How they got here
With relative ease. In Klaas-Jan Huntelaar – a player revitalised since his move to Schalke and the first Dutchman to top the Bundesliga scoring charts – the Dutch had the qualifying campaign’s top scorer. Huntelaar bagged twelve, three more than Miroslav Klose and a mile ahead of the rest, even though he only got two of the 11 the Netherlands put past the hapless San Marino in Eindhoven. Key results were a brace of 1-0 wins over Moldova – ever the proverbial banana skin – a 4-1 win over Sweden in Amsterdam where Huntelaar and Ibrahim Afellay both scored twice and a thrilling 5-3 win over Hungary. Having gone to Budapest four days previously and won 4-0, the return in Amsterdam saw Robin van Persie give the Dutch an early lead. By the time the second half was five minutes old, Hungary led. Wesley Sneijder levelled and Ruud van Nistelrooy restored the lead, but within minutes Zoltan Gera’s second squared it up again. The Dutch kicked on and two late Dirk Kuyt goals sealed a crucial win.
Sweden kept the Netherlands honest throughout, but a loss for them in Budapest with four games remaining ensured the Dutch had breathing space at the top. The only loss of the campaign came in the final round of matches – by which time first place in the group was already sealed – in a wonderful game in Solna which Sweden edged 3-2 to ensure they’d snatch second place away from Hungary.
Why they’ll win
Goals. The attacking potential of the side is immense with goal threats everywhere. Some of the attacking players that can’t currently get in the Oranje team would be the envy of many others. Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Jeremain Lens, Siem de Jong and Georgino Wijnaldum are all terrific attack-minded players and have just handful of caps between them. If they can’t get in, then the ones that can must be pretty tasty. And they are Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and the aforementioned Huntelaar will always back themselves to score more than the opposition.
The squad is settled, the coaching team is settled, the way they play is also settled. There’s a huge amount of tournament experience in the Netherlands squad as well. Everything is familiar; there is nothing out there to scare or unsettle them. If they can keep a lid on some well-publicised differences of opinion within the squad, which they have managed to do under Bert van Marwijk’s leadership, then there’s no reason to suggest they can’t go all the way. They’ll be third favourites with most bookmakers and with good reason.
Why they won’t
That defence. There’s a reason that van Marwijk sets his team up as he does with two holding midfielders in front of the back four – the defence is not to be trusted. That Khalid Boulahrouz and Joris Mathijsen are still mainstays speaks volumes. These are not top level defenders. Roma-bound Gregory van der Wiel is a dynamic right-back, but missed large chunks of the qualification campaign with injury. He’ll be back, but problems arise on the other side where Gio van Bronckhorst – the left-back in the World Cup final – has retired and his heir-apparent Erik Pieters is expected to miss the finals through injury.
The Netherlands also have a problem with Wesley Sneijder. He’s had a frustrating year with Inter, where he’s no longer the fulcrum of the side and, as such, either playing only a peripheral role away from his favoured trequartista position or not playing at all. Can he come straight in with an orange jersey on and reproduce the brilliance he showed two years ago? It’s a big question mark hanging over the side.
The draw has also been unkind, pitting them against strong Denmark and Portugal sides as well as huge rivals and many people’s favourites Germany who beat the Dutch 3-0 in a friendly back in November. Getting out of the group will be tough enough and no side in Group B can afford a slow start.
Finally, the kit is all orange. It’s a scientific fact* that the Dutch are at their best when playing in black shorts alongside the traditional orange jerseys.
We’ve seen before
Arjen Robben. He’s still only 28 years old y’know, though it seems like he’s been around forever. Forced out at Real Madrid, he’s now the big star in the FC Bayern pantheon. Accused of being selfish, it looked like the Bavarians were about to get rid as well, but he’s just too darn good for them to let go. Everyone knows what he can do and what he likes to do – starting right and drifting in onto that left foot. Knowing it and stopping him doing it are completely different matters though. Robben is still one of the best around and in van Marwijk’s front three, he is absolutely key to how the Netherlands go about business.
Luciano Narsingh. Heerenveen have had a great season and Narsingh – Amsterdam-born of Indian-Surinamese origin – has been a big part of that. While Bas Dost has been getting the goals – and may consider him unlucky not to make the initial squad – Narsingh has been getting the headlines for his pace, passing, versatility and work ethic. At home on left or right, he looks the perfect player in a front three along with Robben and woe betide any defence who double up on the Bayern attacker allowing the relatively unknown Narsingh time and space. As yet uncapped by van Marwijk, expect him to feature in pre-tournament friendlies. He’s already ahead of the likes of Eljero Elia (a disappointing year at Juventus following a disappointing year at Hamburg) and Ryan Babel (just plain disappointing) for the role he seems destined for. He may even be ahead of Ibrahim Afellay who is starting out on the comeback trail following a serious knee injury.
How they will play
4-2-3-1, nominally. The two in front of the back four are more a product of necessity than ideology given the paucity of defensive resources at van Marwijk’s disposal. There’s plenty of competition for those front four places though. Van Persie, Huntelaar or Luuk de Jong through the middle? If it’s Robben down one side, who goes on the other – Narsingh, Elia, Afellay, Ola John or the shaggy, faithful old sheepdog that is Dirk Kuyt? What to do with Rafael van der Vaart? In goal too, van Marwijk has an embarrassment of riches with Maarten Stekelenburg the incumbent, Michel Vorm and Tim Krul the obvious other choices. But while the names may change, they will line up the same way: four at the back, two holding, a trequartista, two wide forwards and one centrally. It’s how they made the World Cup final, it’s how they qualified and it’s how they’ll line up on May 9 in Kharkiv for the opener against Denmark. It’s not total football, it’s pragmatic football that makes up in areas of strength for the one area of alarming weakness.
* - Neither scientific nor factual, but hey, it sounded good…
John writes regularly for IBWM and you can follow him on Twitter @DobsonJP