A tale of two systems for Holland
It's the best of times, but it's the worst of times. The Dutch national team have all but qualified for Euro 2008, needing only seven points from their four remaining games and beating Albania in Tirana made their passage almost certain.
What once was an eternal struggle, well into the final group match, before we could sigh with relief over tournament participation or cry with disappointment over our failures, is now, under coach Marco van Basten, a stroll in the park for the second time running. He has yet to lose a qualifier.
So were we dancing in the streets of the Low Country in the aftermath of the Albania game when Ruud van Nistelrooy netted the decisive and only goal well into injury time? No.
Back in the studio the pundits were rolling over each other to disapprove of the performance of the team. Former midfield ace Wim van Hanegem wondered whether Van Basten had spent the game with his back to the pitch, when the coach commented that his team had played well.
The next day the papers were universal in their reviews: Bad, very bad. A pain to watch. Happy with the points, though.
So what is the verdict on this coach? No question that his ways are confusing. We have a left winger playing on the right (Ryan Babel) and a right winger playing on the left (Robin van Persie) for one. Consequently each of the wingers has to turn around whenever he reaches the goal-line and they're forced to cut inside to shoot, which is believed to be very dangerous.
Unfortunately, even in Albania, players are following the international scene and the cutting actions of someone like Ryan Babel are in Chapter One of every defender's handbook nowadays. Babel thrives in the two-striker system which made the Under 21s so successful in the European Championships, winning twice in succession under coach Foppe de Haan.
This is a system which is in very low regard with the Johan Cruyff-crew of which Van Basten is a member. Cruyff believes in three strikers and he says in the current issue of Champions: 'With 4-3-3 it is much easier to make combinations going forward. With only one forward, who is he going to pass to or make combinations with?' Cruyff likes to make triangles on the pitch, in which a player has two options to pass.
I don't have any coaching credentials, nor have played any professional football whatsoever, which obviously makes my opinion close to worthless, but I do like to know from the three times European Cup winner whether he has thought about players moving around?
We are not talking table football here, so a midfielder can easily run into space and become the third corner of a triangle with the striker and some other midfielder. Isn't this the dynamic that football is about?
In the same article AS Roma are mentioned as an example of a team playing without any strikers at all, and they still have someone in their team winning the Golden Boot last season.
De Haan used the obscure Maceo Rigters upfront like the circle-runner in handball, who has to keep possession until the midfield manages to cover the distance to the box. He could then lay back the ball to incoming players with his eye on the goal. Pretty successfull and maybe a ploy that would suit big Ruud van Nistelrooy. However, although they work in the same building of the Dutch FA in Zeist, Van Basten never walked over to De Haan to enquire after the key to this success, but stubbornly followed his own route.
He did, however, bow in to pressure and invite Ruud van Nistelrooy back in the squad again. In three international games over last month Van the Man found himself in the same position that he left at the last World Cup. Two wingers on each side of him, none of them providing him with any decent passes or crosses.
Although Ruud struggled at times to stay in the game, he did score twice. One great individual action against Bulgaria and another, on the first decent cross in 270 minutes, in Albania. So Van Basten was happy with Ruud again. He scored! Never mind about the performance. Yet, as long as the Dutch team play with 4-3-3, even the best striker will find it difficult to get into a scoreable position in the box.
This is no longer theoretical, but something which we have found out in the three years Van Basten has been national coach. I agree with Johan Cruyff that the three-striker system is a sort of national heritage and something that makes the Dutch team stand out in football history. But so were Arsenal with the WM formation before Word War II. No-one in their right mind would suggest Arsene Wenger to play this system now.
Another argument Cruyff frequently comes up with is that it is very difficult for the opponents who are not used to defending the old fashioned winger. Unfortunately, it is just as difficult for the ones who are predominantly wingers themselves. Robin van Persie, Ryan Babel, Dirk Kuyt, Arjen Robben to name a few, have not played in that position on a regular basis since they joined the professional ranks. And none of the Dutch midfielders really know how to feed them.
That is why our national team's games turn into ninety minutes of confusion and a festival of errors. No one knows where to go or what to do. One of the victims is 'Mr Champions League', as he was recently dubbed and honoured by the top coaches as the Best Midfielder last season, Clarence Seedorf.
He did not even have to come off the bench in Tirana although the team's performance was a nightmare. Seedorf has never done very well in the current set-up and it is easy to see why. Unless you're one of the ones in charge.