By Stefan Coerts | Dutch Football Writer
When a country makes it to the final of one World Cup, they are generally among the favourites to go all the way at the next tournament four years later. And when said team qualifies for that next World Cup by recording nine wins and one draw in the qualification campaign, there is usually no further discussion over whether they are among the teams to beat. Yet things are slightly different with Netherlands.
The Dutch hugely disappointed at Euro 2012 – where they crashed out at the group stages after defeats against Germany, Portugal and Denmark – and have since not only replaced head coach Bert van Marwijk with Louis van Gaal, but have completely overhauled their squad as well.
From the team that reached the final in South Africa, only seven players have made the cut again for this summer’s tournament, with just four of them expected to make Holland’s starting XI in Brazil – Nigel de Jong, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben.
It’s therefore fair to say Netherlands are no longer the team they were four years ago, and expectations surrounding the team have changed, too. Holland might be one of only five countries to have made it to the World Cup final on at least three occasions – Brazil, Italy, Germany and Argentina being the other four - but they have still yet to lift the trophy and it seems unlikely that they will at last emerge victorious this summer.
Oranje might have arguably one of the best coaches in the world in Van Gaal - who has won domestic league titles in Netherlands, Spain and Germany - but there’s only so much a coach can do. The future Manchester United manager has a squad that seemingly lacks the quality to compete with the best teams in the world, prompting the 62-year-old to change Holland’s famous 4-3-3 formation to a more defensive 5-3-2.
"Netherlands are having a little bit more of a difficult time now than four years ago. We don't have the 10 or 11 world-class players in our team like before. We have maybe three or four," Holland legend Edwin van der Sar recently told fifa.com.
"And those world-class players are getting older, so it's about time that the young Dutch generation pick up the slack from the older ones and hopefully can achieve, first with their clubs and then the national team, a little more success than over the last three or four years."
Holland’s impressive qualification campaign might suggest that Van der Sar’s comments are not an accurate reflection of the team’s strength, but there’s no denying that the Dutch starting XI this summer will not be as star-studded as at previous tournaments.
Although Jasper Cillessen has proven to be a good goalkeeper at Ajax this season, Oranje’s No.1 is by no means at the same level as the aforementioned Van der Sar was during his best years and the 25-year-old has very little experience at the highest level.
Cillessen’s C.V would have been less of a problem if Holland had some high-profile names in defence, yet their back five is rather inexperienced, too. Only Aston Villa centre-back Ron Vlaar plies his trade outside of the Dutch Eredivisie and even he plays for a relatively modest club. Daryl Janmaat, Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi all have potential, but need at least a few more years to reach their peak.
In midfield, De Jong, Sneijder and Jonathan de Guzman all remain well-respected players, but the latter is by no means among the best in the world in his position, while De Jong and Sneijder are no longer at the level that saw them become key players for Oranje during the 2010 World Cup either.
The Dutch have plenty of quality in attack, though, and Van Gaal is well aware of Robben and Van Persie's ability to single-handedly decide matches, having made them his only two "untouchables" after Kevin Strootman was ruled out of the World Cup due to injury.
"Only Van Persie and Robben are sure of their spot, but I've said that for a year and a half," the Holland coach recently said about his 23-man squad.
With Schalke hitman Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and PSV wonderkid Memphis Depay ready to make an impact, too, attack seems to be the one area where Netherlands can still compete with the best.
Their prowess up-front does not make up for their vulnerability in defence, however, and Van Gaal’s men could face a tough task to even survive the group stages.
"Spain-Netherlands is a very tough opening game. Holland should be happy if they survive the groups. That would already be a good achievement and something I would be satisfied with," Dutch hero Johan Cruyff stated last month.
Netherlands have plenty of promising youngsters to support their two true world-class players, yet this summer's tournament will likely come too soon for the current crop of players. Another disappointing tournament could very well be on the cards for the 2010 World Cup runners-up following their Euro 2012 debacle.