Why Van Basten might be better than Advocaat (just)

Four years ago I blogged rather harshly about Dick Advocaat, then manager of the “Oranje,” the Dutch national football team. That was because he deserved it. People may remember the EC in Portugal as the one where Advocaat incurred the wrath of the Dutch for pulling his best man off the field (Arjen Robben) when we were leading 2-0. After Advocaat’s substitution we lost 2-3. (Still one of the finest matches I’ve ever seen.) When Robben had been on the pitch he had kept an entire wing of Czechs busy who because of him did not dare venture far from their own penalty box. When we substituted an attacker for a defender though, the Czechs could push forward, and they did so with gusto. Such are the delicious ironies of football.

After that match Advocaat’s own assistant, Willem van Hanegem, told the press he’d punch his boss in the mouth if he’d pull a stunt like that again.

I am not going get angry at a man for one mistake though. What many seem to have forgotten is that this über-cautious type of play was typical for Advocaat, and it almost cost us our qualification for the main tournament. We had already lost the regular qualification, but as the best of the worst we got to play a tie-breaker against Scotland for the final two spots or so. That should have been easy enough. The Scots play with heart, but their players just lack the level ours have. Instead we lost 0-1 in Scotland and now we were in real trouble.

Here’s the thing about Advocaat: when the chips were down he would change his style to attacking. And so, back in Amsterdam for the return, we gave Scotland a historic beating (6-0) and went on to the EC after all.

The thing I blamed Advocaat for was that this coaching style was utterly cynical. You can play such tricks one or two times, but at one point during the knock-out phase of the tournament you’re going to pay heavily against the stronger teams. And that’s exactly what happened. Portugal beat us neatly in the semis, and went on to lose the tournament against the Greeks. Would we have fared better if we had played less cynically all along? At least we would have been better prepared. In my opinion that team, including the likes of Van der Sar, Stam, Cocu, Seedorf, Makaay and Van Nistelrooij, and the young but promising Heitinga, Robben, Van der Vaart and Sneijder, was the strongest we had fielded since 1988, and was definitely capable of taking the crown. But even the best players have to be prepared, and that this team was not, thanks to the coach.

So what has this to do with Van Basten? Well, here I thought we had had it pretty bad, when along comes the next coach who turns out to be even worse. Inexperienced. Unambitious (Van Basten saw the last WC as a preparation for the upcoming EC). Dishonest and crude (Van Basten has preferences for certain players that have nothing to do with their individual qualities—as a result several players now refuse to play under him).

The KNVB had done little to shield Advocaat from the country’s wrath, and it’s almost as if they wanted to make up for that experience. One of the things they did for the successor was to arrange lots of easy practice games for him, so that he could easily get the record for national coach who had won the most matches. Forget for a moment that almost every important match under Van Basten was either lost or drawn at best.

As with Advocaat, Van Basten’s tactics appeared to be dictated by his fears. In 1984, in the run-up to the EC of that year, a young Van Basten had recently become a member of the squad that was certain to go to the championship. The only thing that could go wrong was if Spain were to win with an 11 goal difference against Malta. At the break it was 3-1 for Spain, and Van Basten seemed set to shine at his first major tournament. Then the Spanish scored an incredible 9 goals in the second half to go through instead of the Netherlands. The Dutch still got to play a tie-breaker against the Belgians, but their heart was not in it. The Spanish had won with literally an incredible goal difference, but the Dutch players blamed themselves for not having scored more themselves against the little countries.

Is this what Van Basten is afraid of? Is he afraid of losing tournaments by not scoring enough against weaker opponents? Fact is that at the beginning of his campaigns, he did well against the smaller footballing nations. Only recently has the Dutch form started to slacken in this respect.

Despite all that, what I have recently started to like about Van Basten is his lack of cynicism. Sure, he plays the ultra-defensive 4-2-3-1, a system even Advocaat would not touch in his time, but who doesn’t these days? Every major team in Europe plays 4-2-3-1. It’s what the players are used to. The difference between Advocaat and Van Basten is that the latter will field his better, attacking players.

But perhaps I’ve grown a little soft. I had expectations about Advocaat. About Van Basten I have none, so that if he manages to entertain me the next three matches before we get kicked out of the tournament I’ll be more than happy. Any result that’s better is a bonus.

Post Scriptum. We simply do not have the players we had four years ago. Instead of Stam we have Bouma. Instead of Cocu we have De Zeeuw. And so on. When you have to make do with lesser players, you better make sure you have a great team. Unfortunately Van Basten is no jell-master. Instead of using his best and most experienced players as his captains in the field (Van Nistelrooij, Seedorf, Van Bommel), he managed to alienate them all. Perhaps this is an age thing. Maybe Van Basten sees these players as colleagues still, and by extension as rivals for his command. If so, he’d better get over it if he wants to succeed as a coach.

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