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Dutch substance over style

Clockwise from top left: Rinus Michels, Ruud Gullit lifts the trophy in 1988, Marco van Basten, Robin van Persie and Johan Cruyff
Clockwise from bottom left: Johan Cruyff, Rinus Michels, Ruud Gullit lifting the trophy in 1988, Marco van Basten and Robin van Persie

By David Ornstein

So vivid is the memory of Marco van Basten's European Championship-clinching volley against the USSR in 1988, it is difficult to believe two decades have passed since the Netherlands claimed their one and only major international trophy.

And, given the imperious style with which the Dutch conquered Europe 20 years ago, perhaps even more surprising is that they arrive at Euro 2008 tipped by many to progress no further than the group stage.

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Now led by Van Basten, albeit for the final tournament before he takes charge of Ajax, Holland open their Group C campaign against Italy on 9 June before a meeting with France four days later and then Romania on the 17th.

"Holland is only a small country so to expect us to challenge the big countries at every tournament is a lot to ask," former Netherlands midfielder Ronald de Boer told BBC Sport.

"Once in a while you get a great group of players but in between you always have periods in which you can't expect us to always challenge with the big boys like Italy, France and Germany, who have much greater resources.

"At the moment we have a good group but is it good enough for Euro 2008? I don't know. I have my doubts."

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Archive: USSR 0-2 Netherlands - Euro 88

De Boer's scepticism stems not only from his belief that Holland, with a population of less than 17 million, have overachieved in reaching two World Cup finals (1974, 1978) and one semi-final (1998), winning one European Championship and contesting three semi-finals (1992, 2000, 2004).

Nor from the sizeable fact that the Dutch must navigate their way through a group that includes the reigning world champions, the winners of Euro 2000 and the team who beat Van Basten's men to win their qualifying pool.

And certainly not from a concern that will plague many other teams at the finals - attacking firepower - since Van Basten has, among others, Wesley Sneijder, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Rafael van der Vaart, Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar at his disposal.

"Holland have a great attack and Van Basten has players who are the envy of every other country," says De Boer. "My big worry, of course, is the defence."

In the Netherlands concern about the national team's rearguard is widespread, but not for the most obvious reason.

Oranje conceded on just five occasions in 12 qualification games - no country progressed to the finals with a superior record - but at the other end of the pitch a mere 15 goals were scored - no country qualified with an inferior record.

Marco van Basten
Van Basten has had to sacrifice the Dutch style in favour of a system which plays to his side's strengths

Jaap de Groot, sports editor of De Telegraaf

It is only natural to query why the defence should ever be held accountable for a team's shortage of goals - especially a team benefiting from such a plethora of attacking talent - but this is where the Dutch are unique.

Their entire footballing philosophy is still built around the principles of Total Football, a concept pioneered by Jack Reynolds at Ajax in the mid-1900s and then implemented to devastating effect by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, most notably en route to the 1974 World Cup final.

The system's key requirements, such as position switching, the utilisation of space and creative individualism, are underpinned by the defence and the ability of defenders to think and operate like attackers because it is from the back that offensive movements are born.

When Michels guided Holland to the 1974 World Cup final he deployed Arie Haan and Ruud Krol, both former forwards, and Wim Suurbier, a former winger, alongside Wim Rijsbergen, a traditional centre-half.

Michels then lead the Dutch to their 1988 triumph with the attack-minded quartet of Berry van Aerle, Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman and Adri van Tiggelen comprising the back four.

Holland's consistency throughout the 1990s owed much to players such as Danny Blind, Arthur Numan, Michael Reiziger and Frank de Boer - all creative defenders.

But the back four that starts against Italy is expected to consist of Andre Ooijer, Joris Mathijsen, Johnny Heitinga and Wilfred Bouma - all out-and-out defenders.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Tim de Cler and Mario Melchiot may be more forward-thinking options but they are considered less capable defensively.

"Especially in 1974 and 1988, Holland could defend as a whole and attack as a whole - now you see a team that can defend well and concedes very few goals, but attacking as a whole is their Achilles heel," says Jaap de Groot, sports editor of De Telegraaf.

The Netherlands' line-up from the 1974 World Cup final
Holland's Total Footballers led their country to the 1974 World Cup final
"The power of Total Football was defenders who pressed high up the field to reduce the size of the pitch and provide three lines of highly-skilled, technical and tactical players in an advanced area.

"Now, like the English or Italians, our defenders sit deep, making the pitch big, forcing the midfield to come back to collect possession and leaving the strikers isolated; this cuts off the link between defence and attack, making the traditional Dutch style impossible."

Ever since his squad assembled in Noordwijk on 19 May, Van Basten, who will be replaced by Feyenoord's Bert van Marwijk after the tournament, has been working tirelessly to rectify the problem.

