Left out in the cold
Ruud Krol and Frank de Boer are the only world-class left backs the Dutch have ever had. Few kids ever aspire to become a left back, so in professional football this position is mainly occupied by frustrated left wingers who have been demoted by their coach. The supply is even more restricted as a left-footed orientation is preferred. Now Giovanni van Bronckhorst has retired, there is glaring vacancy in the Dutch team, but maybe a long forgotten name has the answer.
Krol was the first modern left back, travelling rapidly along the byline to become an additional left winger. His runs against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu while playing for Ajax in the European Cup, and in the World Cup semi-final of 1974 - providing Johan Cruyff with a pinpoint cross to set up the second goal against Brazil - are legendary. Yet Krol was originally right-footed. As Wim Suurbier was the established right back for club and country at the end of the '60s, he knew that he should concentrate on the other side, where Theo van Duivenbode departed after the lost European Cup final of 1969.
For months Krol trained his left foot, got his chance and became one of the best left backs in the world for the next seven years. Then he was promoted to the typical Dutch position of 'libero', for which he would set the standard as well.
The vacancy at left back took some time to be filled. At the World Cup of '78, Jan Poortvliet, Piet Wildschut or Wim Jansen would deputise, while one of Hugo Hovenkamp, Edo Ophof, Peter Boeve, Sonny Silooy and Adri van Tiggelen covered the '80s. They were hard-working craftsmen with, to quote Alan Hansen, lots of grit and determination, but with a lack of the entertainment and showmanship, which Krol once mastered.
However, these qualities returned with the arrival of Frank de Boer. Here was a left back with a fine touch and immaculate pass who had actually gone through the youth system in that position. He was key to the system of the successful Ajax side of the '90s that could patiently pass around between the last line and start the built-up of an attack from each defender.
When De Boer followed the path of Krol to switch into the centre, his coach at Ajax, Louis van Gaal, had an idea. He pulled the club's left winger back into his defence to bring speed along the byline. When his left back would go forward, the opponent's striker on that side had to cover, pulling him out of position and making him exhausted for the counter attack. No better example can be found than Winston Bogarde, who was an average attacking midfielder with an attitude at Sparta when he was suddenly bought by Ajax. Van Gaal made him into one of the pillars of the post-Champions League winning side until he broke his leg in training at the World Cup in 1998.
Encouraged by his success with Bogarde, Van Gaal did the same at his next club, Barcelona. Unfortunately this time he went for the quicksilver, creative and lightweight Boudewijn Zenden, which saw his talent wasted. Instead of honing his spectacular skills up front, Zenden spent his best years running uninspiredly after wingers. When he could not make the international grade as a left back, he gave up at Barcelona and started drifting through Europe, where coaches used him to fill the gaps in their teams as they were unsure what his best position was.
Zenden was unlucky that at the same time Van Bronckhorst was going through the same transformation. Gio was a decent left-footed attacking midfielder at Feyenoord, Glasgow Rangers and eventually Arsenal, where he was marginalised after a long injury and the arrival of Patrick Vieira. To return to the first-team, he acknowledged that dropping into the defence would be his best strategy - especially as he already filled this vacancy as a deputy for Arthur Numan in the Dutch team - and, after former Dutch coach Frank Rijkaard picked him up for Barcelona, Gio never looked back.
He became a certainty in the plans of national coaches Marco van Basten and Bert van Marwijk, even when his form, especially after his return to Feyenoord, had dropped considerably. The pundits did debate before the World Cup whether the 35-year old was still good enough to perform at the highest level. However, each discussion about this subject came to a halt when the question of his replacement would come up.
Around 2007, Ajax's Urby Emanuelson had a good spell, but he proved to be anything but a disciplined left back. Then Edson Braafheid shone at FC Twente, but he disappeared into obscurity after his transfer to Bayern Munich. So Gio kept his place in the Dutch team and went to South Africa as captain of the side, playing all the games including the final, while scoring arguably the goal of the tournament against Uruguay. Van Marwijk's defensive strategy with the Mark Van Bommel-Nigel de Jong block in midfield helped to disguise the skipper's frailties at the back.
But the World Cup final against Spain was his farewell game, so the vacancy at left back in the Dutch team is wide open once again. The Eredivisie supplies a mixture of imports - a Finland international, a French ex-third division player and some Scandinavians. Only the top teams feature upcoming talents, who need the time to develop in the position.
Unfortunately, the Euro 2012 qualifiers have come thick and fast, giving them no space to breathe. At home against Finland, Ajax's Vurnon Anita had a decent game, but was largely untested, while Erik Pieters' mediocre performance against San Marino was difficult to validate given he was pitted against the No. 203 side in the FIFA World Rankings. At least Pieters is certain of his place at PSV this season, as the Ajax coaching staff are still unsure whether Anita is a natural defender.
One other option exists. On the back of a sensational Euro Under-21 title in 2007, Royston Drenthe left Feyenoord for Real Madrid, where he spent most of the next three years drifting between bench and stands with the occasional place in the starting line-up. His hope of taking the place of the legendary Roberto Carlos never materialised but, now proving more successful on loan at Hercules, he could yet provide the Dutch with a replacement for Van Bronkhorst.