Rated one of the favourites before the tournament got underway, Holland suffered an unprecedented series of three straight defeats at Euro 2012, and was knocked out of the first-round group-stage for the first time in three decades. So, how to explain why Holland performed so poorly and failed to live up to high expectation at the European Championship?
Here are five reasons:
1. Squad selection
Holland coach Bert van Marwijk made some highly conservative choices when deciding on his final Euro 2012 squad, opting for the relative experience of the likes of Wilfred Bouma (34), Stijn Schaars (26) and Mark van Bommel (35) instead of giving young stalwart or creative players on form like Vurnon Anita (23), Adam Maher (18), Nick Viergever (23) and Urby Emanuelson (26) a chance to build on a successful season.
That quartet could have provided an infusion of energy and could have changed the atmosphere within the team. True, Van Marwijk took a risk by fielding the youngest-ever player to grace the Euros, 18-year-old left-back Jetro Willems (who performed up to par), but the more experienced Emanuelson, Viergever or Anita would have been more reliable in that position and thus less of a concern to the centre-backs.
2. Fundamental formation flaws
Paradoxically, Holland’s double defence line proved to be their Achilles heel. Too often the forward defence duo (Nigel de Jong and captain Mark van Bommel) pulled back to assist the back four, leaving massive gaps in midfield, which playmaker Wesley Sneijder and forward Robin van Persie failed to fill. Sneijder, in particular, showed little sign of enthusiasm to carry out any defensive duties, preferring instead to throw his arms in the air in desperation if the ball wasn’t passed his way fast enough.
The problem could have been solved if Van Marwijk had opted for Vurnon Anita in the forward defence line. Following Holland’s first defeat against Denmark, football legend Johan Cruyff wondered why Holland needed two defence lines or even four defenders in the first place, given the unadventurous nature of the Danish game.
3. Base camp
Months before the Euro 2012 group draw, the Holland team manager – a type of coordinator not to be confused with coach – decided, in all his wisdom, to plump for Krakow in Poland as Holland’s tournament base. Krakow, the country’s elegant cultural capital and its most popular tourist destination, was not a host city for any of the 31 Euro 2012 matches.
In the end, Holland was fortunate to play all its three group-stage matches in Kharkiv, Ukraine, some 1250 kilometres away from their base camp. That meant three flights to the often blisteringly hot eastern Ukrainian city and three night-flights back to Krakow after each match – not particularly conducive to staying fit and healthy. “Holland don’t look at all fit,” Russia conditioning coach Raymond Verheijen remarked.
By the way, the other three Group B teams faced the same travel problem, but they complained less about the heat and humidity in Kharkiv than the Holland manager. “Offensive football requires more energy than defensive play,” Van Marwijk repeatedly stated at press conferences.
All three other coaches in the “Group of Death” had studied Holland closely. Danish manager Morten Olsen had worked as Ajax coach for years. His Germany counterpart, Joachim Löw, had thoroughly scrutinised the Dutch ahead of last November’s friendly in Hamburg, which ended in a 3-0 win for Germany.
Löw knew he was on the right track by instructing his striker Mario Gomez to roam in between the four central defenders. There, in Holland’s vulnerable defensive heart, playmaker Bastian Schweinsteiger deftly manoeuvred Gomez into scoring position twice. The Bayern topscorer proved to be extremely clinical in his finishing. Statistics later showed that he only had ball contact for 22 seconds during the entire game. In much the same vein, Denmark banked on a rapier counter to clinch victory against the Dutch.
Two years ago, at the World Cup in South Africa, the Dutch displayed almost surreal unity and identity of purpose. “Mission” became the buzzword, repeated time and again by all players as well as their managing staff as a sort of religious ritual.
Holland’s “mission” at the time: winning the World Cup. Not through a new superior brand of the “total football” they were famed for, but by using every means available to finally clinch the coveted title, which Holland came so close to winning in 1974 and 1988. Alas, in the end, Iker Casillas’ toe stood in the way in the final against Spain and Holland somehow never got over the shock. “It was hard to motivate players to gear up for the Euros,” Van Marwijk would later say.
Apart from the absence of a sense of direction or a sense of superiority, there was the usual feuding and infighting among the Dutch players at Euro 2012, though not as public as before. Bundesliga topscorer Klaas Jan Huntelaar, for instance, clearly wasn’t pleased to play second fiddle to Premier League super striker Robin van Persie, who refused to talk to the press during the entire tournament.
Gregory van der Wiel told reporters after the Portugal match that "there's something wrong between me and the team". And Wesley Sneijder complained about "leaks to the media by players" who "clearly put their own interests before those of the team". Plenty of pedigree, but too many egos eroding team unity and with it, the chance of winning or even scoring goals. In Sneijder's words: "We worked so hard for four years and squandered everything within the space of four weeks".