It’s become an unwelcome characteristic of this Dutch side that Sunday night’s 3-0 defeat to Turkey in Konya is no longer the massive shock it once might have been.
Looking at the sheer mediocrity perforating through this team it’s hard to imagine that just fourteen months ago they were destroying Brazil to finish third in the World Cup. If anything it shows that Louis van Gaal’s role in their success may have been slightly underestimated.
In truth, this is a campaign that has never really begun in any meaningful sense for the Netherlands. Right from the opening 2-1 defeat to the Czech Republic all the warning signs were there. For a nation that normally makes short work of qualification campaigns, this one was set up to be different from the outset.
There have been problems within the squad almost right from the minute van Gaal left. His replacement Guus Hiddink was unable to manage the decline of the previous generation’s superstars such as Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder with the new batch of talent, the likes of Memphis Depay and Luciano Narsingh in such a way that one set could be seamlessly passing the torch to the other.
In truth, Hiddink looked quite disinterested throughout his second tenure as Dutch boss. Of course it didn’t help that he knew that he was already on borrowed time – the Dutch FA having already announced that Danny Blind would be taking over after Euro 2016 – but he was brought in to at least keep the ship steady and he failed massively in that regard.
Blind, since taking over early from Hiddink in July, has fared no better. In fact it has been substantially worse – what little hope the Oranje had of qualifying automatically has been unceremoniously extinguished and now they are fighting for their lives to limp into the playoffs.
As unduly wretched as they have been, it does look much worse when compared to their achievements in Brazil last year. Having said that, there is also the argument to consider that Louis van Gaal’s team overachieved at the World Cup and that a decline such as this, with these players at the levels they are all currently at, was always potentially on the cards.
There really can be no doubt that the Netherlands rode their luck massively in Brazil, and yet they could also count themselves unfortunate that it took a penalty shoot-out loss to Argentina to finally knock them out.
So was it naivety on the part of the Dutch FA? Did they believe that the rebuilding job that many had surmised needed to be undertaken in the wake of van Gaal’s departure was not necessary now that these players had apparently proven themselves on the world stage?
The World Cup run had clearly confused them massively, because in their indecisiveness as to what worked and what didn’t within that tactical system, they’ve created this mishmash of nothingness that looks incredibly pedestrian going forward and has led to a multitude of mistakes defensively.
The lack of organisation seems to have exacerbated during Blind’s two forgettable matches in charge so far. From Bruno Martins Indi’s costly red card against Iceland last week, to what appeared to be a competition running amongst the Dutch defenders as to who could make the biggest mistake against Turkey on Sunday (Jasper Cillessen won, in case you wondering), it is just hard to pinpoint exactly what it is they are even trying to do in terms of a footballing style.
It’s as if Hiddink and Blind felt they had to change something following van Gaal’s reign but they didn’t know where to start, and in their uncertainty have created a mess. More worryingly, Blind already looks totally out of his depth and unsure how to fix it. That he is already facing questions about his future in the job is an ominous sign.
Amazingly though, all hope is not yet lost for the Netherlands. Turkey’s penchant for conceding late goals (including one against the Dutch themselves) has meant that the gap between the two sides is still only two points, with two games remaining.
There is more good news in the fact that Turkey’s last two games are against the Czech Republic and Iceland – the most in-form pair of teams in the group – while the Netherlands’ next match is away to Kazakhstan, an eminently winnable fixture.
Of course this is all theoretical. Theoretically, this Dutch side is far too good to be in fourth place and in serious danger of not qualifying for the finals next summer.
But that is not the reality. The reality of the situation is that it’s hard to know just how motivated the Czechs and Iceland will be having already qualified – they may not be massively motivated to raise their game in their final matches. Besides which, on current form can Blind’s side even be confident of getting that win they so desperately need in Almaty next month?
A campaign that has rarely looked like anything other than a disaster has now been placed on life support. Whether it wakes up or not rests entirely on the ability of Blind and this team to find some semblance of organisation between now and October.
Never completely bet against them, but be ready to pull that plug.