Euro 2012: Cruyff claims Holland have Total-ly lost it

THERE are times these days when Johan Cruyff can seem like a professional curmudgeon, constantly moaning that things aren’t what they used to be while advocating his kind of footballing idealism.

The Dutch legend was predictably scathing of Chelsea after they had won the Champions League, insisting that Ajax would never play in such a defensive way while he remains their sporting director, no matter what the consequences.

“I’d choose to take the steps we take at Ajax, towards the football that we all want to see,” he said. “And then if there’s no Champions League win? Better not to have the trophy in this way.”

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Cruyff’s criticisms can often be dismissed because he is such a fundamentalist. When he slated Holland after their World Cup final defeat to Spain, pointing out – quite legitimately – that Barcelona rather than Amsterdam is now the crucible of Total Football, he was widely dismissed. “To be honest, I can’t take this seriously,” said Wesley Sneijder. After all, hadn’t the Dutch reached the final for the first time since 1978? Wasn’t that proof that the old ways were obsolete and Bert van Marwijk’s pragmatic style was the right way for the modern age? The 600,000 who turned out to welcome the Dutch on their return seemed to agree with Sneijder.

It’s hard to argue that now. Winning will excuse almost anything – even in the Netherlands – but a ruthless pragmatism is far less defensible when it stops being ruthless. A 1-0 loss to Denmark in their opening Euro 2012 Group B game was bad enough but at least that could be dismissed as bad luck – a host of chances missed and a goal conceded from a breakaway. Defeat to Germany on Wednesday was far worse. Again the Dutch dominated possession but at times seemed to have no idea what to do with the ball. Defensively they were abject. The supposed benefit of playing Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel together in midfield was defensive solidity, providing a platform for the more creative players. The solidity simply wasn’t there against Germany.

“They have to improve rapidly,” Cruyff wrote in his column in De Telegraaf. “Oranje have to learn from their mistakes against Denmark. The profligacy in front of the goal wasn’t the biggest problem. What’s worrying is that Oranje struggled when it mattered most.”

The Dutch tradition, at least since the late Sixties, has been fluid football with players interchanging almost at will, along with hard pressing and a compact shape, making the offside trap provide the cover for the fluency. That worked with 4-3-3 but, at the last Euros, Marco van Basten changed the shape to a 4-2-3-1 with Orlando Engelaar and De Jong the holding midfielders. Although they started with impressive victories over Italy and France, Van Basten’s was not a fluent side and, when they were beaten by a brilliant Russia in the quarter-final, it was Guus Hiddink’s men who were playing an incarnation of Total Football.

Under Van Marwijk, the gap between the front four and the back six has grown even greater. At the World Cup, the tireless running of Dirk Kuyt helped to link the two, in Poland there has simply been a chasm.

“Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong saw too much of the ball,” Cruyff wrote. “That’s not their biggest quality. Other players should be the ones enjoying possession. The team was divided into two blocks, and that must change immediately. There was so much space between the two blocks that Wesley Sneijder had to drop deep, and was playing about 25 metres behind the attackers. And he then had to make long runs forward again to support the attackers. That’s very difficult. That’s exhausting for Sneijder, and the attackers don’t operate well, either.”

Sneijder is an enigma. His goals – and he had a remarkably fortunate run, with a number of efforts deflecting in – helped disguise an otherwise ordinary World Cup for him and also seemingly led him to believe he was an old-fashioned No.10 who could disdain defensive work.

This time around he has been probably the best Dutch attacking player but his lack of goals has drawn criticism, most notably an outburst from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who said he should have been dropped after the Denmark game.

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The Netherlands can still progress, but they need to beat Portugal by two goals and hope that Germany beat Denmark.

“We need to get our routines on the pitch back, the things we are used to, the courage to play,” said Sneijder. “It’s all or nothing on Sunday and perhaps we can bring our own football back in that game.”

It’s not just a question of playing a creator deep in midfield, although it seems all but certain that either Rafael van der Vaart or Kevin Strootman will come in for Van Bommel.

Sneijder is reluctant to defend. Arjen Robben has never chased back and as a result Philipp Lahm, his Bayern club-mate, was able to wander forward unopposed when he felt like it on Wednesday. On the other flank Ibrahim Affelay is no Kuyt.

Fluency must come from both ends of the pitch.

It seems probable that Klaas Jan Huntelaar will start at centre-forward with Robin van Persie moving wide to accommodate him.

With Sneijder as the playmaker and Robben on the right that is a potentially devastating front four.

The question, though, is whether the Dutch can find the fluency to make the most of it.