At the time of the 2010 World Cup, Nigel De Jong was a key component of the combative Dutch side that would go on to reach the final in South Africa, as well as being one of the standout performers in Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City side over the 2009/2010 campaign.
His intense and destructive style helped City achieve a 5th place finish that season, narrowly missing out on Champions League qualification, and De Jong firmly established his reputation as one of the finest ‘spoilers’ in the league.
Carrying this form into the World Cup, De Jong personified Bert Van Marwijk and Holland’s, shall we say robust, approach to the tournament, certainly compared to the Netherlands’ ‘Total Football’ heritage. De Jong formed a formidable base alongside veteran enforcer Mark Van Bommel, which allowed more mercurial talents such as Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben to wreak havoc. Despite the effectiveness of this approach, Van Marwijk came under heavy criticism following the defeat to Spain in the final.
Dutch legend and purveyor of ‘Total Football’ Johan Cruyff was particularly critical. "This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain," said Cruyff. "If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football."
The lasting image of Holland’s World Cup and the criticism that followed, was Nigel De Jong’s infamous ‘karate kick’ on Spain’s Xabi Alonso, and his international prospects seemed to suffer as a result. Bert Van Marwijk was forced to find a balance between the class of 2010’s effectiveness, and the historical style of The Oranje, with discipline a major concern following seven yellows and one red card during the World Cup. Indeed for the last four games of Holland’s straightforward qualification for Euro 2012, De Jong’s place in the starting XI was usurped by PSV’s highly rated Kevin Strootman.
During the same timeframe for his club, Nigel De Jong was also the victim of a change in style, particularly during the early stages of Manchester City’s title winning 2011/2012 campaign. Having previously formed a solid partnership with Gareth Barry at the base of City’s midfield, De Jong found himself again bench-bound as Roberto Mancini responded to accusations of negativity in the previous campaigns.
Defying their cautious reputation, City started the season in blistering form, with results such as the 5-1 victory over title rivals Tottenham, and the simply incredible 6-1 derby win at Old Trafford sending shockwaves around the footballing world. However unfortunately for Nigel De Jong, there was no longer room in this new-look City side for two defensive midfielders, and the resurgent form of Gareth Barry meant he was relegated to the bench.
However as Manchester City’s title charge faltered during the early months of 2012, Roberto Mancini once again began to turn to his midfield general for aid, and De Jong ended up playing a major role in the run-in. Although still starting from the bench, De Jong would often be introduced, ironically as an attacking change, in order to release Yaya Toure to push forward. This tactic was particularly effective in a vital victory over Newcastle in the penultimate fixture, with the unshackled Toure controlling the game and scoring both of City’s goals after the Dutchman’s introduction. De Jong has also added another aspect to his game in 2011/2012, with only Swansea City’s Leon Britton averaging a better pass completion rate this season in the Premier League.
De Jong’s fortunes have also once again been on the rise for his country in recent times, as Bert Van Marwijk has tried to improve Holland’s form, with three defeats in their last seven games, including a 3-0 defeat to Group B rivals Germany in November, giving the manager cause for concern.
De Jong replaced his usurper Strootman just after the hour mark in that game, and is expected to be in Holland’s starting line-up for their first Euro 2012 fixture against Denmark, after starting in the Dutch’s last four friendlies, including the recent 6-0 schooling of Northern Ireland.
With Holland facing the challenge of getting out of ‘the group of death’, having to overcome Germany and Portugal as well as the Danes, De Jong’s experience and talent might prove vital. He has been linked with a move away from Manchester City this summer, but an impressive showing for both De Jong and The Oranje at Euro 2012 would continue his resurgence for both club and country, and gain him much deserved credit for the vital role he plays.
By Joshua Hollis
Follow me on Twitter for more Dutch courage: @joshhollis
This article is part of the Sport Witness Euro 2012 writing competition. Two articles will be chosen as the winners and their authors will each receive a copy of the new UEFA 4 DVD box-set celebrating the best of the European Championships. Click here to find out more about the competition, how to enter, and also more about the prize.