How have the Dutch stopped dazzling under Guus Hiddink?
The Netherlands (odds-on with Coral at 4/6 to win Group A) surprised many sceptics during the World Cup, providing Brazil with more than just a dash of Dutch brilliance as they thrilled their way to a third place finish.
Expectations were low ahead of the Clockwork Orange’s South American adventure but, after Louis van Gaal’s boldness and bravery paid dividends, the bar has been raised once again.
New coach Guus Hiddink has no doubt been handed a difficult task to fill his lauded predecessor’s shoes, but so far the results have been incredibly underwhelming.
Four defeats in their last six outings, with the Netherlands lying third in their Euro 2016 qualifying group, behind table-toppers the Czech Republic and impressive Iceland, have seen Hiddink put under pressure already.
The comparisons to decisive and authoritative Van Gaal are certainly not favourable at the moment, with Hiddink clearly wobbling under the strain. The former Real Madrid and PSV Eindhoven coach stated before the Arjen Robben-inspired win over Latvia that: “If we lose, it makes sense that I leave.”
Whilst his players evidently rallied in the wake of their coach’s quit threat, as the World Cup semi-finalists smashed Group A cannon-fodder Latvia 6-0, a routine win has done little to paper over evident cracks.
Van Gaal famously reacted to injuries to key members of his World Cup squad by adopting a loose 3-5-2 formation in Brazil. The system was always flexible, and invigorated a young Dutch squad sprinkled with the star dust of Robben and attacking partner Robin van Persie.
The first action of Hiddink after his arrival, however, was to distance himself from Van Gaal’s inventive approach, reverting to a four-man defence, and the Netherlands have been on a downward spiral ever since.
In his attempts to stamp convention and his own identity onto an artistic Clockwork Orange side, the experienced boss essentially attempted to fix what was not broken.
Tactical confusion has appeared to follow, with Hiddink experimenting with three, or most recently two, up top, and even reverting to a five-man rearguard against the Czechs.
The overwhelming sense is of a team enduring a rocky transition, when there need not have been much change at all, and fans must be wishing the Dutch federation had instead plumped for current Southampton coach Ronald Koeman.
Considering the surprise at the Dutch’s sensational displays in Brazil, it is perhaps unfair to aim all the criticism at boss Hidink. The Netherlands clearly had problems to patch up, with issues masked in the adrenaline and passion of a knock-out competition.
This qualifying campaign is much longer and testing, however, and includes turgid trips to difficult destinations, where an uninspiring midfield and rickety rearguard can easily be exposed.
The claim is that Van Gaal’s inspired tinkering made his Dutch dazzlers more than the sum of their parts, leaving little more than scorched earth behind.
In an attempt to save his tenure, Hiddink must now make difficult decisions, regardless of the hand he has been given. The recent pairing of frontmen Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Van Persie was certainly fruitful against Latvia, with the duo netting three between them.
However, a two-striker formation is unlikely to stand up to questioning in trickier ties, so Hiddink must illustrate he can make the big calls. Skipper Van Persie has been off-pace for club and country this campaign, and may benefit from a shake-up if he senses his place is under threat.
Hiddink has until a tough test against Turkey in March to stabilise the squad, and by then, claiming patience and a World Cup hangover will not suffice.