The Netherlands international break featured friendlies against France, which they lost 3-2, and against England at Wembley, which they won 2-1. There were three things that became strikingly apparent while watching the Oranje play in games that were supposed to be warm-ups for the Euros this summer, had they actually qualified for the tournament.
The Golden generation of Nigel De Jong, Robin Van Persie, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben are ageing and the team is in a period of transition. Any country goes through periods like these. An easy example is Spain who, after winning three consecutive major tournaments, had to rebuild their team after the retirements of key players like Xavi. However, the Netherlands have had less success when it comes to replacing them.
The first thing that was quite evident from the friendlies against France and England was that this could very well be a long period of transition and a quick fix might not be the answer. For years Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven have been the leaders in not only the Eredivisie, but also in producing talented players out of their academies.
Ajax have undoubtedly been the most successful club of late, winning the Eredivisie title every year from 2010-2014. The team that has won 33 Eredivisie titles used to rely on Dutch-born players like the De Boer twins, Marco Van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and the late Johan Cruyff; of late they have relied heavily on foreign born players like Luis Suarez, Munir El Hamdaoui, Christian Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen.
That does not mean they were wrong for bringing in top foreign players, it simply shows that there seems to have been a bit of a generational gap. This is not helped when some of the most talented players like Ibrahim Afellay, Kevin Strootman and Eljero Elia, players who would now be in their prime and carrying this team, have suffered from serious injuries.
The future is not all doom and gloom for the Dutch—they have some of the best young players in all of Europe. They do have some talented young players like Quincy Promes, Georginio Wijnaldum and Stephan De Vrij, but the most impressive talent comes from the teenagers.
19-year-old Riechedly Bazoer of Ajax has been linked to teams like Barcelona and put on an impressive display at central midfield against England. Other players to watch out for are Mink Peeters of Real Madrid, Bobby Adekanye of Liverpool, Timothy Fosu-Mensah who made his debut for Manchester United, Steven Bergwjin of PSV Eindhoven and Jairo Riedewald of Ajax. The Netherlands have not made the Euros—they might even struggle to make the 2018 World Cup—but the future is not bleak. There is talent there: the process will just take a little longer than people expected.
The second observation is that head coach Danny Blind needs to understand that he is not Louis Van Gaal and that the 5-3-2 is not going to work with this squad. The Netherlands have traditionally played a 4-3-3 with devastating effect. When Van Gaal tinkered with the tried and proven formation, he was heavily criticised. The genius of what he did was take full advantage of the pace that Arjen Robben possessed. The 5-3-2 was a counter attacking style which allowed him to break away at pace and hit teams on a counter. His speed and control on the ball was used to devastating effect against both Spain and Australia in the group stages.
Coupled with the elite finishing of Robin Van Persie and brilliant deliveries of Wesley Sneijder, this formation was almost a no-brainer. Many thought it was the end of Total Football and the formation made famous by Johan Cruyff. The truth is, Louis Van Gaal managed to tap into the strength of his squad.
The Netherlands have no player even close to level of Arjen Robben in their current squad. While they do have some wingers who could turn into top end talent like Memphis Depay, Anwar El Ghazi and Quincy Promes, they are unlikely to reach his level.
Not only that, but the two best consensus wingers for the future, Memphis and El Ghazi, are most used to playing in a 4-3-3. The former has struggled at Manchester United, but his few flashes of brilliance have come when playing that formation.
The key is finding a midfielder who is able to do the dirty work in the middle of the pitch, and that player could be Riechedly Bazoer. Comfortable on the ball and as athletic as they come, he is already being compared to Yaya Touré of Manchester City. He could end up being the replacement for Nigel De Jong as that physical presence in the midfield.
The last observation is that Vincent Janssen is the real deal and will be the catalyst that will have to lead the line for the future. Not since before Marco Van Basten has there not been a Dutch striker at one of the top European clubs. Ruud van Nistelrooy, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Robin van Persie, Patrick Kluivert: nobody produces top level strikers like the Oranje. There have been a number of strikers who have showed promise but have yet to live up to the hype; the likes of Bas Dost, Luc Castaignos and Luuk De Jong have all been highly touted but have never reached the world class heights that were expected of them. Janssen could be the man to carry the torch up front.
Janssen was brilliant against England, harrying the English centre-backs all night. He was able to steal the ball from a stumbling John Stones and though he did not convert his chance, his run led to the handball which won the Dutch a penalty. Impressively, the youngster took responsibility for the penalty and slotted it into the top corner. He would later push Phil Jagielka off the ball before delivering a perfect pass across the width of the goal to a wide open Luciano Narsingh who would bury the winner into the open net.
Janssen is a surprisingly powerful striker and is a deadly finisher. A more physical manifestation of what Robin Van Persie was, with slightly less finesse. With 20 goals this season he could be the next Dutch striker at a top club and is the Netherlands’ best option to lead the line for the 2018 World Cup qualifying.