Orange for its precision passing.
The current team is less attack-oriented than the famous ‘70s generation, but is currently ranked third in the FIFA World Rankings, so still amongst the better sides in international football.
As for strengths and weaknesses, I will assess every line of the team in this article, commenting on the players we will most likely call up the World Cup and their strengths and weaknesses.
He used to be a familiar sight between the sticks for the national side, Manchester United goalie Edwin van der Sar. When he retired from international football after the 2006 European Championships, many pundits feared the national side would suffer from a keeper crisis.
Rest assured, there is no keeper crisis. Ajax goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg have proved himself a more than capable replacement of the old master. The former backup goalie of the national team has seized his opportunity and he’s played well during the qualifiers, conceding a mere three goals.
Add to this his reliable performances for Ajax this season, and the position of first goalkeeper is not a real problem for the Dutch. The position of backup goalie, however, is a reason for more concern.
Ideally, one would like a more experienced goalie as a backup. Should something happen to the first choice keeper, one would like an experienced keeper to step in. Someone with obvious quality but who won’t buckle under the pressure of suddenly having to step in at the highest level imaginable.
The Dutch don’t really have a seasoned reserve goalie. The current reserves Michel Vorm, Piet Velthuizen, and Kenneth Vermeer are all in their early 20s or mid-20s, whereas the older generation of Dutch goalies is in its mid-30s. FC Twente veteran Sander Boschker seems like the only real alternative if manager Bert van Marwijk wants to opt for a more seasoned backup.
On the other hand, who needs a reserve keeper? Most of the times, the keeper is the only player who isn’t rotated during a World Cup, so it’s a matter of minor concern really.
Defence has traditionally been the Achilles heel of the Dutch sides. Whilst capable of producing class midfielders and forwards, the last truly great defender to come from the Netherlands was Jaap Stam and this was over a decade ago.
That’s not to say our defenders are awful. Players are Joris Mathijsen, André Ooijer, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Gregory van der Wiel, Edson Braafheid, and John Heitinga are all decent players, but none of them are really world class.
Some are too old by now (Ooijer, Van Bronckhorst), some are too young (Van der Wiel) and others have just shown they can’t reach a much higher level than the one they are currently active at (Heitinga, Mathijsen). Mind you, Van der Wiel could be become a classy wingback, but he is only 20-years old and only recently made his debut for the national team.
These are all decent players, as they have proven during the qualifying, but in these games, they were up against players like Chris Iwelumo, John Carew and Goran Pandev. They might not do so well against Alexandre Pato, Thierry Henry, David Villa, Fernando Torres, Lionel Messi, and Sergio Aguëro.
The lack of depth in this line is also a reason for concern. Van Bronckhorst and Ooijer are in their mid-30s and we really don’t have anyone to replace them with in case of an emergency.
Real Madrid’s Royston Drenthe and Ajax’ Urby Emmanuelson have been considered as replacements for Van Bronckhorst, but both players are better at their attacking roles going forward, neglecting their defensive responsibilities.
In the case of Ooijer, replacing him would mean calling up someone like Stuttgart’s Khalid Bouhlarouz or Valencia’s Hedwiges Maduro, both of whom are still struggling with their form, or the likes of Glenn Loovens and Roel Brouwers.
Some people would even go as far as claiming Chelsea’s 18-year-old Jeffrey Bruma would be a suitable candidate. Whilst the lad is obviously talented, he hasn’t even managed to break into the U21 on a regular basis....
All in all, the defence remains the Achilles heel of the team. A lot of decent players, but no outstanding ones. Should one or two of the older players get injured, this line lacks the depth to adequately replace them.
The Dutch midfield is rather sturdy and offers manager Van Marwijk with a plethora of options, both attacking and defensive.
For the defensive positions, he can opt for his son-in-law and Bayern München skipper Mark van Bommel, Manchester City’s Nigel de Jong, but also Ajax’ Demy de Zeeuw, PSV’s Orlando Engelaar, or AZ’s Stijn Schaars, and David Mendes da Silva.
For the attacking positions, he can call upon the likes of Internazionale’s Wesley Sneijder, Real Madrid’s Rafael van der Vaart or someone like PSV’s Ibrahim Afellay or Otman Bakkal. Even Arsenal’s Robin van Persie could be dropped into the attacking midfielder role if necessary.
The only real problem in midfield is that midfield general Rafael van der Vaart is currently benched at Real Madrid and this is clearly affecting his performances for the national side in a negative manner.
Van der Vaart is Van Marwijk’s ideal attacking midfielder, as he is preferred over Sneijder, but the manager has also stated that he will only field those players who regularly feature in their club team’s lineup, which is a cause for concern for Van der Vaart.
The offence is traditionally the strongest line in any Dutch national side over the past decades and this team is no exception. The stars of the team are the forwards. Seasoned professionals such as Bayern München’s Arjen Robben, Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, AC Milan’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt are only a few of the options Van Marwijk has.
He could also opt for the Hamburger SV’s talented young winger Eljero Elia, whilst Liverpool’s Ryan Babel and FC Utrecht’s Ricky van Wolfswinkel are also very realistic options upfront. Even veteran forward Ruud van Nistelrooy announced he would be interested in participating if the manager would still have him.
A wealth of attacking talent, but these lads have two very different yet very annoying problems bothering them.
The first problem is their injury-proneness. Robben has already been dubbed “the Man of Glass” due to his frequent injuries and with Van Persie and Elia also out due to injury, it remains to be seen whether they are actually match fit by the time the World Cup starts.
The second problem is one we mentioned before, this being the lack of match experience for some of the players I mentioned. Babel and Huntelaar are not getting a lot of time on the pitch these days, which is hampering their form and might even be a ground for Van Marwijk to remove them from the team.
On paper, this is easily the best line of the team, but the failed experiment against Italy and Paraguay with Kuyt and the struggling Huntelaar upfront, Huntelaar who was clearly lacking match experience, has shown that the team will struggle when one or two of the better players are unavailable.
So what are the Dutch chances for the oncoming World Cup? As always, the Dutch will hold the dark horse role. If the team can keep it together, they can form a very real threat to any nation on the international podium.
The team has a strong midfield and an even stronger forward line, provided everyone remains match fit. Defence seems to be lacking a bit, but as Euro 2006 showed, you can also just out-gun the other teams, as the Dutch proved when they demolished the Italians and the French.
Depending on the final draw for the group stages, I believe the Dutch should be able to qualify for the second round and should always be considered as outsiders for the World Cup.