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Netherlands' Amsterdam Nightmare Continues as France Show Deep Gulf in Class

Andy Brassell@@andybrassellFeatured ColumnistOctober 11, 2016

Paul Pogba salutes the travelling France fans after his winner downed the Netherlands in Amsterdam, again.
Paul Pogba salutes the travelling France fans after his winner downed the Netherlands in Amsterdam, again.EMMANUEL DUNAND/Getty Images

AMSTERDAM ARENA, Netherlands — Sometimes a change of scenery can make all the difference. It worked for Turkey, decamping to Konya from Istanbul midway through their Euro 2016 qualification campaign and plotting an improbable course towards France.

Last week, the Netherlandsthe nation left (eventually vainly) clawing for scraps with Fatih Terim’s team in Group A behind Czech Republic and Icelandtook a leaf out of that particular book, seeing off the challenge of Belarus at Eredivisie leaders Feyenoord’s perpetually bouncing De Kuip home.

That win, topped off by a stunning strike by Tottenham Hotspur’s Vincent Janssen, was most welcome. Rotterdam, though, is Rotterdam, and Amsterdam is Amsterdam. Not forgetting, of course, that Belarus are Belarus and France are France.

The Dutch took the field in the capital against the losing Euro 2016 finalists having lost their last five matches straight in the Amsterdam Arena, a sorry and unprecedented sequence. The last time a Netherlands side avoided defeat here was in beating Spain in March last year.

One of the teams to beat them in that nightmare run were France back in March, in the days when Dimitri Payet was still a hopeful pushing for summer inclusion, before a stellar performance in this stadium helped the West Ham United midfielder to rocket up Didier Deschamps’ shortlist. A lot can change in six months, but for the Netherlands, it can’t happen quickly enough.

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Deschamps’ side were 3-2 winners seven months ago, but that scoreline was quite flattering to the home side; it reflected more the defensive caprices that would see Les Bleus mired in sticky disappointment just shy of the finishing line in the summer than any potential Dutch resurgence.  

As you take the escalators up the levels to the media area, large photos of national-team veterans light the way. There’s Johan Cruyff, of course, Ruud Gullit, Dennis Bergkamp, Arjen Robben (still with hair) and Robin van Persie. By the time you approach the summit, the faces are those of Jordy Clasie and Bruno Martins Indi. Both are good pros but hardly as bright as the constellation that filled the sky before.

Much of the look of the squad available to coach Danny Blind is down to the tide of time. Van Persie, Nigel de Jong and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar are no longer part of the picture, and it’s time to let them go. With Robben’s injury difficulties in the past year, one wonders whether he might fall into the same category despite his brilliance.

The injury in the Belarus game to Wesley Sneijder, one of the last of the 2010 FIFA World Cup finalists generation hanging on, meant he was a tense-looking spectator in the stands here, providing a further glimpse into the future.

Wesley Sneijder and Quincy Promes celebrate against Belarus, but injury prevented either making an impact against France.
Wesley Sneijder and Quincy Promes celebrate against Belarus, but injury prevented either making an impact against France.Peter Dejong/Associated Press/Associated Press

The malaise has been in situ for some time. Speaking this week, one of the 2010 vintage, Mark van Bommel, blamed former manager Louis van Gaal’s tactical tinkering in another encounter with France just before the 2014 World Cup.

“Normally, Van Gaal opted for a 4-3-3 system,” the former AC Milan and Barcelona midfielder told L’Equipe this week (h/t ESPN FC), “but during that game, he suddenly went to a 3-5-2 that changed everything. Yes, with that setup our national team reached the World Cup semi-finals, but looking back, I think some of the current problems come from that change in tactics. It's in 4-3-3 that the Netherlands won things.”

You might think the accusation of straying from tradition is a bit rich coming from Van Bommel, a key part of Bert van Marwijk’s rather functional team that reached the final in South Africa. Their approach was the subject of extended ideological debate in the Netherlands, with Van Gaal’s later return to a more attractive style lauded.

Many would interpret Blind’s system today as the same as Van Marwijk’s, a typical 4-2-3-1, but of course, form is but a framework. Look at Van Bommel’s old kingdom; comparing his partnership with the fearsome De Jong to the current pair in front of the defence, Georginio Wijnaldum and Kevin Strootman, is not far off likening the Wu-Tang Clan to Coldplay.

For all the discourse on philosophies, Van Bommel’s words tell us something. Without wins, there is little left. Wijnaldum and Strootman are rare beacons of quality right now, and the class gap between the home side and even a French team that barely got out of second gear was often evident here.

The way the stands hushed when Antoine Griezmann motored away to begin a counter-attack, or the gasp when Payet pulled a rabona cross out of his magic box of tricks, underlined the widespread recognition of this gulf and of how far the Netherlands have fallen. They still have the name but are some way off having the game.

Paul Pogba, who took part in an absorbing battle with Strootman, settled the match in an action typical of it, his fierce shot finding the net after Maarten Stekelenburg might have kept it out, and after the Dutch gave away the ball in their own half for the umpteenth time.

Before half-time, the home fans were cheering the progress of orange paper aeroplanes gliding towards the pitch—fashioned from the tiles of the pre-match tifo mosaic—more fervently than they were matters on the pitch.

The Oranje hoards did not abandon their team and showed appreciation for their players’ efforts—Janssen was particularly willing, making Raphael Varane and Laurent Koscielny earn their keep—but they had seen this film too many times before. It is, one imagines, hard to bear.

Kevin Strootman and Pogba fought an engaging battle in midfield.
Kevin Strootman and Pogba fought an engaging battle in midfield.Peter Dejong/Associated Press/Associated Press

Luck wasn’t with Blind and his players. Quincy Promes, having started the season in good fettle with Spartak Moscow and having also netted his first two goals for the senior national side against Belarus, pulled up inside the first 20 minutes, forcing his replacement with Memphis Depay.

By the hour mark, Liverpool’s Wijnaldum was clutching at his hamstring and gave way to Bas Dost shortly afterwards. Janssen might have got a first-half penalty out of north London rival Koscielny, too.

France were pushed in the same way a top-flight team going away to plucky lower-division opponents might be in a cup tie. The Dutch huffed, puffed and threatened from set pieces, and when Jetro Willems came on as substitute towards the end, his first contribution with a Rory Delap-esque long throw was received with cheers.

Whether those sort of indicators represent clear light at the end of a dark tunnel for the Netherlands is debatable—though if not for Hugo Lloris’ fine late save from Memphis (one of few real pieces of work for the captain on a largely tranquil evening for him), the Dutch would have snatched a point that would not have been entirely unmerited for their endeavours.

Still, apart from 21-year-old Feyenoord right-back Rick Karsdorp, who was impressive, reasons for cheer were hard to detect.

As they strive to find a way to Russia, the Amsterdam Arena remains a millstone, even if Strootman insisted otherwise. “It’s a green pitch, and it’s the same ball,” he told Bleacher Report, eschewing the idea of a developing complex about the Netherlands’ home.

You would not expect the AS Roma midfielder to buy into that, given the mental strength he’s shown to even be here, overcoming successive knee injuries to re-approach his best. It remains to be seen if some of his team-mates share the same fortitude.

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