Netherlands must end obsession with past after Danny Blind sacking
The past two years have been difficult for fans of the Dutch national team. After finishing third at the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, they have not only had to endure losses to teams like Iceland, Czech Republic and Turkey, but two-and-a-half years of bad, boring and painfully naive football as well.
Much to the relief of those fans, Netherlands boss Danny Blind was sacked after another loss for the Oranje, a 2-0 defeat in Bulgaria. And maybe spirits within the Dutch squad will be lifted as well. Matthijs de Ligt, for example, must have heaved a huge sigh of relief after hearing Sunday's news.
The 17-year-old Ajax defender had been granted his senior international debut in Sofia. But what supposed to be a dream come true turned out to be a true nightmare. Only a couple of minutes into the game, De Ligt failed to defend a high ball aimed for the Bulgaria attacker he was marking. The home side scored, and De Ligt had the worst start to his international career he could have ever imagined.
Few followers of the Oranje will blame the young man, however. Even before the game, questions had been raised over Blind's decision to even include De Ligt in the squad. The young defender is talented, sure. But the teenager has only played a handful of games for Ajax's first team. Was it really fair of Blind to put De Ligt on the pitch in a World Cup qualifier that Netherlands really had to win?
It wasn't, of course. Blind only did what he was supposed to do. Or in fact, because he thought it was what he was supposed to do. Playing youngsters in big games was, according to Blind, a great Dutch tradition. And Danny Blind is not one to break with tradition. What worked for Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal, was surely going to work for him. It had to, right?
The Dutch have always liked their traditions. Even in 2017, more than 40 years after Johan Cruyff and his Total Football enchanted the world, they still can't stop harking back to that period. What we did in 1974 is what we do best, it is said in these talks, so we must try to imitate it forever, without putting much thought in football's evolution.
Blind is far from the only member of this school of thought. It's a mentality that seems to pervade Dutch football in its entirety. When Louis van Gaal was manager of the Dutch team at the 2014 World Cup, he was heavily criticised for dropping the revered 4-3-3 formation in favour of a much more defensive 5-3-2 setup. Despite reaching third place in Brazil, pundits in the Netherlands remarked it simply wasn't worth it.
In reality, however, Van Gaal didn't have much choice. His players simply weren't good enough to even attempt to recreate what Rinus Michels did in 1974. Bert van Marwijk, Van Gaal's predecessor, had seen this problem coming already. It's why he, much to the dismay of the Dutch public, put in place a solid but rather uncreative midfield duo of Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel that helped them finish the 2010 World Cup as runners-up.
And Van Marwijk had Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie in their prime at his disposal. The same can't be said about Danny Blind. The aforementioned trio, who were able to pull out one last trick at the World Cup in 2014, has not been replaced. The Dutch team of 2017 consists of very few big-game stars.
A nervous 17-year-old defender was never the culprit. The inability of Dutch football's leadership to handle this slowly evolving crisis in any constructive and durable way. Van Marwijk and Van Gaal managed to make do and mend. Danny Blind, clearly, did not.
As the Dutch Eredivisie was falling behind, and the well of Dutch football talent was drying up, Dutch football could have used some invention, some kind of vision for the future. But what they got was stubbornness and regressive nostalgia.
Netherlands failed to qualify for Euro 2016. The way things are looking right now, they may well fail to reach the World Cup in 2018. If the Dutch want to return to the biggest stage in international football, let alone compete for the top prize, they will have to stop stubbornly repeating the same soundbites about their traditions and look towards the future.
A little more than a year ago, the great Johan Cruyff passed away. In honour of their greatest player of all time, it's time Dutch football let loose some creativity on their old dogmas. In the end, that's exactly what their legendary No. 14 did all the time.
Elko Born is a freelance journalist and football writer from Amsterdam. You can follow him on Twitter at @Elko_B.