From the starting line-up of Holland’s opening match of last year’s European Championships versus Denmark, only one man started in the friendly versus Italy earlier this month. Robin Van Persie.
Of course, it was a friendly, but it might be a sign of things to come. With a team containing only four players over 22 years of age, a young team was fielded. Of that starting eleven, eight are still Eredivisie players.
All full of talent and still rather ‘mouldable’. The type of players Louis Van Gaal likes, as he has shown throughout his career.
In 1991, the relative unknown Louis Van Gaal became head coach of Ajax Amsterdam.
He managed to take a frighteningly talented squad further each and every year he worked there, winning the UEFA Cup in 1992 and bringing in new, young players, tweaking, tinkering and moulding a group of players who were eventually crowned Champions League winners in 1995, following a season in which they were virtually unbeatable.
The team is mainly remembered for its style, but people tend to forget the road that preceded the eventual end product.
When Van Gaal took over from Leo Beenhakker, only Danny Blind and Frank de Boer could be seen as established players while the eventually promoted Edwin van der Sar was scouted by Van Gaal himself, earlier in 1990.
All other players were brought in by van Gaal, gaining a whole lot of trust and loyalty in the process. Marc Overmars was brought in from Willem II, Winston Bogarde from Sparta Rotterdam. Michael Reiziger and Ronald De Boer eventually made the first team after loan spells at FC Groningen and FC Twente respectively.
Jari Litmanen was bought after a short spell at MyPa, Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu were picked up from Nigerian soil. Furthermore, Ajax academy graduates Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf were added to the squad. Only Frank Rijkaard came in as a true star player.
This loyal, young and talented squad were given time to find their feet and develop into what eventually became one of the greatest teams ever. In their prime, only Danny Blind (33) and Frank Rijkaard (32) were over 25.
Furthermore, no players were added before the 94-95 season, meaning all players had at least two years of experience with each other.
As mentioned earlier, only Robin Van Persie started versus Italy. And he was finally given the role he has been craving for at national level.
Marco van Basten used the then young talent mainly as a right winger, Bert van Marwijk was willing to give the Manchester United striker a chance as a number nine, but was reluctant to build the team around him.
With the crop of players surrounding him, Van Marwijk made the sensible decision of trying to use the array of talent available, but players like Sneijder, van der Vaart, Huntelaar, Robben and Kuyt have prevented Robin van Persie from truly shining in the Oranje shirt.
This time, with Sneijder, Robben and van der Vaart dropped due to a lack of playing minutes and Klaas Jan Huntelaar out injured (eventually replaced by Robben), the whole set-up was based around Van Persie. Kuyt was still there, but as a substitute. The 33-year-old has had quite the run in the Netherlands’ first team, but his dawn seems near.
Holland 1-1 Italy – faith in youth
And so, Van Persie found himself surrounded by the likes of Ola John, Jeremain Lens and Adam Maher. Players who are looking to establish themselves as squad regulars under Van Gaal and are likely to show some loyalty to the grand old maestro.
Van Persie was given full freedom. Whenever he dropped off, Maher would slot into the striker position. When Van Persie occupied the flank, Lens would search for the box to ensure he was in a position to score. All three played a decent game against Italy and were involved in all havoc created.
It was this type of interplay that created the opening goal for Lens. Van Persie dropped in midfield to collect the ball and launched Feyenoord right back Darryl Janmaat, who created panic by crossing directly into the box.
Maher was already in position from the cross and from his shot, Lens took the rebound, skillfully taking out Astori and putting the ball past Buffon from the six yard line.
Lens and Maher remained the main threats throughout the game, although the substitution of Van Persie at half time in favour of Robben meant the two youngsters weren’t able to show the same promise in the second half as they did in the first.
The fourth name mentioned, Benfica’s Ola John, struggled with the expectations. The youngster made his debut and even though the talent is obviously there, he wasn’t able to replicate any of his Benfica showings in ‘Oranje’.
On a sidenote, there was nothing orange about the jersey the Dutch were wearing, as this was also the game in which the new away kit was unveiled. Some looked great in it, some didn’t.
One who was able to wear the kit with pride was Kevin Strootman. The much acclaimed PSV midfielder was one of the standout players. In the first half, he was part of a midfield reminiscent of the Spanish trio.
Maher (lauded the new Iniesta), Jordy Clasie (lauded the new Xavi) and Strootman, who in this company should be the Busquets of the three, but tends to play higher up the pitch.
Italy’s catalyst Andrea Pirlo was constantly hassled by Maher and was unable to pull the strings to his liking, while Strootman and Clasie looked to spread the play to the wings and were able to punch holes in Italy’s defence by playing through balls and launching the full-backs.
With Pirlo stopped from playing his usual game, the Italians resorted to playing long balls, a tactic that wasn’t working very well for them. All this was illustrated by a frustrated Mario Balotelli, who was substituted in the 61st minute.
Balotelli had more reasons to be frustrated than just all the deep balls he had to run after. The Italian striker had made a thunderous return to Serie A by scoring two debut goals versus Udinese, but this time he was kept in check by 20-year-old Stefan De Vrij.
The young defender proved himself as one of the most promising full-backs of his generation, even though he lost his concentration in the last ten minutes of the game, resulting in Italy’s equaliser.
De Vrij was one of the Netherlands’ top performers the first 80 minutes, accompanied by teammate Bruno Martins Indi in the middle and with another teammate down the right in Janmaat. Martins Indi is used as a left-back mainly when playing for Feyenoord, but against Italy he showed he is more than capable of filling the slot of central defender for the Netherlands.
His inclusion in that position meant Daley Blind, son of Danny, made his debut at left back. The 23-year-old did okay on his debut, but lacks both pace and physical presence to hold down a place in this side.
Problems at left back
His debut highlighted the main problem of this Dutch squad. Ever since Giovanni van Bronckhorst, the place of left-back has been issue. Young PSV defender Jetro Willems was overrun at EURO 2012 and several others have been tried without success.
On the right side though, Janmaat played quite the game. He was one of four Feyenoord players in the starting line-up, rather remarkable, given that they haven’t spent a penny in transfer fees on the lot. Newcastle United’s Tim Krul was quite reliable at goal and seems rather certain of a starting place in the foreseeable future.
There were several substitutions. Robben replaced John and was quite the danger, De Guzman took over from Clasie, Kuyt replaced Ola John and Janmaat was eventually substituted in favour of Ricardo Van Rhijn. But, apart from Kuyt’s appearance, no substitution really disrupted play.
From the looks of it, Van Gaal wants Van Persie to be his fulcrum, both in quality and experience. The Frank Rijkaard role from ’95, only in attack.
Of course, with the talents available a whole lot of experimenting is to be expected. You can’t just drop players like Sneijder and van der Vaart like that.
But Van Gaal has shown intent to let Van Persie become the centre of the team like no other national manager has done before.
Van Gaal has 16 months to mould the team into a shape to his liking before the World Cup in Brazil. Don’t be surprised if the Oranje team in 2014 is closer to the line-up fielded against Italy than to the starting eleven versus Denmark last year.
Once again Van Gaal is choosing for the future and that future is exciting.
(This article has been amended on 22/2/13 to correct Reiziger’s first name.)