The 43-year-old's critics point out that if he has failed to provide a remedy in almost four years at the helm he is unlikely to succeed in a matter of weeks, but others suggest a more deep-rooted explanation.

"The problem is that for about 10 years the Dutch system has failed to develop players who can think like attackers and play offensively from the back," says De Groot, claiming a decade of poor coaching and disinclination on the part of clubs to uphold Holland's unique footballing ideals is bearing fruit.

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Archive: Marco van Basten - Euro 88

Ruud Kaiser, a former Holland Under-17 coach, told BBC Sport that although the famed Dutch system of youth development is still churning out talented players who are taught to play in a 4-3-3 formation and exhibit the principles of Total Football, at first-team level managers are "scared" to sanction such free-flowing football because they "fear" the repercussions of failure.

With ex-players such as Van Basten returning to Ajax, Fred Rutten already succeeding at FC Twente and Mario Been turning Nijmegen into a major Eredivisie force, many in Holland feel the national team will again be producing the style that earned them global acclaim in time for the 2010 World Cup.

But, in that sense, Euro 2008 has arrived too soon and Van Basten's men are expected to bear little resemblance to their esteemed predecessors.

The Netherlands' line-up from the 1988 European Championship final
Holland's Euro '88 triumph remains their only major international trophy
"Van Basten has had to sacrifice the Dutch style in favour of a system which plays to his side's strengths - first and foremost they will have the defence in order and then they will attack," De Groot adds.

"More than ever before, this will be a Holland team whose main objective is results."

For those continually frustrated by the Netherlands's catalogue of near misses on the world and European stages, a more results-driven approach will be welcomed.

"Every year we have great players available and this year is no exception," says Kaiser, who played for Ajax between 1978-79 after being signed by Michels as a trainee.

"What the Dutch need to learn is that, while we all want to see nice football, to win games against teams like France and Italy we have to play realistic football.

"Those countries don't care about attractive football, they win games. At the top level, you have to win games."

Yet judging by the hostility directed towards Van Basten and his team during a qualifying campaign that placed substance above style, Kaiser's is not a view shared by the Dutch purists.

Feature: The hunt for Marco van Basten

The Netherlands prides itself on producing a brand of football like no other country; the Dutch deplore the catenaccio style made famous by Italy and Argentina and abhor the functional method historically employed by Germany.

"There is no better medal than being acclaimed for your style," said Cruyff after watching a Dennis Bergkamp-inspired Holland produce a footballing masterclass to knock Argentina out of the 1998 World Cup, only to then lose on penalties to Brazil.

"For the good of football, we need a team of invention, attacking ideas and style to emerge.

"Even if it doesn't win it will inspire footballers of all ages everywhere. That is the greatest reward."

It must not be forgotten that in 1988 Holland rode their luck - in the group phase Hans van Breukelen's woodwork was hit twice before they beat England and once before overcoming Ireland with a goal that should have been disallowed offside.

Possible Netherlands line-up at the 2008 European Championship
There is concern in Holland that the class of 2008 will fall at the first hurdle
Van Basten won a highly dubious penalty to equalise against West Germany in the semi-final and then, at 1-0 down in the final, the USSR saw a spot-kick saved by Van Breukelen before Holland went on to win 2-0.

It could also be argued that there have been more talented Dutch teams who did not benefit from such fortune, losing out on penalties at Euro 92, 96 and 2000 and the 1998 World Cup.

Yet it was clear that in 1988 Michels had created the most balanced, cohesive team at that particular tournament, giving Holland the best chance of becoming European champions.

"The balance in the team in 1988 was perfect, they had everything you could want," says Kaiser.

"Someone like Ruud Gullit could run for hours and had real power. Then you had the finesse of Van Basten, you had the workmanlike Van Tiggelen in the back four, Erwin Koeman on the left side and Arnold Muhren - a real team player - in the middle.

"It was like, 'what I can't do you can do and what you can't do, I can do'.

"Balance and variety is key to any successful team and that's where I feel this squad is lacking."

Van Basten's men can be forgiven for thinking they are faced with a no-win situation.

But if they confound the doubters and return from Austria and Switzerland with the Henri Delaunay Trophy in hand, few among the orange-clad masses will be seen complaining.

And there would be no more fitting a way for Holland - and especially Van Basten, bidding to become the first man to man to win the Euros as both a player and a coach - to mark the 20th anniversary of 1988.


see also
De Boer queries Dutch commitment
04 Jun 08 |  Netherlands
Netherlands team guide
15 May 08 |  Netherlands
Pick your Netherlands XI
23 May 08 |  Netherlands


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