Why Dutch and Italians are struggling on road to Euro 2016
Late draws for both the Netherlands and Italy in their recent respective Euro 2016 qualifiers have papered over some pretty big cracks that have appeared in these major continental footballing forces.
Clockwork Orange coach Guus Hiddink clings to what might be his last job in management, after Klaas-Jan Huntelaar diverted in Wesley Sneijder’s shot to pinch a home point from a tasty tie against Turkey.
Five points adrift of a guaranteed place at the European Championship finals at the halfway stage in Group A, the Dutch are behind Iceland, who continue to be a surprise package, and a far from vintage Czech Republic outfit that top this pool.
Against the Turks, a combination of dodgy defending from 23-year-old centre backs Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi, who both earned moves off the back of Orange exploits under Louis van Gaal at the World Cup last summer, and profligacy up top explain two dropped points.
Dutch faith in youth remains ironclad and ingrained into a culture that produced Total Football. Country follows clubs in this regard, but highly-rated winger Memphis Depay missed key chances and PSV Eindhoven teammate Luciano Narsingh did the same when he came on.
When we think that back to the so nearly Netherlands team that were runners-up at successive World Cups (1974 and 1978) and make comparisons to now, however, pundits would be hard pressed to find all-round defenders like Ruud Krohl.
Successive generations have had solid performers at the back. Current Southampton boss Ronald Koeman combined silk with steel when playing, then there was the terrifying presence of Jaap Stam:
De Vrij’s contribution to 11 clean sheets in his debut season with Serie A side Lazio is certainly more impressive than Martins Indi helping Porto do the same in a weaker league. Translating this form over to internationals appears to have deserted this defensive duo.
Bert van Marwijk was often criticised for his own overly defensive take on traditional Dutch 4-3-3 tactics, but Hiddink by contrast has surely been too open in his approach. Nigel de Jong was the only sitting presence in the front six and Ibrahim Afellay has been ineffectual in big games since being brought back into the fold.
A draw in Amsterdam with Turkey should be couched in terms of the Dutch missing record scorer Robin van Persie and Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben, who has really added goals to his game in recent years.
These star names are both north of 30 now, though, so the rest of Hiddink’s team need to take some responsibility. The Netherlands are 7/5 chances with Coral to beat Spain in a friendly; their next outing.
Injuries are also hampering Azzurri coach Antonio Conte, especially in the engine room, which is always vital to any Italian set-up.
Centurions Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo join the latter’s Juventus teammate Claudio Marchisio in missing a prestige friendly with England. As well as those midfield absences, highly-rated Torino defender and rumoured Manchester United target Matteo Darmian misses out too.
He played in the 2-2 Euro 2016 qualifier in Bulgaria, but picked up a problem. Despite leading through an early own goal, the Azzurri fell behind with Ivelin Popov netting a low driven equaliser and Ilian Micanski heading home following a swift counter.
Bulgaria were smart enough to exploit a rusty-looking Andrea Barzagli for that second goal, after the Juventus centre back recently returned from eight months out with heel and ankle problems.
Italy were fortunate not to be further behind when Popov rattled the bar from a free-kick, though Liverpool target Ciro Immobile spurned several opportunities and later sub Manolo Gabbiadini looked a better foil for the out-of-favour Borussia Dortmund forward than Simone Zaza.
Brazilian-born Sampdoria striker Eder, another off the Azzurri bench, came to Conte’s rescue making a real impact on his debut. Shooting on the turn from similar range to Popov’s leveler, his late equaliser was the pick of the four goals.
Including Serie A players as yet uncapped by other nations does seem to be part of Conte’s plan for Italy. Palermo’s Argentine-born midfielder Franco Vazquez could make his Azzurri bow against England, while another engine room operator Roberto Soriano grew up in Germany and was in Bayern’s academy.
Apart perhaps from in defence, there is no longer the strength in depth of the 2006 World Cup winning vintage, or even the Euro 2012 runners-up side, during what looks a transitional time for Italy.
Conte is keen to change the culture, but death threats from fans of his former club Juventus over Marchisio’s injury in national training suggest he will be hard-pressed to win over his critics.
The Azzurri have drawn their last two qualifiers, allowing Croatia to go clear at the top of Group H, bringing Norway, who the four-time World Cup winners face last at home in October, into the picture. Despite Italy’s patchy form, they are 11/10 favourites to beat England in Turin.