It ended not with a bang but a whimper. On the sidelines, Bert van Marwijk cut a lonely figure. Having made just one change to a side that was being outplayed and needing to find three goals from somewhere, he sat on his hands. He'd given up.
As tournaments go, never has a team with so much expected of them fail as badly as the Netherlands did in Ukraine. Yes, they were drawn in a tough group, but with all that ability and experience – and a plan to work around their one glaring area of weakness – hopes were high for the Oranje going a long way in the competition. Within half an hour of starting their first game against Denmark, alarm bells were already ringing.
At that stage, the Dutch were a goal down to Michael Krohn-Dehli, a player who'd failed to make the grade at Ajax. The goal wasn't necessarily terminal, but the lack of pace both in movement – of players and ball – and in thought was quite shocking. The van Marwijk system with two holding midfielders deployed to protect a flaky back four worked just fine in the World Cup two years previously, but here it looked restrictive. It's essential that the full-backs to press on in that line-up, but Gregory van der Wiel looked horribly out of sorts on the right and Jetro Willems – the youngest player at the tournament – struggled to get beyond half way with Dennis Rommedahl pushing him back. As a result the back six, as it became, and front four were isolated from one another.
While Denmark rode their luck a little to hold on for a 1-0 win, Germany would not give the Dutch anything like the same number of chances in game two. The two holding midfielders would not come out far enough to knock Bastien Schweinsteiger off the ball and, not spurning the invite, proceeded to boss proceedings from the space between the Dutch back six and front four. He laid on two goals for Mario Gomez. Though Robin van Persie would pull one back, it was a comfortable win for Germany.
That left Holland needing to beat Portugal by two clear goals to stand any chance of progressing. Changes were needed and some were made. Johnny Heitinga was swapped for Ron Vlaar, Ibrahim Afellay dropped out for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Rafael van der Vaart replaced Mark van Bommel. Initially, the latter change appeared to be a masterstroke. Van der Vaart found space on the edge of the Portugal box and curled in a beauty. Moments later, Germany hit the front against Denmark. Game on. But then the other side of the personnel change came about: van der Vaart may get into attacking positions that van Bommel simply can't, but he can't get into the same defensive positions. Eventually, the defence was overrun and Cristiano Ronaldo made them pay. Van Marwijk's change saw Willems removed for Afellay and that was it. With exciting if untested talent on the bench, van Marwijk looked lost. His team looked lost, the well-publicised beefs within the squad simmering just below the surface. They went down without a fight.
In the lead-up to the tournament, Ralf Rangnick said that, like Bayern under Louis van Gaal, the Netherlands under van Marwijk were too predictable. He was right. Having seen how the Dutch would approach tournament football two years ago, sides would now set up to counter them and van Marwijk wouldn't, or couldn't, change things. Luciano Narsingh, Luuk de Jong, Kevin Strootman and Dirk Kuyt were all left on the sidelines as the game and the competition slipped away. All those players would have offered something different, something unpredictable but there they sat, unable to influence the outcome.
Before the final group game against Portugal, the KNVB had said that van Marwijk was safe in his job. During the game, it looked like he'd already made his mind up to go. Moreover, after the game, the KNVB had slightly changed their tune saying that they'd be in discussions about van Marwijk's future in the next few days. It certainly looks like he's taken the national team as far as he can. Whether he steps aside or not, the young players mentioned above and others that missed out this time like Georginio Wijnaldum, Adam Maher, Ola John, Erik Pieters (who would have been involved at this tournament but for injury), Nick Viergever, Siem de Jong, Luc Castaignos and Ricky van Wolfswinkel have to be offered an opportunity. These players come with no baggage and are not tainted by the disagreements that pock-marked the Euro 2012 campaign. The enduring image of the tournament is that of Joris Mathijsen, van der Vaart and Nigel de Jong visibly arguing in the background while Mats Hummels has the world's cheesiest grin on his face in the foreground. Anyone with the sort of attitude that's been on very public display this last couple of weeks should be told in no uncertain terms that they're not required to make themselves available for national team duty in future.
Should van Marwijk leave or find that he has been pushed – and it did look like he'd had about all he can take during that Portugal game – who takes them on? Already there's talk of Ronald Koeman on the back of his stellar rebuilding job at Feyenoord. Fred Rutten is available after leaving PSV and Mario Been has gone some way to restoring his reputation with Genk. Frank de Boer is forging quite the reputation after winning two Eredivisie titles with Ajax, but may find the job coming around a touch too soon for him. Outsiders include Alex Pastoor, who has impressed with Excelsior and NEC over the last two years, and Ruud Brood who took RKC Waalwijk back into the Eredivisie and had them punching above their weight once they got there.
What the abject failure has done is give the KNVB the opportunity to rebuild the entire structure and clear out the poisonous atmosphere in the Dutch squad. The amount of young talent available is quite staggering. Now it's time to put that to work as the Netherlands attempt to qualify for Brazil 2014. This is their time.
John can be found on Twitter @dobsonjp.