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Old 14-10-2011, 14:41   #280
Sonny.Bill.Williams
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Revitalised Oranje, renewed hope.

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The Netherlands nearly ended their twelfth European Championship qualification campaign with a perfect 100% record. With Euro 2012 next on the agenda, the draw this December, a revitalised L'Oranje side go into the tournament with confidence. A group of players, mainstay of the squad for nearly a decade, will attempt to end a 24-year wait for silverware.

What a difference a year makes

"The best team in world football," Gavril Balint, coach of Moldova, enthusiastically described the team he was about to lock horns with. A contrast to last August, when Bert van Marwijk’s side engulfed in a solemn atmosphere, travelled to Donetsk. It was their first game since losing in the World Cup final a month prior and the heartbreak was still fresh. A year on, things couldn't be more different.

"I didn’t want to play the game, and we asked the Ukrainian FA to postpone it, but they weren’t willing to do that," Van Marwijk recalled. "My own motivation was lacking, and I didn’t hide that fact. I think you should always be honest with your players, rather than pretending or disguising your feelings." Instead of staying in the doldrums, the easy way out, Van Marwijk noted for his man-management set about removing any remnants of self-pity: "I told them the same thing again and again during the World Cup: we have a mission."

In truth the journey to Poland and Ukraine has been straightforward, the hard-fought 2-1 victory at home against Finland early on being the exception. The defeat to Sweden away, on the final matchday where not much was riding on it aside from the unbeaten record, was Van Marwijk's first competitive loss inside ninety minutes. His record now stands as: 25 matches played, 23 wins, one draw and the solitary defeat. His overall record still reads well. The game against Sweden in Solna was his 43rd (32 wins, 11 draws and 2 defeats in 90 minutes) in charge the goal return is 97 with just 30 conceded.

His win total of 32 is only four behind Bob Glendenning's all-time record by a Dutch national team manager. Victory in Rotterdam against Moldova was the tenth consecutive victory on home soil equalling the previous record set between 1970 and 1973. And who can forget the 11-0 rout of San Marino, the biggest ever win in Oranje's 106 year history.

There's a common cliché in football (and all sports) that goes you're 'only as good as your last game'. If your significance and self-worth are determined by your last performance on the pitch, then you have a problem. Even the greatest of sports teams – and individuals – cannot achieve to the same standard all the time. The defeat to Sweden will be treated as a bad day in the office, though it's still a defeat and lessons will be drawn from it as well as being used as a wakeup call, putting things into perspective it shouldn’t overshadow the last twelve months of progression.

A change of system

One of the subplot's of the campaign has been the alteration of his system. In the months after last summer's World Cup, borne out of necessity rather than design, he slowly distanced himself from the reactive model that served him well in the first two years of his tenure. Instead he's allowed a more fluid proactive style, short-distance precession passing, to take shape.

Not only has the football improved, from an aesthetic point of view, but as a by-product they've tightly controlled games as possession and pressing becomes paramount. Against Balint's side for example they had 80% of it in the first half. This is not to say Holland haven't been an attack-minded outfit in his first two years, they have, the major difference being the choice of build-up style. The current is more closely related with circulation football a method engrained in Dutch DNA.

The crazy 5-3 win over Hungary – as well as shipping in three against Sweden – in which lackadaisical defending threatened to undermine the new approach, only reinforced Van Marwijk's belief concentration not talent will be the difference between the Dutch triumphing and failing. Before the extraordinary collapse against Sweden, conceding two in as many minutes after leading 2-1, the Dutch had a pretty solid defensive record in the group, only conceding five in total. The total ended with eight Maarten Stekelenburg only letting in just the two.

Since his appointment in August 2008 Van Marwijk has been his own man, refusing to listen to discerning voices, not wavering from the task at hand. He's taken L'Oranje from also-rans into realistic challengers one that has earned respect from their peers. Including Germany boss Joachim Löw who was quick to point out the threat of a new look Dutch side next summer.

Reflection, renewal and the Barça effect

The lost final in Johannesburg still preys on his mind. When Ruud Krol proclaimed Spain to be the metaphorical heirs of 'total football' and Johan Cruijff not hiding his displeasure of the Dutch losing their identity. It hurt, however this allowed a moment of reflection, firstly to seek solace in the achievements that got them to the final – one let's not forget they could have won – and most importantly learning from the defeat. Van Marwijk: "What's motivating us now is a desire to draw lessons from the final that we lost, and to make the most of that experience."

From disappointment to renewal, the shackles – pragmatism – removed allowing his players greater freedom to express themselves. The joie de vivre that encapsulated their predecessors returned. It might come across as outlandish in saying L’Oranje are a completely different beast from the side that came close to glory in South Africa but the undeniable truth is they are. An inspiration came in the shape of FC Barcelona. One of the positives of their rise over the last three years is how much their brand of football is owed to the Dutch school. Xavi Hernández: "Our model was imposed by [Johan] Cruijff; it's an Ajax model." This has evidently tapped into the psyche.

At club level Frank de Boer is reinventing his Ajax side by instilling the lost philosophy of mentors Louis van Gaal and Johan Cruijff, both especially the former impacting greatly on the modern Barcelona. Whilst Co Adriaanse, already a disciple of the attacking game, on arrival at FC Twente declared: "The ideal situation for me is to create a team that approaches the way Barcelona plays and the squad I found in Enschede is perfect to chase my goals."

In a recent interview Frank de Boer, when asked if there's any Dutch influence in Pep Guardiola's Barça, he spoke about their 'pressure play', how greatly he's impressed by it – with their turnaround: from losing possession to retaining it in mere seconds – and commented the likelihood his former teammate drew inspiration (and greatly enhanced it) from former manager Louis van Gaal, who was also noted to use the method. It comes as no surprise, when Ronald de Boer then revealed, Guardiola is a self-confessed lover of Dutch football. "He always talked about total football, forward pressing, about what Johan [Cruijff] taught him and about Dutch players. Pep has that urge to attack and to dominate, a bit like the Dutch play."

The change of system and approach resulted in the much lauded 4-0 win over Hungary in Budapest. On the pitch the rejuvenated style was plain for all to see. The Dutch defence, midfield and attacking lines played much closer to each other, increased mobility, fluidity and synergy in midfield allowed their passing game to flourish. Rafael van der Vaart – the man of the match – commented how akin the football was to Barça's. A thought echoed by teammate Ibrahim Afellay, currently playing with the Catalan giants. Most commentators agreed, as well as being careful not to get carried away, labelling some of the play worthy of 'tiki-taka'.
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